Deep Work Habits

At any given time, I have a list of ambitious goals I’m looking to accomplish.  As a knowledge worker in IT, most of my professional goals are related to new skill attainment or deeper understanding of a specific technology. Up until recently, I took a haphazard approach to fitting in time to work toward these goals.  I’ve used different tools and approaches over the years, but the end result was still the same: inconsistency.  I would have spurts of great productivity, increased focus, and tangible outcomes, but I would also have periods of inactivity that would often derail the efforts of the focused periods of time.  I recently surrendered to the fact that I needed to restructure my habits in such a way to provide the consistent time to meet these goals.

Earlier this year, I read James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits, which clearly highlights the need for systems – or habitual routines – to work toward goals.  We should place just as much focus – if not more – on the consistent behaviors needed to reach the end goal.  I then followed this with Cal Newport’s, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, which champions the craftsman mindset – employing the mindset and approach of artists, athletes, or performers who work deliberately and consistently, to hone their craft.  Both of those books provided solid principles for gaining an edge with consistent action.  They also provided an excellent foundation for the book I’m reading now, Cal Newport’s follow up book, Deep Work.  This book asserts that in order to learn and master hard things quickly and thrive in today’s economy, one must focus intensely without distraction, and do this consistently.  The strategies laid out in the book have done more to help me formalize a structure to most effectively focus and maximize my time and energy to work toward my goals.

As mentioned, my previous strategy for working on personal goals was haphazard, but it typically involved staying up late at night.  I cherished the time I had after the family went to bed as this was uninterrupted “me” time.  The problem with this approach was simple: fatigue.  I was tired from the day, so I was not giving my best energy to these goals.  And that fatigue often led to giving in to the temptation of downtime by way of Netflix and YouTube.  We all know the staggering amount of time that can be squandered by clicking one video after the next.  I knew this approach wasn’t working, but it wasn’t until a good ol’ accountability challenge helped make the change.  That challenge was offered during a conversation with none other than Kat Troyer and Liz Bronson, hosts of the Real Job Talk podcast.  We were discussing blocks of time for studying and working on projects, and I admitted that I’m more effective in the morning, but I too often fall prey to my own lack of discipline, and end up staying up too late when I’m not effective.  They challenged me to a week of getting up early and report back.  Since then it has been 38 straight days of getting up at 5:00.

Following concepts outlined in the book, Deep Work, I’ve adapted the “Rhythmic Philosophy of Deep Work”.  This approach simply involves creating a time and place where one can clear out all distractions and focus on a project for a set period of time.  This seems to be a common approach for most busy professionals since the majority of our days are filled with nothing but distractions.  My time for focus is in the early morning hours when the rest of the family is still asleep.  I get up at 5:00 each day to start the day and knock out good laser focused time until 7:15 when the rest of the family wakes up to get ready for their day.  At that point, demands on my time and energy are then scattered and I fall into the normal routines of the hectic day.  But during those first two+ hours so much gets accomplished as my mental energy is at its peak and my concentration and focus are unchallenged.

One major outcome is that this has become a habit.  I’ve been doing this consistently now for almost 40 days.  My routine is straightforward, as I’m up at 5:00, feed the cat, practice mindfulness for 10 minutes, read, and then by 5:30, I’m tackling the project I’ve identified for the day.  No additional energy is expended deciding when to start working, and I’ve streamlined the routine by setting out the necessary items the night before.  I have my coffee and breakfast ready to go, my laptop and earbuds are ready on my desk, and yes, even my clothes are laid out.  I actually go through a routine the night before to make sure everything is prepared so I can hit the ground running when I get up.  This strategy requires some intentionality and is no different than the strategies that make morning workout routines successful.

A fantastic side benefit of this approach is that I’m more present during the day.  By doing my personal work at the beginning of the day, I’m no longer trying to figure out when to squeeze in some good study time.  This goal for the day has been met.  Thus, I can give my attention and energy to other demands as they come up.  I’m able to give my complete focus to work responsibilities, and more importantly, I can be present with my family in the evenings.  It’s amazing how uplifting the day becomes when the biggest personal goals are knocked out early to allow other meaningful time to occur later.  And from a health standpoint, my sleep is more consistent since I have to be in bed early enough in order to make the 5:00 wake up time.  My only real challenge is fighting the temptation each night to get started on something and instead, delay my eagerness for the morning.

So the results of all this?  The first week of leveraging this approach, I managed to knock out three blog posts, which allowed me to complete the #Blogtobertech challenge of writing five posts in one month.  That alone was astonishing to me and made me a quick believer in the effectiveness of this approach.  Over the last month, I’ve used this time to rewrite my resume, get up to speed on VMware Cloud on AWS, and complete an Ansible project.  As I wrote in my previous post, project-based learning can be an exceptional learning tool. I was able to get much deeper into Ansible with the unhindered focused time working on this project.  In fact, I hope to share some Ansible posts in the weeks ahead.

