Real-World Cloud Talk: An Interview with a Microsoft Sr. Cloud Solution Architect

Interview with Cristian Critelli

Cristian Critelli

Cristian Critelli is a Senior Cloud Solution Architect at Microsoft who sat down for a little back-and-forth with Cloud Academy CEO Stefano Bellasio, talking about the cloud networking world, the challenges and rewards of being a Solution Architect, and the role that certifications have in a busy tech marketplace.

These interviews are informal chats meant to dig into a real cloud practitioner’s insights so grab a coffee, relax, and enjoy.

Cristian, thanks for this chat with me! Let’s break the ice. What’s the biggest thing that has changed in your job compared to 10 years ago?

10 years ago I was working in the WAN optimization space with a focus on how to optimize TCP to enable fast data transfer across WAN infrastructures. This was mainly used to help companies around the world to be able to stay connected and exchange sensitive data in a fast, secure and reliable way. 

Today, I am supporting customers with their Cloud journey, their digital transformation, and at the same time, the modernization process. I am architecting solutions to meet their business and IT needs, ensuring technical viability of new projects and successful deployments. Enabling them to achieve more and be successful through the implementation of the Azure Cloud offering. 

I would say the focus has certainly shifted from on-prem to the Cloud. However, we can identify at least two common denominators in my path: helping customers be successful and a specialization in networking architectures, which are part of my daily activities and engagements. 

You spent a considerable amount of time in the networking world, how did you get into Cloud, and what has been the most unexpected finding for you?

It was March 2017 when I received a call from a recruiter asking if I was interested in joining a well-known company and expanding my knowledge to the Cloud. I was very curious and excited and decided to give it a go. 

I went through the interview process and was successful. I still remember the recruiter calling me at night to let me know they decided to hire me as my interview was, and I quote “setting interview gold standards.” In less than two months I found myself at Microsoft, working in the Azure Networking Team. 

I was very excited and immediately started to invest hours of studying to get certifications as I wanted to learn everything as quickly as possible. I always challenge myself and set high standards so I needed to prove to myself and the team that I was good enough. Days and months went by in a blink of an eye and I was enjoying the “perks of the Cloud.” 

So, having said how I got to the Cloud, I guess it’s time to talk about my most unexpected find. Now, imagine a guy who spent years studying networking, more precisely, on-prem networking, good old “real” networking. I studied hard, I still remember nights before exams when I was at the CISCO Academy, studying Layer 1 to 7 and making sense of ARP resolution, broadcasts, etc… 

One day, at the beginning of my “Cloud Journey”, after analyzing a packet capture collected on a VM in Azure, something wasn’t making sense. I was observing Layer 2 and trying to troubleshoot something that couldn’t be troubleshot… Then I asked, “Why do all of the packet captures collected on different VMs have the same MAC Address?” The answer was literally unexpected…  “Layer 2 in the Cloud doesn’t exist.” In that exact moment, months of studying flashed through my mind and I was even more confused! 

What would you do differently today knowing what you know about the Cloud? 

Many organizations are embarking on their Cloud Journey going through a process of digital transformation, and this is exactly what we are here for. As CSA (Cloud Solution Architect), we always start from the customer goals and design the best architecture to solve their problems and to enable them to achieve those goals, accelerating their business and contributing positively to their growth. 

It has been shown that this is the right path to success and I would advise any company starting doing business today, to begin in the Cloud and invest in the Cloud, not only for cost optimization but also to leverage the Cloud benefits such as operational excellence, resiliency, innovation, agility, scalability, elasticity, etc. These are all part of the Azure Well Architected Framework

I would recommend that they leverage all of the benefits the Cloud brings to accelerate their growth and at the same time, emphasize the agility to innovate and invent new solutions aligned to the business model of the company. Start slow, plan in advance, organize, and define the right foundations to host your ideas and ultimately your workloads. 

Network engineering has changed a lot, first with a big shift to Software Defined Networking and then with Cloud. What do you think is next for network engineers?

