After a year of prepping and taking VCAPs and preparing & submitting it now came down to 3 hours in a conference room at VMware HQ in Palo Alto.
Presentation for the Defense
You are expected to come prepared with a USB stick with a presentation to highlight the salient points of your design and the critical factors that influenced your decision making – all packed into 15 minutes. I ended up with about 16 slides for the presentation and 50 or so “reference” slides. The reference slides there to help you answer questions from the panelists and it saves you time from having to whiteboard.
I found it helpful to create an index page of my reference slides so I could jump back and forth between them.
I practiced the presentation a few times in front of a mirror and then on a conference call with my co-workers to get the timing down but beyond that I didn’t do much preparation. I was very familiar with my design and could speak to every last bit so I felt very prepared for the defense portion.
Other than the practice presentation with my co-workers, I did not do any mock defenses, troubleshooting or design sessions. I really didn’t have time for these given my schedule with work and my family. Most of my prep time for VCDX seems to occur late at night and is not planned out—I just fit it in when I could.
Do I regret not doing mocks? A little bit but since I passed it on the first try I guess they were not necessary. I think if I had to do it over again—I probably still wouldn’t do full blown mocks. I get a lot of day to day speaking time with clients so that aspect doesn’t bother me. I would try to organize my approach a little better to the Design Scenario. More on that later. Ultimately it was the time factor that kept me from doing them—I had just enough to do the things I was able to do and not much more.
Analyzing my Design
I spent the bulk of my preparation making sure I could explain every decision I made and why the particular feature or decision choice best fit the customer requirements. I also spent a lot of time exploring the things I didn’t use—aka all the alternatives. My design incorporated UCS via a customer constraint so in addition to knowing all the in’s and out’s of UCS and how to best fulfill the customer’s requirements for resiliency, performance, I spent a lot of time thinking about if that UCS constraint was lifted, how else could I meet my customer’s requirements. And what impact that would have on other parts of my design. I was able to remove any constraint and be able to talk about how that would impact the solution.
Identifying weak points of my design and trying to anticipate panelist questions was another area I tried to focus on. There were many decisions that were less than idea and didn’t exactly follow “best practices”—but there were reasons and logic behind all of them.
On to D-Day
I flew out to Palo Alto the night before so that I would not be travel weary and to make sure I got a good night’s rest. After checking into the hotel and grabbing dinner, I scoped out where I needed to go the next day. I didn’t want getting lost or not knowing where to go to add to my stress. At this point my preparation was mostly done. I only did some light review of some storage & clustering topics and some re-reading of my design & presentation.
I spent the morning relaxing and trying to visualize what the defense would be like. I actually had a dream that night before about the defense but instead of a panel of 3 it was a crowd of VMware Experts from all the videos, blogs and books I had read—all people I have never met. And it went well – in my dream.
I didn’t feel like eating much- it was definitely nerves so I forced myself to eat a light lunch. I went to Panda express where I got another good omen:
So on I went to the VMware campus and made my way to check in for my Defense. After a brief wait, I was escorted into the room and greeted by my 3 panelists. I recognized one of the panelists and at first was little intimidated but he was so nice and unassuming that quickly faded. Later on during the break between the design defense and the design scenario I saw the same panelist talking on the phone. He was dealing with something in his regular job and it sounded just like something I would be doing on a regular work day. I wish I had seen this prior to starting the defense as it reinforces the point that the panelist are regular people and probably deal with a lot of the same things you deal with both professionally and personally.
So it leads me to a piece of advice:
Don’t be intimidated by who is sitting across from you in the Defense!
You made it this far so you have to be pretty smart too and they are just regular people just like you. I was nervous during my design defense portion but I was confident I scored well and only missed a question or two (more related to intricacies of VMware than my actual design)—-They were items that I knew but just blanked on. I didn’t spend a lot of time on them—I just said that I could not remember but told them where I could find out the answer and moved on quickly. The time goes by very fast in all parts of the defense. I didn’t look at the clock until there was 5 minutes left.
