Journey to CTA – Starting out

About a month ago, I started working towards my Certified Technical Architect (CTA) review board. It’s been an intensive process, consisting of mock review boards every week, with plenty of study and practice in between. There are some misguided perceptions out there that the review board is simply one more step after achieving System Architect (CSA) and Application Architect (CAA). I’ve learnt that in truth, as my co-leader Charly says, achieving CSA and CAA means Yay – you’ve got about 40% of the way to CTA.

Getting Ready to Ramp Up

There has been a fundamental shift in the way that Salesforce is handling its CTA candidates. It is no longer a mad scramble for places at the scheduled review boards; Salesforce wants to build personal relationships with candidates to give them the very best chance of success. The best way they can do that is to meet with you first, to make sure you have a few things in place:

  • a mentor / coach
  • a study plan
  • a methodology for ramping up

and to see where you are in your journey at the moment.

Your Sacrifice

So what has it been like so far? Time is the big thing here.

  • My mentor and I agreed an 8-week ramp-up period, during which I’d be practising, studying, presenting, being scored and then there would be a go/no-go decision made.
  • He arranged for me to have 1 day a week to myself out of billable project work to focus my time on CTA.
  • I am using my evening and weekend time to study and work on feedback. You’ve got to know your stuff so well that you can literally tick off solutions while you’re reading through the scenario.

My advice would be – before diving in – have a conversation with your family. Tell them what you’re going to be doing and what you’ll need to do – before you start. This is like getting a degree in Salesforce – you have to study and practise. The pressure is very high and your stress levels are likely to rise. A supportive family will steer you through.

Your Mentor’s Sacrifice

The best case scenario is that you can get a mentor who is already a CTA. I’ve been very fortunate in that my mentor is not only a CTA but my line manager too, so he knows I’m mad as a box of frogs in some ways, but deeply self-critical to the point of anxiety – so he can cater his feedback to me. Let me tell you what he’s done for me:

  • Written mock review board scenarios
  • Been a review board judge at my weekly mocks
  • Stuck all my diagrams up on the wall for me so that I don’t have to!
  • Let me have a cup of tea during my mocks
  • Given me difficult feedback
  • Given me good feedback
  • Helped me work through areas of weakness (like Identity – *shudder*)
  • Tapped his network to get other CTAs to be judges at my mocks
  • Told the PMO and my Project Managers that I need 1 day a week off client work to study
  • Given me his time 
  • Given me reassurance when I start to doubt myself

Start with Acceptance

There’s absolutely no way you should expect to get a pass on your first six mock review boards. Ramping up is about improving in weak areas, strengthening your preparation plan and getting used to the format. I once said it’s like change sets – if you expect them to work the first time (and they never do), you’ll only get more frustrated when they fail time after time. Acceptance is a great way to start – because then if you do well, it’s a massive step in the right direction.

Manage Your Time

You’ve got 2 hours to prepare on the day. You’re given:

  • an offline laptop (for creating slides)
  • flipchart and pens
  • A4 paper and pens (for your own notes)

More info is available in the exam guide. The crux of it is that you’re expected to dissect the scenario to demonstrate your knowledge of:

  • actors and licences
  • data model
  • solutions for individual requirements
  • role hierarchy and sharing considerations
  • integrations
  • deployment
  • data migration
  • assumptions
  • risks and mitigation strategies
  • identity solutions
  • platform security solutions

Then you have 45 mins to present the whole solution, with another 40 mins for Q&A. You can expect to continue drawing throughout Q&A as the judges ask you to explain concepts.

I’ve really been struggling with my prep time. Reading through the whole scenario cost me dearly on a few mocks.

