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On solution architecture and lifelong learning

November 18th, 2018

I have been a solution architect for over a decade now and for several companies, though almost exclusively in APAC. Over that time one thing that has stood out to me is how poorly defined solution architect is as a job. And not just across different companies but within the same company. I have seen Solution Architects act as glorified project managers for customers or salespeople to create or evaluate proposals. Other times I’ve seen solution architects play the senior technical problem solver, working on day-to-day operations or planning. I’ve meet amazing solutions architects who come from completely non-technical backgrounds and I’ve meet techies who can’t solution themselves out of their pre-conceived boxes.

I have been a solution architect now in the same company for eight years. I have been in the same industry, telecommunications, for my entire career. Working in the same company and industry for so long has created a major issue for me if I wanted to change jobs: domain knowledge. Or, more specifically, how recruiters focus on domain knowledge or skills. It’s an effective way to filter a large pool of applicants or potential applicants but I don’t consider domain knowledge to be one of my key skills. Domain knowledge is the result of my key skill: learning.

A few years ago I would have listed technical foundation alongside learning but, while I still think a solid technical foundation is one of my key skills it’s less important than learning. Eight years ago when I started this job my area of deep domain knowledge in telecommunications was in what are known as Value Added Services or VAS. But a year in that was less important and I had to quickly become an expert in Core BSS domains: Customer Relationship Management, Ordering, Charging and Billing. This involved a lot of discussion, listening, reading product documentation and industry standards —I read close to 800 pages of 3gpp standards for Online Charging at one point. A few years later and I had to learn “Digital” —how Content Management Systems work, what Search Engine Optimization is, how online Campaign Targeting and Execution are done— and I have had to learn what Agile, DevOps, Continuous Integration/Continuous Deployment, Microservice architectures and how it enables all of that. I had to understand revenue recognition rules to handle IFRS compliance issues, security standards like PCI DSS and GDPR. And I’ve had to learn to find and evaluate hidden risks and costs associated with any and all of this to ensure that projects are managed end-to-end for risk, TCO and business benefits. Some of its technical and some of its much more “business”.

The point of this soup of terms and idea is that I knew none of that when I started this job. So how would any HR or recruiter judge me? I know the answer is that they judge me badly. I’ve been interviewed enough times and been told by enough recruiters that I don’t have the “right” experience. But they don’t want to hear about the ability to learn, and learn quickly. My most valuable skill is not something that shows up in job descriptions. We hear a lot, or at least I do, about how lifelong learning is the skill of the future. If that is so I should be well positioned, but I feel like it’s not valued, either not for someone my age? or experience? or recruiters and HR are not ready to evaluate people in the lifelong learning job market.

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