After a short break, I was brought back into the room for the design scenario. After the moderator read the scenario and I go to read it over, the clock started. I think I started out well enough but at a certain point I got a little lost. It felt a lot like Jason Nash’s experience:
I cratered. It was ugly. I never got a complete train of thought going. It was a plane wreck in slow motion in my head. It was like I could hear myself yelling “Pull up! Pull up!”. “Abort! Abort!”. Before I could regain control my time was up….and the ad hoc was over with only a small fraction of the things I needed to cover done. I would give a lot to be able to just repeat those 30 minutes, but that’s the point of the exercise, right?
This is the part I had the most regret with–When I left the room after the defense I thought of all the ways I’d do it better the next time. I think most candidates feel this way from what I have read.
If I had to do it all over, I would have come up with a better game plan—One of the panelist’s answer to one of my questions threw me off—it wasn’t so much of what they said but what they didn’t say. What I had asked probably wasn’t vetted out in the scenario and so their answer was intentionally vague.
Perhaps, if I had a better game plan, I could have moved on to other things but maybe not. I did talk aloud most of of the time and verbalized my thought process—-I though I might have tread into the rambling zone but apparently I scored enough.
I was rattled quite bit after the Design Scenario but somehow I was able to put that behind me for the Troubleshooting Scenario. I won’t bother much with writing about this section since it is no longer part of the VCDX process but I will say that I think I did good enough on the section.
Post-Defense – Regrets and Positive Thoughts.
After I thanked and shook hands with panel and walked out the door I thought I had failed. The Design Scenario weighed heavy on my thoughts but as I replayed the entire defense and the process leading up to it I told myself a few things:
- The Journey was worth it regardless of the outcome – In the last year leading up to those moments in Palo Alto I had grown tremendously as a person and an architect. Even if I failed, it was already time well spent on the submission and preparation—The process made me better and I came away with some new tools in my bag and some good documentation to help me with future design engagements.
- If I were to fail this time, there would always be another chanceand it wouldn’t be starting from scratch. After the defense, I went back and made notes on where the panelists questioned me and my reasoning could have been beefed up or better represented in my documentation. I made a note of what went well and what could have gone better at the Defense.
- I might have passed –As bad as I thought my performance was during the design scenario, I might have scored enough on it and the others parts to pass. As time wore on, I thought my chances were pretty good.
Waiting and the Results
The 9 days of waiting for the results were some of the longest days—-with a two year old, days seem to fly by but while waiting for VCDX results, time moves agonizing slow. I was dying to know ANY result-pass or fail. I could get on with my life and prepare what’s next (another attempt) if I failed. I had a hard time sleeping and was checking my phone constantly for the VCDX results email.
And finally the day (middle of the night for me) came. I knew it was coming from some tweets and it was like being a kid on Christmas. I finally got to sleep at midnight but woke around 3:30 am and checked my email on my phone. Sure enough, there it was, my VCDX Defense Results. I opened it up and read that I had passed. What a relief! I thought about waking up my wife but again that would not go well–especially if I happened to wake up our toddler. So I celebrated silently and had huge smile on my face. While I couldn’t believe it first, I reflected on the long journey from VCAPs to my Design (all the attempts) and my defense and concluded that “hell yeah!, I worked hard and deserve this result!”
Had I failed, I would have deeply disappointed and perhaps embarrassed which would have been silly. I know that if hadn’t worked out that first time, I would keep on it until I was successful—I had learned so much during the process and have no doubt if I had to do it again, I would do it a lot cleaner and would be successful.
I would encourage anyone that is serious about IT Architecture, VMware or Cloud Computing to consider the VCDX path. I would also advise to not rush the process to be honest about with yourself on how much time you can commit and set realistic goals to achieve the major milestones (VCP, VCAP/VCIX’s, Design Submission and Defense).
I would also advise to not be deterred by bumps in the road–For me it was failing a VCAP and then multiple aborted attempts at design. The knowledge is there for the taking: books, Pluralsight, vmware HOL, VMware learning zone, recorded VCDX sessions, Blogs, Twitter and good ‘ol product documentation (RTFM!). The other ingredients are time and motivation. Don’t have time, make time and set aside distractions.
You don’t have to break the bank either. For me, the biggest expense was the Defense (travel and fees) and I got the backing of my employer on that. Next was the VCAP Exams. And the rest was relatively minor—$30 a month for Pluralsight, books and a bunch of free resources. You don’t need to take classes or attend workshops (miss work and have travel expenses).