Technology has changed throughout the years, true, but technology changes every day: what we study and we implement today, especially in IT, is obsolete tomorrow. This is a good thing in my humble opinion, it means we are always progressing towards something better and this is improving the way organizations do business. And it’s not only organizations that benefit from the rate of change. Even people are positively affected by this and their lives are improved because of the tremendous fast pace with which tech goes on. 

When it comes to networking, I believe Network Engineers have been affected by the way they had to learn Software Defined Networking (SDN) tech and how the Cloud leverages SDN to provide services. There are many features and technologies that are completely different in virtual environments. At the same time though, if you think about what the SDN and ultimately the Cloud is, it is just somebody else’s computers, devices, DCs, therefore there will always be a physical layer to support these technologies. 

Example SDN Architecture

Networking at its purest is still the foundation of any virtualization and it will always be needed and always be there to enable virtual layers to run on top of it. So, long story short, what’s next? Next is to study and update our skills in order to be able to support new SDN and Cloud features but always being able to work with “real networking on-prem” as that, like I mentioned, is and will always be the foundation.

What’s something big that you’ve found that people misunderstand about networking in the cloud?  

I recently had the opportunity to mentor one of my colleagues. We were discussing the definition of SDNs and how this compares to the concept of Cloud. His tutor at the University pointed out that the two are completely different technologies but I personally disagree with that and I noticed a lot of confusion in general when it comes to comparing the two. 

I believe that the two concepts are strictly related and without leveraging one, the other can’t exist. I am going to try to simply explain what they are and how they interact with each other. 

Software Defined Networking is a network architecture designed to allow virtualized networking functionality that can be centrally managed, configured, and modified through software. It enables the creation of cloud-based networks using virtualized equivalents to physical routers, firewalls, and other networking devices used in on-premises networks. Hence, SDN is critical to creating secure virtual networks on public cloud platforms such as Azure. Through the implementation of SDN, we are capable of delivering our networking virtualized services in Azure and other clouds. Hopefully, this will be helpful to our audience.    

Alright let’s dive deep into your current role. What does a Senior Cloud Solution Architect do?  

As a Senior Cloud Solution Architect (CSA) you need to be able to draw a lot of squares on a whiteboard, lots of connecting lines, and say words such as Kubernetes, VM, resiliency a lot… Ok, jokes aside, let me try to be serious for a second. 

The role of a Senior CSA at Microsoft means many things but let’s focus on the main aspects of the role. I work in the Infrastructure space and I have the privilege of leading architecture design, resiliency reviews, and technical optimization across multiple applications for our customers, resulting in production deployment applications and increased customer business value. 

I also lead initiatives to ensure that the customer’s environment and applications are well-architected. As well, I’m responsible for creating and sustaining constructive tension and trust with our customers/partners by respectfully challenging their decisions and/or areas where they might do more, as well as encouraging them to consider alternative architectures and approaches. It is important to be the trusted advisor of a customer/partner, they need to be able to rely on you and your knowledge; we need to deserve their trust. 

For example, once I remember having a constructive conversation around the resiliency of our vWAN (Virtual Wide Area Network) service. The Head of Architecture on the customer side was not sure – was kind of skeptical – about the solution I proposed because of the architectural challenges presented by their requirements. 

I am a strong believer in pictures/labs/visual/tests being better than a million words and therefore I built a demo environment where I simulated a service disruption affecting a lab production environment. The demo was self-explicative and I was able to show and demonstrate – with actual tests and data – how resilient the proposed solution was. This was an interesting and rewarding experience, the customer enjoyed the exercise and considered it a learning experience. 

vWAN Example Configuration

Last but not least, returning to the topic of my role’s scope, I work with our customers, capture their ideas related to their business and translate those into solutions that will meet their goals, enabling them to be successful while leveraging the Azure services in the Cloud. I feel empowered to have the honor to collaborate with and enable my customers in realizing their ideas. I feel part of their Success Team, like I am actually part of their team, and seeing them develop solutions to support people and improve their quality of life is something special. I often work with the Public Health systems and when I am contributing to ideas where the ultimate goal is to help society, it makes me feel good and useful. I love what I do and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to somehow be part of a bigger picture

Who has been your mentor over the years? Would you suggest finding one to our readers in your path?