So my main challenge now is identifying what to work on next.  My list of ambitions seems to be endless, and I have two hours each day to chip away at it.  But those hours are golden, and the consistency will continue to reap amazing rewards.  In my next post, I hope to outline the four disciplines of execution, which is another concept from Newport’s, Deep Work, that resonated with me.  Until then, I’ll wrap this one up.  I hope my experience can be an encouragement to someone else who like me has been struggling to find the time to work on ambitious goals.

Going Deep with Project-Based Learning

Project-based learning is a concept for learning that has widely been used in the educational system.  My daughter recently completed a project for her class in which she put together a stop-motion video of her dolls going through a time machine to explore the history of her home state.  This kind of learning greatly engages so many parts of the mind, allowing the concepts of planning, creativity, problem solving, critical thinking, information synthesizing, and often collaboration.  It’s a powerful way to learn because it brings context and relevance to the table and goes far beyond the limitations of straight book learning.  Applied to the field of technology, we see it as just as powerful of a mode for learning, going beyond the typical book learning or certification study.

I wrote several posts on the value of certifications (structured learning, opportunity, and growth), but I wholeheartedly agree with every argument that becoming certified does not equate to mastery.  Likewise, running through the labs or sandbox environments that align with cert study do not provide mastery or any a true depth of understanding.  They do provide a second modality for learning (“doing” reinforces “seeing”), but unless we go free style and try to come up with our own scenarios, the activity level is often very passive, and retention is short-lived.

Coming up with our own scenarios in these sandbox environments can help to engage the active thinking.  One can create a goal of what to configure and work through it to completion.  This is a great way to use VMware’s Hands on Labs, for example.  Once you become accustomed to the interface and concepts, toss the lab manual aside and start working through your own configurations.  The lab environment is a fully functional environment that can be configured any way you like, within the limitations of the nested environment.  Poke around at the other settings, try different configuration, and just go crazy and break it, and then try to fix the broken state.  This approach will engage the problem-solving part of the brain that will help to internalize the material.

But let’s go beyond the sandbox or lab environment and consider how working in “live” environments can greatly increase our learning.  After all, the live environment provides the greatest context and relevance to help one learn concepts.  A retired Army Ranger friend once told me that in the service, their training would start with a walk-through of a scenario, then with blanks in their rifles, and finally with live rounds.  Deeper understanding is sharply honed when working in a live environment that carries consequences if mistakes are made.  Greater thought and care must be exercised so as not to cause adverse impact.  But we can still do this in the context of project-based learning.

What better way to learn something than to come up with a project goal at work – something that is relevant to your work role or area of study – and force yourself to come up with the solution using the resources and constraints of your environment.  I’ve done this with coding and automation.  Earlier in my career, I decided that to get better at PowerCLI, I would force myself to use it whenever I could.  As easy as it was to find a copy of code that someone had written, I would often attempt to write the code on my own to actively work through the logic and to exercise the parts of the brain that would retain the information.  Heck, I remember doing that years ago when learning guitar.  After learning the basics, a wise friend advised me to learn songs with my own ear before using guitar tablature.  It’s much harder to do, but the benefits are deeper and longer lasting.

I encourage everyone to think about a complex task that has been an ongoing challenge.  For example, maintaining firmware and driver updates or applying configuration changes in the environment.  Brainstorm ways that this maintenance can be automated using the tools readily available or that can be efficiently implemented.  And then go forth and tackle the problem using the tool.

There are so many tools and resources available to us to solve problems, but we all grieve the limited time to learn these tools and skills.  If there is limited time during the workday, then it might be worth treating your project as a personal project on your own time.  Sure, it will benefit your organization and make you look better to your team and management, but it will also provide you personally the benefit of learning new skills and provide another bullet point on the resume.  In fact, any project that is completed, whether for work or for personal benefit, can in fact be talking points on a resume.

I’ll share a very specific example I came across for project-based learning related to AWS.  I’m currently working on my AWS Certified Developer Associate certification and while searching for additional training resources I came across this post on A Cloud Guru’s site

#CloudGuruChallenge – Event-Driven Python on AWS

The goal of this challenge (or project) is to automate ETL processing for COVID-19 data using Python, AWS cloud services such as Lambda, CloudWatch, DynamoDB, and SNS triggers, while leveraging source control using GitHub. This kind of project goes beyond my current skill set, so what a perfect way to dive in and really learn these components.

And this is only one idea I came across.  There are many resources out there that offer a goal – a problem to solve and and a challenge to design and build a solution.  They are all great because they require one to think through the architecture, the capabilities and limitations of the various components, and how to put the solution together.

I’ll share one last thought.  Project-based learning has the benefit of providing an avenue for deliberate practice.  Just like athletes and musicians continually train to stay at the top of their game, we IT professionals must continue to train in ways that are relevant in our field.  Because our field continually changes, we must continue to deliberately practice and hone the skills needed to keep up with these changes .  Project-based learning is an excellent way to provide the context, the practice, the critical thinking, and the problem-solving skills required to stay relevant and keep at the top of our game.

