Virtualization, Cloud, Infrastructure and all that stuff in-between

My ramblings on the stuff that holds it all together

Bad News My VCDX Design Defense Experience

With apologies to all fellow Brits for the US spelling (Google, you know Winking smile).

Following on from email with my good news… there was a further email with some less positive news..

As some of you know I made a stealth appearance at Partner Exchange in Orlando a week or so ago, I was there to do my VCDX defense – I didn’t announce it in a public sense, not from fear/risk of failure – but more because I didn’t really want people reminding me how tough it was, how low the pass rate is, how much I’ll be grilled until I bleed etc. as we in the Internet-space feel compelled to do Smile personally I like to just get on with difficult things, rather than navel gaze and consider the worst.

Not many people have posted on their experiences of not passing the VCDX, and that does seem a bit unbalanced considering the pass/fail ratio; that’s understandable as we don’t always like discussing things less positive about ourselves – but here it is, for the benefit of anyone else considering it, whilst my initial attempt at VCDX was unsuccessful I quite enjoyed the process and I think it’s a good learning experience for anyone.

I had been on the VCDX3 track for a while and already had my design well underway before I joined VMware, mine was a real design, done for a customer – anonymised as required and I considered this quite an important fact – whilst fictional designs are acceptable I think it’s better to use a real one as you have a much more realistic set of requirements and some real-world challenges to overcome.

I asked a lot of questions when I joined VMware in September, and am pleased to report that whilst I work with several well-known VCDX panelists, the process for VMware employees is exactly the same as it is for customers, partners and the public, there are no internal shortcuts or special favours for VMware staff –which was important to me as I didn’t want to feel being part of VMware “entitled” me in anyway, many VMware staff have passed the VCDX, but likewise many have failed too. My colleagues excused themselves from participating on my defence and this is normal practice across VMware to avoid any kind of personal involvement or accusation of favours.

With the PEX sessions being announced as the last chance for the VCDX3 track I ploughed on and submitted my documents. I had my pack returned twice for further materials – I was missing a BC/DR and operation procedures section in my package, this was because BC/DR was out of scope in this phase of my design project (although it was discussed at a high-level) and operational processes were established already, my project merely added some extra parts, I explained this fact in my original design submission.

To meet the requirements for the re-submission I had to build some documentation to embellish these parts of my design, adding detail where it was missing for the re-submission, yes I essentially made it up – this was a bit odd for me but is acceptable within the scope of the VCDX; many people are discussing the VCDX design submission in terms of it being a portfolio/show-case of your work which is a good analogy – build upon what was actually done but add to it to show the quality of what you could do (given ability to do so).

My design wasn’t exclusively vSphere, it involved a whole bunch of hardware, Windows, Firewalling and other items but I was lucky that the standard approach I use already broke out requirements, assumptions, risks etc. rather than focusing on the purely technical aspects as some people do – and that whole requirements vs. technical choice vs. justification is a key part of “architecture” – delivering a solution to business requirements rather than some clever technical-wizzery.

I found it quite a slog doing this final part of the process, I would estimate that I spent the following on my design;

  • 30-40 hours on initial design – which was for a customer project and something I had to do during the course of my normal day-job.
  • 5 hours on VCDX application form; cross-referencing, calling out requirements etc.
  • 8-10 hours on tweaking/clarifying document for VCDX submission (this was post project completion so I could address some issues that were encountered during the implementation)
  • 10 hours to provide further details on operational processes, installation procedures, clarification of a few technical points & re-doing cross-referencing with VCDX application form (resubmission 1, 1 week to resubmit)
  • 15 hours to provide detailed operational processes, essentially a run-book for the platform, re-doing cross-referencing with VCDX application form (resubmission 2, 1 week to resubmit)

This point got my documents accepted and I was granted a date for a defence at PEX and I started my defence preparations.

I felt pretty well prepared and I’ve been a consultant/architect for a number of years so presenting, discussing and reviewing designs in front of customers is something I’m comfortable doing, I spent my time reviewing my design and building my presentation.

I hadn’t specifically addressed BC/DR in my design other than noting the risk and a manual rebuild process for phase 1; I spent some time building some slides that addressed the high-level BC/DR plan that was anticipated for later phases of my (real-world) project.

I estimate that my defence preparations were about the following

  • 5-8 hours building Executive Summary Presentation, calling out key decision points and copies of the relevant diagrams in-case I needed to refer back to them during the defence session, making copious notes, references etc.
  • 10-15 hours reviewing design document, checking against published materials – white papers and books etc
  • I didn’t practice or dry-run my presentation, that doesn’t work for me but I made sure I knew the key points and what was where in my slide-deck.

I got to the session on-time and with plenty of time to spare, made sure I had lunch and was ready to go; there was a pretty lengthy delay before I got started due to some logistical issue and whilst I didn’t feel nervous this didn’t really help – I wanted to get going, and done.

I didn’t find my panel intimidating, they were all courteous and professional with a moderator from the certification team to handle timings, logistics etc. I gave my exec summary presentation and answered questions from the panel as they came – unfortunately for me this meant I didn’t get to parts of my presentation calling out key decision points and BC/DR etc. but I don’t know if this caused an issue in terms of overall scoring.

They dived into sections of my design covering all the typical functional elements of a vSphere design – asking me to whiteboard, explain and justify some decisions that were made – I dropped several klangers here, whilst I can’t go into details, I knew my design but I had some errors around storage and misunderstood some parts of my multi-pathing configuration, I had reviewed this a number of times before my defence and submission and had changed and muddled it in my head, which didn’t do me any favours when I was asked to detail it and explain.

