I tried to prepare for the board review couple of weeks before but with no guidelines or specific topics this is impossible task. I focused on reading as diverse material as I could find: Gartner slides from the last ITXpo, Business trends reports, (that source helped me with two questions), RUP and UML, System Definition Model, Storage Area Networks, Anything that even remotely looked like infrastructure I absorbed. I made myself a deck of cue cards (more than 50 of them) with key architectural models, process frameworks, management theories and similar useless stuff that might be useful.

I landed in Austin the night before and went straight to bed – next morning the preparations started. I needed to know where exactly the test centre is – so I planned the test-drive to see how long it takes. I needed to dress-up for the board, but not too much – I brought the full 3-piece suit with me (due to insane heat that morning I decided later to be ‘smart casual’, with a tie). I needed to be in my peak performance at 3:30pm when my jetlagged body will think it is 8:30am – forced sleep a night before helped greatly. I needed to be lavatory-free for the duration of the review, but still have enough liquid intake to not dehydrate my brain. I need to feed the brain at the right time (2-3 hours before the event). Each and every risk needs to be assessed and mitigated.

I made the exact timetable for the D-day: breakfast at 9am, test-drive to the test centre at 9:30, shopping in the nearby mall at 10:30 (to force the brain to relax a bit), lunch at noon (a light meal that will not put me asleep), shower at 2pm, dressing-up at 2:30, on the road to the testing centre at 3pm. Arrival to the reception of the centre at 3:15. And then… Well, I didn’t want to think what will happen then.

Andy Ruth greeted me and gave me the complete process overview. I noticed that he sounded like a memorized record – obviously he gave the same speech to hundreds and hundreds of candidates before. I was pleased that I noticed his monotony in the speech – that means I was observant enough and my brain was active. I set-up the notebook with presentation and started my intelligence gathering process: what are the names of people on the board? Where are they from? What is their profession? I gently probed Andy and got enough information to be prepared – and scared.

The board
I got two infrastructure and two solutions architects in the board. Only one was from Microsoft and three were externals. And the one from Microsoft was Lewis Curtis. The I-don’t-understand-a-word-on-his-blog Lewis Curtis! I physically felt how waves of panic and horror pulled me under… When board members started to arrive into the room, I put myself back together, greeted each one of them and then the formal introductions started. When it was my turn to introduce myself, Andy started the clock. I got 30 minutes and not a second more.

The presentation
I started with a joke or two and relaxed the tension in the room. The presentation was structured to build-up from the business overview through the requirements towards the solution explanation. The complexity of the presentation increased from slide to slide and when I was two thirds through I saw that I reached the limit of absorption-per-second of board members. Luckily I was over the peak of the presentation and when I eased towards the last part I also slowed the pace of speech. I finished the last slide three seconds before my time was out. Phew!

The precision questioning
Now each board member got 10 minutes to probe me, poke me, squeeze knowledge out of me and torture me. As they wanted to get as much in their allocated time, new questions came the same moment they heard that my answer yielded to the right direction. I knew this precision questioning technique from before and although I find it rude and very impolite I was prepared for it. I went through the same process again and again: check the body language of questioner; check the tone of the voice; analyze the words of the question; analyze the semantics of the sentence. This way I was able to detect the traps and hooking questions.

The precision answering
I knew that time is my enemy – I had just 10 minutes to satisfy each examiner. That’s only 20 questions if question takes 10 seconds and answer follows with additional 20 seconds. So my brain was in 5th gear to find the root of each answer and then I quickly barked it out. No fluff, no wrapping, no gimmicks. If I needed clarification, I asked for it – but I knew that by getting it I’m losing the precious time to answer more. I saw the dissatisfied face each time when the time was up and the next inquisitor took over. I felt like a brain on the stick – no emotions, no interpersonal skills, pure intellect that was probed under the examining spotlight.

The break
When all four board members got 10 minutes each to tear me apart, I was allowed to take 5 minutes break. I went to a toilet, then sipped some water and thought about nothing. That sounds very zen but I knew that the hardest part is yet to come so I needed to relax my overloaded brain. The board members had some debate behind the closed door and somehow I felt that the second part will be extremely frustrating.

Round two
The torture started with the same fierce tempo as before, but this time the questions probed for all the boundaries of my knowledge. More than half of the questions were outside my domain of expertise and I had to improvise, innovate and think completely outside the box. I drew some really lame diagrams on the whiteboard and with every minute I was more desperate. Being consultant most of my professional life it was hard to accept that there are so many areas I know almost nothing about. It was especially hard to leave unanswered question behind and focus on the next one while my brain still tried to solve the previous one. Focus on the next one! And the next one! And then the next one. Will this ever stop?

The closing speech
And there it was – the moment when Andy said that it is my time to say any closing remarks. I got 5 minutes – I could either use them or just pack and leave the room. Gosh, I had so many wonderful closing speeches ready but I felt too empty and conquered that none of prepared statements fit the moment. I just remembered all dissatisfied faces of board members each time Andy told them that their time is up. So I rather offered my 5 minutes back to the board: what else did you want to ask me but there was not enough time? And the questions started rolling again. Oh my gosh, what a masochist am I to ask for more?

Game over
Finally Andy interrupted the debate and sent me out. My head buzzed, my eyes hurt and I felt defeated. I packed my stuff, thanked for the time and left the room with my adrenaline dangerously high. To be honest, I don’t remember how did I come to the hotel as I was thinking about all the questions I couldn’t answer. How could I forgot about X? Why didn’t I mention Y? Why am I such a moron to babble about Z? I was intellectually exhausted, emotionally defeated and physically tired. But at least it was challenge over.

The epilogue
Later that evening I got the congratulating email from Andy: ”We are pleased to inform you that you have passed the review board interview and have achieved the certification”. Well, at that moment it didn’t really matter to me as I still felt emotionally low and depressed. But later the satisfaction and joy and pride replaced the bad taste of personal failure. I did it! They decided that I’m good enough to be a Certified Architect! Woohoo! It wasn’t easy, but just like long running a marathon it was a terrific experience once it was over. It was hard but it was great. It was challenging but worth it. I hated every moment of it yet I’d do it again any time. That doesn’t make lots of sense, does it?