VMware Advanced Certifications – Good, but must try harder

Although estimates are only approximate, it seems the numbers of advanced level certified engineers for Cisco and Microsoft are vastly greater than for VMware. More than 41,000 Cisco users have obtained CCIE status, those with VMware advanced qualifications don’t even reach 25% of that. I’m not even going to mention MCSE.

I’m just blogging ideas here, feel free to shoot them down, but I really think that advanced certifications such as VMware Certified Advanced Professional should get main stage. From a business point of view, there are huge financial implications of bad design and poor administration of the investment in IT infrastructure.

See infrastructure qualities affect design as an example of the savings gained through right sizing the environment.

Fear of failure – VCAP roulette

Perhaps one factor affecting VCAP is the risk, failure rates are high, if top guys fail, lesser mortals will probably get slaughtered.

With some Vendors, exam content gets into the public domain, and examiners then write absurd questions with tricky wording to increase difficulty.  Candidates ignore the blueprint, don’t do any lab, turn directly to braindumps, pay their money, get certified, everybody is happy. But the opportunity to learn was replaced by a memory exercise.

When I first came to live in Spain I taught English, so I’ve written exams in the past, and it’s a minefield, if all your students fail, then you have not succeeded, either as a teacher or examination provider, if everyone passes the same might be true. So getting the balance between difficult and achievable, without being ridiculous, is the aim.

Asking students to perform difficult but repeatable tasks that require practice and understanding are ideal. Universities regularly release past papers, candidates know some of those past questions in a slightly different format will reappear in the upcoming exam, I remember one where I had to create a route table from scratch, I practiced and practiced until I could do the exercise in 10 minutes, these were sure points, no tricks, but you had to practice and understand.

For example, the cpu/memory calculations in vcap-5 design, were easy for exam teams to modify, they require a student practice and understand. In my own experience, these are fundamental to design, it seems crazy not to assess candidates on this ability, plus all sorts of goodies can be thrown in such as NUMA boundaries, vCPU/pCPU ratios, HA and DR requirements.

Too much design tool

Historically examiners like standard multiple choice questions, they are easy to mark and delivery is stable. Of course choosing from A, B,C or D limits what can be tested,  but the focus is on testing rather than the complexity of how to mark a drawing or machine configuration.

Another point is that exam integrity requires that questions are regularly modified, that becomes a technical challenge when a graphic design tool or lab environment is used.

Multiple choice can be a good fit for elements of design exams, I have taken Microsoft scenario exams, where I needed 10 or 15 minutes just to read through the question, then another 5 minutes to answer the multiple choice questions.

I am not saying that examiners should drop the design tool, but the focus can shift from content to tool. When students suspect they have been deducted points because of misplaced connectors a bad feeling gets generated about the exam. I even heard of one guy who was concerned about losing points due to connectors, so he left them off, and passed!

The star of VMware advanced level exams is the blueprint, reading through and getting a reasonable understanding of all that material is an admirable achievement that should be rewarded. A design tool or lab environment should not narrow focus limiting the opportunities for candidates to demonstrate the breadth and depth of their knowledge.

Uhhh, I need a toilet break

Three hour plus exams are not good for middle age men, it’s not just about easing nature, but the stress involved is considerable. The cost of failure is high (even if you can be reimbursed for a failed attempt, nobody wants to present that to their boss). I would prefer to take multiple exams to achieve certification (VMware rather cleverly cleared the way for this with VCAP exams leading to VCIX), but I’d like to see the VCIX broken down into 3 or 4 separate exams.

Perhaps tests could include design tool/labs plus additional tests that are just multiple choice. With Microsoft exams retailing at $165 (exam replay available for $230) and AWS at $150, the VCAP/VCIX is a significant expense if you fail. Hey its scale up or scale out, and I’m a scale-out guy, spread that risk!

Credits for coursework

Our schools and universities require students to both pass exams and submit coursework, MongoDB University has adopted this approach, courses are broken into short video segments with periodic assessments (quizzes and labs), weekly assignments and a final exam.

Through it sounds like a lot of work VMware already have material that they could use, VMware Partner Central /Partner University has a bunch of eLearning courses, Hands on Labs, the blueprint itself. It would be a matter of adding quizzes and controlling the release of material. I studied with the UK’s Open University, they have been using this methodology for years.

Coursework could then be used to offset the pass mark needed to get certified. This raises the question of those who just walk in off the street and take exams without any meaningful study program, perhaps a practicing architect has enough experience to just go for it.

My opinion is that the object is education – teaching people stuff they don’t know, and certifying that they now know it. By controlling the candidates’ study, examiners have an assurance that qualified candidates will pass.

Who’s paying for all this?

There are some cool guys on the certification team, but any non-revenue generating department is going to have resource issues, the money has to come from somewhere?  The team has done a great job, the blueprint is excellent, I even enjoy taking the exams, it’s the stress of losing $400 is a problem.

What can we do to help VMware see that this is a marketing expense? I’ll give you an example of what I mean;  where I currently work our costs for VMware are considerably higher than they should be, there are multiple reasons for this and they mostly come down to design decisions. Consequently, sales see that other hypervisors are cheaper and sell those solutions.

Well educated technicians will drive up consolidation ratios, reduce operating expenses, good design saves money, and increases VMware opportunity in the market.  Let’s face it, VMware is associated with high licensing costs and it takes eloquent argumentation to defend that position. VCAPs within an organization or as independent consultants are probably the best sales resource that VMware will ever have.

Of course how to fund education is a political argument inside VMware. But we as a community have a voice, a few lines in a blog, a passing comment when speaking with influencers inside VMware.

This is a great certification path; it should be the de facto standard for serious solution providers. VMware are not only providing a technical certification they outlining a design methodology that focuses on business needs and is transferable to other technologies.

So as my teachers regularly put on my school reports, “has the potential, must try harder!”

Update 1: This was originally posted in 2016. Since then VMware Education have made changes to the way they write exams, significantly they have increased the pool of contributors and reviewers, thereby greatly reducing the workload of those involved in the exam writing process. Those changes should start to show in 2017 and onward. As for the Advanced level exams, each VCAP is still a single 210 or 205 minute test costing $400. 

Update 2: I got the opportunity to contribute to a VMware VCP exam and it was great to see how the process works, I identified one issue that explains a lot, some of the contributors were very senior, clever individuals, with an intimate knowledge of the products, which explains why some questions are so difficult – simply put you don’t argue with guys like that, so the question gets put in the exam. 

Update 3: I dropped out of the VMware Design Expert program, due to cost and moved over the AWS certifications. over the last 18 months, I managed to obtain 3 AWS associate certs and 1 specialty exam, for a quarter of the cost of  VCDX.  Tomorrow I still my first VMware exam in nearly two years, as I need to renew or lose what I have.