VMware Certified Design Expert (VCDX) Journey

bestSome of my normal readers will have noticed that I have been missing from the blog of late.  My family has been noticing me missing in life for the last six months.  This is all due to my goal to become a VMware certified design expert.  It’s a certification created by VMware to identify individuals who are IT architects.  It’s a design focused certification instead of a technical one.   It requires that you create a datacenter or multi-datacenter design and submit it.  Once the submission is accepted you have a opportunity to defend it before a group of current VCDX’s for a chance at becoming a VCDX.   On Thursday exactly one day after defending my design I learned that I passed the defence.  I am now VCDX #143.  You can read about the VCDX program here.  The number gives you an idea of how few people hold the certification.  You can see the full list here.   I would like to share some things about my journey in order to help and encourage others to join me.  If you don’t want to read my story skip to the bottom I have some bullet point tips to help you.

 

A year ago I had an experience that had a profound effect on my career path.  My ememployer kindly sent me to VMworld.  At the time I was the primary VMware systems administrator as well as being the lead for all systems administration.  As I attended the conference my eye were opened to all the future possibilities.  It was the year of automation and cloud computing 2012.  During the sessions I was able to interact with a lot of the virtualization personalities and the attendees.  I found a group of kindred spirits and an excitement and passion for IT that I had lost in the last few years.  I came home excited my parents game me a ride home from the airport and mention multiple times how excited I was..  For those who know me excited is not a term normally associated with me.  At this point I was a VMware Certified Professional (VCP) 5 that my employer had encourage me to obtain.   I came back with the desire to learn more about VMware products.

I have always learned more while on a project. I have to have a deadline or life will get in the way. So I set a goal along with my employers support (they were awesome) that I would become a VMware Certified Advanced professional (VCAP) by the next VMworld. Turns out the goal was way to far out.. and I did nothing for a long time. A few months before VMworld 2013 I really started hitting the VCAP-DCA (DCA Data Center Administration) content. I was determined to install and play with every VMware features which as it turns out is a great way to prepare for this exam. I had also been working with my employer to install and setup vCloud director in order to become a service provider of IaaS. This allowed me to get a  VCP-Cloud certification. When it was posted that exams would be 75% off at VMworld I now had a concrete goal to achieve. I took both the VCAP-DCA and the IaaS test during the general sessions at VMworld 2013.. I managed to pass both. Now realizing that certifications provide the solid ground to force me to learn I looked at the certification track for my next learning path. VCAP-DCD (Data Center Design) seemed like the most logical next step. After VMworld they offered a coupon for 50% off certifications if done within two months. I had my goal and bought a test. I read and studied a lot for this test. I have done a lot of architecting but in education we didn’t always use the same terms. I found the VCAP-DCD book from VMware press the greatest help.  The night before the test I came down with a 103 fever.. but unwilling to waste my money and Pearson’s inflexible reschedule policy in my way I took the test. It went by quickly and I was faced with a score of 297. Passing is a 300. So exactly two weeks later without a fever I passed the test. Now I was faced with the VCDX-DV certification.  I bloged about my experiences with both exams in other posts.

 

VCDX-DCV the Journey

I started on my design in Dec 2013. This was after securing this goal with my wife, family and employer. Through this process my employer has been very supportive which is critical. If you are an employer wondering if your employee with benefit from this certification, the answer is a simple yes. It’s cheaper than a week of training at $1200 and trust me I learned more about vSphere and architecture during the design than I have in the last three years combined.

The design
I started with a fictional design.. based in VSAN. I was going for the wow factor. I spend most of the month playing with VSAN and reading every word about VSAN. In January as I struggled with the fictional design around business requirements I gave it up. I went with a real world design. If you have not read it somewhere else read it here… don’t do 100% fictional. Do something you know. VCDX is not about the wow factor it’s about meeting a customers requirements and constrains in your design. It’s not about the perfect design. It’s about meeting the customers needs. You may have to add some portion of fiction to your design to meet the VCDX requirements (included in the blueprint – read it over and over it’s the greatest clue to what they want)
I did have to add some fictional elements in order to show mastery of all the elements of design but I kept them limited. Remember to include business requirements: SLA’s, RTO, RPO and define them in detail. Once I had an idea around my design, I needed to figure out the format. I again struggled with the format to use. My day to day job did not use anything as formal as was requested by the design submission document. I used several publicly available documents and started to pattern a document but I still struggled to find the correct format.

Solutions Enablement toolkit

I read in multiple places that a lot of the people who submitted used the solutions enablement toolkit from VMware as a template. This tookit is only available to partners. This posed a problem. I worked for a partner on a enterprise licensing agreement but they did not have the required partner level to access the kit. In order to get the partner level I had to pass a whole bunch of pre-sales and post sales certifications. So after two days of certifications and online learning (thank goodness the tests are free to partners) I was able to access the SET for vSphere. This document really helped me and partners really have a leg up with these documents. I did not use them as templates beyond understanding which each document type should contain.  If you are not with a partner then I recommending using this document as a template.  With a lot more detail. Remember that everything should align with the elements of design.  (RAMPS, Recoverability, Availability, Manageability, Performance, Security)  Make sure you justify each design choice against these elements and understand the effect of each design choice positive and negative against these elements. In addition, you can use Soda PDF that can resize the signature to match the surrounding text or form field by dragging on it’s corners. Learn more at www.sodapdf.com