Mock 1 (Phone)

Strengths

  • Good sharing model
  • Good data model
  • Nicely identified large data volumes
  • Described governance techniques well
  • Covered mobile well
  • Nailed solution architecture
  • Covered project risks correctly

Weaknesses

  • I didn’t give an introduction
  • I forgot to draw a system landscape
  • Didn’t communicate my org strategy: single org or multi-org
  • I didn’t really understand Identity Connect properly, so I incorrectly suggested it
  • I mixed up sharing sets and share groups
  • I didn’t cover social sign-on properly
  • Just-In-Time (JIT) provisioning was a disaster
  • I was vague on my justification for using middleware
  • Didn’t know Git and branching strategies well enough – forgot it all since the Deployment Lifecycle exam
  • I didn’t tell a story – just dove right in

What I did after Mock 1

  • Revised sharing sets and share groups – generally a load of community things
  • Revised community licences
  • Revised Just-in-Time provisioning

Mock 2 (Phone)

Strengths

  • Positioned single org early
  • Strong on my mobile solution (it was fresh in my mind)
  • Correct licence types selected
  • OWD and sharing rules: nailed it
  • the data model was good
  • Solution landscape

Weaknesses

  • Ran out of time to cover Identity. This was fundamental.
  • Didn’t use middleware correctly and confused the judge
  • Combined solution and system landscape diagram was a bit of a mess. Needed to split the two
  • large data volumes
  • Got Idp / SP – initiated flows mixed up for single sign-on
  • Missed a requirement for Apex sharing
  • System landscape wasn’t complete
  • I was too consultative: I gave options rather than being prescriptive. I went into Client Mode.
  • I really struggled with prep time for this scenario – I didn’t finish everything because I took too long talking through the solution landscape, then rushed through data model and sharing.

What I did after Mock 2

  • Revised the OAuth flows we studied for Ladies Be Architects
  • Started drawing out SP-initiated and IdP-initiated login flows EVERY DAY
  • Started drawing out User-Agent and Web Server flows every day. At that point, it began to really go into my brain.
  • Started to think of a strategy for using the 2 hours’ prep time
  • Revised LDAP and Active Directory repositories
  • Looked at a sample system landscape in an attempt to simplify for next time

Mock 3 (Phone)

Strengths

  • “Really good” system landscape (YES!)
  • Good use of OWD and sharing rules
  • Good identity solution
  • Getting better at being prescriptive
  • Clearly presented diagrams
  • Good positioning of middleware
  • Told a good story
  • This was my best scenario yet

Weaknesses

  • Timing
  • Not enough time to cover reporting and analytics
  • Still wobbly on JIT
  • Just a little mixed up between the web server and user-agent flows. I talked myself out of using web server, because I was confused about the initial steps to get the authorisation code. But it turns out I was right to begin with.
  • Doubting myself
  • Preparation time. I still needed a plan

What I did after Mock 3

  • Continued to practise writing out the Single Sign-On flows every day
  • Continued to draw out the OAuth flows and timed myself – every day
  • Revised the exact steps taken in JIT, drew it out as a flowchart, then practised drawing the flowchart every single day
  • Revised web server OAuth flow and spoke to a Technical Architect at work about it. Clarified it in my mind.
  • Over lunch, discussed Identity solutions with another Technical Architect at work. He then asked me questions and it gave me an idea of what else to study – when I couldn’t answer them!
  • I spent 2 hours one evening doing a prep rehearsal for one of the test scenarios in the architect group. I focused on getting diagrams drawn quickly, addressing requirements in slides and trying to cover everything. It was a worthy exercise that helped me greatly in the next mock.
  • I met with Tammi, our recruitment partner, to teach her about single sign on. We had a great time talking about nightclub guest lists and acting out the token exchange!

The Change in Me

After the first three review boards, I could feel a change in the way I presented and discussed solutions. I didn’t go round the houses when describing things, I tried to focus on real outcomes and get to the point more succinctly. With the increased knowledge comes an increase in confidence – for my job role, I know I’m improving all the time. For CTA – I know I’m on the right trajectory, even though I am not there yet. If this continues, I know my calibre will be so much better than it was when I even started working on the pre-requisite exams, because of this experience.

It’s one thing to pass exams, it is quite another to be continually tested by others who know more than you do. I’m grateful to my mentor, Andrew, to Salesforce and to my family for the support they are giving me. I feel like I can do this – I just need to do some more work first.

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