How to become a cloud architecture generalist

Experience may be the best teacher, but here are a few good ways to speed up the process.

How to become a cloud architecture generalist
Dmitry Ratushny (CC0)

Based on the feedback here and from social media, this post about being a cloud architectural generalist, not a specialist hit a few nerves. For a long time I’ve said that cloud architects need to be aware of all technology solutions, not just cloud-based ones. They need a mix of traditional enterprise systems, networking, security, governance, and now cloud-based solutions. They need to understand how all the pieces fit together in an optimized way that’s best for the business.

Many readers questioned how they could gain a good understanding of “all the pieces.” Here’s some quick advice and a few approaches to try.

As a rule of thumb, there are two kinds of generalist architects. 

The first group came up through the ranks and have held many titles, such as network engineer, security specialist, database administrator, etc. They have a wide variety of experiences and a wide variety of knowledge about a lot of components that cloud architects deal with on a regular basis. They have the hard-earned cloud generalist knowledge to succeed as a cloud architect. 

People in the second group are seeking their first cloud job and aspire to be cloud architects. They typically want to reach their goals in a few years, not decades. Can they fast-track the range of skills needed to become outstanding cloud architects who understand almost all aspects of the relevant technologies? 

It’s possible, but it’s a much more difficult path. Here are a few shortcuts: 

Step out of your comfort zone and learn new things. Early in my career, I avoided anything to do with security. I had a quick wake-up call that good security is systemic to everything: data, applications, compute, artificial intelligence (AI), networking, and so on. Thereafter, I focused on understanding security, its concepts, and its technology to become a better overall architect and now a cloud architect. This was not done during work hours, and I was not paid to gain this knowledge (or the knowledge about many other new technologies over the years). If you are not a driven self-starter, the longer career path might be a better fit.

You’ll need to learn about areas where you have little or no experience, whether AI, databases, networking, or application development. With cloud, add a general understanding of native cloud services. For instance, can you provide a comparison report or presentation as to how AWS and Microsoft provide cloud storage? What about compute? What about AI? It’s about understanding the basics of a lot of things. 

Understand the patterns that drive architectural success and be innovative. Cloud architecture, or IT architecture in general, is about the optimal configuration of technology to drive business success. The key word is “optimal.”

Most people approach cloud architecture by reusing previous architecture patterns, typically with homogenous cloud-brand solutions. I always get nervous when an architecture team promotes a single public cloud solution. The chances of this solution being optimized are nil. In other words, “it works”; however, it won’t work as well as it could. 

This happens when architects only understand a single cloud provider or a single technology set. For example, if you know everything there is to know about Apple iPhones, you will be great at your job until half the staff switch to Androids. The usual IT response is to ban Androids, even though people might be able to do twice as much with an Android versus an iPhone. If you don’t know the particulars of Androids, you have no ability to make good recommendations to the company regarding their use. It’s a simplistic example, but it makes the point: You can’t figure out what you don’t know.

Good generalists need to cast a wider net to define the best-optimized technologies and configurations for the desired business solution. This means understanding the capabilities of all cloud services and the trade-offs of deploying a heterogeneous cloud solution. This usually leads to multicloud.

Most important, leverage OPK (other people’s knowledge). There are courses and books out there that focus on generalized knowledge to find the most optimized architecture for cloud computing. You could start with one or all of my cloud architecture courses on LinkedIn Learning, both core concepts and advanced. I also recommend a book by Michael Kavis, Architecting the Cloud.

Colleges and universities offer courses on basic and advanced cloud architecture, but again, watch out for ones that only focus on a single cloud. They should present a number of technologies, brands, and solution patterns. It’s good to understand how the cloud works in general, but that is just a fraction of what you should know to be a great cloud architect. 

Becoming a generalist is a lot of work, but this old adage can still hold true: It’s fun to learn new things!

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