How did you start in SQL Server?
While I was still at school, I worked for a computer company that developed software using SQL Server. I didn’t know what it was then but just the fact it had to run on Windows NT made me curious about it; a curiousness that continued until I started working as a DBA in a city law firm a few years later.
I mentioned the term “MCA” in my opening statement which of course stands for Microsoft Certified Architect. For the sake of those who may not know what that is, how would you describe the accolade?
The Microsoft Certified Architect for SQL Server is Microsoft’s highest level of certification; it’s higher than the Microsoft Certified Master and in fact the MCM is a pre-requisite for starting the MCA program.
The MCA is for people who lead engagements where they scope, define, design and implement solutions, in my case based around SQL Server. It’s not a technical certification; it’s about demonstrating how you use repeatable processes to ensure a successful outcome, which hopefully is a durable and robust technology solution.
The certification has covers several core objectives that you have to demonstrate which summarised are gathering and prioritising requirements, designing a solution to meet those requirements, delivering, operating and maintain the solution, leadership and communication. How you demonstrate those skills during the five hour Board interview is where your experience of leading SQL Server projects comes in as there’s no defined training material or resources for this certification.
I’ve known for some time through a mutual friend that one of your ambitions was to become an MCA. What was the main driver for you behind this?
I’d always recognised that just having technical skills would never be enough to give me the influence, or the progression, I wanted in my career. The people I saw succeeding were those who had both a technical ability and the capability to communicate their ideas, recommendations and guidance with the organisation’s decision makers and business members.
When I moved from being a database administrator to being a pre-sales solution architect about six years ago, I experienced situations where just having technical knowledge wasn’t enough, and loved it. If a sales director felt my proposed solution was too complicated, I had no opportunity to discuss its technical merits, instead I had to understand what was most important to that person and how my solution would benefit whatever that was.
Consequently, as I’ve progressed through my database consultancy career, the same desires were there. I could have remained a very highly skilled technical person, or progressed into my natural comfort zone of the listener, the influencer, the designer, and ultimately the solution and project’s leader.
There are obviously a lot of prerequisites before you can even attempt the MCA. Could you outline the process that someone would need to go through in order to qualify for the program?
Firstly, you need to be a Microsoft Certified Master, each of Microsoft’s strategic product lines, SQL Server, Active Directory, Exchange and SharePoint, have their own MCM and follow-on MCA, so it’s not just about SQL Server.
At that point, preparing for your MCA Board involves creating a portfolio that demonstrates how you met the requirements of the MCA in a recent project; mine was just over 50 pages and took just over 9 months to prepare. However, it’s a great learning experience because by documenting how you work you realise how much structure there already is in how you work. You may have been using a certain type of design methodology for years and never realised it had a name, let alone the reason you’ve been using it for all this time is because when you compare it to another you suddenly realise its strengths.
Once you submit your portfolio, you then attend a five hour Board that consists of four existing MCAs who you present to and who then ask you questions about both your portfolio and a case study you get given during the Board and have to prepare a solution for.
Responding to that case study is a great example of where the MCA certification is looking for experience rather than something you read for the first time in a book the night before. The Board members are equally interested in why you did something the way you did and why you didn’t do it another way, just as much as what it was you actually did. That ultimately shows adaptability and confidence in how you work.
Let’s assume I am qualified to take the next step and want to become an MCA. What’s the best single piece of advice you can give me?
The biggest piece of advice is to have the self-confidence to know that you could explain, justify, and discuss why you did anything in any of your previous projects, and even when someone says they disagree with you, have the confidence to accept their point of view, but not let it make you question your abilities.
It sounds like the MCA process has been a road of personal discovery for you. What would you say are the personal benefits of achieving this goal? Is it simply the elite nature of the accolade?
It’s the confidence that comes from the validation of your skills. Knowing that you’ve stood in front of four other experienced SQL Server architects who overall agreed with your approach, methods and processes. That confidence gives you that extra edge when you’re in a future situation no one’s familiar with, as even if you don’t know where you’re going, you know how to get there. It was also a good way for me to check that how I work is what other people do, or would do, in the same situations.
Now, we’ve covered the personal benefits there is possibly an even larger obstacle than the interview itself – building a business case to be able to participate! What tips would you give to someone who was trying to convince their employer that they should be allowed to pursue this venture?
Again, it’s about giving the business you work for the confidence to put someone in charge of a solution, knowing that they’ve had their approach, communication style, leadership and design skills validated by peers. If you work with a technology that’s covered by one of the MCA certifications, then there’s no better way of providing potential internal or external customers with a product aligned architect certification. It’s also a great way for employers to encourage employees to think more theoretically about the way they work, which leads to a deeper understanding of why they work the way they do, why they don’t work another way, or what the influences might be on how they work. I also think Microsoft-centric businesses like the pride having an MCA certificated employee brings.
I would imagine that the role you hold at Coeo has really helped with the experience needed to gain this accreditation. Would you say that some job roles lend itself to the program more readily than others?
It’s true, my role at Coeo aligns perfectly to the requirements of the MCA, and that really helped me because I could use the experiences of any of my recent projects to remind me how I would do something. I can imagine you’d struggle to meet the MCA’s requirements if you were in a purely technical role and didn’t get to interact with people who had requirements and needed solutions delivered by you. You need to be in a role where you randomly meet with business stakeholders, operational team members, project managers, test managers, as well as the application and database teams, and deliver solution documentation, operational run books, and strategic roadmaps, in addition to getting the technical solution deployed to production. I’m not sure these days what the title for the kind of role that exposes you to that sort of interaction, but you can begin to get a feel for what the job description would include.
So, where does Gavin Payne go from here? What’s the next step?
There are three answers to that question. For me personally, it’s time to step back and enjoy the things I enjoy again, not having to think I should be revising or preparing in my spare time. Secondly, there’s the SQL Server 2012 upgrades for the MCSM and then the MCA due at some point, and then finally there’s a whole new world of IT architect achievements to be looked at such as TOGAF and CITA-P certification.
Thanks for your time Gavin, all the best for the New Year.
Following this post from a syndicated source and want to read other interviews in the series? The anchor post for this series can be found here.