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VCDX Journey

August 31st, 2010


Some of you may be aware that I have been working hard through the VCDX journey over the past year / 18 months. I’m not usually a VMware blogger as I think that space is more than filled, so I usually concentrate on the storage side. However the VCDX is still fairly exclusive, so I wanted to share this journey with everyone. It’s been a really good time, and I have learnt a hell of a lot! It’s helped me better understand the solutions and help my company as a whole put together better VMware solutions, so it’s been hugely beneficial. I’d recommend anyone that is focused on VMware for their company to go down the VCDX route. Even if you don’t get onto the final Defense, it’s a fantastic journey and you will learn a lot.

I won’t go into too much detail about my experience of the Enterprise Admin or Design exams as these have been replaced by the VCAP ones. They are obviously pre-req’s anyway, but I’d say after going through the rest of the journey that they are essential training to get you ready anyway. I’ll probably be sitting both the VCAP exams in the next few months just to make sure my skills are kept up to date.

The Defense Application

Make sure you free your diary for at least a week of solid work. People have said be prepared to do 30-40 hours of work on this, but I think I spent closer to 70 or 80! I had a full week off work, and used both weekends too. I had a lot of work to do as I haven’t really done many fully structured deployments as expected in the Defense application before, so I had to make one up. This is definitely a lot harder as you have to visual everything, including limitations and obstacles. If you make something up, you don’t usually make up challenges for yourself. To compensate, I think I ended up making my scenario a little more complex and I had to do a lot of checking through support docs which added to my work load.

There are some guidelines on what the certification team are scoring on, make sure you fulfil each of these areas in your application. Often these get overlooked in an ordinary deployment, but you’re supposed to be an architect, so all areas need to be considered. If the customer has dismissed this, plan for what you would have done if you had the opportunity. This has probably changed the way I look at our standard deployments now, and I do try to focus on all areas, so it has an immediate benefit.

I realised when I started doing my Defense presentation that my application actually didn’t have many diagrams in it. While I don’t think the application necessarily needs them, the presentation does to allow you to help explain some of the concepts. For this reason I’d probably work in a few logical and physical layout diagrams in the application that you can use for reference in the presentation. I think this let down my Defense a little, but I was able to white board these instead as they are fully ingrained in my head! This is important too, make sure you can white board any of your design concepts!

As the old saying goes, “It’s quality not quantity that counts”! Don’t waffle, but don’t skimp on the vital detail. Explain all your decisions or be prepared to explain them to the panellists or get your application sent back for clarification. Also don’t go too far out of your comfort zone. I included a few hardware pieces in my design that I had never actually deployed before. I read up on them and did my research, but it was out of my comfort zone and it created extra work for me. Don’t convert the application into a Word doc, but I would recommend drafting your responses in Word first. This will allow you to use Word grammar and spell checker. By the end of completing my application, I had no idea how to spell datacentre, virtualise or any other word that usually has Americanisations (or Britishisations for ones that VMware have made up J ). As a Brit, this usually really bugs me – “English (United States)”, but I don’t think it made much difference in the end. The certification team are a multi-cultural team, so it’s the content that counts! But make sure it at least reads properly, and I’ve seen people commenting on people not being able to spell products or acronyms correctly, that’s really inexcusable!

The Defense Panel

So my physical journey to California to attend my Defense Panel was a mini adventure all by itself. I had loads of print-outs for studying on the plane, including my application and my main architectural design doc, along with various best practice guides and the system maximums guides (you should know these well!). However my first flight of the day got delayed, so I missed my second flight and had to stay in Frankfurt for the night. Half way through making tweaks to my presentation I realised my laptop wasn’t charging (thank god for netbook battery life!) so I closed up early and figured my international adapter was a bit dodgy. I picked up a new one in the airport and headed to SFO the next day. 11 hour flight was packed full of study, luckily I had an emergency exit seat, so plenty of room for my lever arch file. When I finally got into my hotel in San Francisco I realised that actually it was my laptop charger that had died, and even if I did manage to make the final touches to my presentation that night, I wouldn’t have enough power to give the presentation in the morning! Quick trip to RadioShack to pick up a universal netbook charger. Apparently Samsung isn’t very universal though, so I had to take this back and swap it for the more expensive notebook charger! Finally I got to finish my study and presentation tweaks. Unfortunately all the travelling hadn’t done my body clock any good so I woke up every hour on the hour all night before finally being wide awake at 3am. A little more study in the morning and then a $120 taxi ride to Palo Alto. I wasn’t willing to risk public transport as I had never taken the CalTrain before and I had no idea if it had any more risk than a taxi. In hindsight it would have been much better, but this is what happens to me when I get nervous, I worry and panic about silly little things. I ended up at Palo Alto a full hour early, so I wandered around the campus for a bit, which is very impressive! I had so much time free beforehand that even if I was nervous, I would have got bored of being nervous in no time!

The Defense Panel: Application Defending

A lot of people have been really nervous through this, and I think it’s easy to get yourself into a state by worrying. The panellists are really friendly, and my host was great at breaking the ice and making me feel comfortable. These guys are our peers, and they want to see you at your best, so they definitely want to make the experience comfortable. They do want you to pass (although they won’t help you pass) and if you were in their shoes, you’d give yourself a hard time! I can’t explain why, but I really wasn’t that nervous when I met them. I have tough customers that I meet with quite often, and for me the key is always to be friendly and crack a smile! The panellists where really good, and I really did enjoy myself. I knew my design, I had done a lot of studying, and I know I can talk, so even if I got stuck, I knew I could talk about it at least.

