So You Want to be a VCDX? Part 1 – What to Expect

In my career I have worn many different hats, starting as a help desk guy, working as a server admin, management and architect, now currently in pre-sales.  With all of those roles there is one thing I have enjoyed more than any other, that was passing on knowledge to others, helping them in their jobs and their careers.  During my management days I worked to mentor my teams in various different things and loved every second of it. In getting the VCDX under my belt, my excitement is not about finally having achieved my goal, but in how I can now help others do the same.

With that I am kicking off my 9 part post series, “So You Want to be a VCDX?”.  I will say that this series will be different than a lot of the ones I have personally read, not about specific things to do and how to pass the defense, instead more tools in how to find your own path.  Consider this an adviser in a blog post, not a how-to guide.  Add to that, my personal experiences of what I went through along the path to the VCDX.

Here is the outline of this series to come, starting with “Part 1 – What to Expect”.

I will make a disclaimer now.  This series is about my experience and what worked / did not work for myself and others.  Just because it worked for us, does not mean it will work for you, though it can help guide you in making something that works for your style.


What to Expect During the VCDX Process

One of the biggest things I wish I had when I first started to dig into doing the VCDX was to be given a true idea of the endeavor I was about to undertake.  In this article, I want to uncover some of the things that were eye-opening for me.  Everything from sheer effort, to what you will walk away with in going through the process.  Also an overview of what you can expect in future posts in this series.


Effort and Time

Time, we have tons of it right?  Ha!  Well you really won’t when you start the VCDX.  I am not trying to scare you with this, but to set a realistic expectation.  The amount of time you will put into this will vary greatly based upon your existing job and your experience in putting together detailed architectural documentation.  I believe the number that is thrown around for people who do this as a day job is sub 100 hours, though I have seen professional service guys exceed 200 easily.

I have spent a vast majority of my career on the customer side, so this was not my day job by any stretch.  In my case, it was 12 months from when I decided to start my push of completing my VCAPs, until the completion of the VCDX. Over that 12 months I spent 3 on the VCAP’s and 9 on the VCDX.  With my document and the prep for two defenses, I would put myself over 400 hours over that 9 month period.  This is including all of the pre-work I did leading up to writing the design, writing the documentation, reviews, mocks, and presentation prep.  With the second defense being 100-150 of that 400.  Frankly, I stopped counting.

Seems like a lot right?  It is, but it does go quickly when you head is buried in Visio, Excel, and Word.  With all of those hours, what did I produce?  My documents ( all docs, not just design doc ) were 225 pages and 50,000 words.  I have seen documents be smaller, then some in excess of 800 pages.  Now, a large document does not equal a good document, it all comes down to content.  Don’t add fluff to your document just for word or page count, in the end if you have 800 pages or 200 pages, all that matters is if the content is relevant.  I am only giving these counts so you know what to expect as you consider going down this path.

The last note I will make when it comes to effort and time is the most important one.  If you are married or in a relationship, let your significant other know what you are going to attempt.  In my case, the support of my wife was instrumental in my success, even more so after my first defense failure.  The time commitment you will have to put towards this will take time away from your family, they and you need to make sure all understand that.  I had many nights and weekends where my kids were asking, “Daddy where are you going?” when I was descending into my office in the basement. It is a sacrifice of your time, and theirs.


Building Up Your Design

A very common question from people that I get is, what was your design on?  Mine was a mostly factual design of a greenfield datacenter that I built as a customer in 2010 that was a modified vSphere 4.x design.  I will get into this more in Part 3 of this series, that being what I learned about the VCDX and how that impacted my decision on what project to use for my design.

What should you do for your design?  Do what you are more comfortable with, but I would say if you have a factual design you can go from, use that.  It is known that fictional designs are harder to pass with, to which you can debate on those reasons.  Is it because you had to make up business reasons for decisions that make little sense?  Or is it that because of not having real business drivers, you had holes in your design, or failed to have proper reasons for decisions?

We will get into this more in the future article, but what I will say is that consider carefully the design you use and why you use it.  It should not be selected because it shows all of the greatest tech when you had an unlimited budget.  It should be something that shows your architectural skills and your ability to overcome the obstacles that you will always encounter in design.