Adjusted Expectations

So fast forward we are now at Lat February. My goal was to get VCDX-DCV at VMworld 2014 but they didn’t have any defenses scheduled for VMworld. I have a choice between Cambridge MA in July or late fall in Palo Alto. Since I had some question if my employer would pay for the trip to defend I went for Cambridge. This gave me three months to complete the design by May 9th.   I feel it’s critical to have balance in your life.  I did not have any all night design documents writing sessions.  I did however spend about one hour after work and two hours after my kids went to bed each night for three months.  I took three days off work and it really did occupy a lot of my time and thoughts.  I took the 8th off work and submitted my design by 5 PM.   They were kind enough to let me know they got my documents.  At this point I had invested about 600-700 hours in the process.  Most of this time was spend figuring out the format I wanted to use for my documents.   I changed my mind a lot and reformed the document multiple times.    The real document only took about 100 hours plus some proof reading.

Perfect Document

After providing my perfect document (about 600 pages in total) I went on vacation with my family.  A carefully crafted beach visit to Lake Michigan to end on the day I would hear back if I get to defend.   I was happy to hear that I was invited to defend and terrified that I now had to prepare to be judged.  I started reviewing my design document to create slides… and there were errors… things I had missed and new problems I discovered.  Which goes to show you no design is perfect and it’s ok to have errors just let them know you changed something and why … and of course what effect that change had to the elements of design.

Slides and presentation

Putting together a slide deck I stuck to the recommendations in the VCDX book.   I did not do anything fancy.  I practices my presentation a few times but not a ton… I mostly studied VMware books (HA and DRS deep dive etc..) and my design.

Defense

I am not allowed to talk a huge amount about the defense.  What I can tell you is I really enjoyed spending time with the other VCDX’s explaining my design.   It was just like VMworld all over again… I had a great time.   They asked great questions and helped me to think critically about my design choices.  I spend two years as a missionary going door to door which perhaps prepared me for this experience.  After eight hours every day for two years of having people reject your message you get used to rejection and different opinions.   It was great practice for this experience and life as a whole.    My panelists were awesome and helped me a lot.

Ok … Ok enough about me here is the tips

  • Get lots of practice talking about VMware in public speaking situations (Your local VMUG is awesome for this)  My local VMUG allowed me to present  three times in the last year… it was great experience.
  • Get lots of practice public speaking… in your church community or something somewhere…. practice and push yourself out of that comfortable skin
  • Study to learn… figure out how your learn… if it’s writing after you learn start a blog… if it’s teaching others start a lunch and learn session at your work… Figure out your learning style and start using it on VMware products
  • Set deadlines and don’t miss them… also don’t give up with failure.  The only real way to fail is to not try or stop trying.  You can do it… your a smart person
  • Reach out to people in twitter… (yes I said the evil word.)  #VCDX find local resources that are studying and join a VCDX group
  • Focus on the business side of it all… I bet your great at technical but it’s time to understand the business… they are why we exist.  Find out what the business wants and why.  Learn the business lingo and terms.
  • Don’t make a design choice just because…. know why you make the choice and the consequences then stick by your design.   Don’t let the first stiff wind blow you down.
  • Use a white board and pictures to explain your thoughts…  a picture is really worth a million words.  Learn to use Visio or some application like it…  Draw pictures to explain everything.    Trust me use pictures…
  • Conflicts are your friend.  Every design has conflicts and risks… if your does not it’s not real.  Conflicts just show critical thinking.
  • Use RAMPS like crazy.   Think about it, drink it, and live it…
  • VCDX is about becoming not achieving – It’s not a one time event it’s a life long journey.   My journey to VCDX did not really begin in January and it did not end in July it continues.  Life should be about becoming something..  How can you become a better architect.
  • The journey to VCDX has taught me so much more about virtualization technology… networking… storage.. disaster recovery and people skills find your weak spot and learn about it
  • Getting your design accepted is a huge deal don’t treat that lightly may people don’t try or ever get that far.
  • Read the VCDX book and blueprint and live it… don’t think you know better just follow them… it’s like being in college again… figure out what the professor wants and do it… don’t worry if you think you know a better way.
  • View the recorded VCDX boot camps and attend a boot camp if you can.. they both help a lot.
  • If your ready to submit a design you already know a lot about VMware products… go do what you know be confident.  I am a VCDX now and I don’t know everything.. There are lots of holes in my knowledge…
  • Do a real design with real requirements and constraints… don’t go for WOW factor… just make a good design.
  • Know what else you could have done… and the effect of that choice.  If you had six more nic’s how would you use them?
  • Mock Design sessions… get on twitter and locate a mock design and defense group they are happening all around and will really help you prepare.
  • Push yourself.. if you don’t enjoy public speaking… do it.  If you don’t enjoy speaking up to defend your design choices do it… push yourself
  • Do not sacrifice your family, health, employment etc… to the certification.  Balance is hard in life but worth it.   When you die you don’t want you tombstone to say divorced VCDX.  No amount of success in life can replace failure in your home.
  • Enough with my preaching… I hope it helps.  Contact me via twitter or here anytime if you have questions.

 

Whats Next for me?

Well a VCDX-Cloud would be a good choice for me since I am doing a lot of cloud now… but in reality I think I might focus on a CCNA… because I am a little weak on networking and I want to round up my experiences, plus it will justify buying some cool looking cisco switches.  (Yes that means you are going to see Cisco posts soon.)

 

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