However, I won’t make light of the fact that the Defense is intense! I’d gone through the details of the Defense many times, so I knew I had 75 minutes for the Defense of my application. I read the details as saying I had 15 minutes for my presentation and then 60 minutes for questions, however this isn’t quite right. They recommend having a presentation that is about 5-10 minutes long, and I recommend you pack it with diagrams, even if they are at the end and you only use them for reference. I actually timed my presentation a couple of times to get it to around 15 minutes, but this was relatively pointless in the end. They will question you through-out the presentation, so however long it takes you to give this to your hotel mirror, it’ll take 3 times that long in the Defense. Don’t dwell on who you are, or why you are so great, get right to the content and explain your design. You need to be able to answer all their questioning concisely but with enough detail to make sense and satisfy them.

As I was building my presentation I noticed a couple of mistakes in my application. I made sure I knew the mistakes, and what the actual content should have been so that I could defend it should I be questioned. As it happened I did get questioned on a few bits that were missing, and I could do nothing more than say so. The answer “its best practice” or “it’s in the admin guide” isn’t a valid answer. Know why it’s best practice and why it’s in the admin guide! I fell short on a couple of the questions, and knowing that “its best practice” is not a valid answer, I had to concede and admit I didn’t know. I know I will have been marked down for this, but hopefully honesty counts for something as at least I didn’t make up something! My customers usually appreciate that in me as I will always take time to go away and discover the reason at a later date and get back to them. Not an answer you can really give to the panellists though.

Ten Minute Break

Use this wisely, get a drink, use the bathroom, relax. Check out the cool artwork around the VMware campus (if you are at one) and clear your mind. You won’t need your application anymore, so just chill. The next 2 sessions are going to put you on the spot pretty hard, so relax and breathe deeply! Don’t waste time checking your Blackberry or emailing people, just relax yourself.

The Defense Panel: Design Scenario

Obviously I can’t go into details of the actual design scenario, so I won’t. One of my challenges is that I am firstly a storage architect, secondly a virtualisation architect. This means that I look at most design challenges from the storage up. I might have spent a little too much time on the storage detail. The key here is to ask questions, lots of questions. If something doesn’t make sense, or isn’t clear, then clear it up. Make notes on the white-board, voice your ideas, think out-loud. Bonus points for schizophrenic arguing with yourself about decisions J Again, remember the areas that the application is graded on and try cover these off. Work out what the “customer” wants to achieve from this and don’t deviate too much from the path. You will not finish this exercise!!! But if you have asked enough questions, and given enough detail into what you are going to do, then you will succeed.

I really struggled on this one to be honest. Designing on the spot is hard work! It’s usually something that is undertaken over 3-4 weeks of workshops and Visio diagrams, and conference calls and so on. So trying to fit in a 30 minute design session is tough work. This was definitely my weakest session. I did ask lots of questions though, and I did quite a bit of white board notes. It’s difficult for me not to talk, so I had no problem with voicing my thoughts. But I don’t think I did very well on this session, I didn’t really come out with any sort of design, but I did flesh out some of the detail on the requirements.

The Defense Panel: Troubleshooting

I so wish that the Design and Troubleshooting sessions had been the other way round. I am an installation Engineer, and I still take support calls and do troubleshooting, so this session should have gone smoothly. However I was a bit knocked back by the design session which I didn’t do too well in. Because of this I started to doubt myself. So during my troubleshooting I did go round in circles. I identified the issue about half way through, and I knew the fix, but because I was doubting myself, I went about the fix in a very backward way. I did get there in the end, but I probably made opened more files than needed, and did half a dozen unnecessary steps. I think I did okay, and I both explained the problem and got it fixed and had 2 minutes remaining so I’m not complaining too much. But I could have / should have done this a lot quicker! It’s supposed to be the journey rather than the solution, but on this occasion, my journey was the scenic route with a few dead-ends and wrong turns!

I should clarify on this though, don’t expect to finish or resolve the issue. Just because I did (and it was an issue I have seen before), doesn’t mean you will, or even will have to. If you are on the right track and you are troubleshooting effectively, you’ll probably score more points than I did!


I dunno, I slipped up quite a bit, I did have to say “I don’t know” on a couple of occasions, and I had to make a couple of guesses on other occasions, although I was quite honest about these. Although I was relaxed and quite down-to-earth and jokey with the panellists, I don’t think I did that well overall. In the real world customers like honesty, even if you don’t know something, I’m not sure a panel that are marking you on knowledge and expertise do credit that. Maybe everyone feels that way, but the standards are pretty high so I have good reason to be worried. I’m really not sure I did enough to “wow” the panellists to make up for my underperformance in other areas. I’ll let you know in 2 weeks (give or take) what the outcome is. If I failed, I’ll hopefully enjoy a trip to Copenhagen to perform better, and I’ll have just as much fun there too! I know I did my best and I really hope that was enough, and I hope the panellists saw this. I’ve definitely enjoyed my journey here and I would recommend it to anyone who takes their VMware expertise seriously!

Big thanks to the other guys that attended the VCDX that week, there was a lot of encouragement between everyone. My best wishes to all of them! Also big thanks to all the support from people on Twitter and the other people that have blogged their VCDX experiences in the past. If you are doing thinking about doing the VCDX journey, read as many experiences as possible, as it greatly helped me to prepare.

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  1. MikeB
    | #1

    Thanks for the insight, as someone considering the VCDX4 in the future your experiences and putting them into context are very useful for me – I’m still a little daunted though :)

    Congrats on the VCDX3 as well, that really is some achievement!

  2. | #2

    Many thanks to everyone for the well wishing! Good luck to everyone who is looking forward to VCDX4! Feel free to ask any questions around the process. Always happy to help out!

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