How I’m Preparing for CTA

I’ve actually killed my ReMarkable’s battery today with all the notes I’ve been taking, so I decided to stop studying for today and tell you more about how I’ve been preparing for the Certified Technical Architect (CTA) review board exam

After preparing for about 14 months, my mentor arranged a date for my FINAL mock exam and it finally hit home that the real thing is taking place TWO WEEKS TODAY. So, how have I been getting ready for this? Well, we don’t call it a #JourneyToCTA for nothing.

Practice #1

I started rehearsing in March 2018. My first scenario took place over the phone and was a reasonably simple one to introduce me to the process. I ran out of prep time, screwed up so many pieces of paper and by the end of it, the diagrams I sent over to my judge were a total mess. Nevertheless, it was an important step forward.

NOT a real exam scenario! And NO you can’t have a copy of it without the author’s permission :0D

Following that first session, I had one mock per week. Around 3 weeks into the process, I had my first face-to-face one and I was shaking when I went into the (very familiar) board room at work to present my solution. At that point, confidence and self-belief were my biggest problems. I answered questions defensively; I could feel my mood lowering and I became irritable. Yet, each mock yielded a series of things I could work on. It included technical areas, but I needed to change my mindset too. 

If in Doubt, Just Ask

I struggled with the styles of my artefacts and, after about five mock exams, I still felt I needed some help with the prep time. I’d get to the end and realise I hadn’t prepared my governance solution. So I’d blag it. Not great. I decided to use my network and go on the hunt for CTAs willing to offer advice. My contacts put me in touch with a CTA candidate in Australia, who gave me an hour of his time to talk about how he used his prep time. We even looked at some of his artefacts together. Then I reached out to Carl Brundage, who then gave me an hour of HIS time to tell me about his experience and offer advice. You can read about this on the Ladies Be Architects blog. I found that this helped a lot – I had a mentor, but I’d highly recommend getting as many thoughts and opinions as you can.

The Important Part – Your Meltdown

I had my first meltdown when another CTA came in to judge me alongside my usual mentor. I describe my “meltdowns” as a point in time when I reach the point of despair and metaphorically drop everything I’m holding. Usually, a good cry clears the slate and I can pick myself up and carry on. So that’s exactly what happened. I believe this is an important part of the process because all the self-doubt and imposter feelings come to a head and allow you to deal with them head-on, instead of pushing these emotions down, ignoring them and letting them crush you at the exam. But we’re all different people.

Interruptions

One of my idols was the first woman CTA in EMEA and even she had an interruption during her prep. I’m pretty sure I did the right thing when I halted the process last year when my cancer came back because the hardest topics of the knowledge I had gained were still new then. Now, I’m revising instead of learning. If something important comes up during your ramp up, don’t lose heart. You’re still in the queue and the exam will still be there when you’re ready to start again.

I kept one hand in during my recovery period, running virtual mock review boards for a small cohort of people based in the US. We recorded these to help others see what it’s about. Doing these gave me an opportunity to judge my peers’ attempts and provide feedback. It was also a great way to prepare – to be on the other side and understand the work involved in judging CTA candidates. I then had the opportunity to attend the CTA-601 workshop at Bluewolf in New York after Dreamforce, which I couldn’t recommend highly enough. By then I had done about 8 mocks, so having the chance to receive some specialist coaching from none other than Carl Brundage himself was a real privilege.

In the end, I decided to let 2018 go – to heal my body – and I reset my goal to become a CTA in 2019 instead.

And Now My Watch Begins

I started 2019 with all good intentions, making pledges to myself not to drink alcohol or attend social events, to work out, to relax. The reality is that some of these pledges weren’t exactly realistic. I did, however, manage to change my relationship with alcohol, moving onto non-alcoholic lager if I fancied a tipple and limiting my wine intake to occasional social events only. I worked out regularly throughout February and March (and stopped in April!). Relaxation has turned to brisk walks with my audiobooks on and this suits me fine. I have however been able to tick off the remaining 50% of them (the holiday will come later!).

Practice #2

I started practising again with my mentor – both virtually and in person. It was harder this time, as I am sharing him with about 4 other people, so rooms and timings are harder to organise – but I am grateful to him and his employer for the direct and indirect support they’ve given me. 

Validate

Friend, community group leader, Pluralsight Diagramming King and Salesforce MVP Matt Morris and I became official “study buddies” when he told me he wanted another shot at the board. We agreed to be each other’s “sponsors”, holding each other accountable and making sure we prepared. This even meant contacting his other half to find out how he learns and calling out for some volunteer judges to make sure he practised.

With 2 weeks to go, we’ve spoken quite a few times to discuss our views on identity, OAuth flows, connected apps and even Salesforce Connect. I’ve been on his judging panel for a recent mock after he sat in on mine the same week (which brought on my second meltdown – it was pathetic! “I shouldn’t be here, doing this!” ?). Having other people who are also ramping up has been so valuable in this process. Equally, my mentor has given me opportunities to watch his other candidates present, have discussions and have them watch me present in turn.

Study

It became clearer this year, with each mock, that revision is now the bigger priority. I feel like I have my artefacts and presentation timings sorted in my head. I just need to be certain and able to demonstrate the knowledge during Q&A to pass this thing.

So I arranged to have some time off work to study hard; there are about 2 weeks.

I revise in quite a traditional way – reading, making notes, then re-reading notes and muscle memory for diagrams. As an ex-Latin student, I was even tempted to record myself talking through the nomenclature and listening to it in bed at night (I might still do that!). I’ve drawn diagrams and posted them around the house; OAuth flows on the back of the toilet door, “OAuth Words” in the hallway, a big diagram on the wall over my bed so I can read and memorise the setup options for Connected Apps….it helps. Though I find myself mentally walking to whatever part of the house the diagrams are posted up when I’m asked to recall them in a mock exam!

Validation has been the key when talking about topics I feel less confident on; my friends will tell you they’ve received photos of diagrams and notes seeking validation so that I can go away and practice drawing them. Today has been a turning point in that regard – now I’ll be drawing them at least twice a day up until the Big Day. I have one more mock to do – and this may be a big one with a few judges. We’ll see.

My Plan for the Big Day

I’ll continue to study until the day before the exam. I’ve booked a hotel in London for the night before; I can’t risk issues with the train on the day. I’m going to a meet-up for women in tech which finishes at around 9pm – this should take my mind off it for a few hours and I’ll come back and practice my diagrams again. I know I won’t be able to go to sleep early, so I’ll watch a movie (or re-watch the latest episode of Game of Thrones) and rest until sleep overcomes me. I’m having a good breakfast and I’ll probably practice my flows one more time before I go to Salesforce Tower. Maybe I’ll go there early and just watch the fish swim around in the aquarium for a bit…till Security moves me on!

Overall I’d like to think I am a healthy level of scared. Either way, this challenge started quite a long time ago and I am keen to see it to its conclusion.

Let’s see how this goes eh?

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