Becoming a Solutions Architect
Since September 2018, I’ve had the amazing privilege of working at Grafana Labs, a fast growing software startup company. I am filled with stories of intercontinental adventures with a team of wonderful individuals.
When I joined the company, the entire technical support team was just my boss and myself! After two years of doing technical support and helping the team grow to about seven people, I joined the newly created Professional Services team and became a Solutions Architect.
What attracts me about doing solutions architecture is that it is more project oriented than technical support. I get to build a relationship with customers over long periods of time, and I am involved with them in a deeper and more meaningful way.
It’s challenging and it pulls me far away from my comfort zone! Everyday is an expedition in the wilderness. I have to adapt and learn very fast. I’m still not sure what a Solution Architect is, tbh…
Here are my tips from the field. I’m going to share the strategies and tactics that worked for me as a new Solutions Architect in a fast growing software startup. These views and opinions are my own, but some parts come from watching my team work and from coaching by my boss and senior teammates.
I conclude this post with current challenges I face after working one year in this role, and I set myself new goals for the year going forward.
So many projects!
Sales teams and customer accounts grow way faster than support teams. This is normal, we are a growing company and we like to make money before we spend money. This means we will almost always be in a situation where there are more customers to take care of than we can physically manage.
There were 28 customer projects assigned to me last July. As our team grew from two to seven people, the average is now around 15 customers per Solutions Architect (as of December 2021). About half of those projects are really active at any given time.
I collect metrics about my Firefox sessions and tabs. Because most of my work happens on web applications, the metrics I collect about my Firefox sessions and tabs can be a good representation of the number and complexity of projects I work with on a daily basis.
Here are my data points:
- On a typical day, I open ~8-10 contexts (separate Firefox windows) and ~50 tabs.
- I may switch multiple times between those 8-10 contexts, but I don’t have metrics about the number of times I switch active context each day.
- Within each context, I have between ~6 and 80 tabs. Each tab holds on to a piece of information, a tool or a working document that I need to refer back to as I work the case.
My success strategy so far has been to take every new problem and to transform it into a carefully documented and reproducible solution.
- I’m always observing myself writing as a side-effect of working.
- Make yourself replaceable. If you are not replaceable, you are not promotable. I believe the best way to make yourself replaceable is by being organized and writing clear documentation so that you make it easy for your boss to see someone else taking over.
- I believe that chasing exclusively short-term wins leads to double work and errors of omission. There’s a balance between rapid iteration and exhaustive documentation that I’m still figuring out.
- Prioritize, sort customers by revenue.
- For smaller customers, we will do less custom work, schedule work later in the future. Sometimes we will just extend the project’s end date so that we can prioritize something else.
- For bigger projects, just make sure you make a little bit of progress every week.
- Everything I do should be connected to a customer account. Even projects related to creating new material, new documentation, and process improvements, should be tied to a customer if possible. This way, I can consume paid services hours and make sure I am working on the stuff that counts.
- Hiring (when there are open positions) is an absolute priority! If I am interviewing candidates, I must report your feedback on the same day, preferably within a few hours. We have to move fast.
Here are tactics that I learned from working in Professional Services for ~12 months.
Defensive calendar management
Value your time. Preserve your mental health.
- Block time for offline tasks, especially on weeks when the calendar is filling up.
- I need at least 30% of “deep work” in the week.
- When I have training sessions planned, I schedule a 30 or 60 minutes block of time specifically for preparation. It is especially important to be ready before delivering a training session.
- Colour code for meetings and time blocks.
- Blue: internal meetings (relatively easy to miss or move).
- Orange: customer meetings (difficult to miss or move).
- Green: offline work and time blocks (easiest to move around or cancel because nobody else is involved).
- Schedule a 1 hour “Wrap-up” block recurring at the end of every business day. This will make people think twice before scheduling a meeting when I need to organize my notes, track my time, prepare tomorrow’s meetings, do a bit of research, and disconnect from work with a clear head.
- Push back and delay.
- It’s ok to say no and to suggest a later time. Customers will often ask you to jump on a meeting on the same day. If they haven’t specified any reason, I can give them a proposal in the next 7 days and they’re usually okay with that.
- Don’t do overtime, it’s a trap. Don’t let work get in the way of mental health.
- Don’t panic if your calendar gets very full sometimes. Every meeting has a non-zero probability of being cancelled on short notice, hopefully this will give you some slack to work with.
- It’s hard to take time off because I am excited about what I do. To make sure I take a break and don’t burn out, I plan holidays in advance, sometimes 2 or 3 months ahead.
The difference between being busy and being productive is working on the right things.
- Track all tasks in a trusted productivity system. I use the Getting Things Done methodology.
- By the end of a business day, I make sure I have completed all the tasks I really need to feel confident I can start the next day prepared. I make a conscious choice of postponing every task that is not absolutely necessary to do now. There are always things I am not doing, and I make a conscious decision about what I defer to later. I end the day with a clear head.
- Have a sense of sizes. How big is a “big” customer compared to an average customer?
- Know my top customers by revenue and strategic importance.
- Know my top customers by product usage volume.
Tips for managing many contexts, and for switching between contexts often and more quickly.
- Write and organize meeting notes during meetings, not after.
- Meeting notes should be structured like a mind-map (using bullet lists and indentation), not a transcript.
- Group related things together in the notes outline. Chronology within a meeting is not that important.
- During consulting and Launch Guidance projects,
avoid accumulating follow-up tasks as much as possible.
- Defer support questions to a support ticket.
- Defer feature requests to the Customer Success Manager.
- Do research, testing and demoing on the spot.
- By the end of the meeting, write a clear summary of takeaways, follow-up tasks, and what will be discussed on the next session. This way, I can open my project notes later and get back into the context in just a few minutes.
- Use persistent browser sessions and hierarchical tabs to “store” contexts: Firefox tabs management.
Proactive project management
- Remind customers often how many hours and how much calendar time is left to complete the project. Often, they lose track or they weren’t told upfront about the project scope and limits.
New goals for the next year
After a year of being a Solutions Architect, I feel that my comfort zone has expanded a little bit. I reached some level of control over my calendar, I’m capable of doing basic project management and learned great methods to coordinate work as a team.
Now, considering the feedback and coaching I receive from my boss and senior colleagues, and the challenges that I face in the field, I have new goals to work towards!
One of those challenges is the bigger size and deeper complexity of my customers. When I did support, I was working my technical abilities and people skills. Solutions Architects need to have business know-how on top of that. My goal is to pay more attention to the pre-sales and strategic conversations: services contract negotiation, custom solutions engineering, enterprise procurement, processes, change management, and so on.
Another difficulty I am facing is that I am very structured; I worked very hard to become organized as a person. When I look at Senior Solutions Architects, I notice they cycle very quickly between methodical processing and instinct. I work in methodically and meticulously almost all the time. My goal—which is also a life goal—is to to find a balance by letting go of explored paths, judgment and insecurity, and to cultivate instinct, creativity, spontaneity, empathy and curiosity.