My Journey to Salesforce.com Certified Technical Architect
Today I received the best email I have seen in a long time: “Congratulations! You have successfully completed the Review Board Presentation…”
Passing the Certified Technical Architect (CTA) exam is the culmination of more than 3 years of dedication to studying the Salesforce.com platform. I was a late entrant to the program – I didn’t start working with Salesforce until I was already an Architect and Program Manager. I started my career as an ERP developer (J.D. Edwards) and eventually technical lead at a Big 4 consulting firm. But I had moved on in my career – no longer wanting to be a “package” guy. In 2008 I was first exposed to Salesforce.com – but really nothing more than designing an integration that took TWO WEEKS to integrate into the back office J2EE app I was building. I thought SFDC looked interesting – but didn’t have time to really dive in. Plus – I aspired to be an Enterprise Architect (not some lowly package guy!!). I was way too busy building my system that took A YEAR to build… Salesforce seemed like small potatoes…
Enter 2011 – By way of chance I was thrown at the Nissan implementation (you may have seen Nissan highlighted at Dreamforce in 2012…) I knew very little about SFDC at this point – but I knew about packages, integration, architecture, development, project management, etc. Therefore I was thrust to fill a the vacant technical architect role on the Nissan account. At this point I was still a bit resistant to going all in to SFDC. (I’M NOT A PACKAGE GUY!!). But after 14 hard months on the Nissan implementation, I was convinced. The Nissan project was probably the most difficult project I have ever worked in my life (actually almost killed me with pneumonia!) – but as I look back on what we built with a very small Salesforce team (2-3 developers, 2-3 functional/admins) compared to the entire project team (literally hundreds of other resources) it was pretty apparent that the power of the cloud and the promise of Salesforce was not just hype. Rolling off of the Nissan engagement in 2012 I was not ready to go back to general technology consulting. I no longer aspired to be the “Enterprise Architect generalist”. It was now all very clear – I set my eyes on obtaining the Salesforce.com Certified Technical Architect badge. (Yes – I am committed to being a lowly product guy again!!)
Where to start? Let’s start at the very beginning – a very good place to start!
1) I started with Admin and Developer certification. I had taken the formal DEV401 in a classroom – so I started in on the study materials. I had heard that the ADM201 and DEV401 class overlap quite a bit and that if I were to take DEV401 I would be close to covering both certs. So I studied for both exams. I primarily used the study guides (Admin Study Guide & Developer Study Guide) posted on the certification website as my studying curriculum. I fortunately had access to the premier on-line training (AWESOME RESOURCE!) and I found a number of good practice exams online. I passed Developer and Admin back to back heading into Dreamforce 2012 (where BTW I don’t take full credit but I take A LOT of credit for the successful Nissan implementation that was highlighted at Dreamforce…. more on that when I talk about my case study)
2) Once I had the Developer cert I wasn’t sure what direction to go. I could go straight for architect – but I definitely didn’t feel ready. There is just way too much ground to cover and getting the admin and dev certs really just helped expose the tip of the ice burg. I could go straight for advanced dev – but I wasn’t writing code in my day job and it had been years since I was code slinging C or Java. So therefore I was looking at Advanced Admin or the consulting certifications. My day job at the time was working as a technical architect over a current sales cloud implementation and scoping another service cloud implementation. So I decided to go for the consulting certs. As an architect I wanted to understand all of the ins and outs of the functional side too. The best architects are those who know how to properly leverage the out of the box features first and foremost. So I set my sites on functional expertise (really for the first time in my career). Once again the material in the study guides was invaluable (Sales Cloud & Service Cloud). Without the premier training option I would have been at a total loss. The most important thing to take away from this is: The Certified Technical Architect is expected to understand Sales Cloud, Service Cloud, and Force.com capabilities inside and out. So the more project experience you can get the better. I believe it would not have been possible to pass the CTA without the time I had spent studying the functional features.
3) By now I was rolling. I carried 4 certifications and really had a broad foundation understanding of the platform. What next? Realizing that once I start down the road of CTA or DEV501 for good I would be moving away from the core platform features – so I wanted to put down my advanced admin before leaving the foray. I was feeling real confident – so a quick study of the advanced admin study guide was all that was necessary to pass this exam. I honestly felt that advanced admin was the easiest test for me – or maybe the one I was most prepared for through my previous studies.
5) Now on to the CTA. Part 1 – Self Assessment. I judged myself a bit too harshly and actually failed the self-assessment the first time. However I felt ready to at least try for the multiple choice – so I quickly retook the self-assessment and was a little more arrogant with my skills. I will say that the self-assessment is really heavy on what I would consider more development skills which I did not feel were assessed through the rest of the process. For example I was never asked to explain what JSON was in the multiple-choice or the Review Board – so as long as you know what it is and how to use it you are probably good. Whether or not you are truly an EXPERT at JSON? I’m not even sure what that means to be honest.