Virtualization Professional’s Career Guide

A few months ago, I had the distinct honor of sitting down with Kit Colbert to discuss the virtualization career journey.  Kit is a legend in the technology community.  Having helped create vMotion and Storage vMotion, contributed to other core features in vSphere, and been involved in several major shifts at VMware (vRealize, EUC, cloud native), his impact in the virtual data center space is monumental.  I remember first seeing Kit on stage at VMworld ten years ago presenting on virtual machine memory management.  Even then I didn’t think he was from this world!  So, to sit down with this giant to talk about career growth was nothing short of awesome.

During our meeting, I shared with him my experience moving through my career.  I discussed my career progression, several of the roles I had filled, the new technologies I learned along the way, and the mindset I thought was crucial for being successful in this field.  I shared my passion for learning and how I used the attainment of certifications as one key path for learning and growth.  We discussed the growth mindset, including openness to new ideas and the willingness to work well with others.  And we talked about time management and prioritization to maximize focus and energy on keeping current in the ever-changing landscape of technology.

This interview and Kit’s interviews with several other virtualization professionals provided the basis for The Virtualization Professional’s Career Guide.  This is a concise guide written to provide insights and advice to those who are starting the virtualization career journey or looking to leverage the skills gained on this journey to springboard into adjacent technology disciplines.  The guide offers a map to continued growth and opportunity by including stories from other professionals’ paths, a skills checklist, and incredibly valuable tips to maximize the journey.

But there is an underlying premise in this guide that makes it all the more compelling.

The premise here is that virtualization professionals will play a key role in digital transformation and modernization.  Because virtualization touches so much of the infrastructure – compute, network, storage, hardware, apps, etc. – the VI admin has to understand the infrastructure holistically. Being good at virtualization means being good at adjacent infrastructure.  And because VI admins understand this, they are in a unique position to break through silos, be involved in IT strategy, and help the organization take advantage of the flexibility and efficiency that virtualization offers and move toward IT modernization.  As technology advances into new areas, the skills of the virtualization professional will be invaluable in this evolution.

With this premise, the guide shares how these skills coupled with broader understanding of the infrastructure can be leveraged to advance one’s career into other emerging areas.  Beyond the traditional infrastructure, we see the growth of hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI).  And beyond the traditional data center, we see the mainstream adoption of cloud services.  VI admins have the core skills necessary to design, build, and manage hyperconverged infrastructure and cloud-based services, helping organizations move from on-premises to hybrid and multi-cloud models. 

Along with the proliferation of cloud, we see cloud-native apps along with Kubernetes gaining ground in organizations.  VMware is capitalizing on this shift and providing a runway for VI admins with the integration of containers into vSphere 7.  They’ve brought the mindshare and tooling of Kubernetes into the interface we already know, making it easier than ever to learn new skills in app modernization.  They’re essentially bringing it to our doorstep!

VMware has already long been enabling VI admins to learn the ropes of automation, Infrastructure as Code, and the overall DevOps approach. With their cloud management products and commitment to building and empowering the coding community, it’s hard not to develop these skills that are quickly becoming the standard even in the most traditional environments.

And finally, with the advances of Edge, AI, IoT, ML, mobile, and other emerging tech, along with VMware’s involvement in each of these areas, virtualization pros are in a unique position to be exposed to these shifts and leverage this position into advancing their own careers.  This will create more opportunities to expand into these new areas that will continue to grow at an increasingly rapid pace.

We virtualization professionals are uniquely poised to take advantage of this inflection point in technology where so many shifts are occurring.  We have an ideal springboard with our skills built on the foundation of data center virtualization.  But it requires that we continue to learn, stay current, and leverage our existing skill sets by building on them.  Thankfully we have access to an abundance of online training resources as well as a robust community to help us along the way.  I’ve never seen a community as enthusiastic and vibrant as the #vCommunity!  Conferences, VMUGs, and Twitter are just a few avenues to help one get quickly exposed and connected into this amazing community.

A career in VMware virtualization is an incredibly rewarding journey.  I encourage anyone who is looking for career advice in this field to check out the Virtualization Professional’s Career Guide or any of the resources below:

Happy journeys!

Personal Growth through Certifications

In my previous posts, I covered the two primary benefits of certification pursuit and attainment:  having a structured learning path, and new opportunities.  Today, I’ll cover the more abstract benefits around personal growth.

Goal setting and focus

Working toward a certification requires the simple act of goal setting.  And working toward any significant goal brings a whole set of benefits.  When engaged in the pursuit of a goal, we exercise our ability to focus.  We set our eyes on the desired result and we engage our mind and actions on achieving that result.  That ability to focus, when exercised regularly, can have far reaching impacts on other areas of our lives.  This one skill can lead to better time management, setting priorities, and most importantly discipline. 

Discipline is required to achieve anything greatWhen we establish disciplined habits on a daily basis, we experience the amazing compounding effect of consistent action.  This compounding effect can easily be seen in when applied to exercise and weight training, where each day’s workout builds on the gains achieved the day before.  Consistency is key, and consistency can only be achieved through disciplined effort.  James Clear’s book, “Atomic Habits”, provides an enlightening view on the power of consistent action. 

