Recently, I was notified that I had successfully completed a VCDX (VMware Certified Design Expert) defense in Barcelona, Spain. My certification number is 104. Yay!
I’d like to give a special “thank you” to my colleagues who helped challenge and prepare me for the defense: Brian Suhr, Steve Pantol, Brad Clerkin, and Tim Curless. Another one goes out to my employer, Ahead (Press Release), who financed 100% of the journey (exams, travel, fees, etc.) and gave me incredible levels of support and encouragement. Although the defense is a solo event, the preparation before it is definitely a team effort. And last, but certainly not least, to my wife Jen Wahl for putting in ridiculous amounts of hours into the graphic design and copy editing of all my application documents – nearly 300 pages worth!
With that said, I thought it wise to pay it forward to those who will defend in the future. This post will contain some of my musings on the VCDX process, and things that I thought were crucial to my success. Keep in mind that this is all just conjecture as the official scoring mechanisms are shrouded in mystery. I’ll make my own assumptions, but your experience will undoubtedly be unique.
How it feels to pass the VCDX
To begin with, I thought I’d tell the tale of the actual defense trip. This isn’t a technical story, just a humorous telling of the adventure. Feel free to skip this part and go to the next section – it won’t hurt my feelings. 😉
I don’t speak fluent Spanish. I know enough to get by and have traveled around to countries like Guatemala that only speak some form of Spanish. Going to Barcelona seemed like a cake walk when compared to some of my travels to villages that don’t even have toilets or air conditioning and use some exotic currency that is nearly impossible to convert. So, when given the opportunity from my employer (Ahead) to hop a ride to Barcelona to defend the VCDX, I pounced.
One constraint was my time, which is often in demand. I had to be brief in my travels. My defense was on Thursday afternoon (Barcelona time). So, I booked a flight that left Tuesday night (Chicago time) and arrived late afternoon Wednesday (Barcelona time). I even bumped to business class, but refrained from any alcohol or unhealthy food on the way over. Sadly, although the overnight flight had a lay down seat, I found it difficult to sleep through the excitement, stress, and nervousness. Also, the lady across from me was determined to use an industrial grade flood light to read her book. I tinkered with my presentation, listened to music, and slept for about an hour on a 10 hour flight. I also charged my laptop on the US plug in the seat (this becomes important later).
The plane decided to arrive late in London, as planes are often known to do, and I missed my connection to Barcelona. Although I originally allowed 90 minutes for the layover, I arrived with 15 minutes until my flight left. Obviously, I was denied boarding. The next flight was 5 hours later, so I got to spend some quality time in the British Airways lounge in a sort of sleep deprived slump. On my way, the friendly security agents discovered my whiteboard markers and decided that I was smuggling in explosives. Using some cloth wipes and all sorts of gadgets on them, they eventually realized that I was not a terrorist and I was given the OK to shuffle off to a chair and eat “lunch”. My internal clock is usually able to adapt quickly, so I enjoyed the odd foods (for my palate) and continued to try and go over my defense tactics in my head.
At this point I have been up for about 36 hours. Upon boarding the Barcelona flight, I promptly passed out only to awaken on takeoff. A few hours later – “Welcome to Barcelona, the local time is 7 PM!” I had no bags due to my short stay and insistence on keeping everything within eye sight in my carry-on, so I went to go find a pay phone to call the hotel shuttle and an ATM for some currency. A quick stop through customs. They did not speak any English, to the detriment of a young couple next to me. I assisted them with my broken Spanish. Bienvenidos en Barcelona!
The pay phone didn’t seem to work. And my debit card gave me errors when I tried to withdraw funds. Odd. Time for Plan C. I navigated the maze to the taxi queue to find a group of individuals who also did not speak any English. I flashed an American Express card. “Necessito AmEx” was waived off as unacceptable. Visa was OK. “El hotel, por favor” and we were off.
The hotel was way outside of Barcelona, and it was too fancy for me as I could not figure out how to operate the lights. The switches did not work. I played around with the fuse box, popping breakers to no success. I decided that after over 40 hours without any real rest, I’d take a nap and figure it out later. I woke when it was pitch black outside and called the front desk, who patiently explained to this foreigner that the hotel room key card goes into some sort of slot, which magically activates the fuse box. I felt stupid, but I had power. I spent several hours on my presentation, putting in ridiculous amounts of mental effort on what I now would consider silly things. By 6AM on Thursday (Barcelona time) I finally called it quits and went to grab my USB sticks to copy the final presentation to. My laptop warned me that only a few minutes of power remained, so I went to grab my European power adapter and plug it in.
