Crucial Skills for Microsoft Azure Cloud: Interview with a Microsoft cloud architect

Azure is an open platform – it isn’t just a cloud platform for Microsoft technologies like Windows or .NET.

I put some questions to a top Microsoft Azure Cloud Solutions Architect because it is hard to know where to start with a platform as big as Microsoft Azure. 

I met Michael Collier through a presentation at the Microsoft Reactor Space in San Francisco, California. He works for Microsoft and is unbelievably enthusiastic about their cloud products and services. He is extremely accomplished with Microsoft Azure, and as Cloud Academy grows their Azure learning paths and educational offerings, I wanted to view the Azure experience from a Microsoft Azure Cloud Solutions Architect’s point of view.

Michael conveys Azure’s fantastic potential and dives into some practical examples and advice.

That is what we have below. His opinions are strong and his admiration for Microsoft Azure come through.

Michael, you are a Cloud Solutions Architect at Microsoft. You are also an Azure MVP. Could you explain what that is?

When I joined Microsoft as a Cloud Solution Architect (CSA) in January 2015, I gave up my status as a Microsoft MVP.

Microsoft employees are not eligible to receive the MVP award. The Microsoft MVP award is for exceptional technical community leaders that contribute product feedback, advocate various Microsoft products and/or contribute to the open source community.

As a Cloud Solution Architect, my job is to help a select group of Azure customers achieve more with Azure. CSA’s provide deep architectural advice to help customers determine the best approach to utilize the many services available within the Azure platform. This can include help with basic Architecture Design Sessions, conducting proof-of-concept projects, providing education on how to use specific features, serving as a liaison with Azure product teams (as necessary), etc.

I work closely with a limited number of Azure customers in order to get to know them – their business and technical goals and challenges – in order to help them be as successful as possible with their Azure projects.

Microsoft Azure is growing rapidly right now. What features do you see attracting new users?

There are many areas of Azure that are especially exciting right now. Azure is an open platform – it isn’t just a cloud platform for Microsoft technologies like Windows or .NET.

Technologies that people may not initially think to be supported like Linux, Java, and Docker are all very well supported within the Azure platform. The breadth of technologies available in Azure should serve as an attraction for those that haven’t looked at the platform in a while. Plus, there are many areas that are especially “hot” right now that I think people will find exciting.

The whole ‘big data’ and IoT space is getting a lot of attention with services such as Data Lake, HDInsight, the new IoT Suite, Azure Machine Learning, Stream Analytics, Event Hubs, etc.  Depending on what you want to accomplish, there are services available to meet those goals. It can be fun to put the right pieces together.

Another exciting area is microservices. Azure App Service can play a role in this area – there is a wealth of features there; much more than I think many people realize.

Azure App Service is a power-packed offering. And then we have the newest player in the space, with Azure Service Fabric, which enables you to build and operate highly scalable, highly available, distributed applications. Service Fabric is the same technology that powers some of Microsoft’s and Azure’s own high-scale services such as Azure SQL Database, DocumentDB, Intune, and Skype for Business.

Last, but certainly not least, is containerization. Microservices and containerization certainly are related. The Azure platform enables you to run a myriad of popular platforms such as Docker, Kubernetes, Mesosphere DCOS, and Pivotal Cloud Foundry. With the new Azure Container Service, you can deploy and manage containers using the familiar tools you already know and love.

There is certainly a lot happening in Azure today. It is without a doubt a very fast moving platform! While it can be a bit challenging to keep up, it is also a lot of fun.

microsoft Azure

You co-authored a book on Microsoft Azure, Fundamentals of Azure with Robin Shahan. Could you share which tools you use in continuously improving your Azure skills besides your own book? 

I use many different resources to stay current in Azure. Azure is a fast moving platform – there is always something new and exciting to learn! A few of my personal favorites include:

  • The documentation and learning paths at https://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/documentation/ often help, as I can walk through various scenarios applicable to what I want to learn.
  • The Azure blog at https://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/blog/ and service update page at https://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/updates/ are often a good first stop to see what is new with the platform.
  • Training sites such as Microsoft Virtual Academy and CloudAcademy, can also be extremely helpful in diving deep into specific topics.
  • I attend a lot of regional technology conferences such as CodeMash, StirTrek, and CloudDevelop (which I help to run). I find the community led conferences extremely valuable because you can get “real world” users to talk about what they did and how they did it – the good and the bad. It’s not a lot of marketing hype.

You mention a few distance learning sites such as Microsoft Virtual Academy and CloudAcademy. Do you see the flexibility as and focus as compliments to books like yours, and if so why?

