Learning from Failure – My Path to VCDX (Part I)

I’m excited to announce that I have been awarded the title of VMware Certified Design Expert (VCDX) #243. If you are unfamiliar with the VCDX program, you can find more information here.

My journey towards VCDX began a little over three years ago. I had successfully passed the VCAP5-DCA (May 2013) and VCAP5-DCD (Sept 2013) exams and was trying to figure out what was next for me.

I talked to my friend and former business partner, Brett Guarino, about it several times throughout the next few weeks. Together, we decided to partner up, write a design, and chase this certification together. In October 2013, I wrote an article titled “Why I am Pursuing the VCDX” for VMware Press, publicly announcing my pursuit (that way I could be held accountable). I had no idea what a long road this would be.


Writing the Design

This part took us forever. I think we underestimated the length of time it would take and it became increasingly difficult to prioritize VCDX time over work. This is primarily because Brett and I were both self-employed when we set out on this endeavor. So for me, taking time off to work on VCDX meant no money coming in for that given time period.

We kicked around a few different designs we worked on, considered doing something completely fictional, but ultimately we landed on a lab infrastructure design we had worked on together. Brett and I selected this design because it was very unique (leverages nested virtualization) but was still fairly simple.

By December 2014 we had put together our first draft of a design document and had created a plethora of diagrams and tables. But…around that time Brett accepted a position with VMware and was trying to settle into this new role. I was still self-employed and had landed a few gigs that were keeping me traveling overseas regularly. Our VCDX design was put on back burner…and it sat there for about a year.

Around Christmas 2015, Brett and I had a frank conversation regarding our pursuit of VCDX. When I had time to work, he was busy; when he was free, I was busy or out of the country. We tried to divide up the sections and conquer them separately but when we weren’t together we found that it was easy to prioritize something else over our design. It was time for us to ‘shit or get off the pot.’ Either we would both dedicate time working on this or we needed to pursue VCDX individually. We decided to give it one more shot together.

I had looked at the VCDX schedule and found that there was a submission deadline in May 2016 to defend in Palo Alto in July 2016. We created a schedule and got to work. We both took off for much of April to sit down and hammer out the rest of the design document together. Within about 2 weeks we had the design document finished and sent to a reviewer. From there, we split up the remaining work of completing the supplementary documentation (installation guide, implementation guide, testing and validation guide, and standard operating procedures). I think we underestimated the amount of time that the supplemental documentation would take.

With the deadline fast approaching, I found myself on a plane to Tel Aviv the day before the submission deadline. I was furiously making last minute adjustments to our documents, re-reading, editing, and trying to finish filling out the application.

We submitted our applications, and then had a drink to celebrate. Idiotically we thought the hard part was finished…we were wrong. Turns out preparing for the defense is far more stressful than writing the design.

First Attempt – Fail!

Once our applications were submitted, it came time to work on our PPT and start to participate in mocks. We should have started immediately after submitting our applications but we didn’t because we both had vacation plans for the end of May. And honestly, we really didn’t think we’d get accepted. We did. I took a week off in June and together we worked on our PPT and did some mocks for the design scenario portion of the design defense.

We both took off work for the two weeks leading up to our defense, crammed, and worked on perfecting our PPT. Through mocks we found quite a few gaps in our design and slide deck and we worked furiously to make more supplemental content (backup slides).

I defended on July 25 and Brett defended on July 26. I must say that I didn’t feel like I had bombed the defense, but didn’t walk out feeling like I’d given an A+ performance. I felt the outcome was 50/50. There were a few things I was hit on for which I was not properly prepared. I didn’t feel great about my design scenario —I think I had read too much about how it should approached by different VCDX bloggers and I tried to follow their approach and it just didn’t feel natural to me when I was in the room.

But I had a lot of time to replay my defense in my head because I didn’t find out my results until Aug 9…slightly over two weeks! I failed (sadly, Brett had failed as well). I’d thought a lot about my defense and I realized that I was completely “defensive” rather than “offensive,” I wasn’t guiding the conversation. I spent too much time in the technical details and not enough time explaining why I made that decision in the first place. Additionally I didn’t feel like I did the best job tying design decisions back to requirements. I was determined to learn from my mistakes.

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