When applied to certification goals, we accept that consistent habits of study and practice are required.  The disciplined action of getting up early, for example, and studying daily establishes a routine that builds upon itself day after day.  Each day, we build upon the progress made the day before. One month of consistent studying or action puts us much further ahead than if we attacked it in an unorganized, random fashion.  Regular goal setting, discipline, and consistency, help to hone the skills of mental focus, time management, and priority setting.  The more we exercise these skills, the more natural they’ll become, and the more we’ll be able to accomplish. 

For me, the process of working toward any goal is incredibly satisfying.  I also happen to have a passion for learning, so when I tie the process of learning to a goal, such as achieving a certification, this becomes an incredibly enjoyable pursuit, which fuels the motivation to stay on track and stay disciplined.  The challenge then becomes time management.  But again, with disciplined habits, I can structure my day to ensure I have time to put in that consistent effort.  For example, I’m currently conditioning myself to get to sleep early at night, so I can get up early to study since I know the morning hours are the most effective time for me to accomplish my personal goals.

The act of the pursuit of a goal can be rewarding by itself, but the attainment of a goal brings another powerful benefit beyond increased skill or competence, and that is confidence.

Confidence

Achieving any goal can provide a healthy boost to one’s overall sense of confidence. The self-satisfaction and validation of one’s ability to accomplish a great task can be incredibly uplifting. When applied to the attainment of a certification, the attainment of new knowledge can lead to confidence in one’s grasp of the material. As stated in previous posts, gaining a certification does not equate to experience or similarly any level of mastery.  That can only be gained by years in the field or trenches.  But once a concept is learned, a new level of competence is gained.  What was once a mystery is now something understood, and grasping and understanding the new concept can translate into this renewed confidence.

I had a very eye-opening experience years ago when pursuing my CCNA certification.  Somehow, I made it through many years in IT without knowing the core networking concept of subnetting.  The logic was mysterious simply because I had not taken the time to understand it.  And having access to CIDR tables on the Internet didn’t help since this perpetuated my lack of need to learn it.  But subnetting is a core concept of the CCNA level material.  If you don’t grasp and internalize it, you won’t pass the exam.  Once I understood it, I was amazed how much that alone deepened my understanding of routing and switching.  It’s not surprising then how much of a confidence boost I felt in my approach to infrastructure engineering.

A few years ago, I attended a VCDX workshop led by Paul Mancuso.  He made one comment that stuck with me.  The gist of his comment was this:  Becoming a VCDX does not mean you will automatically make a lot more money, but you will treat your career differently.  What that comment meant to me was that this certification introduces a new level of confidence in one’s mastery over a particularly high-level skill set, and that this level of confidence could translate into one’s posture and the pursuit of higher level and more rewarding roles.  I honestly believe the attainment of any hard to achieve certification brings a confidence boost that can positively influence how we approach our current work and the type of future roles we pursue.  So many of us have dealt with imposter syndrome.  Sometimes the completion of a daunting certification might help provide some validation that we are not an imposter after all.

Enjoyment

The final thought on this has to do with simple enjoyment.  About 15 years ago, I thought about leaving the field of tech and pursing a completely different line of work.  I felt like I was “burnt out”.  I had been doing systems administration for several years, and I was looking for something more fulfilling.  Around this time, I got married and started feeling the pressure of supporting my family.  Instead of pursuing an entirely new career where income might be tight for a while, I made the decision to invest myself in my current career so that I could continue to pay the bills.  What happened was amazing.  By investing more of my time and focus in learning, I started receiving returns on my investment in the form of job satisfaction.  I started loving my work the more I learned.  It was within a year after that when I discovered virtualization, and that opened a whole new passion of mine for technology. 

Simply investing oneself and making the decision to own one’s career can truly open the door to a greater enjoyment and fulfillment that will fuel one’s career.  Certification pursuit and self-initiated learning is a powerful avenue for investing oneself and taking that ownership.

Conclusion

Over the last few posts, I’ve argued how certifications can be incredibly beneficial and highly rewarding for those with a craving for learning and growth in their careers.  They provide a structured path for learning a new technology or product, opened doors to new opportunities within one’s current role or a new role altogether, and personal growth and skills that can have a wide range of impact in one’s career.

The clear component that certification study misses of course is real-world production-level experience.  Working in a lab is not like working in a production environment.  Driving on a closed-course track is not like driving on the open road.  But how do we gain experience if it’s not part of our current role?  One answer is through project-based learning.  I’ll look forward to discussing that in an upcoming post.  Thanks for reading!

Opening Doors through Certifications

In my last post, I started a topic on the value of certifications, highlighting one of the strongest benefits of certification: structured learning path.  In this post, I’ll look at how the pursuit and attainment of certifications can open doors to new opportunities.

It’s widely believed that having a certification on one’s resume can get a foot in the door for an interview.  Recruiters and hiring managers often scan a candidate’s resume and the mere presence of a certification can certainly grab their attention.  Likewise having a certification listed on one’s LinkedIn profile can provide the right keywords when recruiters are scanning the site searching for potential candidates.

Of course, as mentioned in my previous post, having a certification doesn’t guarantee that one can do the work.  The technical interview in fact is designed to determine whether the candidate has enough technical depth to perform successfully in the role.  Experience will far more often provide that depth and is a better indicator of whether one can handle the workload.  That said, getting the interview is the first step, and sometimes simply having that certification can make the difference.