6) The CTA multiple choice was hard. I did not think I passed. But if you are good at taking multiple choice you can usually knock off one or two of the choices and guess at the others – so then the passing grade of 63% is really probably not that hard to achieve. Later in the blog and in another post I will list all of my CTA study materials. My take on the multiple-choice was that it was very heavy on true technical architecture. Security, platform capabilities, performance, integration patterns, etc. It is a very good indicator of whether you are ready to move to the review board (much more so than the self-assessment).
7) I’m feeling pretty good. I have passed the CTA multiple choice. Now its time to prepare for the review board. I had an AMAZING reference in Nissan and a very interesting case study to present. I felt very confident in my case study. You really need to have leadership experience on a large and complex project. The case study should touch on as many of the CTA components as possible… in 30 minutes max. This is actually much harder than it sounds. Packing the case study full of content but being able to articulate it clearly and effectively within the 30 minutes will take some very strong public speaking competency. And honestly this is another huge aspect of the CTA: your communication and presentation skills. Salesforce wants to ensure you can speak intelligently and effectively to ANY level of a customer organization from CxO to the off-shore development team. IMHO – my case study was awesome. Probably my greatest strength going into the review board as opposed to the specific technical breadth or depth that other CTA’s bring to the table. Remember – I really only just started with Salesforce in depth in 2011.
8) OK – the hypothetical was HARD. Not that any of the material was unfamiliar… actually it wan’t that difficult of a scenario. What I found was that the volume of the hypothetical requirements was high. You have 75 minutes to read, process, design, document, and prepare for the hypothetical presentation. I could have probably spent 75 minutes just on the reading/processing and another 75 minutes on the design and another 75 minutes on the documentation, etc. So trying to do this on the clock is VERY stressful. Honestly its more like an IQ test in that way. Because it is not only testing your knowledge, it is testing your ability to think under pressure. This to me was THE MOST DIFFICULT PART OF ALL OF THE CERTIFICATIONS.
9) I thought my presentation went just OK. I definitely didn’t like the limited amount of time I had to prepare – so some of the areas of my design were weak. And boy do the judges like to sniff out weakness. In my view the judges are there with a predisposition to fail you – not the other way around. So when they find a loose thread they pull on it to see how far it goes. And in one particular area (for me: portals) I was weak. And boy did they sniff it out and prove pretty quickly that I did not know that part of the platform. So I did not pass.
I received an email two weeks later – basically I did not pass – but they weren’t failing me yet. I had passed all but one section (guess which one: security as it relates to portals) and that in order to achieve CTA you must not only have a passing grade, but you also must pass ALL OF THE SECTIONS. Honestly that was news to me – but oh well. Honestly looking back – I did NOT know portals and the specific security & data model implications of partner and HVCP solutions. So the judges did their job well and looking back now I would absolutely agree at the time that I did not deserve to pass the review board.
10) Time passes….
11) More time passes….
12) Finally after almost 6 months I finally received an invitation to retake just the security portion of the exam. This entailed another hypothetical scenario (did I mention this is the most difficult part). And guess what – this one was MORE DIFFICULT! I only had 20 minutes to read, process, design, document, and prepare for the hypothetical presentation. ONLY 20 MINUTES!! Wow – in some of the meetings at work it takes 20 minutes just to get started!!
However this time I was much more prepared for the specifics I felt they would be looking for in relation to security. I had a much better understanding of partner and HVCP solutions. I understood roles/profiles/permission sets inside and out. I understood the sharing model inside and out. Sharing rules, teams, territory mgmt, manual sharing, programmatic sharing, implicit sharing, all sorts of sharing. I would honestly say that a detailed understudying of the sharing and security model of Salesforce was VERY IMPORTANT for the CTA. Much more than understanding say – when to use standard vs custom controllers, etc. If you don’t live and breath the sharing model and the role hierarchy you need not apply.
13) FINALLY!!! I received my passing score today. It had a list of what the panel considered where my strengths and weaknesses. It also referenced an architect level release exam that I would need to complete to maintain the credential (news to me). Begin celebration!! Begin throwing away all of the white papers I have been carrying with me for the last 3 years. Don’t worry… they are documented below for your (and my) reference.
So now what? Well – this blog for one. I refused to spend time declaring myself an expert in Salesforce.com Enterprise Architecture without the certification. But now that I have it – watch out!! I will be writing a lot. I have other plans too – but those are my secret. For now.
Good luck to all of the aspiring CTAs out there! This was by far the most difficult certification or recognition I have ever studied for. It was almost a masters degree in and of itself. Actually I probably studied for the CTA (including all of my other certs) more than my entire graduate degree.
Here it is: Greg’s non-official list of CTA study resources (no particular order)
Congrats man! This is a big deal and you should definitely be proud and celebrate!
