Career Development Certification IT Education Learning

Exploring Hands-on Labs and Impacts to Education with VMware Senior Manager Joey Dieckhans


The VMware Certification team is constantly exploring new ways of delivering quality and meaningful content and working strategically with other VMware teams. Hands-on Labs (HOL) Senior Manager, Joey Dieckhans, has been a strong advocate and expert in driving an improved candidate experience using VMware-built environments. These exciting changes are what makes VMware great! I spoke with Joey to understand more about the future of HOL and technology in education.


What brought education into focus for you?

I have been working with the Hands-on Labs team for several years. I joined the HOL team in 2013 and have developed a lot of expertise around creating Hands-on Lab vApps (the collection of virtual machines that make up a lab environment) to showcase VMware’s products in a real live environment, so customers can learn and experience VMware’s latest software products. The Hands-on Labs program was excited to partner with VMware Education as we saw great parallels in the exam environments that the VMware Certification team was creating to test candidates with, and the vApps the Hands-on Labs was creating for customers to explore VMware’s products. It seemed like a great time to create efficiencies and leverage the same vApp environments for exam candidates.


My vision for our customers is a consistent virtual environment that highlights VMware’s products in the most favorable light and allows customers to feel comfortable with our products from the first moment they experience them and throughout their entire customer journey with VMware. For example, the Hands-on Labs builds the vApps for our customer Betas; customers would first experience VMware’s products during that engagement. They then take the Hands-on Lab to learn more about the product when it becomes generally available, and after that they take VMware Education classes. Finally, they sit for the certification exam on the product. Ideally, all of these experience with the product would use the same vApp so that customers have the same look and feel across all mediums. Users can get comfortable with it and validate their skills. You don’t have to relearn the layout or software architecture—it’s the same environment through betas, education and HOLs. That’s my ultimate goal. VMware is all about customers first. We want to make it the best customer experience!


How long have you been with VMware?

I have been with VMware since 2010; I joined from HP where I had been in technical marketing and partner alliances for more than 10 years. My first role at VMware was as a Technical Marketing performance specialist where I was responsible for evangelizing VMware’s performance capabilities. Back then, there were still a lot of customers concerned about running their applications in a virtualized environment. Customers were concerned about adopting VMware’s virtualization platform, so I created white papers and benchmark studies to demonstrate that applications running on VMware vSphere had a near native performance, performance equal to running on bare hardware. One of my first assignments was to create the performance labs for the Hands-on Labs. My performance lab was the #1 most popular lab at VMworld for three years in a row. Now that virtualization is mainstream, customers are not concerned as much about performance since virtualization performance has proven itself in the industry.


My experience building and supporting the performance lab for VMworld from 2010 to 2012 was so amazing, VMware’s customers were so passionate and enthusiastic—it got me hooked!


In 2013, there was a management change and an opportunity to join the program with a leadership role to expand the program and extend this valuable marketing tool to further promote VMware’s products. I’ve been working in the HOL team ever since. Previously, labs were only available at conferences (only 2 weeks out of the year) and weren’t available online. In 2013, we made the labs available 24/7 online completely free for customers to experience. We have now delivered more than 3 million labs to customer around the world!


What changes have you seen with the Exam/Certification experience?

I earned a VCP when I first joined VMware in 2010. Back then, it seemed that a VCP and a VCDX were your only options. A lot has changed since then. There are many more products in the VMware portfolio and a lot more opportunities to get certified and highlight your unique combination of VMware skills and expertise.


Where do you see the Future of HOL?

We expect it to grow even more, make it more accessible, and have more sandboxes to allow customers to get experience and training. This way, they feel prepared and comfortable utilizing VMware’s products and hopefully taking that next step and getting certified. We are adding Hands-on Labs Odyssey, the gamification of the Hands-on Labs where customers can compete to see who can complete tasks the fastest in the lab’s environment. We hope to expand this gamification so customers can quickly validate their VMware product skills and knowledge further preparing them for their certifications. The hope is that my vision of a unified learning environment from Betas, HOLs, Education, and Certification will come to fruition giving customers the ability to take a class or an HOL within the virtual environment and become familiar with it so they can study independently, then go into the exam more confident and prepared. That confidence and preparedness will bring more candidates success and that success will propel them to the next certification, expanding their knowledge of VMware’s products.


When creating an exam, we presume candidates will have some experience not taught in training. How does HOL prepare candidates?

The Hands-on Labs give candidates a great practice ground to test out their knowledge and prepare for the exam. The Hands-on Labs utilizes the same VMware learning platform interface as candidates taking the exam will use, so by using the Hands-on Labs, candidates can get a sense for the look and feel of the environment and feel more comfortable when they sit for the exam. You take practice exams in high school for SATs or similar so that you will become familiar with how the exam will be; it’s the same as working with performance-based exams. There is a lot of concern about what it looks like and the Hands-on Labs can alleviate some of those concerns.


There are many different ways to setup VMware’s software, by leveraging the Hands-on Labs environments for certification, customers can get familiar with the design of the environment, how to log into the admin sites and navigate the environment on their own time before they take the exam. If presented with a new environment with no previous knowledge, it can take a while to get comfortable with how its set up.


Looking to the future, what other technology changes do you see coming?

There is a definite trend moving towards SaaS/cloud-based services; we will still have on-prem solutions, but the cloud-based versions are becoming more prevalent. This makes for some challenges. When delivering labs/exams for on-prem solutions we can build the lab in a self-contained virtualized environment. We can then save that environment and clone off of it. Since everything is self-contained, the environment doesn’t change and tends not to break. When we build labs that need to leverage an external SaaS resource, we introduce an outside element into the labs and that outside element can change rapidly. Those changes can cause things to break, UIs in the SaaS service can change and that can cause the lab manual and screenshots to get out of sync. It will have impacts to certifications too, such as how can we provide certifications on a SaaS based product that is constantly changing. We need to rethink how to provision exam environments for SaaS offerings, how to complete the exam tasks and validate the candidate completed them successfully.


Gamification is the other hot new growth area. HOL launched VMware Hands-on Labs Odyssey, the gamification of the Hands-on Labs, at VMworld last year and it was very well received. The basic idea is how quickly can you do a Hands-on Lab task without the step-by-step instructions we normally provide in the lab. Customers compete on their own or in teams and their time is recorded on a leaderboard so they can compare how they rank with their peers. We would love to see this be used to cross promote certification and badging programs.


What’s in the future for you?

I hope to continue to evangelize VMware’s products by providing world class virtualized demo environments highlighting VMware‘s products. I have broadened the scope beyond the Hands-on Labs to take on more vApp exam creation and support for the education certification teams. I am hopeful that we continue to build top notch exam and lab delivery environments. We recently took on the betas program and have started creating virtualized environments for our beta customers using the Hands-on Labs expertise we have developed over the years. There are a lot these environments can be used for such as training, certification, marketing, QA test beds, and support. We are learning how to do A/B testing. We can get a new UI in front of customers and see where clicks and tasks are happening so we can understand if the new UI is too confusing or intuitive—then make changes that result in a better UI. There are lots of places where these virtualized lab environments can be useful and really benefit our customers.


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