The VMware Certified Design Expert (VCDX) is the holy grail of VMware certification. Those who opt to pursue the VCDX have already achieved at least one VMware Certified Professional (VCP) and two VMware Certified Advanced Professional (VCAP) certifications. They are truly VMware experts.
We had a chance to speak with Brett Guarino, a Senior VMware Certified Instructor (VCI) who recently gave a presentation at VMworld Europe on preparing for the VCDX Defense. Brett has been teaching various courses with VMware over the past seven years. Recently, he’s been preparing for his second attempt at the VCDX Defense. In this interview, he shares ideas, tips, and insights for those working toward this prestigious certification.
Before getting into the VCDX process, tell me a little bit about why you love instructing?
The most rewarding part of it is working with students who come into the classroom and have needs. One of the first things I ask my students is “What are you here for?” I don’t think anyone’s come into my class without hearing that question. By the end of the course, students leave with something tangible that helps them do their jobs better, saves them time, makes them more of an expert. For me, knowing that I’ve given my customer (in this case the student) something to take away with them that’s going to empower their career is very rewarding.
Tell me a little bit about the VCDX. What’s it designed to prepare people for?
It’s more about validating your existing skillset. The VCDX doesn’t teach you how to become an architect. However, strengthening your skill as an architect is definitely one of the side benefits of going through the process of VCDX preparation. Assuming that you go through the preparation and successfully achieve the VCDX, you’re going to learn and hone skills and tools that will ultimately make you a better designer and architect.
VCDX preparation requires quite a bit of time from what I’ve heard. What do you recommend in terms of time management?
You cannot prepare for the amount of time it takes. You just can’t. I’ve had discussions with several people who are VCDXs and they all say the same thing. You really can’t prepare for it. From design to documentation, to preparing for the defense presentation, you just need to plan to make this what your life is about for a while.
That being said, when you go into this type of commitment, you’ve got to let the people who are important in your life know that this is what you are going to be doing. You need to prepare your friends, family, colleagues, whoever, that for the next several months, your spare time is going to be dedicated to the VCDX. Many people are under the impression that once you’ve finished your design, you’re basically done. But actually, at that point, you have to create a presentation for the initial half of the defense, and that’s not a trivial task. That presentation is something that you’ve got to know inside and out.
It’s a simple suggestion, but I recommend getting out a calendar and setting deadlines. Know when you will have certain parts of your design finished, know when you will send them off to peers for review, build in time so that when you get behind, you have enough room to double down if you need to. For an extended project like the VCDX, this type of planning goes a long way.
In your presentation, one of things you spoke about was the SMART methodology. Can you elaborate on this?
SMART is a goal achievement ideology and stands for Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. When preparing for VCDX, you’ve got to have milestones. Breaking things up, knowing what will be done when, knowing which days you will be working on which things — these are all very important elements of the process. The idea is that you are going to work smart as you prepare. Taking the time to apply the SMART methodology to each of your goals will help you both stay sane and get what you need to have done when you need to have it done.
One of the things you hear about from other VCDXs is the importance of assembling a group or community of people to help you as you prepare. What are your thoughts on finding a group as you pursue the VCDX?
First, you want to make use of all your resources. Find out who you know that’s an expert in specific technologies. Find out who can give you their time. Find out who is really willing to help you. There may come a time as you go through your process when you’ve gathered too many people, and not everyone is actually helping you get to where you want to be. At that point, you may need to drop people. The idea is that you want to make sure the people you surround yourself with are people who are going to challenge you, tell you the truth when something’s not working, and ask you questions that you haven’t thought of yourself.
There’s also the current VCDX community. In seeking assistance from VCDX mentors, who may be identified at https://vcdx.vmware.com/ (use the Mentor Option under Optional Flags), be respectful of their time. They have full-time jobs beyond their desire to volunteer to assist VCDX candidates. Reach out to them after having achieved the VCIX certification (i.e., have both your VCAPs already).
VCDX mentors may aid you with design preparation, mock panels, etc. They should not be expected to draft your design for you. Use the volunteer VCDX mentor resources sparingly. Initially to help define design considerations (requirements, constraints, risks, and assumptions), then to review initial drafts, and finally for panel mocks.
How do you recommend people prepare for the defense itself? What soft skills are important?
Public speaking. It’s one of the key things that people have trouble with, especially if they don’t deal with public speaking in their jobs on a day-in-day-out basis. When you’re standing in front of the panel, you’re going to be challenged, and you need to be prepared for that.
There are a few elements of public speaking that you really should master, things like making eye contact, never speaking with your back to the audience, and whiteboarding. Whiteboarding is a key soft skill, and few people pay attention to developing it. Learning how to stand at the front of the room, write out complex concepts on a whiteboard, and then explain it in a clear way to an audience does a lot for keeping your viewers engaged and translating your mastery and comfort level with a given subject.
Although you won’t necessarily be judged on your public speaking ability per se, having these skills in your pocket helps you establish confidence and comfort so that you can be positioned to really demonstrate your expertise and mastery to the panel.
The other thing that I would say is that part of learning how to speak publicly means learning how to guide a discussion and direct a narrative authoritatively. As the presenter, you’re going to be driving the conversation. Making sure you’re driving the conversation in the direction you want it to go will help you gain points as you present.
The last question is kind of a fun question, but what’s the best way to celebrate once you’ve completed your defense?
Well, my first answer is that I’ll let you know when I pass!
But seriously, rewarding the people in your life who’ve helped to get you to where you are is huge. Make sure you acknowledge your mentors, reviewers, mock panelists. And then also do something for the people who’ve made sacrifices and supported you emotionally — your spouse, your kids, your significant other. I’d say that’s a good way to celebrate as you come back to normal life.