Thanks – now I need to go build some apps… any ideas for apps Grant? 🙂
Congrats Greg…hope you can now catch your breath as you move on to the next round. You’ve provided a fantastic resource for others following in your footsteps.
Greg, I love you. One day I will climb this mountain too. You are my inspiration.
Salesforce MVP who looks up to you
Give me your secrets of MVP and I will give you more CTA secrets!
Hi Greg, Congrats !!! Very Inspired by your Journey to Salesforce Architect, I started following your path twards TA and also got certified 401, Currently working on Integration with .Net project with Salesforce. I know I have to go long way but one day I will be there to join you !
Well done buddy 🙂
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Congratulations! This was incredibly helpful read to understand what it takes to get certified and all the hard work that goes into it.
Thanks I’m glad its helpful. It is definitely a difficult process but extremely rewarding. Good luck!
Thanks – these are good tips. I will start slowly following all of them. My goal is to become a Salesforce CTA
Good luck I’m sure with the right balance of studying and experience you will be able to attain your goal.
Any suggested read about firewall and proxies related to salesforce?
Stay tuned… in a few weeks there will be a relevant post for you on integration architecture…
Great, thx. Anything meantime.
In the meantime I would utilize wikipedia to make sure you understand the basics like: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Firewall_(computing), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/OSI_model, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HTTP_Secure, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transport_Layer_Security, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reverse_proxy, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proxy_server#Forward_proxies, and Salsforce based concepts like: https://help.salesforce.com/HTViewHelpDoc?id=security_overview_network.htm&language=en_US, https://trust.salesforce.com/trust/practices/
Excellent, thx a ton
Congrats! your explanation is very simple that even a non technical guy also understand about the CTA examination.
Congrats Greg. Good to know you started as a JDEdwards Developer like me. I moved from JD Edwards ERP to Oracle ERP, SOA middleware and now in the last 10 months to Salesforce. Got DEV 401 and preparing for Administrator exams. Planning to target DEV 501 in the 6 months.
Hopefully will follow your path to CTA, your blog is very inspirational.
With your background in other platforms and middleware you will make a great candidate. Good luck!
Greg, your blog is really inspiring, thanks for explaining in a very simple and clear way. I have around 14 years of experience and have experience in architecture, programming, and lately working on middleware technologies. I have started learning salesforce recently and expecting to work on a project soon. Do you see it as a good idea for shifting to salesforce at this phase of the career and do you envisage the same growth for salesforce in next 5/7 years as it is in the recent years. I am ready to do the hard worked required to get to an architect level in SFDC , just worried whether the timing is correct. Please advice.
Thanks for your comments Tridip. I definitely think (and hope!) that Salesforce will continue its growth curve over the next 5 years. I basically have committed myself to the platform to that end. That being said – if you do move into Salesforce architecture I think that you will find that you generally get to focus on architecting true business requirements as opposed to low level “glue” that I often found on large enterprise projects. Given the platform provides you with such a comprehensive pallet, I find that I enjoy being an architect more so because now I have the ability to focus on the whole picture where technology and business strategy intersect. I feel that I’m a better architect now because I get to see the results of my work so much sooner – the lifecycle from idea to implementation is dramatically faster. Its a great platform and I think you will not regret it if you do. Good luck!
Great post, I hope to take this certification myself in the next few years and the information here is certainly of use on what aspects i need to know and cover before I can consider myself ready. Congratulations again Greg.
Thanks Darren – Best of luck!
Your post is so inspiring, I am on the same route but have really been confused on what steps to take next. Now I know I need to start from the very beginning to get to know the platform. More so, finding the big names in Salesforce here means I am on the right page i.e David Lui and Wes Nolte
Thanks – and best of luck on your journey!
Thanks a lot. Very helpful. I will follow your path. 🙂
I am amazed at the level of intricate details in this blog and it surely is inspiring to witness this journey in words. I am bookmarking your blog and it will be in my top 5 list. Please keep writing
Thanks! I have a number of blog posts that I am starting development on. Best of luck – Greg
Greg, that is a so inspiring blog, and I feel all the enthusiastic for CTA came back to me again.
And thanks for the very precious study resources provided above!
I will read/watch all of them one by one, and start MY journey to the Certified Technical Architect!
Thank you and good luck!
very Helpful Blog !. Thank you for sharing
Thank you for Sharing Great article for me. You should update daily related salesforce article.
Incredible achievement! I am so inspired by your journey. I like that you attempted the CTA with just 5 certifications under your belt. The industry seems to influence me to believe you need every other certification before going for the CTA. That’s not always the case 🙂
When I went to boards was before all the designer exams. I would actually suggest that you take the designer exams given what I have observed as a CTA judge. They will definitely help you understand where you are at in each area! (Btw I helped write many of the exams for Salesforce and would definitely suggest taking them. Eventually they will be a requirement.)