I view online learning and book based learning as complimentary functions. Typically, online training courses can update faster than printed media. Going by my own experiences in writing a book on Azure, the process can take several months before the book is published. Once that book is in print, it is obviously pretty hard to update. Online learning has an advantage in the speed at which the content can be updated. The public cloud moves at an incredibly fast pace, and being able to have relatively current content can certainly be helpful. On the other hand, there is something about having a book to read, jot notes in, and quickly reference later that is appealing to many people, including myself. I value what books, online courses, and the broader technical community can all bring to the table.

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Some people argue that certifications are critical for job seekers. What is your view on this?

My personal opinion is that certifications are helpful, but not critical. Allow me to explain that rationale. If the job seeker is relatively new to the field (i.e. fresh out of college, changing careers, etc.), then without a doubt seek certifications. They can help you learn the technologies and provide some evidence that you know a bit about what you’re talking about. On the other hand, for those individuals who have a good amount of experience already with the technologies, I don’t see the certifications as being critical. They’re something that is nice to have, though.

Where do you see the entry points for people wanting to work in the Azure ecosystem?

That’s an interesting questions. My answer from a few years ago would probably be different than what I say today. Today, I view the cloud – regardless of platform – as the platform for new applications. It’s just the way things are done.  I would strive to understand that cloud computing is really distributed computing, and there are a slew of challenges (latency, high availability, consistency, performance, etc.) that come along for the ride. Additionally, it’s a DevOps world today. Rarely are developers only writing code, and then tossing it over a wall for somebody else to deploy to some unknown environment. It’s much more of a mixed bag today.

Experiment with the products. Some of the easiest services to get started within Azure are Azure App Service and Azure Virtual Machines. If you want to host a web app, deploy an Azure Web App with Azure App Service. Or, if you want to have full control, go with an Azure VM – either Windows or Linux. If you don’t have an Azure subscription yet, you can get a free Azure account with $200 in credit.

Do you see training as useful for Microsoft Azure users? 

Training is certainly useful for Microsoft Azure users!

As we’ve mentioned previously, the services in the Azure platform move fast. There is always something to learn.

(Cloud Academy offers a growing selection of Azure courses)

Could you point out some areas you think Microsoft Azure beats the competition? 

In my opinion, I think Microsoft Azure really excels at providing an enterprise-class Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) model, and also at providing technologies to enable a hybrid cloud. 

On the PaaS side, features such as Azure App Service and Cloud Services enable developers to deliver production services incredibly fast, without the need to worry about building the supporting infrastructure.

Microsoft’s leadership in this space is recognized for the third year in a row by Gartner.

Additionally, on the hybrid topic, what Microsoft is doing with Azure and Azure Stack is really exciting. With Azure Stack, you can get the power of the public cloud, and still maintain control within your own data center. Having one API and approach with Azure Resource Manager, for both on-premises with Azure Stack and the public cloud with Azure, is really exciting. Historically, Microsoft has done very well in the on-premises enterprise space. Not everything can, or should, move to the public cloud. Being able to have a cohesive story and approach for on-premises and cloud, is something I don’t think anyone else can fully realize.

If you could go back in time and offer some advice to a younger you about learning and careers, what would that be?

Oh wow . . . that’s a good question. There are a few things I would tell myself:

  • Have a good mentor. A mentor can be extremely helpful in guiding you in the right direction, helping you to focus on the right things, and shorten the path to learning. A mentor is a truly invaluable resource.
  • Don’t be afraid to fail. Failure is how we learn. It is OK to try something. Try it. Learn it.
  • Consume it all. Try something new. Try something outside of the technology stack your most comfortable with using. If Windows and .NET is the most comfortable platform, try some PHP and/or some Linux. It’s OK. Broaden your experiences.

Michael Collier is a Cloud Solution Architect at Microsoft, where he engages deeply with select accounts to help them best utilize Azure’s features. Michael is also a former five-time Azure MVP. He has over 13 years of experience with various consulting and technology firms where he was instrumental in leading and developing solutions for a wide range of clients. He has a vast amount of experience in helping companies determine the best strategy for adopting cloud computing, and providing the insight and hands-on experience to ensure they are successful. Michael is also a respected technology community leader, and is often found sharing his Microsoft Azure insights and experiences at regional and national conferences. 

Cloud Academy offers learning paths for Microsoft Azure and other cloud technologies. We offer courses, quizzes, hands-on labs, and community that enrich minds and open career doors. We have a free 7-day trial subscription that affords users our experience so they may judge the value for themselves. 

Written by

Paul loves narrative. He enjoys the satisfaction of telling simple, compelling stories about complex topics. He has worked for McGraw-Hill Education, Springer Business and Media, and other STM organization. He has enjoyed navigating the exciting changes in the computer, technical and educational publishing industry during periods of great disruption. It is Paul’s strong belief that solving a problem is only part of the story.

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