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From VCDX Candidate to Panelist

This post was written by Joe Silvagi. Joseph is a Systems Engineer at VMware in the Network & Security Business Unit. He has been in IT for 20 years, with 11 of those involving vSphere implementation and design going back to ESX 2. Over his career he has held a number of positions from administration and design of large enterprise environments, to Director level management on the customer side. With a strong passion for virtualization technology, his drive has helped several companies realize the potential for virtualization early on. He now continues this push by helping customers understand the benefits in the virtualization of network and security.

2015-02-10_1146This past week at Partner Exchange, I completed a week of VCDX panels as a “panelist in training”. I was able to sit in on panels for three different VCDX tracks, mock score all of them, and really get to experience the other side of the table in the defense room. It was an exciting and eye opening week to say the least, having gone from a VCDX candidate to panelist in less than 3 months.

Each night after the panels, I found myself thinking about the candidates that day. What they had said, what they had been asked by the panelist, and how they responded. Contemplating, how would have I responded? Would it have been the same? Would I respond differently to my questions in my defense knowing what I know now? What in the community may have drove them to reply or act in the way they did? Even myself during my defense for that matter.

At that point it came to me, the epiphany that there really is a huge gap in what people think the panelists want or do, versus what they actually want or do. So what will this post contain? Some of the pieces that I can actually speak on when it comes to how some things really work on the panel, with a perspective of recently having experienced both sides of the spectrum.

I want to kill some of the myths out there, the poor information that either puts the program in a bad light, or discourages people from trying.

The Panelist Job

I was quite shocked at how hard the job of the panelist is…I am sure the other guys were sick of hearing me say, “This is a lot harder than I thought.” Not only from a scoring process, but from the responsibility aspect. While the experience of being a panelist is fun from the side of getting to interact with your peers and see how other people implement a design; it is hard knowing that you will weigh in on the future of this persons career, to a degree.

I know how hard I worked on mine, along with the stress involved to get to that point. All of the panelists know this as they were there at one point too, so don’t forget that. Because of this fact you have the utmost respect of the panel for what you have accomplished thus far. While we want to help people pass, the bar cannot be lowered.

It is a tough job that panelists volunteer a lot of personal hours for. They are not a bunch of guys who don’t like you, they are a bunch of guys who want to pass you, plain and simple. What would be the point of volunteering hours (4+ per design) just to bring you in and beat you up? It doesn’t help them, it doesn’t help you, and it does not help the VCDX program.

My Scenarios Were Selected to Make Me Fail

This is probably one of the biggest things I have seen/heard in various forms in the community. Although I did not personally experience this feeling in my two defenses, I know of many who felt this is what occurred. The truth…your scenarios are selected PRIOR to your defense. It is not chosen because your panel wants to beat you up on a particular point. But I see how it can be viewed as such.

Something that has been very commonly stated in the VCDX Workshops (formerly bootcamps): you will not solve either scenario! If you did, you will not know it and the panelist will keep you working the whole time period. Why, you may ask? To score you points!

There is a scoring rubric that is followed, this is common knowledge. Let’s use an example here. If your design is weak on a particular point, you personally are weak on that subject, then in turn your defense is weak in general on that point. Where are you most likely deficient on points? It is not hard to figure out. While the scenarios are preselected, they can be driven to a certain path to test your knowledge. Why do this? To score you points!  This in turn is being misconstrued as, “My panelist is picking on me!”, when really it is your panelist giving you another chance to pass on that subject you have shown to be weak. Is it really much of a test of your ability if they just ask you about your strengths?

My Panelists Want Me to Fail

This frankly could not be further from the truth.

In my first defense I had one panelist who was really hard on me in some aspects. I had him again my second attempt in which I was successful, but he was equally as hard. After I passed he told me he was really happy to see that I applied what I learned from the first one to make myself successful in the next one.

I sat with this same panelist when I mocked scored a defense, where I saw him be just as hard on the candidate defending. Once we all submitted our scores he said, “I really hope he passes”. Just because they are hard on you does not mean they don’t like you or don’t want you to pass. It just means they want to make sure you know what you need to know to be a successful architect that holds the VCDX title.

Community Information

I will just come out and say it, there is some bad info out there in the community, but there is an equal amount of good info. Now I don’t want to discourage people from putting stuff out there, but just any person with a VCDX level skill set should understand, assumptions on things you do not fully understand are in turn a risk. When you put content out there on how to do something when you have no idea on how the scoring works, there is a chance you are negatively impacting people.

Advice should be around proper architecture, not around how to pass the defense. If you know proper architecture, you have a high chance to pass the defense.

Read that last line 3 more times, it is an important one.

Some Tips

  • Listen to your panelists! They are asking the question for a reason.
  • Read the blueprint, read the blueprint…oh and finally, READ THE BLUEPRINT!
  • Did I mention you should probably review the blueprint?
  • Be yourself and have fun. If you want to do something a certain way, do it that way. Don’t listen to someone who thinks they know how the panel scores. This is one of the big ones for me personally. I took the advice of others thinking it was the better path, when really I should have stuck to what I knew and was comfortable with.
  • A successful architect learns from their mistakes and applies them. It is a mindset. If you fail, take what you learned from your defense and apply that to your future attempt.
  • Do not be afraid of the panel. Yes, this is a stressful situation for some, but treat it as a moment to tell your peers about a design you are proud of. Showing your passion can do nothing but help you.

Final Thoughts

Your panelists are no different than you, they put on their pants the same way as everyone else. When you walk into that room understand that is a room of your peers who want to help you, not a room of angry IT guys who want to melt your face off. On the flip side, don’t expect to walk in there and for it to be easy, there are only 186 for a reason. Work hard, show what you are made of, and earn that number. You will be happy you did, I know I sure am.

I hope to see many of you on future panels, good luck!

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About Chris Colotti

Chris is currently a Principal Architect and VCDX Evangelist at VMware. Chris is amongst the first VMware Certified Design Experts (VCDX#37), and author of multiple white papers. He now spends his time conducting VCDX Workshops as well as moderating VCDX Defenses. He is also heavily involved in setting the direction of the program itself with the Program Office.

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  1. Pingback: So You Want to be a VCDX? Part 6 – Defense Preparation | VMPrime's Virtualization Blog

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