Additionally, some consulting companies and service providers search for candidates who have specific certifications to maintain vendor partnerships.  Having a consultant with these credentials can certainly help when bidding for new customer engagements, so these companies are motivated to find and keep individuals with existing certifications.

But what about your own company?  What opportunities can come up with your current employer?

Learning a new topic will never come back void.  For most managers, seeing one of their direct reports pursue a certification indicates a level of drive, self-initiative, and vision, especially when that pursuit was self-driven.  These are key traits for any manager to see in their employees and thus, managers will often reward those employees with new growth opportunities as they become available.

I’ve experienced this several time in my own career.  Pursuing VMware certifications early at my company showed my boss that I was serious about this new technology we had recently introduced to the organization.  Soon after, I found myself at VMworld for the first time, which by far opened my eyes to a whole new level of knowledge, enthusiasm, and a thriving community around this technology.  Without a doubt that made the largest shift in my own enthusiasm around the product and set me on a new course in my career.  It certainly cemented my position as the go-to VMware guy on my team.  When I think back, this was 2009 when the economy was still in a slump after the recession and most companies’ training budgets were trimmed back.  I believe that my certification was a contributing factor in the approval for me to attend the conference.

Another early example was my earning the ITIL Foundation certification a couple years later.  I had just taken on a management role on an operations team and I was searching for a good methodology for world class IT operations.  ITIL was exactly what I was looking for at the time.  I learned the lingo, read some books (including “The Visible Ops Handbook”, one of Gene Kim’s books before his “Phoenix Project” and DevOps fame), and I attained my certification.  I shared the news with my boss, who until that time had not known I was working on this, and he admired by pursuit and initiative.  Noting my initiative, he sent me to the upcoming Gartner Data Center Conference where I rubbed shoulders with other IT managers and influencers within the Infrastructure/Operations space.  And I had one-on-one meetings with Chris Wolf and George Spafford who both expanded my understanding of key areas in operations management.  All because I went after a certification.

More recently, I’ve displayed my interest in cloud service offerings, and I’ve focused my current learning pursuit on AWS.  My company, Syntax, is a managed cloud provider, offering services on-premises in our data centers as well as managing workloads and applications in the public cloud.  I happen to be on the on-premises team caring and feeding our large VMware environment, but some of my colleagues are working deep in AWS and Azure.  Since we partner with AWS and Microsoft, I knew it would provide value to add another certified AWS employee to our partnership. And by gaining an AWS certification, I also proved that I had the drive to learn and gain a proficiency in this service offering.  My boss has seen this drive and has sought out opportunities to provide me production experience working with our AWS team.

Those are a just a few examples from my own experience.  Sometimes the opportunities have been more subtle and sometimes they’ve led to other experiences that truly opened the door wide open.  I can honestly say, the attainment of a certification has never come back void from an opportunity standpoint.

For anyone serious about their career in technology, keeping a mind for learning is crucial.  One can certainly learn with no certifications attached.  But there is something tangible about a certification that shows a manager the level of focus and drive in your own career, as well as a competency that can most certainly translate into new opportunities that will provide experience and set you on a whole new path to growth.

In my next post, I’ll round out the topic of certifications by looking through the lens of personal growth. Stay tuned!

Value of Tech Certifications

The value of tech certifications has been the topic of debate throughout my years in IT.  Many believe in the value and validation attained by them, while others view them as a cheap display of supposed knowledge, with no real skill or experience to back it up.  Some even go as far as viewing certifications as a money grab by their vendors.  I still remember the days of the early MCSE and the perceived promise of a better paying job, which made this a hugely popular cert and created what many would call “paper MCSEs”.  There was some truth behind this label since many were inexperienced or much worse, used brain dumps to get answers to questions before walking into the testing center.

I wholeheartedly agree that experience will always be worth more than the paper that comes with a passed exam.  I’ve been at the interview table with candidates who had a resume full of certifications but could not answer basic questions.  Likewise, some of the top talent we’ve had on our teams do not have some of the basic certifications.  That said, I am still a huge proponent of certifications as I see some key benefits that come through both the pursuit and attainment:

  • Structured learning path
  • Exposure to new opportunities
  • Personal growth

Over the next several posts, I’ll lay out some of my thoughts around these benefits and ways that I have personally benefited through the attainment of certifications.

Structured learning path

First and foremost, I believe certifications provide a well-structured learning path.  Most vendors provide an exam blueprint for their respective exams, and even more training companies and publishers offer study guides and courses for exam preparation.  By using these study resources and exam blueprints, key topics are identified and a road map for studying is conveniently laid out.  To me this is one of the most efficient ways to quickly get up to speed on a particular technology.  This gives one the guidelines on what to study to gain the widest coverage of topics with just enough depth to gain a solid understanding of the product.

There are certainly many training resources available that are not exam-centric, yet provide a similar structured learning path.  But aiming for a certification provides an additional benefit: a deadline.  Having a deadline by scheduling an exam invariably increases motivation, which helps prioritize study time. And this provides a timeline that feeds nicely into those time-bound SMART goals.  By setting a time and priority to get up to speed on a topic, one can outline a schedule, and estimate the time required to attain a solid understanding of the topic.  For me personally, that helps me see the light at the end of the tunnel when tackling new material.

