Writing about your certification experiences seems to be de rigueur for tech people, but I’ve struggled to come up with something interesting to say about my own. The usual format for this type of blog post seems to be:
- write a brief paragraph or two on how you prepared for the exam
- list out the resources that you used while studying (usually a long list) & provide URLs
- write another paragraph or two on your experience at the testing facility (which my or may not be related to the exam itself).
- declare your victory over the exam, or admit your temporary defeat
This is a fine format, and I’ve enjoyed most of the hundreds of articles that have followed that format because ….well, I’m not entirely sure why. I suppose it’s a bit of a tradecraft perspective where, no matter how boring otherwise, we each appreciate the minutia and routines of our own industries. In the tech world – particularly the VAR world I inhabited for several years – certification exams are certainly a routine experience.
But reading about someone else’s experience is usually more interesting than writing about your own. I’m going to try to take a slightly different tack in this post which will be less boring for me yet hopefully still interesting to you.
I have passed all of the VMware Certified Advanced Professional (VCAP) exams available to date, with the exception of the most recent DCD/DCA based on vSphere 5.5 (I haven’t gotten around to them yet but still may before the vSphere 6.0 exams are ready). To be explicit, I currently hold:
- VMware Certified Advanced Professional on vSphere 4 – Datacenter Administration (VCAP4-DCA)
- VMware Certified Advanced Professional on vSphere 4 – Datacenter Design (VCAP4-DCD)
- VMware Certified Advanced Professional on vSphere 5 – Datacenter Administration (VCAP5-DCA)
- VMware Certified Advanced Professional on vSphere 5 – Datacenter Design (VCAP5-DCD)
- VMware Certified Advanced Professional – Desktop Administration (VCAP-DTA)
- VMware Certified Advanced Professional – Desktop Design (VCAP-DTD)
- VMware Certified Advanced Professional – Cloud Infrastructure Administration (VCAP-CIA)
- VMware Certified Advanced Professional – Cloud Infrastructure Design (VCAP-CID)
- Manage your time.
- Pace yourself.
- Read fast.
- Read carefully.
- Make a decision, choose an answer, and move on.
I read the blueprints. What do I recommend you do? Go read the blueprints. Don’t bother looking at anything else until you’ve done that.
I went through the list of topic areas in each blueprint and checked off each item I was comfortable with, highlighted any I was completely in the dark on (like AutoDeploy), and did nothing to the ones that I probably knew but wasn’t 100% sure on. Then I did the math to try to figure out where I could get the most return on my time investment, and just focus my studying there.
What should you study? The blueprints tell you. Yes, there are a ton of other resources out there in the community, but the materials listed in the blueprints are what you need & what I would recommend. If you really want to look at additional resources, many people have put together lists of them for you – go do a Google search on “VCAP-[XXX] resources” or similar & I promise you’ll find more than you’ll ever have time to read/watch and absorb.
I must point out that the Zachman article on “Conceptual, Logical, Physical: It is Simple“, which is listed in the blueprints, is absolutely foundational and the single most important thing to read for any of the design exams. If you’ve been working with VMware products enough to want to take multiple $400 3+ hour exams, you should already have a good start on your technical knowledge, but the concepts and perspectives laid out by Zachman are nowhere near as commonplace in the market. It’s also wonderfully clear, concise, and efficient – go read it.
How I actually got here:
I used to dislike certifications and didn’t trust most certified individuals to actually have sufficient knowledge or skill within their area of expertise. Then I came to realize the marketing value of certifications but found them personally boring. Now I’ve become a firm believer in the career benefits of certification, remain wary of viewing a certification as being equivalent to validation, and find myself truly enjoying the certification process.
After more than 15 years in the IT field, I was working at a value-added reseller (VAR) & consulting company and had put together a decent resume of certifications. There are always more certifications to obtain, even disregarding the new versions that come out to which vendors incentivize you to upgrade, so it’s easy to collect quite a few. It’s easy, but it’s not necessarily cheap, and this is where working for a VAR is a great benefit: a VAR, more than any other type of employer, understands the business benefits of having highly-certified people on staff.
