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!

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!

Free Brocade Training and Certification!

This might be old news for some, but I recently came across several promotions for free Brocade training and exams for the following certifications (contact information required):

Brocade has been offering these promotions for the past several months.  As of today’s date (Oct 8, 2014) it appears the promos are still good, but I’m not sure how much longer they will last. So hurry and register if these are relevant. They’re quite the deal if you’re a Brocade customer or partner.

A little info on each:

Brocade Certified Ethernet Fabric Professional

  • For engineers seeking to validate fundamental through advanced level skills on Brocade Ethernet fabric concepts and products. Specifically designed for BCNP, CCNP, and CCIE professionals with field experience.
  • Web-based training course is Bridge to Ethernet Fabrics for Network Professionals (CEF 250-WBT). I discovered it’s easier to do a search for this instead of following the link in the Quick Start guide.
  • Certification exam is free using the promo code in the Quick Start guide.

Brocade Certified vRouter Engineer

  • For those already certified in Ethernet concepts looking to become familiar with the Brocade NFV solution, as well as anyone active in installing, configuring and troubleshooting Brocade Vyatta vRouters.
  • Web-based training is Bundle for Brocade Certified vRouter Engineer (SDN BCVRE).
  • Promo includes a 60-day fully functional evaluation of the Vyatta vRouter to get hands-on experience.
  • Certification exam is free using the promo code in the Quick Start guide.

**Passing the exams for the two certifications above meet the requirements for the Advanced Level Certified Professional Converged Networking Track.

Brocade Accredited Network Advisor Specialist accreditation

In addition to the above free training, Brocade also has plenty of other introductory level web-based training courses offered free of charge. The course catalog can be searched here. For web-based training, just choose “Self-Paced Web-Based (WBT) under the Delivery Type. A “My Brocade Training Login” is required.

Gotta love free training!

 

VCAP5-DCA Results!

Wow! Results came in seven days from the day I wrote this exam.  I expected my wait to be the normal 14+ days so I was stunned when I woke up this morning to see the email from VMware with my VCAP5-DCA Exam Report.  And it arrived in my mailbox last night!!  How could I have missed that?!  I was naturally very hesitant to open the report especially after feeling the way I described in my last post.  However, my hesitancy quickly turned to elation as I opened the report and saw those four golden letters:  P A S S !!!  What a way to start off my day!  And what a way to kick off the year!!  Technically this was accomplished in 2013, but I’m also putting this up as my first accomplished goal of 2014 since I didn’t get the results until today.  Hey… whatever works to get you pumped for the new year, right?!  It’s just awesome!

I listed off my study resources in my VCAP5-DCA Preparation post and I listed off some recommendations in my VCAP5-DCA Experience post, so I won’t go into those again.  I do want to offer a big thanks to the vCommunity as a whole for providing the resources, encouragement and support for tackling a daunting goal like this.  And I also must thank my employer, UNICOM Systems and my team at the office for giving me the opportunity and support needed to pursue and ultimately knock this goal out.  It is a huge win for my team at the office and my organization as a whole.

Now on to the next goal!  I would quickly start working on my VCAP5-DCD certification, but it looks like my next target recommended by the boss is my NetApp NCDA certification.  My organization, UNICOM Systems, is a commercial IT consulting arm for UNICOM Global, and we just recently strengthened our partnership with NetApp. To have a strong VMware and NetApp engineer on staff will be a big asset for our Raleigh office.  And yes, VCAP5-DCD is most certainly still on the hit list for later this year!

VCAP5-DCA Experience

So I took the VMware VCAP5-DCA exam last week.  I studied rigorously for this one, especially in the final weeks leading up the exam.  I had to reschedule a couple times due to scheduling conflicts with work projects, but I managed to get this in before the end of the year (and thus still be able to use the promo code I had from VMworld).  I used all the great study resources that most people have referenced and added another resource to the list I shared in my previous post.  Mike Preston’s, “8 Weeks of #VCAP” offered some great overviews on the those more obscure skills that many of us don’t use every day, like vSphere AutoDeploy and Image Builder. That helped to fill in some of the gaps.

My experience was somewhat similar to many others in that I ran out of time.  I knew going into this exam it would be unlike any other that I had taken.  The sheer magnitude of material was enormous, and the ability to readily pull from that knowledge to quickly execute tasks would really be tested.  What I did not realize was how quickly that time would fly by when engaged in these tasks.  That 3.5 hours was the fastest 3.5 hours ever!  Oh, how I wish I could have extended the time just another 15 minutes to squeeze in a couple more questions.  I believe I hurt myself early in the exam by not hitting the ground running from the start.  I started with an approach that Tim Antonowicz shared on his post about testing strategy during the exam.  I won’t go into the details here, but essentially, this amounted to reviewing each question in order to create a good outline of the exam and then using that outline to take a strategic approach in answering the questions.  It seems like a great approach and apparently has worked for him and others.  I, however, ended up spending too much time on this review, time that could very easily have been spent completing one or two more questions.  Now… that said, one great benefit I got from applying this approach was that it did put me at ease early in the exam.  I was confident I knew how to complete all of the scenarios that I just reviewed.  There was nothing that I saw that was beyond what I had prepared.