There have been several turning points in my own career when I identified an area of technology where I had a gap and I leveraged the power of certification study to fill that gap.  Notable examples have been networking, and more recently, AWS cloud.  In each of these areas, I was lacking critical knowledge or experience that I deemed essential to my own career progression.

In a previous job role, I worked as a consultant on customer projects.  I had a strong understanding in many areas in traditional infrastructure, but I was weak in my networking skills. Up to that point, even though I had managed a data center, I had relied heavily on network engineers on my team.  But in this consulting role, it seemed every project demanded some level of networking knowledge, and without my old colleagues to fall back on, I felt terribly handicapped.  Therefore, I set out to achieve my CCNA certification to gain a solid understanding of general Layer 2/3 concepts and router/switch configuration so I could do my job.  And by doing so, my understanding was greatly enhanced, which helped my overall design and engineering skills.  I was able to at last fill out the entire infrastructure stack and become a much better engineer.  To this day, I credit my pursuit of this one certification as being a key turning point in my career. There aren’t many days that go by when I don’t employ some knowledge gained during this pursuit.  In fact, I’m amazed I got so far in my career without this skill set.  (psst… I think I really was an impostor. 😊 )

This year, I’ve focused on public cloud and decided to work on my AWS certifications to get up to speed on this fast growing technology. My company partners with AWS as part of our offerings, but I happen to spend most of my time on our on-prem managed hosting services, managing our large VMware environment. Earlier this year, I attained my AWS Solutions Architect Associate certification and I’m currently working on my Developer Associate cert. The latter has been especially helpful, not just for my understanding of new cloud services, but also in getting my mind wrapped around the developer mindset. I’ve been a solid infrastructure guy throughout my career and it’s just been within the last several years that scripting and coding have taken center stage for me. The leap into dev tools and understanding the way developers approach cloud services is a major step in my evolution as an IT professional.

In areas where I already feel fairly skilled, I’ve still used certifications to help fill gaps in my understanding of a product.  I consider myself strongly proficient in VMware vSphere having spent over 12 years deep in the trenches designing and administering enterprise scale VMware environments.  But there are still many components within vCenter or ESXi that I don’t use on a day-to-day basis.  Pursuing VMware certs has helped fill some of those gaps by motivating me to study these lesser used aspects of the product.  This was particularly true when I pursued and attained the advanced level VCAP certifications.  For anyone who has taken these certifications can attest, “book” knowledge is not enough to pass those exams.  Real world experience is essential.  But by pursuing those certifications, deeper level concepts were uncovered and thus, my own understanding was increased.  Having this deeper level understanding greatly enhanced even my day-to-day tasks as my horizon and visibility into the product was expanded.

There are clearly other structured ways to learn new concepts.  Besides cold, hard experience, project-based learning and deliberate practice are incredibly strong avenues for learning, as they clearly provide an even deeper level of understanding and skill.  If one truly wants to master a technology, those strategies are integral to the process. I plan to write about this in upcoming posts, but the purpose here has been to consider how certifications in particular still provide value in the overall plan for learning and growth.

In upcoming posts, I’ll share two other benefits of the certification game: exposure to new opportunities and personal growth. Stay tuned!

New Start

January 1, 2020.  First day of the new year and the new decade!  Proverbial resolutions are made… with far too many people responding pessimistically to the staying power of these resolutions.  It’s true, gyms are often packed in the first couple weeks of the year, and that by February, the crowds thin out leaving mostly the consistent folks who were there before the start of the year.

I like to be optimistic.  But I’m also realistic.  I’ve had access to goal setting tools for many years, but when I’ve looked at my success rate of follow-through, I have much to be desired.  I’m human with other priorities that often trump my own ambitions.  But I also know that I can be lazy too.  At the end of the day when I have the opportunity to work toward a great personal goal, I too often let the passive and mindless allure of Netflix or YouTube take over.  It’s nice and relaxing and after a hard, busy day, it seems to hit the spot.

So, what will be different about this year?  Well, while fully acknowledging where my weaknesses are, I still have high aspirations.  And I have the ability to follow through.  Knowing where the landmines are as well as the goal and direction I need to take to get there is a big part the battle.  Having a plan in place to avoid the landmines and truly follow through by taking focused action is the other.  That’s my goal and it starts here.  In fact, one of my goals is to post more content on my blog this year.  So, one down!  : )

This year, one of my goals is to transform the direction of my career.  And clearly, this will take a solid disciplined approach to learning and habit management like I’ve never taken on in the past.  I know I have the tools and the learning resources, as well as the ability to manage my habits to take full advantage of my available time.  It’s just a matter of avoiding those pesky landmines that sabotage my follow-through.

I’ve come across several intriguing authors over the last couple years who seem to have a consistent message that really resonates with me.  These authors have not tacked the typical self-development topics of mindset and traditional goal setting per se.  They have tackled areas that truly align with the areas that I personally would like to excel in: habits and mastery over new skills.  And the tools they teach are just the tools that can help avoid the landmines and reach one’s goals.