Up to this point my certifications were generally “professional” level rather than advanced or expert, and I found myself assuming these higher-level exams were too difficult for me to obtain without significant preparation or studying. Most of these advanced exams were of only moderate interest to me and weren’t applicable enough to my role to justify the time & expense involved in pursuing them. Then along came something called VMware Certified Design Expert (VCDX) which changed things for me.
While networking was my first real IT interest, it was working with VMware virtualization starting around 2004 that actually transformed my career and ignited my passion. Here, finally, was an advanced certification track that I wanted to pursue, and for which I had a strong background. I planned to take the prerequisite VMware Certified Advanced Professional (VCAP) exams as soon as I could, but also knew that I had to seriously prepare for them given the content of the blueprints, the presumed higher calibre of the exam and especially after reading about the number of experienced people who were having significant issues passing the exams. So I delayed taking the exams because I didn’t think I was “good enough” and I didn’t want to waste $400 to fail an exam. Even if my employer was picking up that tab, it’s not a small investment, particularly when also factoring in the equivalent of half a workday to take the exam. Higher investment = higher pressure.
Then at VMworld 2012 there was a special giving 50% off of any VMware exam scheduled during VMworld – but with the surprising allowance that the exam didn’t need to be taken at or during VMworld and could instead be scheduled for as late as the end of November 2012. By this time the vSphere 5 versions of the exams were available, in addition to the original versions on vSphere 4, for both the VCAP-DCA and the VCAP-DCD exams. With the 50% discount on the table, I decided it was now or never and booked all four exams spread out across October & November. To warm myself up, I also booked both versions (4 & 5) of the VCP-DT for September. I knew there was still a lot of studying I needed to do for the exams so I spaced them out over almost 3 months in order to give myself time to focus on studying for each exam.
Despite my planning, in the end I wound up studying for, at most, a few hours for any of the exams. What I had going for me, though, was that 50% discount: it allowed me to decide to take each exam as if it were only a practice test instead. This meant going into the exam with an entirely different mindset: to find out what the exam was really like, where my actual weaknesses were and where I should study, rather than fixating on passing on the first try. I could just focus on the experience rather than the result – on the journey rather than the destination – and so I went in to each exam with very little pressure, and a real sense of enjoyment of the process.
And you know what? It worked. When I focused on passing the exams, I was also focused on how difficult (I thought) the tests would be – and things are often harder in your own head (or at least in mine) than they are in reality. By focusing on the experience & enjoying myself, those “practice tests” wound up being all I needed to pass.
Now that doesn’t mean those tests weren’t hard: they were, and are, and no, not everyone can pass them on the first try. But they weren’t as hard for me as I had thought they would be, and it was my own doubts that were a bigger barrier to my success than anything else. I didn’t really beat those doubts ahead of time – I just used the “practice test” scenario as a way around them instead.
Does that always work? Yes and no. No, because I haven’t always passed the exams on the first try – I had to take both VCAPs for Cloud (CIA & CID) twice, for example. But otherwise, yes: I’ve continued to take the same approach since then, and it has absolutely worked to allow me to enjoy the experience and learn from it, and to not needlessly delay sitting for an exam out of stress or doubt. It was that self-doubt that was the single biggest source of my procrastination, with the attendant stress just adding fuel to it.
So what’s my point? It’s that trite old adage that you are your own worst enemy. The things you want to accomplish aren’t necessarily as hard as you think – unless you make them that hard, make them loom that large, in your own mind. Even when you aren’t overestimating the difficulties of your endeavor, when it really is that difficult, focusing on that fact does you no good. If you can’t just will yourself into overcoming your own doubts and caution, as I couldn’t, there are other pathways to success. Make it a game. Focus on the experience. Focus on the journey.
It’s not about winning – it’s about learning. It’s about trying.
It’s about doing.