Cloud Architects Need More than Certificationsby@thecloudarchitect
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Cloud Architects Need More than Certifications

by Michael GibbsJune 7th, 2022
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Solution architect certification training is a good start, but it is just a start. It gives you the training that you need to configure the services that those vendors provide. Getting the job means having all of the relevant skills. Cloud architects are not focused on technology but on transforming businesses. They need to know how to respond to requests for information (RFIs), request for proposals (RFPs), and requests for quotes (RFQs) Having a “certification plus” requires learning how to evaluate an organization’s financial performance.

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Are you AWS certified, Azure certified, or Google certified and struggling to get your first cloud architect or solution architect job? If so, I have some information that can help you.

The first thing you need to understand is that solution architect certification training is a good start, but it is just a start. It gives you the training that you need to configure the services that those vendors provide. If you are a junior engineer who is going to spend your days setting up cloud storage, S3 buckets, or blob storage, it’s great training.

However, if you want to be a solution architect, a cloud architect, or an enterprise architect, this training is just a little better than irrelevant. It is not completely irrelevant because you still need the certification on your resume in order to get an interview. So, if you already have the certification, all is not wasted, but getting the job means having all of the relevant skills. That means you need to have what I call “Certification Plus.”

Learning how to see the big picture

Cloud architects are “big picture” people. We do not focus on the name of a cloud service, nor do we configure those services; we design end-to-end solutions. Our focus is on providing a solution that improves a customer's business performance. We need to make sure that all the pieces and parts work.

We don't think about the names of the services at all. We think about the technologies that are used. Do we need load balancers? Do we need servers? Do we need applications? Do we need new business processes to be defined? None of these require us to think about the name of any particular service.

At some point, we may be thinking that we need to use object storage because we need metadata in my storage environment. We also might think about utilizing a virtual machine here, or a Kubernetes cluster there. We will need to identify these needs, but the actual names are almost always irrelevant to us. We will always design based on architectural principles, not based on vendor names, because we need to think in the language of what we are doing.

Cloud architects are not focused on technology. Rather, we use technology — both cloud technologies and other technologies — as a tool for transforming our customer’s business. Our focus and our goal is to improve our customer’s business by leveraging technology. 

Keeping our Focus on Transforming Businesses

So, how do we transform a customer's business? Well, we must understand business. That is why solution architect training is not enough; it does not train us in business. Having a “certification plus” requires learning how to evaluate an organization's financial performance. It requires learning how to read a financial statement. It requires learning how to increase sales, especially through the use of technology, and how to increase employee productivity. 

In my 25-year career in technology sales and architecture, I have never had a customer tell me that they wanted to buy tech because it is cool. They don’t buy it because they like it. That means cloud architects need to know how to show the value of the technology to the client. We need to know how to respond to requests for information (RFIs), requests for proposals (RFPs), and requests for quotes (RFQs). We will also need to do return on investment (ROI) modeling because we need to show our customers that the value of the solution provided to them is greater than its cost.

Excelling in the Art of Communication

As an architect, you will never have someone hand you a document or a case study that details the exact solution they want to be designed. We need to get the information from the client that will equip us to create the design. How do we do that? We ask for it. To get business information, we need to ask the executives. To get technical information, we need to ask the engineers, the managers, and the architects. All of this means we need stellar communication skills. 

Communicating well means knowing what questions to ask, and how to ask them efficiently. It means asking questions with some executive presence or gravitas so that you command your customer’s attention. It means having good listening skills so that we get what we need the first time we ask. Sometimes, the questions that we ask will be deep business-related questions or questions related to issues or failures that the customer has had. These are sensitive questions that need to be asked in a way that does not ruffle your customer’s feathers, so emotional intelligence is another skill that we need to have.

Communicating well also means learning to be CXO relevant. What does the CEO care about versus the CFO versus the CIO? They all have different needs. The VP of IT is focused on issues that are different from those of the Director of IT. We will probably interact with all of them, so we need to know what issues are relevant to each.

Presentation skills are another important part of communication. If we do not develop good presentation skills, we will not be hireable or effective in our roles. We will not get past the interview process without being able to effectively present our skills and experience. Once we get the job, we will need to present to those within our organization, as well as to customers and potential customers. If we can’t present, we can’t succeed. 

Mastering the Critical Tech Skills

It’s my opinion that communication skills are more important than tech skills for securing cloud architect jobs. Why? Because without the right communication skills, you will not be able to be sure you have obtained the correct customer requirements. Without the correct customer requirements, the architecture will be incorrect. Still, tech skills are important. In fact, there is a wide range of tech skills we need to master.

We need to learn BGP for routing and OSPF because most organizations have an Interior Gateway Protocol in their data center that connects to the cloud. We also need to understand virtual LANs (VLANs), VLAN tagging, and VLAN trunking. We need to understand network address translation, all the different variations in IP addressing, subnetting, super netting, and route aggregation. We also need to understand how routing works, how switching works, and how DNS works.

Security concepts are another part of the tech that must be mastered. We must know about firewalls, intrusion detection, prevention systems, and VPN concentrators. We are also going to be using server virtualization in everything we do. We must have an understanding of containers, load balancers, storage types, and identity and access management.

Understanding How the Cloud Works

Knowing the components that form the cloud is not enough. We also need to know how the cloud works. And there is no better way to learn it than to build a cloud.

As part of your architect journey, take a server or group of servers and build a cloud so that you will have hands-on experience. Build a Nutanix, an OpenStack cloud, or both. Explore the control plane and the data plane so that you will understand the inner workings of the cloud. The experience you gain will be invaluable in equipping you for transforming your customer’s business.

Selling to Colleagues and Customers

As architects, sales skills are key to our success. We are part of the sales team and we will always need to be selling our plans and projects. To get access to the engineers that you will need for your next big project, you will need to sell your manager on assign them to your team. When you want your company to develop new features that a specific customer has requested, you will need to sell them on it. And when you create a design, you will need to sell it to your customer.

Selling also involves being able to write well. As architects, we will meet with a client, ask some questions, develop a design, and write it up. Selling the design will involve writing a proposal that is easy to read and that clearly communicates the extent of the project. It is tricky to write a proposal that is short enough that the necessary executives will take time to read it, but also detailed enough to satisfy the engineers who are involved.

We must know how to write deep where needed, shallow where needed, and everywhere in between. Selling well means writing effectively for all-important audiences.

Stepping into a Leadership Role

When you understand that architecture is a team sport, you will understand the value that leadership skills bring to the cloud architect. To successfully design and deliver end-to-end systems, we always need to be working with teams. We need to build teams of experts. We need to bring together the security professionals, the networking professionals, the database professionals – all of whom have more expertise than we do – and lead them as a team. Being successful means knowing who to know; it does not mean knowing how to do everyone else’s job. 

Becoming a cloud architect who has “certification plus” requires acquiring all of these skills. If you understand their business, you know how to improve their business. If you understand the cloud, you know how to optimize their business by leveraging the cloud. If you can present it and sell it back to the customer, they'll build it. These are the skills that make you a great cloud architect, a great solution architect, or a great enterprise architect.