The authors are Cal Newport,  James Clear, and Scott Young.  I won’t spend time writing about their books here, but I will provide links to each one below.  These are books I will be devouring this year to help me stay on track with my personal learning and development goals:

I aim to post reports or at least evidence of my progress throughout this year.  One of my goals is to get better at writing.  I believe posting more content will provide an avenue for doing just that.

Let’s toast the new year and get started on the right foot!  Cheers!

Pivot Point

Several (more like eight) years ago, I started a blog.  I was encouraged by other members of the vCommunity to jump in and start sharing.  There was much encouragement along the way, and I loved the idea of contributing, even if I thought I was an inexperienced voice with little to add.  But as with most things, I discovered that unless one is truly intentional, our “best intentions” end up never really hitting the mark.  Consistency is not practiced and goals are not achieved.  I’ve learned and relearned this lesson many times in life.  I am a life-long learner, but I prefer to learn something once and then move on – not having to relearn my previous mistakes.  In any case, I’m trying to exert some new intention and kick this off blog off once again – with a pivot in mind.

Years ago, I started a journal.  It was just over 30 years ago to be more specific.  I still have every page from that journal of which I was consistent with for part of those first 10 years.  Incredible growth in my life occurred during this time and I had some amazing experiences.  This period of time included my college years, my big adventurous summer in Alaska, my starting (and ending) a small business, and most importantly, my embrace of a deep faith.  I even started my IT career with a software training company during this time.  My first IT role would most certainly become one of the big pivots in my life.  This set me off on a new trajectory in life that would provide some great professional rewards and on a personal level, lead me to my future wife and family.  But with my journal writing, when I had the most to write about, I had the least amount of time to do so, and my writing often waned.

About 11 years ago, when I was still working in Windows Server administration, I hit another pivot point when I discovered virtualization.  VMware VI 3.5 had just been released, I saw the changes it would provide in our day-to-day operations and I was hooked.  I embraced virtualization since the industry was clearly adopting this technology and would soon become the de facto standard for on premises data centers.  A year later, I attended my first VMworld and I came back with my face glowing ready to go all-in on this new phase of my career.  I saw the community at large for the first time, and thousands who were just as passionate about embracing this technology.  I set out to learn as much as I could and had some intention of contributing to the community.  I had lots to write about…

Over the last several years, I’ve had other growth spurts where so much was going on and I had so much to write about, but little time or energy – or simply lack of intention – to write.  Shortly after my previous blog post, I started working for a managed services provider in RTP, NC.  I took on a role as Sr. Virtualization Engineer in an enterprise-scale, predominantly VMware environment.  I had been managing and consulting in VMware focused roles for many years, but the demands and experience of the enterprise environment brought very different challenges within configuration, performance, and management.  Not only did my skill set have to sharpen very quickly to meet the demands of a large environment, they had to downright transform to break from my old habits.  Automation and scripting, extreme performance tuning, massive scale configuration management, and deep forensic analysis were all part of the my day-to-day existence.  Lots to learn and so much to blog about… but, most of my documentation ended up in company wikis, internal technical docs, and emails to customers and colleagues.

This brings us back to now… I’m once again facing what I believe is a new pivot point in my career.  I love virtualization and the world of technology this has opened to me.  It has even provided a spring board to other technologies that will clearly continue to transform our data centers and the way we process data.  Data center virtualization enabled the rapid growth of cloud with its abstraction of pools of resources and provided the ability to place into the hands of customers the power to spin up workloads in minutes.  Coding became the new skill for system admins to learn to manage vastly larger environments that grew out of the enabling technology of virtualization.  And lastly we have a newer technology that has become very popular over the last few years: containers.  The nature of containers has taken this idea of portability and abstraction from the underlying resources to another new level.  Most technology vendors have invested so much into each of these three areas:  cloud, containers and code, and for good reason:  this is not just the direction, but the road itself that our industry is speeding along.

So my mantra these days is “Cloud, containers, and code”.  It sums up the skill set that I’ve embraced as my focus for this next phase in my career.  So much to learn, so much to write about… so… I’ll see you back here in a few years for my next post.  : )  Stay tuned.

 

VCP6-DCV Study Resources

Last month, I was up against the deadline to renew my VCP certification. I went ahead and bit the bullet and studied up to pass the VCP6-DCV exam. These exams are far from easy and require a depth of knowledge in areas we typically don’t work with on a daily basis (for example Auto Deploy). All in all, it’s still a fair exam and in my mind and preserves the integrity of the VCP by setting the bar high for any VMware Professional.

I was eligible to take the Delta exam (2v0-621D), but ended up taking the regular, full blown 85 question exam (2v0-621). Since the cost was the same, I decided my chances might be better with this exam under the impression that this would have more questions on items I was already super familiar with and less on the differences.

