Known as the ‘pinnacle certification’, CTAs have demonstrated the knowledge, skills, and capabilities to design and build high-performance technical solutions on the Salesforce platform across all areas of domain expertise.
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Certified Technical Architect Introduction
The Salesforce Certified Technical Architect (CTA) exam is the highest certification and ultimate test of all the Salesforce credentials. CTAs are regarded as the absolute elite amongst Salesforce professionals, who have not only mastered the knowledge but possess excellent consulting and communication skills which I will explore further in this guide.
Even though certification has been around since 2011 only +300 professionals (as of April 2020) have earned their Salesforce Certified Technical Architect Credential.
This Exam Guide is an interpretation of the official Salesforce Certified Technical Architect Exam Guide. Its aim is to provide you with an in-depth subjective overview of the exam, based on the information available at the day of writing (May 2020). Please always refer to the official Exam Guide for the latest information regarding exam structure and outline.
Who's the Ideal Candidate?
Becoming a CTA requires many years of experience working in client-facing roles, wearing multiple hats and having exposure across the entire life cycle – starting from analysis workshops and requirements gathering, multi-system solution design, planning releases, overseeing the build phase and governance.
To work for a consulting partner or customer with a large internal practice is beneficial, because you get to work across multiple projects and have to deal with different stakeholders and business requirements.
Having the technical knowledge that you can gain through Trailhead and the other exams is important – the so-called “depth and breadth”. But being able to interpret complex business requirements and designing a holistic optimal solution for those – under time constraints – is a different game.
When it comes to choosing the right approach for solving for the given requirement, weighting impacts, trade-offs and risks, its and art. Presenting and being able to tell your solution, during the review board exam and in the real world, as a coherent story is hard. And last but not least, defending and possibly changing your solution on the fly will cause a great amount of stress that you need to handle. – most likely at some point during the Q&A you will blank at some point – but that’s ok.
All of the aforementioned qualities are essential for you to become a CTA. The only way to build them is through:
- real-world architect experience, and,
- the right preparation strategy and/or coaching.
“Should I / Do I need to learn code to become a Certified Technical Architect?”
The simple answer is no, but mind the word “Technical” in the title. As a CTA you should be able to guide a team of developers, read and interpret their code, and assess the quality of their work.
A lot of administrators and developers out there proclaim their #JourneyToCTA and I absolutely encourage everybody to work towards that goal – after all, I am the living proof that administrators can climb the pyramid and become a Certified Technical Architect. But if you are not gaining real-world experience as an architect and/or fulfil the responsibilities of the role entails it’s a most likely impossible task.
So if you want to become a CTA you should put together a career plan that forges your skills to archive the ultimate goal.
Want some inspiration? Learn more about “My #JourneyToCTA – Admin to CTA and Lead Program”
The Review Board
Contrary to the other multiple-choice based exams, candidates face a unique challenge – the CTA Review Board.
Candidates have to solve a highly complex hypothetical scenario and defend it in front of 3 highly seasoned CTAs, the judges – under time constraints and without any inputs. The Review Board is extremely demanding and even the most experienced architects tend to fail.
The Review Board consists of 3 phases and normally takes place in a Salesforce office:
- Preparation: You have 180 minutes to read the entire scenario and create an optimal solution design incl. key artefacts such as System Architecture, Data Model etc.
- Presentation: After a 15 minutes break, it’s time for you to present your solution to the board in 45 min. Any minute you finish earlier will be added to your Q&A time.
- Q&A: In the 40 minutes Q&A, the judges will take your solution apart and ask you questions specific to it or more general questions to helps them to assess your knowledge
Based on your presentation and your Q&A, the judges will score each of the 7 sections (System Architecture, Security, Data, Solution Architecture Integration, Development Life Cycle) and Communication. To pass a section you have to reach the minimum score for it. The details of the scoring framework is confidential, but it allows for minor mistakes and deviations from the solution key. If you pass each of the 7 sections, congratulations you are now part of the elite.
If you fail one section, you will have to do a Section Retake. Section Retake means you will have to solve a scenario that is smaller in size but more demanding on the section you have failed. If the candidate fails more than one section, the candidate fails the exam.
Once achieved, the CTA is regarded as an authority and trusted advisor who can engage across the entire lifecycle from analysis, design to build, deploy and operations. Currently majority of CTAs are working either for Salesforce directly or larger partners in the role of Senior Technical Architects, Program Architects or executive roles.
Be mindful that even though there are distinct sections, they are all interconnected and are part of your holistic evaluation. Choose the wrong licenses and your data model might not work. Choose a suboptimal role hierarchy and your reporting might be impacted. Replace an entire legacy system and you might miss the overall impact on your delivery model and change management. I could go on, but I am sure you get the point!
1. System Architecture
System architecture is all about assembling the various building blocks that make up your solution in an optimal way. Here are some of my tips:
- Not only do you have to determine what is best suited for Salesforce, but also what IS NOT and what the implications of your choices are.