I was very fortunate to have had many great mentors during the years – I don’t remember working in a company and not having one. I believe a mentor should always be there to challenge you, to trigger curiosity, to question your decisions and to show you the right path. I, myself, am a mentor and I feel empowered by being able to share my knowledge, and support my mentees in their journey. Helping them is rewarding and fulfilling.

I think that your career evolves in the context of your current role and life circumstances. You are the one who defines what “growth” means to you and the mentor should support you throughout the path you choose. I would suggest everyone find a mentor to accelerate their growth and improve their skills leveraging on the mentor’s experiences and challenges. 

Now that we have touched briefly upon a career mentor, let’s not forget about the most important mentor we can have, which is the one you have in life. I can proudly and comfortably say that my mentor in life has been, is, and will always be my father. I hope I will someday be able to be at least half the man he is, that would be one of my greatest achievements in life. 

For our people reading this, what’s the best way to start learning Microsoft Azure? What services and how?

I would start from the basics when it comes to starting a journey – we need to make sure foundations are in place. We have lots of content on our Microsoft Learning Portal, many flavors, depending on what you are interested in: Data and AI, Application and Innovation, Infrastructure, and so on. The learning paths available there are free and welcome everybody from beginners to experts to learn and improve their knowledge.

In terms of certifications, I’d start with AZ-900 to touch base with Cloud. Of course, there are many services out there offering a lot of content, I mentioned the Microsoft one but of course how could I forget about Cloud Academy, your platform is rich in training and learning activities so I would have a look there, too.  

Tell us about your side projects: how do you keep yourself up to speed with Cloud and everything Cloud?

Outside of my working hours, which cover the majority of my day, I keep myself motivated by working out at the gym. I spend every morning before starting the day performing my strength training and cardio, which helps me to clear my mind and gives me energy for the day ahead. 

Apart from the gym, I have a personal project I am working on right now based on decentralized VPN technologies. I am using this as a learning experience as I am quite interested in security and privacy and I think this technology could help keep data safe while encrypting data in transit without having to establish a tunnel towards a single endpoint.

In dVPN the user establishes a tunnel to multiple nodes leveraging software running at the OS layer – this helps decentralize the data and add a layer of privacy. It is still early stage but it’s a good way to spend my time in a productive way.

To answer your question about how I keep myself up to date, I use many services to study and also internal training is available all year for full-time employees. Not to mention I am a bit obsessed with certifications so I usually study to prepare for exams and that’s a good investment in my career and knowledge. 

As a tech professional, what type of balance is needed between hard and soft skills?

In my role, soft skills are very important. I often have conversations with CxO level stakeholders and need to use all of my soft skills portfolio in order to translate their ideas into solutions without using tech buzzwords. I need to be able to drive the conversation in a common direction supporting their objectives, starting from what they want and building a success plan.

As CSA, we need to be able to invest in our soft skills as much as our tech skills. After all, being a trusted advisor is not just about being capable of building a solution with the customer’s goals in mind, but also being able to have difficult conversations and be challenged in a productive and constructive way. I personally leverage internal training in regards to improving my soft skills and I find those very important for the role I am in. I think there is an actual balance between tech and soft skills and it has to be maintained, the two can’t be without each other in order to be successful. 

Certifications for tech professionals – yes or no and why? 

Certifications? Of course, obviously, a big YES! Let me get this straight, they are not the only variable you need to be successful in your role, but they are a big important part of your skillset, they help improve your knowledge, help in supporting many conversations with customers, help in being successful, in learning something you’re passionate about, they are very good and they are a way for the industry to recognize you as an expert in what you do.

I have achieved many certifications and I do not regret one single minute spent studying to pass the exams. Having said that, I personally believe that they are great but, while they offer a very good foundation of the technology, they don’t actually give you the perfect expertise. 

In order to achieve a better understanding of the technology, I would suggest hands-on labs, real experience, case studies. That’s what is important, being able to add the hands-on labs to the study material for the certification, will make you even more successful and you will master the tech. So yes, a big yes to certifications, add practical labs to the experience and you have a perfect recipe for mastering the tech.

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