By Andrew Hart, Delivery Director – Architects and Certified Technical Architect at Bluewolf, an IBM Company
Elevator pitch incoming…
Hi, I’m Andrew and I lead the architects at Bluewolf (an IBM Company) in the UK. I have a background in CRM delivery, which I’ve been doing nearly 19 years. My first 14 years were with Siebel, but I’ve since moved to Salesforce, the company and the technology, before joining Bluewolf at the beginning of 2017.
I’m also Gemma’s boss, friend and I hope – mentor for her CTA journey. She asked me to share my CTA experience, which I’m pleased to do. The speed that this came out of me suggests that maybe it’s been something I’ve been ready to share for a while. 🙂
About the CTA
As anyone in the Salesforce ecosystem will tell you, one of the pinnacles is becoming a Salesforce Certified Technical Architect (CTA). It represents those few who have a mastery of the platform, who have years of experience implementing, consulting, delivering and tinkering with the many toys that Salesforce gives us. It is illustrated as the top of a mountain; the end of a long journey. And that analogy is valid.
The CTA process has changed a few in recent years – firstly the case study was dropped and the scenario expanded to include Governance elements. Then the makeup of the judges changed, from three external and two internal Salesforce CTAs to three internal Salesforce CTAs. (This last change was made to make organising section retakes with the same judges easier). Note that in all of these changes, it hasn’t become easier.
I’ve been in front of the CTA Panel twice, and not because I had such a good time the first time that I thought I’d give it another go. No, like many before and many after me, I failed at my first attempt and had to regroup. But to [mis-]quote Edison: I didn’t fail, I found a way that didn’t work.
I have also judged it eight times (seven full, one section retake), but that is a story for another time…
First Time Around
It was one of those days where everything goes wrong.
Firstly it was in Paris, so I’d had to travel. That wasn’t a major issue in itself, but it does make for differences to a morning routine. The day of the Panel was a disaster. Firstly, scheduled train works meant the train I was on just stopped and turfed everyone out. I ended up walking for about 40 minutes across Paris, with my phone in my hand showing Maps and my jacket over my arm and dragging my suitcase. It was July in Paris and so was sunny; I was sweaty and out of sorts when I got to the office.
When I arrived, the office itself was in the middle of a fire alarm drill so everyone was outside. (I actually spotted the judges mustering outside as I recognised two of them). This meant that everything was running late, and so – I realised at that time – that I was going to miss my flight home. None of this made for setting the right environment.
But still, I allowed myself to relax (there was time), and book a later flight, get a baguette and a drink. I rang my mentor; we joked about not getting too cute about Community Plus licences.
Come the scenario itself, I was bullish. I powered through and was happy with the solution and the presentation that I’d created. But I rushed my presentation and finished 10 minutes early (I’d misjudged the number of slides in the deck and had been counting some empty templates at the back) so that got added to my Q&A time. It was there that the wheels came off.
I’ve pretty much pushed it from my mind but a few observations.
- Literally, the first question was to query my Community License types where, it turned out, Community Plus was the optimal choice. I was able to laugh this one off. Actually, it was kind of high point.
- I was asked to draw an SP-initiated login flow overlaid with OAuth and realised that I couldn’t. I tried, but even as I finished, I knew it was a mess and wouldn’t be readable the second I stepped away from it.
- I forgot some platform limits. Which meant that…
- I’d made bad on/off platform decisions. Which meant that…
- I’d got the data model wrong. Which meant that…
- My security model was wrong. Which meant, etc., etc., etc.
- I’d got the data model wrong. Which meant that…
- I’d made bad on/off platform decisions. Which meant that…
I actually felt that one of the judges didn’t play fairly, by twice putting words in my mouth that I wasn’t sharp enough to counter – I’m sure that judge would dispute that, but that’s how I felt.
I was also embarrassed that I’d made such a mess in front of my two colleagues, both of whom I respected and admired (one later became my line manager; the other was on my second panel as well) Then the stress of the day started to tell and I got angry about the entire process whilst I was in the taxi for my later than advertised flight. That feeling continued, as it took months to get feedback that I didn’t recognise when it arrived.
I was severely disenfranchised with the whole approach. I actually seriously considered leaving Salesforce and investigated that, getting as far as interviewing and was offered a job elsewhere but decided I wanted the CTA.