- Pick the reporting feature that is best suited for the particular requirement and make sure your data model supports that.
- Ever worked in a multi-org environment, the answer for the majority is probably ‘no’. Practice and fully understand what the indicators for the org strategy are (users, compliance, etc) and how to make it work across all domains.
- Know your licenses by heart, and I mean down to object and feature level – all of them – so that you can pick the ones best equipped for the job. Partner Community for Customers? Maybe, but maybe your data model needs to be optimized.
From Territory Management to Lightning login and Delegated Authentication, this section will take you into the depths of the platform’s security and beyond!
- Get your licenses and role hierarchies right. This will require a solid understanding of how enterprises can be structured and will require good business analysis skills
- Understand how to design a multi-system identity solution (e.g. having a unified identity across a website, native mobile app and community)
- Know when to choose implicit sharing, sharing rules, apex or permissions for internal users and customers
- Be prepared to draw and describe any kind of identity flow down to attribute level.
Having spoken to various judges, this is the section you are most likely to get partly wrong and will have to correct during Q&A:
- Your data model is the foundation for your solution, spend a good amount of time on ensuring it supports all the requirements across all sections and works within the limits.
- Utilize the standard object models and challenge yourself before introducing custom objects – not that you should not, but be smart.
- Double-check that licenses support the chosen standard objects.
- You will have to incorporate off-platform data, choose wisely what you bring into Salesforce and how long you retain.
- Your data operation and migration strategy should be tailored to the scenario. Proposing a generic approach of Extract, Format, Dedupe and Load will not cut it and the judges will come after you during Q&A.
4. Solution Architecture
For your solution, you are expected to utilize standard, custom, code approaches and of course 3rd parties. This requires you to have a great understanding of the limitations and capabilities of each option. But it’s not good enough to just throw something out as a solution. You need to be able to also explain each component and how it will fit into your end-to-end solution.
Drawing arrows on your System Landscape and saying “and we will integrate with System X”, will not cut it.
- For your integration architecture, you need to choose the right approach, the right pattern and the trigger. Not only address the literal requirements but also what’s written between the lines.
- Ensure data from external systems is available to meet your reporting requirements.
- Choose the right tool for the job, use an ESB for orchestration vs. an ETL for the heavy lifting.
- Consider availability and error handling beyond the ESB.
6. Development Lifecycle and Deployment Planning
Similar to the data migration section, a generic approach to this section will get you into trouble. Keep the following things in mind:
- Risks are spread throughout the scenario, practice on how to identify them and common mitigation strategies.
- Articulate how your governance framework and it functions will support not only the initial delivery but subsequent release and maintenance
- Choose the right delivery approach that is the best fit for the customer, it might not be purely black or white (agile/waterfall)
- Align your branching strategy with your org, test and release strategy.
Oh boy, this is probably the hardest topic we face during the coaching and the rest of the guide sheds some good light on it. So, I will keep it short here:
- Your diagrams not only need to be correct, but readable to the judges
- Work on your presentation and communication skills so that it is easy to follow you and you are not wasting valuable time
- Work on your resilience to stress
The very first step is to get your Application and System Architect credentials under your belt. Those will give you the necessary base for the rest of your studies.
Keep in mind that this is going to be a marathon and practice and experience are highly valuable but both take time to build up.
Now the real work starts…
1. Join the Architect Trailblazer Community
2. Tell Your Company
Inform your company about your plans and ask them for support. Your company can give you the needed support by:
a) Assigning you to projects that help build relevant skills
b) Allocate training budgets to courses surrounding the CTA review board exam, and,
c) Granting you study time.
If you don’t ask, you don’t get.
3. Tell Salesforce
Open up a case with Salesforce to make them aware that you are planning to take the exam. Make sure you do this early so that the Trailhead Team can assist you on your Journey and help you plan for the right time to take your exam.
4. Join a Trailhead CTA-601 Architect Workshop
The Trailhead CTA-601 Architect Workshop is a great opportunity to get a real feeling for the battle you have picked. Led by a CTA, you will learn about the exam in detail, pick up best practices and will also have the opportunity to work through a scenario and hear some feedback from a CTA. For the latest schedule please refer to the certification page (see Resources section).
The Trailhead CTA-601 Architect Workshop is normally where reality kicks in, and we see many candidates realize the tremendous amount of work that lays ahead.
5. Assess your GAPs
Now it is important to put together your strategy.
Go through the outline in the Exam Guide and read every objective and identify areas which will require more attention than others. Be realistic and brutally honest to yourself. Come up with questions for each of those sections. And do not leave out presentation, communication and diagramming – after all, those skills are crucial for your success.
6. Find a Study Buddy
Having some to study together is priceless and is one of the cornerstones of our FlowRepublic CTA coaching program. With your buddy, you can balance the workload of researching a particular topic, do mock scenarios, quiz their knowledge and hold each other accountable for themselves.
7. Setup a Plan
Now that you know what you don’t know, it’s time to put together a plan on how you intend to bridge those gaps.