So… after reviewing the exam I settled into my first question and was surprised when I saw that almost 30 minutes had ticked off the clock after completing that first question.  I knew I had to work faster, but I really didn’t find my groove until the second half of the exam.  In the end, I left a number of questions on the table unanswered.  I finally understood what everyone means when they say that time is not your friend on this exam.  I truly believe it takes first hand experience to fully understand what is required on an exam like this.  This included getting good at maneuvering between the testing window, the various Remote Desktop windows, the Putty session window, and the vSphere Client windows, all on one screen.  And of course dealing with the notorious lag that everyone mentions.  Although thankfully, this wasn’t quite as bad for me as many have shared nor did I have any lockups that some have experienced.

I can share my recommendations, but it will be like most others – practice, practice, practice until you know the skills on the DCA blueprint cold.  I would add to that, attempt all skills on one screen.  During the test, I would recommend scribbling key configuration details from the exam scenarios on the dry erase pad to avoid having to switch back and forth between the testing window and the lab environment.  I believe that alone consumed too much of my time.  Another huge recommendation that has been shared numerous time is to not wait for certain processes like an installation to complete.  Any waiting time should be spent working on the next question or task.  Of course, keeping track of what questions have been completed and which ones have not becomes critical.

In the end, I agree that the exam is very fair regarding the content.  There are no surprises if you know the blueprint.  The only surprise that came for me was the time element.  If you get good at that, you’ll be good at the exam.  I don’t know yet if I passed, but if I did not, at least I will be armed with the understanding and full appreciation of the level of time management and sheer focus and adeptness that is required to successfully knock this one off.

Update (Jan 7, 2014):  I passed!!! My exam results came one day after posting this piece.

VCAP5-DCA Prep

I can proudly say that after a year or so of poking at the content of the VCAP5 exams, I’ve finally gotten myself into gear and have been faithfully in hot pursuit of the esteemed VCAP5-DCA cert.  And the pursuit has already been very rewarding.  Like any exam, this one takes huge amounts of study, which equates to discipline and sacrifice.  It truly requires a sacrifice of time as this really amounts to about an eight week commitment for many.  That’s a commitment of evening and weekend hours and whatever work hours one can ethically squeeze out of the boss.  In my case, I’ve had the fortune of having some good time each day to tinker away in the lab.  Of course, everyone needs a lab.  A few weeks into my study and I thought I’d share some of the methodology that has been working well for me.

Make the Commitment

For any worthwhile pursuit or goal, a deadline is critical.  The old quote “A goal is a dream with a deadline” (Napolean Hill) is very true. Over the last year without any type of deadline, the idea of pursuing this certification remained just that – an idea.  It never gained any traction until one day not too long ago (and with the additional push of a discount promo code), I scheduled my exam date.  It is now on the calendar which makes it all the more real.  The clock is ticking, I hear it and I know I have to hustle each day to work through another portion of the exam blueprint.  Step one, make the commitment by getting the exam date on the calendar.  Then…

Define the plan

A variation of the old quote by Napolean Hill is by Harvey Mackey, “…A goal is a dream with a plan and a deadline.”  This is fairly elementary but what is the plan?  Of course time needs to be carved out as mentioned above, but what do we do with that time?  The first stop here is indisputable VCAP5-DCA Exam Blueprint.  This is a must have and this advice is Numero Uno from everyone who has walked this road before.  Know everything on that blueprint so well that you can perform each item quickly without having to reference the online docs. Since that is a massive amount of material to learn, there have to be some shortcuts to learning this.  Well… there are no shortcuts, but there are some great study guides available.  These serve the purpose of being good refreshers and concisely honing in on what some consider the most important points to know.  These are not official, but are still phenomenal guides, put together by some of the best contributors in the community.  The ones I am currently using are:

  • The vBrownBag VCAP5-DCA series.  Great videos by some awesome folks in the community.  Nick Marshall has easy links to each video aligned with the VCAP Exam Blueprint objectives here.
  • VCAP5-DCA Study notes, by one of the regulars in the vBrownbag circle, Shane Williford.  One additional valuable item he brings to the table is the CLI Study notes.  This is a one-stop quick reference to the many CLI commands needed for the exam.  Great addition!
  • The Pluralsight (formerly TrainSignal) VMware vSphere Optimize and Scale video training, by Jason Nash.  Jason is well known and rock solid in his teaching and his training series covers the entire exam blueprint.  I might add a quick plug for Pluralsight training here… If you haven’t done so already, I highly recommend a monthly subscription.  For as low as $30/month, you have access to the most incredible library of training materials, from programming to career development to infrastructure training.  I use this library almost everyday on the job, to brush up on VMware, Citrix and Cisco concepts.  Highly, highly recommended!
  • And to keep track of it all, which is part of any organized plan, I’ve been using Chris Wahl’s VCAP5-DCA Study Sheet.  Checking items off when accomplished always feels good so this gives the sense of little victories on the road toward the ultimate objective.