Submission is Only Half the Battle

One of the scarier moments in the process, the moment you press the Send button on your application submission.  Once it is done, you will feel a sense of relief like no other, but you are only halfway.  The next phase of the process is not difficult because of the documentation you have to write, but for preparing your presentation and your defense of what you designed.  Expect to find a lot of things wrong in your doc post submission, be it typos or a quirk of some tech someone points out to you during review.  Don’t stress, these are easily to overcome.

During the next 4 weeks, while you await your application results, you should already be preparing for your defense.  Why prepare before you even know if you are going to defend?  That way you are 3-4 weeks ahead of the game when you do get accepted, as you only have ~4 weeks from acceptance to defense.  You will need every bit of it.  Granted, I took a week off after submission to recharge… Do the same, you will need it.


The Value of Teamwork in a Solo Certification

I under estimated a couple of things on this front in going through my VCDX.

First, the power of Twitter.  I was in awe at how quickly I was matched up with people who were going for defenses at the same time.  Use Twitter, it will be key in that respect.  Second, the benefit of the group pre-submission.  Start a group before you submit! Everyone has their strong point, they may find something in your storage design you did not see, and it is better to catch that before you submit.

In the early days of the VCDX, there was not really a community or study groups that helped people achieve it.  I believe heavily that the reason the pass rate has increased in the last 2 years is because of these groups.  When you can work in a group with similar goals, help each other correct issues or really hammer you with tough questions, it makes you stronger come defense day.

If you want to increase your chances of passing, get that team together, as it will only help all of you more.  I will get into things my two groups did in future articles that helped us to be successful.


The Defense

D-Day is here!

What can you expect?  Expect to be nervous, have jitters, and don’t think the panelists don’t understand that, because they were there at some point too.  Funny enough, people fear this portion the most, but I actually enjoyed the defense a lot more than I thought I would.  The second time much more!  Honestly, with enough prep, it feels like any other mock defense you may have already done.

I will get into my personal experience in the defense as much as I can later, without breaking the NDA rules of the defense.  If I wasn’t stressed enough as it was, my second one included a crown that broke from my molar and spilling my water :)


The Benefit of Failure

One VCDX panelist told me before my first defense, “There is no shame in failing, only in not trying again.”

Failing my Cambridge defense was tough to swallow, but not for the reasons you would think.  It was not about what people on Twitter or my co-workers would think, but it was letting down my family.  Now, they had to further sacrifice for me to meet my goal, which in turn became my driver to succeed the second time.

I did not deserve to pass my Cambridge defense and the panelist were completely right in failing me, I flat out choked.  I wrote this post a few days after my failure, From Failure Comes Growth.  As I continued on the VCDX path in the weeks after my failure, I started to see the errors in both my documentation and how I defended the design.  If you keep an open mind in your failure, you will be amazed at how powerful of a tool that becomes the second time around.


What You Will Learn and Change That Will Occur

This is by far and above the most unexpected portion of the VCDX journey for me.  How it changed me as an engineer/architect, making me a better resource for my customers, and giving me tools to be better at my job.

I really don’t think it matters if you are a day to day PSO person or a customer who does design only for your organization.  What you walk away from in this experience is invaluable.  Some may get more than others, but expect that you will walk away with a lot more than just four letters and a number.  You will walk away a better architect.

A question to ask yourself.  When you get into either a pre-sales or post-sales engagement, or even in a customer setting of designing solutions, how do you approach design?  How methodical is your process?  In my case I am extremely detail orientated to the point of being OCD.  I had a process I thought was pretty solid, but I came to find it was flawed in some aspects as I went through the certification.  How many certifications can you say actually make you better at your job, versus something you memorize for a short period and never use?  Not many.


Did I scare you away?  My hope is that this series will be something that encourages people to go for the VCDX.  I want to help to uncover some of the aspects of the certification that I don’t think people understand, without giving anything anyway that could take away from you finding your own path in it.


The next Post, “Part 2 – Getting Started” will review what I experienced when I started, how I got started, and what you can expect going through this phase of the VCDX.

So You Want to be a VCDX?  Part 2 – Getting Started – Coming Soon

1 comment for “So You Want to be a VCDX? Part 1 – What to Expect

  1. November 7, 2014 at 11:43 am

    Great writeup and congrats again on passing!! You certainly learn loads from the process even if like you and I you fail your first attempt.

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