Treat your preparation like a project, and break it down in manageable chunks that you can chew while balancing family, work and studies. A lot of students struggle to finding the time, but I will be honest – it comes down to setting priorities and making the time.
Get your hands dirty by getting assigned to projects that help bridge your gaps whenever possible.
Talk to your manager and if project experience is not an option, go and build prototypes in your Developer org. Work through the mock scenarios that are out there (see the ‘Resources’ section), and present them to your study buddy/study group. Do not go easy when judging, make the other struggle, induce stress with penetrating questions – it’s for their own good. No point in a fluffy preparation when you crack during the exam.
As you know by now, the exam is scenario-based rather than multiple-choice.
There are questions during the Q&A section of the exam. Earlier I had mentioned the questions you are asked can be specific to your solution or can be generic. Be prepared for tough 40 minutes there, the judges won’t go easy on you! But in all fairness, the judges are invested in your success and their questions are there to get you the points to pass the exam.
The questions related to your solution aim to:
- Gain a better understanding of your solution,
- Address requirements that might have missed,
- Examine if you are bluffing and don’t really know how your solution works – the judges can sense that!
You need to be able to describe your solution end-to-end and that includes Managed Packages that you have thrown into the mix to solve a requirement.
The generic questions can cover the entire spectrum of the platform, but also:
governance, project delivery, consulting skills.
For the FlowRepublic CTA coaching we use a question catalogue with hundreds of questions and below I have included a couple of those. For those who want to dig a bit deeper, join our free 30 Days 30 Questions Challenge to receive questions daily, along with a video recording.
- What are your considerations when it comes to replacing or integrating an existing core business application?
- What are attributes to measure data quality?
- A user wants to check whether an account already exists in the system, even though she may not have access to it, how can you get them a view?
- How do you make sure that your business analyst has gathered the requirement from the right person?
- What attributes of the SAML token do you need for JIT?
- Describe two scenarios where you would choose ETL or ESB and why?
- Draw the OAuth Asset Flow
- What is the definition of done and why is it important?
I could probably write a book about the exam strategy. So instead of a book here are 10 simple yet powerful commandments:
1. DO NOT CHANGE YOUR STRATEGY
I repeat do not change your strategy. During your preparation, you will have come up with a strategy on how to solve, present and defend. Changing that on the day of the exam is a recipe for failure – guaranteed.
2. Keep Cool
Managing your stress is half the battle. Remember this is a high stress environment, so be confident in your preparation (refer back to ‘Study Strategy’).
3. Read and Solve Fast
The scenario is long and the time is short. You need to be able to read fast while solving the requirements on the fly.
4. Solve for the Scenario
We see candidates often come up with requirements that are not included in the scenario. Where did these mysterious requirements come from?! Make sure you address each requirement in the scenario given to you.
5. Tell a Story
Your solution should be structured in a way that makes it easy for the judges to follow you, after all, they are busy taking notes and you don’t want to give them a hard time following your narrative.
6. Be Clear in your Communication
This applies to drawing your diagrams, presenting and answering questions. Do not use buzzwords that you can not explain – you will get caught out for it during QA.
7. Accept Mistakes, Correct Yourself and Move On
Your solution will contain mistakes – I promise you. Those mistakes you will figure out by yourself while presenting or during the QA. Now it is important to follow #2 – keep cool! Assess the impact of your mistake, and correct yourself.
8. Not Knowing is Ok
Let me tell you a secret, it’s ok for you to say “I don’t know”, or “I can’t remember”, as long as it’s not your go-to answer (don’t make a habit of falling back on this answer).
9. Be Concise
The Q&A is (only) 40 minutes – which can feel like a lifetime, but that doesn’t mean you should talk forever.
Your answers should be CC – correct and concise – leaving the judges with more time to ask questions, and in turn, get you a better score.
10. Answer the Question!
Candidates often end up answering a different question than the one the judges actually asked. This happens due to stress, or when you are not actively listening.
Avoid this by being present, and listen carefully and second by repeating and/or confirming the questions (gives you also more time to think)
On projects, we work in a team of specialists: Project Managers to govern the project, Business Analyst to make sense of the customer requirements, Release Managers to plan etc. We get input in the form of feedback from our customers. As Architects, our solution is the result of workshops, and has followed iterative analysis and research with a design that has evolved over time.
None of that is true for the Review Board. No team, only you, a one (Wo)man army. No documentation or forums, only what you have learned up to that day. Not weeks, not even days, only 3 hours to come up with a solution. There’s no feedback session with your customer, you present for 45 minutes to 3 people who will not interrupt you and barely look at you, because they are too busy taking notes.
Overall it is an artificial environment, you would never experience in the real-world, and I will be brutally honest some people are not going to become a CTA, no matter how hard they try. And you know what. That is ok too. Not everybody can become a CTA, but the fact should not prevent anybody from striving towards it. Consensus amongst everybody who has even just attempted the board is the preparation alone has improved their skill-set significantly as a Salesforce professional!