That said, I studied hard the month leading up to the exam. I came across a number of great resources, some are listed below:

Pluralsight’s vSphere 6 Data Center course – Greg Shields

The Unofficial Official VCP6-DCV Study Guide – Josh Coen and Jason Langer

VCP6-DCV Study Guide – Vladan Seget

VCP6-DCV Study Guide – Hersey Cartwright

VCP6-DCV Study Guide – Javier Rodriguez

Mastering VMware vSphere 6 – Nick Marshall, Grant Orchard, Josh Atwell

vBrownBag VCP6-DCV Study Track – various

Tremendous resources. Everyone involved in putting these together are rock stars. Incredible applause for them and the content they’ve pulled together!

That said, through my pursuit of several VCP certifications, I’ve determined that the following resources are absolute requirements:

Exam Blueprint

Study the exam blueprint and get really good at everything on the list. To keep track of your progress, make a spreadsheet or a checklist with each topic listed out. Check them off once you’ve studied them, practiced them, restudied them and practiced again. VMware exam blueprints are the best I’ve worked with among all vendor certifications. Take full advantage of this ultimate “guide” for studying.

Lab Time

The exam will reveal how familiar you are with the product. If you have not had sufficient stick time, all book knowledge will likely land you short of the goal. The only way to fully internalize much of the content is through solid face to face time with vSphere in your own lab.

One great additional resource that falls in this category are VMware’s Hands on Labs. These are pre-built lab environments, with each one touching on a specific solution in VMware’s product lines. Here’s a secret – you don’t have to follow the lab guide. You can pull up a lab and just start playing with some other features available in that lab environment. They are fully functional, almost as if you were in your own lab. The huge caveat here is the limitation on time. You only get a very limited amount of time to play before the time is up and the lab expires and is destroyed. This means, you can’t walk away and come back the next day to pick up where you left off. But, if you need a quick practice run of VSAN, for example, launch the VSAN lab. I used this particular one since I had little experience with this feature before taking the exam. Great resource for learning this newer product.

Another outstanding resource for labs is Ravello’s Smart Labs. Recently, news broke that they are getting acquired by Oracle. I share the sentiment of many in the community that we shudder at the potential impact this will have on the service. But for now, the service is top notch, the support of the company to VMware users is awesome, and the rallying support from the VMware community has been nothing short of gracious. Quite a number of vExperts have written about their experiences using Ravello. It’s definitely a great resource to try out.

VMware Documentation

I believe the ultimate resource for “book knowledge” is VMware’s Documentation Center. That’s right, all the thousands of pages of VMware’s product documentation. Through my previous VCP exam studies, I’ve learned that all (or mostly all) of the test answers are in the documentation. I have had great results from pouring through the docs, with my lab in hand, following the official VMware steps for accomplishing all the various tasks required of a VMware admin. For me, nothing was more extensive and exhaustive then this resource. And yet, therein lies the problem. The product documentation is too extensive. Thus, leveraging the Exam Blueprint is the only way to know what parts of the documentation to focus on.

That said, I’ve decided to put together a copy of the Blueprint with links to each section of the documentation where you can find the relevant information. This might be helpful for some. If not, it will at least provide a quick reference for some of the less intuitive admin tasks we might come up against in our daily work.

To keep this post short, I’ll created a separate page with the main topics of the blueprint and associated links.  I’ll add content over the next few weeks as quickly as I can. Hope some will find this helpful!

Winding down…

OK, so the year has almost come to a close and I think I had a whopping six posts this year, and most of them came out near the beginning of the year.  Definitely didn’t meet my blogging goals for the year, nor many of my goals for that matter.  The tyranny of the urgent has a way of redirecting one down an unintended path.  Very ironic since I had a great post about goal setting back in January.  Maybe this year, I will follow my own advice.

That said, this has still been a great year, though nothing major to brag about. In all honesty, as far as work goals and achievements if feels a bit lackluster.  I had some good moments – vExpert again, speaking moments at VMworld and my local VMUG, a couple certifications knocked out, and a few long running and cool projects for our customers.  Personal goals were good too.  I finally got my weight back to a normal level after a scary 2014 when my weight plummeted due to a mysterious digestive issue.  I also had great periods of downtime with my family, saw my 5 year old start reading voraciously, and my wife continue a dream job at our daughter’s school. We continued our acclimation to the Carolina culture after transplanting here from the DC area in 2013 – best decision we ever made.  House, neighborhood, work, school, church, friendships… we’re still amazed at how everything just fell into place for us.  We celebrated joyously with our neighbors as they welcomed their first child. We thanked God for the successful treatments of both my parents who each faced incredible health issues this year.  I survived getting struck by a car as a pedestrian with nothing more than a sprained hand.  And I met some awesome folks and deepened existing friendships.  I guess not a bad year when I put things in perspective.  Perhaps the way to look at this year: Not everything I had set out to accomplish, but I was blessed and protected and am enriched because of it.

So as I ponder work-life balance and consider all the conversations I’ve had with others this year about this topic since I’ve struggled through this, one thing keeps coming to the surface.  The things that are most important to me – my family, relationships, and health – are all still very much intact and abundant.  In all my work and goal setting and worldly pursuits, I must always remember the best achievements are those completed with and for the people closest to us.

Hopefully, I’ll keep this close to my heart and mind as I reset my goals in the new year.