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)