I then noticed that the adapter did not have a grounding plug. It was a 2 prong receptacle.
I quickly snatched up all five of my USB sticks and slapped them into the laptop like some weird USB porcupine. I finished copying all the presentations over right as the laptop was about to power off. Whew. It occurred to me that I had last eaten something in the Heathrow lounge about 14 hours ago. I decided I was more tired than hungry, and slept.
I woke up to a barrage of alarms, and remembered that I had set every alarm I could find (tablet, phone, and hotel clock) for noon as my defense was scheduled for 2PM. I packed up my VMworld US bag, got cleaned up, and headed downstairs to find a taxi. For those interested, the same thing I wear to a client – dress slacks and a button up shirt, no tie. Another round of my broken Spanish and the Visa card.
I had about 90 minutes to go 10 kilometers for the defense. Plenty of time. Except that it was raining and apparently all of Spain wanted to be in their car. It took over an hour to reach the hotel where the defense was taking place, and I was a nervous wreck. I couldn’t find a way to ask how much further it was, and I had no data plan for my phone (so no GPS map). To my relief, we arrived at 1:30 PM. Now I just had to find the right conference room. A few wrong turns and some helpful folks at an ADP convention lead me to the right spot.
I meet with Mark Brunstad. At this point, actually being in the right spot on time, I relaxed tremendously. Nothing makes me more stressed out than being late. I was now in “defense mode” – excited, clear of mind, and ready to rock. I sat down and waited my turn and discovered that Simon Long (VCDX #105) was also defending at the same time slot in the next room over. We chatted a bit about our upcoming defenses, wished each other luck, and all in all had a good conversation. Mark returned to take our photos and check multiple forms of ID.
This was it. Years of work, months of preparation. It was show time. I knew where my towel was.
A Successful Defense
I felt that I had failed the defense. I was not perfect. There were aspects of some technologies in which I have not absolutely mastered. As with any situation where this is the case, I’m honest about it – I’ll admit what I don’t know and try to conjecture what I believe would be the answer. No one should expect you to be a human dictionary. I’d imagine my clients appreciate that, so the panel most likely will, too.
With that being said, I also had an amazing time and genuinely enjoyed myself. I thrive on these sorts of situations; to engage with people who want to talk about technology is awesome. Have fun – this is a unique experience that you will never forget. After all, how often do you get three VCDX-class folks to spend time talking to you personally about your very own design? It would cost a fortune to schedule this outside of the VCDX defense.
I felt that the design defense is the most interactive portion, and requires mastery of your design – both as it is, and how it could be. I emphasize the last part. Having a grasp on how the logical design would pan out if your conceptual design were to change is important. Dazzle the panel with your skills. Don’t go into the weeds.
Nothing in your design is off limits, regardless of who did the work, so be ready to know the technologies and the decisions behind them. I think this is why “real world” designs work so well – as I defended, I could call upon actual conversations that lead to why something was chosen. As long as it makes sense, I’d imagine it will be OK. And yes, my design was from an actual client, modified to protect confidentiality (names and such).
For those curious: I participated in a VCDX4 defense using a vSphere 5 design. This basically means that anything in vSphere 4 or vSphere 5 was in scope for the defense. Fortunately, I have already completed the VCAP5-DCD, so I satisfy the upgrade requirements for VCDX5. Hence I have added both certification badges to my sidebar.
Be vocal about your thoughts. You need to verbalize what your thought process is during all stages of the defense. This can prove how logical and methodical you are about design. I tried to explain what I was doing, and why, in all three segments of the defense.
To The Future VCDXs
If your goal is to achieve the VCDX, I wish you the best of luck on your journey.
Find a support group of colleagues. Preferably those who are strong in things you are weak. Give them your design and let them punch holes in it. Do a mock defense, a mock design, and a mock troubleshoot. Don’t fudge the format – stick to the time constraints, take it seriously. Take notes. Improve. Josh Odgers (VCDX #90) shares a great story on that topic.
Attend a VCDX boot camp. I went to the one in VMworld San Francisco. The room was filled with just shy of a dozen VCDX holders who are trying to help you be successful. Take their word as gospel.
Understand the time commitment. I didn’t realize how massive this was until I started down the path. Outside of work related design activities and the pre-requisite exams, I spent about 80 hours on my application materials and presentation design. I can’t express this enough. You will need to talk with your family so that they understand how large of a commitment this is. My wife was awesome about keeping everything off my plate possible to give me lots of free time to prepare.
And above all, make sure to be yourself.