VCDX Lessons Learnt

I’m very happy to announce that I recently managed to defend and pass a VCDX, and am now number 259! It was a pretty big and time-consuming project, I would therefore like to share some of my experiences and hopefully provide some insight for future candidates. I will focus on some of the key lessons I learned in the process, and take the opportunity to acknowledge the people who helped me.

A VCDX is an enterprise architecture certification as much as a VMware certification!

This is something that wasn’t clear to me at all when I started the process, and I didn’t fully understand it until the end. Although you must be a VMware technology expert to pass a VCDX, you also need to understand all aspects of IT architecture. This includes not only other technical aspects of IT such as networking, storage, backup, DR etc, but also all non-technical aspects. How requirements drive a design, what processes, staffing and escalation processes are required to satisfy an SLAs, how to design for compliance and security, etc. Many of these aspects are completely independent from VMware technologies and makes the scope of a VCDX project pretty big.

Ensure the design is complete!

This means you must ensure the design covers all the design qualities (AMPRS) for all the design components (compute, storage, network, management and virtual machines). For example, the design must cover recoverability and availability of the network (i.e. the physical network as much as the virtual network). This means you must know what happens when network equipment breaks, how is this monitored, what hardware replacement SLAs are in place, staffing, replacement processes etc. Although this is clearly indicated in the blueprint I didn’t fully understand this until my mentor and other people in the community kept pointing it out and I had to spend a couple of month adding and rewriting chapters.

The VCDX process is a team effort!

It might be possible to achieve a VCDX by doing it completely by your own, but I think this would be difficult and I strongly recommend engaging with the community as much and early as possible. This includes getting a study group, engaging a mentor and getting as many people as possible to help with reviews and mock defenses. It was only by engaging with the community that I learned most of the lessons I’m listing here. Without this help I would have had to learn it the hard way, i.e. by submitting and/or defending multiple time.

Actually, one of the most positively surprising aspect of the end-to-end process of getting a VCDX was how responsive and friendly everyone in the community was.

Don’t be too constrained by a real design!

A submitted VCDX design is more complete and complex than the majority (or possibly all) real designs. Although it is generally considered better to base the submission on a real design, you can make things up. As a matter of fact, you probably must add thing to the real design to ensure the it is complete.

I also suggest changing the design if you have odd constraints that are difficult to explain or might confuse the panel. Remember that the panel has no idea (and don’t care) what is real or not. I had some aspects of my design which were true, but strange, and I spent a lot of time figuring out the best way to explain them. In hindsight I should probably have removed those constraints from the beginning.

Completing a VCDX is a lot of hard work!

This includes researching, writing and rewriting the documents, as well as practicing presentation, defense and design scenario. Expect many hundreds of hours of work (possibly more). The problem is that I, like most people, had a full-time job and other personal responsibilities like kids. The amount of spare time I had was therefore limited and I had to dedicate this to the VCDX. Although I never expected it to be easy, it definitely involved more work than I anticipated when I started. It also shows how important it is to have the support from your family before starting, as you have to spend countless of evenings and weekends working.

I must emphasis that although the VCDX involved a lot of hard work, it was worth it, and not only for getting the certification in the end. Learning everything necessary for passing VCDX improved my knowledge and skills in a lot of different areas, which would have been difficult to motivate myself to do otherwise.

You must practice the defense a lot!

If you never experienced a VCDX defense or a mock run by people who has, it is hard to understand what kind of questions the panel will ask. The only way to get experience is to do mocks, and ideally with people who experienced the real defense. If you don’t know any people with real experience, I recommend to reach out to the community.

I attended Gregg Robertson’s live mock in the EMC tower in London a few weeks before I submitted, and it really worked as a wake-up call (a bit of a chock to be honest). I then truly understood the level and range of questions that would be asked, and what level I had to reach to stand a chance of passing the defense.

Practice the design scenario a lot too!

The design scenario is a big part of the defense and you only have 45 minutes to complete it. I think the only way to score enough points to pass it is to have a practiced method, and execute it effortlessly during the defense. I doubt most people have a good method to do this, especially considering the unusual situation that you don’t know anything about the “customer” and must do a complete logical design in such a short period of time. Speaking to other VCDX candidates, I think this is an area which people don’t focus on as much as they should.

A great start for a design method is to use information from Rene Van Den Bedem (https://vcdx133.com/2014/06/16/vcdx-design-scenario-strategy) and Larus Hjartarson (http://vmice.net/2015/10/vcdx-design-scenario/), but you might have to tweak it to make complete sense to you. It is then necessary to practice a lot. In addition to doing a few mock design scenarios with my mentor, I spend a few full days in front of a whiteboard, made up designs and practiced. The key is that I needed all this time as the process only really made complete sense to me right before the defence.

Acknowledgements

The person who helped me most was my mentor Kiran Reid, who selflessly provided crucial help during all stages of the process. I must also thank Kiran’s mentor Scott Norris. I believe the excellent mentorship he provided to Kiran motivated Kiran to do the same to me.

I must also thank the following people who helped me at different stages in my VCDX preparation:

Gregg Roberson, Daniel Zuthof, Bilal Ahmed, Shady ElMalatawey, David Pasek, Mike Brown, Christian Strijbos, Artur Krzywdzinski, Andrea Mauro, René van den Bedem, John Davis, Fouad El Akkad, Igor Zecevic, John Davis, Andre Smith, Alex Pearson, Dave Cottrell, Kaushik Balasubramanian and everyone (past and present) in Rackspace’s VMware Practice

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