Five-year mission: Overcoming challenges in pursuit of CITA-P certification
This feature first appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Fifteen thousand feet and climbing, an elbow in my ribs, late with a flight delay and yet only one word captures my feeling at this moment: elation. As the verdant pines and silvery waters of the Seattle suburbs dwindle behind the climbing aircraft, the spectacular view from my window fails to capture my attention. I have just finished some of the most difficult hours of my professional life.
Six months. Eleven thousand words. Five board members. Two-and-a-half hours. One presentation and one candidate, and I have completed the final review board for the Certified Information Technology Architect certification at the Professional level (CITA-P), a credential offered by the International Association of Software Architects (http://www.iasaglobal.org/). In many ways, it’s the end of a long journey, a destination in itself that, unlike any of the dozens of other certifications I have held in my career, has a beginning that lies years before the ultimate achievement.
Five years ago
The Certified IT Architect program is born of the influence of many different organizations that have joined the International Association of Software Architects (IASA), both as corporate members and through the participation of individual architects. As an organization, IASA incorporates contributed education content from many different certified member architects. The focus on peer-validated training and certification carries through to exams — including high-end credentials. Even IASA’s board of education is formed as a volunteer effort with a member board of certified architects responsible for designing the evolution of the curriculum and policies.
Yet some programs carry stronger influences from some companies and individuals than others, and in the case of the Professional level credential, the legacy of the Microsoft Certified Architect, migrated to IASA from Microsoft several years ago, is keenly felt. Many of the elements of the current professional program owe their heritage to Microsoft’s former role-based certification, from the review board format and duration, through some elements of the way the certification is constructed using a two-part written-plus-board format.
More than five years ago, I was one of the last candidates in Microsoft’s architect program, and one of the first to test drive an electronic review board format. Sadly, I was unable to complete the program prior to Microsoft’s transition in certification focus. The drive to build skills and identify as a peer-validated and recognized architect — at the same level as “legends” of the Microsoft IT community — was a strong draw, left unfulfilled by a partially completed program. After months of preparation, I knew that when the new program was completed, at some point, I wanted to be recognized as a professional architect, ready to work with customers on all manner of complicated design and delivery challenges!
Value of IASA and CITA
The IASA receipt of Microsoft’s program has driven years of evolution in the interim, strengthening the program with a diversity of viewpoints, and expanding the program focus on the intersection of business and technology strategy, with a stronger dissociation from any particular vendor’s technology viewpoint. In many ways, this agnostic viewpoint is the very strength of the credential, and of IASA more generally: no single technology, or framework, or product, is the basis of the training and certification program.
While many training and certification programs exist for architects, the Certified IT Architect program may be unique in the level of agnosticism (and therefore breadth) that it demands from potential candidates. Where the Open Group’s programs are targeted at The Open Group Architecture Framework (TOGAF), IASA’s program sees TOGAF as a tool, one of several potential approaches which could be used to organize the process through which businesses achieve value in projects. In a similar way, programs from IBM, HP, SOA School, and others focus on Rational, HP Helion, service-oriented architectures, or similar matters, each with their own focus or background point of view.
As candidates climb the training and certification tree set out by IASA, the breadth and experience the candidate is expected to have continues to expand. By the Professional level, a candidate should have deep capability across five core domains of architectural knowledge (Design, Human Dynamics, Quality Attributes, IT Environment, and Business Technology Strategy), as well as an area of specialization from one of five available. Each of the core domains is composed of sub-domains of knowledge, and a candidate is expected to demonstrate not just domain exposure, but a consistent level of experience in applying and utilizing the practices of the domain.
At a Foundational level, candidates are asked to demonstrate a basic knowledge of the organization of architecture, and how it may be applied. An Associate level architect is asked to show a slightly deeper understanding of core disciplines, as well as demonstrate a basic capability to apply this knowledge to complete a design challenge. At the Specialist and Professional level, candidates are expected to show the breadth and depth that drive architecture capability in more complex scenarios.
The CITA-P Process
Preparing for my CITA Professional credential was no small undertaking, starting with the relatively steep tuition fee, comparable to that of attending some conferences or major technical courses, and which becomes less refundable as one gets deeper into the program. Because my employers at Avanade sponsored my attendance of the program, I worked together with management to find training time, as well as set some professional goals around how we would complete the program, and some interim objectives along the way, including first completing the Foundational level CITA program.
With more than 20 certifications earned over the course of my career to date, my experience is that each architectural program uses a different language to classify and discuss the field of architecture. Open Group’s TOGAF, for example, has its own formal taxonomy, as does elements of operations identified in the IT Infrastructure Library, the quality attributes specified in ISO/IEC 25010:2011, and the list goes on. IASA’s approach has been to include many of these other systems’ information in a sort of ontology that classifies different disciplines of architecture into separate domains which then relate to each other through specific skills and practices.