So that’s a lot of training and study material to work through.  How does one manage to absorb all of this in a relatively short period of time?

Exercise Superb Time Management

This is probably my weakest skill.  With all the distractions of our world, it is so easy to get lulled away from even the most well devised plans.  One of the best and surprisingly simplest tools I’ve used to keep myself on track is the Pomodoro Technique.  This is a little technique that is based on the finding that we are most effective and focused when we work in 25 minutes chunks of time.  The brain then needs a break, so a five minute break is sufficient before tackling another 25 minute focused chunk of time.  After several of these “chunks,” it’s recommended to take a 15-30 minute break.  It’s well known that taking breaks during intense times of work or focus helps the mind stay productive.  For me, the added benefit of this timed period is knowing that my one and only objective during the 25 minutes is studying. This does wonders to keep me from getting distracted.  The Pomodoro technique simply uses a clock that measures these alternating times of focus and breaks.  The tool is free for download for any device and there are many variations available.  They all use the same concept.

Another focus enabling tool I use is binaural beats.  Just do a YouTube search and dozens of these recordings will come up.  I don’t quite understand the science behind it, but apparently these are tones with out-of-sync wavelengths that are sent to opposite audio channels. When listening with headphones, these create a pulsating sound that is believed to help induce a higher state of concentration by “tuning” the brain. Whether this is true or not, the reality for me is that it helps me to tune out the distractions around me and and stay focused on the task at hand.  One can just as easily do that with any kind of ambient music… or your favorite metal band.

So there it is, a list of the tools and techniques I’m using to help me as I work toward the goal.  I will follow up with another post once I successfully pass the exam.

All the best to everyone else in pursuit of these certifications!

#vBrownBag Wednesdays

I’m super excited about VMworld!  Fueling that excitement has been taking part in the Wednesday night vBrownBags hosted by Cody Bunch and team over at professionalvmware.com.  The guys are currently running through the VCAP5-DCA Exam Blueprint, which is motivating me to start studying for my first VCAP!  The community around these vBrownBags is awesome to say the least.  So much that I’m a little intimidated to jump in, but these guys have a blast, they spur and encourage each other, and they know their stuff!  Obviously, a great community to jump into!

Tonight’s presentation was VCAP5-DCA Blueprint Objectives 1.2 and 1.3, presented by Hersey Cartwright.  I was overwhelmed by how much was still so new to me.  Great job by Hersey and this followed last week’s awesome session by Josh Atwell running through the VCAP5-DCA Objective 8.1.  Good stuff and some fun announcements about VMworld.

Hersey gave some great links to VCAP study aids.  I’m going to list them off here since I’ll need an easy point of reference when I start studying for my VCAP5-DCA.

VCAP5-DCA Study Checklist – @chriswahl 
http://wahlnetwork.com/2012/07/02/the-vcap5-dca-study-sheet/
 
vExperienced – @egrigson 
http://www.vexperienced.co.uk/vcap5-dca/
http://www.vexperienced.co.uk/2012/04/12/vcap5-dca-whats-new/
 
The SaffaGeek – @greggrobertson5
http://thesaffageek.co.uk/vcap5-dca-objectives/
 
VirtualLanger – @jaslanger
http://www.virtuallanger.com/vcap-dca-5/
 
VALCO Labs – @joshcoen
http://www.valcolabs.com/vcap5-dca/

Some great links by some very solid and well respected contributors in the community.  Thanks guys.

Ok, time to study!!

VCP5 in the Bag!

Whew!  It was a close one, but I managed to pass VCP-510 to earn my latest VCP certification.  And this was a tough one, especially since all my hands-on experience was 100% lab.  I created a lab environment on my laptop and just went to town.  Thankfully, my laptop is robust enough to handle 3 host servers, a couple nested VMs, another VM as a domain controller and an OpenFiler iSCSI virtual storage array.

When I studied for my VCP4 exam back in Nov-Dec 2009, I was already using vSphere 4 in a production environment at the office.  We had just recently upgraded from ESX 3.5.  I couldn’t quite try concepts out and break things as in a real lab, but I at least had real world experience which came in handy on exam day.  I also read through all of VMware documentation, and used many of the common study aids at the time posted by popular bloggers.  This time, I tried the same approach and was a little overwhelmed by the sheer volume of documentation to work through.  Of course, I targeted the Exam Blueprint but it was still a massive amount of ground to cover.  Good thing there was some overlap with vSphere 4.

I pulled guides from many of the great bloggers out there, all of which have been listed by others out there so there’s nothing new on this list.  This just gives me a good reference point to come back to when I start studying for the VCAP exams!

VCP Exam Blueprint

Forbes Guthrie’s vReference notes – Amazing!

Andrea Mauro’s VCP5 notes – Great stuff!

Even picked up TrainSignal’s vSphere 5 Training DVD

And of course, all of VMware’s vSphere 5 documentation!

Lot of study, but if paid off.  Here on the last day that the class requirement was waived, I squeaked by with a modest passing score!  Hooray!  Feels good to add VCP5 to my collection of certifications!

Brian Trainor, VCP 3/4/5