My First CTA Attempt

So, I failed it this time. I haven’t been in a hurry to write this particular experience up, because I’ve largely been licking my wounds and able to manage only short bursts of communication about it with all the other stuff that’s been going on (World Tour London, TDX, more surgery…etc etc!). But here I am, and here’s the story of my first review board CTA attempt.

The Review Board Experience

I signed a document to say I wouldn’t share too much about this experience – it IS an exam after all – so I’ll share what I can; thanks for your patience!

In the run-up

I booked a few weeks off work to prepare; this cleared potential distractions and enabled me to focus. I didn’t structure my days, per se, but a typical day would consist of revising topics I was less confident on, practising on my own and, where possible, attending one of my friend Matt Morris’ mock exams. Matt’s did his exam two days after mine. He graciously filmed his mocks to get feedback and share his approach with others.

Heres a playlist of Matt’s mock exams

During prep, Matt and I kept chatting over text. Clarifying ideas and topics, asking questions, checking in and encouraging one another. It made all the difference because I didn’t feel I was going this alone. Add that to conversations and mocks with my mentor, Andrew, (which Matt was kind enough to join too!) and I felt just about ready. I almost felt it taking over my life.

Then, three days prior to the exam, I had a “meltdown”. I found myself in tears, telling myself I didn’t deserve to be at the review board. I was absolutely convinced I was going to fail – completely and utterly fail – as in, why-the-hell-is-she-here kind of failure. A friend pinged to ask me how my prep was going, and I just came out with it – “Not good, I feel sad. I’m pretty sure this isn’t going to work.” She got straight on the phone and we had a talk. “We are not doing this!” was the general theme!! It definitely made me feel better.

I stayed over in London the night before so that I had the best chance of a) making it on time and b) being sufficiently rested for the next day. I didn’t do any studying that day, because it was all about being physically and mentally ready.

That evening, that friend recommended I watch a talk by Brené Brown (she’s a big fan), so I settled in and watched it. It was an incredibly moving and funny perspective on courage and vulnerability. Here’s her TED talk:

The Big Day

Since the hotel was situated close by, I decided to walk to Bishopsgate via the Tower of London. Charly was awake and texting me, so I sent her pictures of the Tower en route and considered how lucky I was to be there and surrounded by all the cool history we have. I met up with Andrew for breakfast at a lovely restaurant near to Salesforce Tower, where we caught up and he wished me well. I was, of course, wearing sunflowers for the exam – and my “lucky” Salesforce socks, which I wear for all my exams. Just habit, rather than superstition. Besides, it made me feel better.

I was 30 minutes early for my exam, so I settled in with the big stuffed Astro in the atrium as I waited for my facilitator to come and collect me. When she eventually took me up to the room, I was thrilled to even BE there! The proctor said he’d never seen anyone so happy to be doing an exam. For me, it was the moment I’d been waiting over a year for – I vowed to myself that even if I did fail, the fact I was there was a huge achievement in itself.

Those of you who have read the CTA exam guide know the drill – 2 hours to prepare, then 45 minutes to present, with another 40 mins of Q&A. As I left Salesforce tower following the exam, my brain began whirring with all the errors I was certain I have made. Even though it was all done and there was nothing more I could do.

It didn’t let up for 2 weeks. I’m not a patient person, so waiting for the results was agony and I wound myself up. By the time the results came I was absolutely convinced I’d failed, and I knew exactly what I’d done to cause a Fail. I’d studied too hard.

The Results

It turned out I was right. In my panic about having enough time to prepare, I hadn’t read the scenario closely enough, and I made such a fundamentally bad decision about my org strategy that we lost time to address other topics elsewhere. I wasn’t even close to passing. I’d been the most worried about Integration.

I don’t mind sharing these results now, because, as far as I’m concerned, this list of results isn’t an assessment of my credibility as an architect. The review board happens at a point in time, like a driving test. Now I have the experience of the test. I have lines of qualitative feedback to work on. Some of it is experience-based; I’m not always the most concise of people, especially when I am nervous. I now have an opportunity to work on that – which will, in turn, help me with my next attempt.

Licking My Wounds

When I first got the results, I burst into tears. It confirmed that I’d been beating myself up appropriately – nobody likes that! As the weeks went on and I processed the feedback, the effort I’d spent preparing felt pointless. In my view I had been useless to my employer, because I’d worked so hard on this, not been chargeable, and had nothing to show for it. Sure enough, despite passing the promotions board at work, I was passed over for promotion because my utilisation was poor. Someone made a comment that I was a great advocate, but I didn’t have the breadth of knowledge to pass the CTA, which got back to me. I felt like jacking it all in. When people asked me how I got on, I said “Oh, I’ve failed, never mind, I’ve learnt and I’ll have another go later on in the year.” – then tried to convince myself I really was okay about it. I wasn’t really. I was smarting.

It took a while for me to get over that failure because I’d been working so hard, advocating the exam publicly too – even starting a successful movement around it. So what would people think – would they be smug, because by failing, I’d proven that only coders can be CTAs? Or because I’d stuck my head above the parapet and I’d then failed? All the good wishes in the world were greatly appreciated. In my torn head, they provided comfort.

As usual, my worst enemy was myself, and it took about 2 months for me to gather the courage to make peace with it. Changes in my life distracted me from drawing a line under Attempt 1.0.

My Learnings

If I was to put a CTA toolkit together now, based on what I’ve learned, this is what it would look like:

Friendship

Don’t go it alone (unless you really want to). If you want people to come along and ask questions while you do a mock exam, please ask. You can ask on the Ladies Be Architects community page, or on Twitter. There are friends out there who will learn something from it too. Here is the point where I shout out to Melissa Shepard of Lizzard Tech, who gave up her time to come and watch Matt and myself as we attempted our mocks. We’re all connected by this experience and here to support each other for years to come.

Melissa and I catching up at World Tour, London in May 2019

Preparation

There are a few things you can do to prepare:

  • Go on the CTA601 course before you even start
  • Change your attitude: tackle the Designer exams as if they’re contributing to the success of your review board, not boxes you have to tick off in order to reach eligibility. Sounds weird, I know, but if you’re playing Pokemon with the exams, it’s easy to mentally dismiss the topics you scored lower on.
  • Don’t assume that just because you have both domain certifications, you are automatically “ready” for the review board. Yes, you’ve reached a milestone and we should always celebrate that. But being a CTA means you need leadership, decision-making, problem-solving and communication skills. You can’t get those from a textbook.
  • Of course, do as many mock exams as you can
  • Write some scenarios for mock exams! Ladies Be Architects is putting together a Scenarios bank to enable CTA candidates to practice. It’s time consuming, but so worth doing.
  • If you’re in a position to, volunteer for pre-sales work; it’ll give you some exposure to solving scenarios.
  • Put diagrams up on the wall at home as an aide memoire. I had integration patterns drawn out and pinned up on the back of the toilet door!
  • Have multiple mentors – and get them to critique and test you in different ways. It’s easy to get used to one person’s judging style
  • Embrace your weaker technical areas and challenge yourself to overcome them. If you’ve got a chance to set up single sign-on, for example, and it’s an area of weakness for you (let’s face it, it is for many of us!), volunteer to do the work.
  • Take time off to prepare in the run-up to the exam, but try not to let it consume you the way it did me

What’s Next?

I feel differently about this now; I’m moving into a new role which requires leadership and concise communication due to the types of clients I’ll be dealing with. I see this as an incredible opportunity to hone the skills I can’t learn from a textbook. Then I will use them in my next attempt.

I’ll keep going, but I’ve learned that I don’t want to rush it. We’ll be CTAs one day.

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