One of my first steps was to work through the various systems that I use day to day (as well as some of those which I am acquainted with, but may be used by my customers or my colleagues) and to mentally structure them into the format and taxonomy which IASA uses. Even experienced architects may find this to be a complex task, as sometimes there can be major differences in thinking that are required. As an example from my own experience, the idea of “security,” which is its own area of skill and capability, a functional system sometimes by itself, now also becomes a measurable quality attribute.
The other challenge I found from the program is that the organization demanded by a simple written multiple-choice exam at the Foundational level can be quickly and easily achieved based on prior experience. Taking the time to organize a career’s worth of experiences, customers, challenges, triumphs, and activities — to think and write about them in the context of IASA’s architecture taxonomy — took significantly more mental agility than I expected. The examination procedure for the Professional level demands this practice, as the board review requires two parts: a written self-identification as an architect covering each of the 50 or so sub-domains in the architecture “core,” as well as detailed discussion of a few of the architect candidate’s formative experiences.
This process of exploring through brief responses across all of the sub-domains expanded from a few weeks to a month. From a month to a few months. Nearly three months after I started the process, I was finally satisfied with the exploration of experiences from the point of view of the domains and sub-domains of architectural experience. One of the final components to be developed and submitted is a presentation of the candidate — by the candidate. Next to the thousands of words of career documentation, the task seems deceptively simple: Be ready to present 30 minutes on yourself and your experience, while exploring subject matter that demonstrates you are operating as a professional architect.
In practice, the development of the material can be a daunting challenge of its own. Aside from presentation and verbal communication being their own scored domains, the way that the candidate presentation is structured can lead to questions all by itself. Diagrams need to be correct in key details (a common miscue being things like an arrow pointing the wrong direction), and ultimately the presentation should help the board members prepare for the core of the review by dispensing with preliminaries and directing their attention to key areas of the background and experience of the candidate. In 30 minutes. With a beginning, middle and end. For a one-shot run at the fellow-architect board members. No pressure.
The review board
The written self-examination process provides formalized input that lends structure to the bounds and depth of a candidate for the review board itself. Ultimately, one of the things that sets the CITA-P credential apart is that every candidate who earns the CITA-P will have been recognized by another senior architect who has already earned the CITA-P credential from their certified peers, demonstrating the target knowledge and experience. My review board would take place in Seattle, Wash., as Microsoft’s annual TechReady conference was under way there.
The review board typically is composed of five members, including four active reviewers and a moderator who monitors the structure of the process, and provides input to the candidate to enable them to prepare and reset when completing the board process. Over two-and-a-half hours, the candidate will start with the 30 minute presentation that they submitted — and take as near to exactly 30 minutes as they reasonably can. The remainder of the time, the review board members have the opportunity to illustrate and question the candidate’s experience.
While the intent of the questions is positive — help the candidate provide evidence that they are indeed a Certified IT Architect at the Professional level — the candidate experience is deeply unsettling. My own review board was something of a review by All-Stars, including some founding members of the CITA educational process, as well as senior architects from Boeing, Microsoft and elsewhere. One of my own keys was to realize from the outset there would be a great deal I could not answer. Therefore, I would answer what I could and continue. (In actual fact, I am not sure that I did so well at this, as I tried to address too much, I think, and sometimes was the weaker for it.)
In my economy airline seat, streaking into the clouds above the suburbs of Seattle, pass or fail, I could honestly say that there was so much that I learned in the process. Not really in a last weekend of cram studying — which may have done more harm than good — but in the introspection required to complete the certification process, and in the community of contacts that I made along the way, through IASA’s active LinkedIn and local chapter communities.
A candidate can expect to hear back from the IASA review board within a week or so under most circumstances, and my feedback arrived within days:
Congratulations! Your certification review board has awarded you with the IASA Certified IT Architect Professional certification.
It’s difficult to describe the feelings of the moment that I read those first few lines of my e-mail. Joy. Maybe a little shock (I did not feel so great about my performance leaving the review board, if we are being honest). One of the other valuable elements from the process is the feedback — five senior architects providing a dispassionate view of where you as a candidate can continue to learn and grow as a professional.
My own feedback was rather lengthy, and clearly the focus of the business that I work in — consulting — has had its impact, with opportunities to continue to grow as an architect. Yet after taking the better part of five years preparing to earn my CITA-P, I have a career’s worth of opportunity to overcome my limitations and address the feedback! All things considered, adding CITA-P to my resume has been a red-letter achievement in my career — a headline, years in the making, requiring hard work and mental gymnastics to look at what I thought I knew in different ways.