At that time, the Architect Designer exams didn’t exist. As I worked at Salesforce at the time, we had nine internal ‘badges’ that covered the CTA Domain areas. These badges ultimately evolved into the Architect Academy Designer exams so it’s not like I was unprepared. In fact, the nature of the badges – which included being judged by someone ‘certified’ laid the grounds for the presentation and Q&A part of the panel. But in any case, it was a long time between the first flurry of certifications to getting in front of the panel, and even longer to get in front of the panel the second time.
Back On It
It took me 10 months to get back in front of the panel. This is because it doesn’t come to Europe that often and I didn’t fancy travelling again, and indeed that option wouldn’t have been open to me anyway given the demand.
Not that I didn’t ramp up properly last time, but this time I went at it with a different level of intensity.
I knew what mistakes I’d made before, so they were easy to fix. I knew more about Salesforce, and areas that had previously only been studied academically I’d gained practical experience of (Yes, Identity, I’m looking at you). Given that Identity was my weakest area, I was given a mentor who was strong in that area and he really helped me. I fell into a weekly pattern as the board approached: I’d get a practice scenario and would complete it as close to ‘Panel Situation’ as I could. That meant working off-line, time-boxing the prep and presentation but allowing my judges to Q&A for as long as they wanted, making sure I was properly pushed. I made extensive notes after each mock session and studied again.
I started carrying flashcards with SSO flows on them. I recited my slide titles in my head ALL THE TIME. My slides were my guiding light. If I could create slides with the following titles, I knew I had a framework to shape my presentation without missing anything.
A Thank You slide at the end. Because manners cost nothing.
I started drawing the SSO flows. On the train, on the toilet, in meetings, before bed, when I woke. I was not going to get stung on a login flow again. I’d hand them to my partner for appraisal and comparison against a white paper.
I poured over every practice scenario to a depth that bordered the obsessive (1). I timed how long I spent on each stage. I knew all the angles, all the gotchas. I knew what the judges wanted, how to demonstrate it, how best to present it so that they could easily mark it.
I knew the easy points and how to score them. My presentations were slick, my slides organised and coherent – the few that I decided to draw became the backbone of my narrative and allowed me to control the message as I wanted.
The feeling was totally different. The first time, I felt that I needed a fair wind; some things to fall my way. This time I knew that I had it in the bag. I was confident in my knowledge, but more importantly, I was confident in my process – the way that I dissected the scenario and carved it back into a narrative. Don’t get me wrong, I still needed a little bit of luck – everyone does.
But I was ready.
Second Time Around
I’d cleared the two days before my second panel, and structured them for revision. I’d made a timetable and everything… this was officially now the single exam in my life that I’d put the most effort into. By a long way.
Note that I didn’t make it to swimming on Tuesday. 🙁
On Thursday I arrived early at Staines, where the Panels were. I got a casual breakfast and took my time to enjoy it. I finished my revision timetable and entered the room knowing I had this.
I knew that results were usually out the early hours of Tuesday morning the first week after the two weeks of panels. Sure enough, it arrived at approx 4:10. I’d actually had a dream that the email had come in and awoken at approximately 4:30 am and checked my email… I didn’t get past the first sentence (“Congratulations…”) before showing my partner and falling back to sleep. I didn’t even read the rest of the email, containing feedback and notes on how to maintain it for approximately another week.
It Takes A Village
There are several people who played a key part in my attaining the CTA, and that will be the case for everyone. David Bolton, who took it at the same time as me, and we bounced ideas off each other the whole time; Kevin Burke, my first mentor and Ritesh Aswaney, my second. The judges on both panels, who pushed me hard.
I am proud to be part of that elite (though that’s not what we call ourselves, I promise you). I will mention it as part of my elevator pitch and when introducing myself to new customers and prospects. It helped me to get my current job at Bluewolf, a role that I thoroughly enjoy and wouldn’t change in any way. It was also hugely rewarding. I learnt a lot about the platform and really had to push myself to get through the process and be accepted and recognised by my peers to gain the CTA badge. It is not an easy journey, but it is a worthwhile one.
Once you have the Architect Certs, you know enough to pass. What you don’t know is what I’ve covered above: how to approach the scenario; to score easy points; to cover every item; to draw what you need to draw and remember what you need to remember.
From the base of the summit, it looks like an impossible task. But it’s achievable if you’re prepared to put the work in, to learn, to listen, to put yourself out there… then you can do it.
(fn1) When I was interviewing at Bluewolf I also spoke to a few other big Salesforce players and one of them gave me one of these scenarios to complete as a ‘Technical Assessment’. I had previously spent 4 hours going over it with the marking scheme, so I pretty much crushed that…