The panelists weren’t personal or condescending about this, if anything they were more poker faced and gave me an opportunity to explain it as I saw it.

I completed the design defence part feeling that it hadn’t gone too badly, but expecting that my unclear thinking and explanation would hurt my overall performance.

After a short comfort break there was a design workshop scenario type session, given a number of requirements and some background information – I think I was a bit muddled on my dealing with this section although it’s something I’m used to doing in a professional sense – white-boarding and thinking on my feet is ok but I found it hard to come up with and clearly express a solution to the presented problem.

The final session was a troubleshooting exercise, again I was presented with a situation which was articulated via some prepared text, a presentation and some pre-prepared screen-grabs, whilst I didn’t get to the root cause I think I followed a reasonable troubleshooting path to get there, and eliminated some red-herrings.

For both the design and troubleshooting scenarios I understand it’s more about the journey than arriving at a conclusion – articulating your thought processes, rationale and goals – you have access to a whiteboard and are encouraged to use it – I found it particularly useful to make notes/”park” bits of information when given and to say what I was thinking rather than just going silent (even when my brain was actually empty Smile).

So, with that I had finished – I was relieved but didn’t have that “I’ve passed” gut-feeling so I parked it and got on with the other stuff I was doing, my results came through 7 working days after my defence but it does say to allow up to 10, unfortunately I hadn’t made it this time.

You are given some basic feedback on your performance via email, areas where they think you needed to do better on, I do however think this could be improved upon;

I understand the requirement not to give too much away about the marking schema but I would encourage the certification team to break it down into a score out of 10 for the key areas, it’s almost obvious (and logical) from the VCDX application form that marking is performed on areas like; Compute, Storage, Networking, Operational Procedures, security, BC/DR etc. I personally think it would be more constructive to give a rolled-up mark out of 10 for each of those areas and disclose an overall pass/fail ratio so you can gauge if it’s something you missed by a little or were way off and need to totally reconsider your approach – just like you get with the main VCP & VCAP certifications.

So, no VCDX 3 for me – luckily I’ve already done the required VCAP exams to allow me to submit a new vSphere4 design for a future defence on the VCDX4 track; I’m currently undecided on modifying and re-submitting or using a different project for my 2nd attempt.

There are some minor changes for the VCDX4 track, and I think Duncan has already mentioned that defence sessions won’t be co-located exclusively with events like VMworld anymore and the application form is a bit more streamlined.

So, in summary I quite enjoyed the process, shame I didn’t pass but I think I know where I went wrong and I know how to address it when I retry, my advice; don’t be too scared to give it a go, but be prepared for a lot of work!

10 responses to “Bad News My VCDX Design Defense Experience

  1. Scott Lowe February 22, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    Hi Simon, thanks for sharing your VCDX experience. I’m sorry to hear that you didn’t make it this time around, but I do agree that the defense is itself quite a learning experience. When I went through my defense at PEX 2010, I came out of it thinking I, too, had not passed, and so I strove to gather what I could from the experience in order to make myself a better architect, a better consultant, and a better IT professional. My “gut feeling” was off (I had in fact passed), but learning from the experience is the real benefit in my mind.

    As for the feedback from VMware on why you didn’t pass, I’ve spoken with a number of people who didn’t make it, and the feedback is very generic. I wholeheartedly agree that VMware would be better served to provide candidates with a more objective review of their weak spots.

    Better luck next time!

  2. Kendrick Coleman February 22, 2011 at 3:18 pm

    I’m glad you wrote a post about this. This is way more informative then all the “I passed” posts. It also shows how humble you are and that a VCDX fail shouldn’t be viewed as a negative or something that you don’t want to talk about. You are showing great character and it’s very admirable. Best of luck for VCDX4.


  3. Matt Cowger February 22, 2011 at 5:51 pm

    Sorry to hear you didn’t pass.

    You mentioned something in particular that caught my eye: “unfortunately for me this meant I didn’t get to parts of my presentation calling out key decision points and BC/DR etc. but I don’t know if this caused an issue in terms of overall scoring.”

    I’m not sure why you weren’t told this or didn’t find this out, but a clear instruction given to me during my defense was that missing important key points because you didn’t get to them would absolutely result in a reduction of score. I know this was something I was concerned about, and so during my defense I had to actually cut off questions from the panel to make sure I got through all my points. I wasn’t particularly happy to be doing that (its probably not something I would do to a customer the same way), but I felt it was important to show all the points of my design.

    Maybe something to consider when you defend for a VCDX4?

  4. Eric Sloof February 22, 2011 at 8:07 pm

    Hi Simon,

    Many thanks for sharing your VCDX defence experiences – keep courage.

    Eric Sloof

  5. Jake February 22, 2011 at 8:11 pm

    Great post! My palms were sweating just thinking about it! Thanks for sharing the experience, and don’t give up!



  6. Stan February 22, 2011 at 8:29 pm

    Simon, great post and very incisive. Learning, truth be told, is more about the failures than the successes. Your ability to share this shows leadership in the community.

  7. David Owen February 22, 2011 at 9:16 pm

    Sorry to hear you didnt pass. I hear the fail rate is pretty high but no one like to advertise their own failure. I had more of a rant when I failed my Design exam so its nice to see a more constructive view.

    I’m sure you will pass on your next attempt.


  8. Phillip Jones February 23, 2011 at 12:44 am

    Excellent post. I am starting down the path to complete the vcdx this year and it’s articles like this that inspire me to strive forward no matter the difficulty. Good luck on your next defense.

  9. Pingback: Failed An Exam? Here's Five Things To Consider via @ChrisWahl | Wahl Network

  10. Pingback: VCDX Preparation index - VirtualizeTips | VirtualizeTips

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