I recently had a flashback to my days as a high school math teacher. Every once in a while I would have a student tell me he / she spent a lot of time studying for a test and somehow managed to not perform well. I used to ask them what and how they studied. After all, I would hand out a sheet with a list of topics covered on the test and have a question and answer session over those topics in the class before the test to help everyone know what was expected.
I realize now I became that student who put in time and energy and still failed. And it didn’t just happen to me once. It happened twice. I hope this glimpse into my experience will help someone understand that failure, though completely debilitating at times, can be our greatest teacher.
Some Background for the Reader
I obtained my VMware Certified Professional certification on version 5 of VMware vSphere (or VCP-DCV 5) in September 2015 after taking the required class for the Data Center Virtualization track earlier that year. As newer versions of vSphere get released, newer versions of the VCP-DCV exam follow. All certified candidates are required to re-certify on a new version or in a different topical area within two years to avoid losing an active certification. Letting your certification lapse means you start back at the beginning with classroom training. In fact, VMware implemented some changes for new candidates wanting the VCP-DCV 6 – classroom training (like in previous versions) and passing two tests (the Foundations Exam and the Data Center Virtualization Exam) instead of just one. That’s motivation enough to keep your certification current.
All I needed to do was study the exam blueprint (the bible for objectives covered) and pass the VCP-DCV 6 Delta Exam to re-certify. My goal was to not wait until the last minute to re-certify. It was me against 65 randomly generated multiple choice questions covering a plethora of material.
Failure # 1 – October 22, 2016
I was working too many hours at the office while trying to study for this test at the same time. Even though I studied all the objectives, I remember well the morning of the test and how unprepared I felt for it. I wasn’t surprised when I received a score of 257 out of 500. On the VCP level exams, a score of 300 or more is passing out of a possible 500. I was 43 points short of victory.
To that point I had never failed a certification exam, and I was pretty frustrated with myself. But I knew part of it was trying to take the test before being truly ready. When you fail an exam like this, you get a list of objectives that need more practice based on questions you missed. The list was pretty lengthy.
I told myself I would start studying my weak areas after a couple of weeks off for a mental break. Holidays like Halloween and Thanksgiving blew by. I got a new job in early December. The next thing I knew it was spring 2017, and I had not started studying again. My family kept asking me when I was supposed to take the test again, but I would tell them I didn’t know. I had not made a study plan or scheduled the exam. The pattern continued through early 2017. In the back of my mind, I knew I only had until September 1.
Failure # 2 – July 22, 2017
I had traded a job 5 minutes from my house for one that takes an hour commute each way. But I had also leveled up from an environment running only vSphere Essentials to one running Enterprise Plus, which meant I was getting to play with most any feature in production that would be covered on the exam.
With the newly added commute, I was losing 2 hours per day. Then a friend reminded me about the vBrownBag podcast series for the VCP-DCV 6. In April / May, even before I officially started studying again, I started listening to this podcast series over and over again on my commute to prepare my brain for another round of studying. I still had to change my study strategy to fit my life schedule. I had to become the most efficient human possible so I could still love God first, do a great job at work, be present for my family, and still sleep at night.
I went back to the failure report from October’s exam and began working through my weakest areas of the blueprint first. I felt if I could master those areas, the rest of the blueprint would be mostly review. At the beginning of June I went all in on studying, targeting a mid-July test date. Since my VCP-DCV 5 would expire at the beginning of September, I wanted to give enough cushion in case I needed more study time.
I studied in the evenings after my daughter went to bed. I studied during lunch at work. I stayed later at the office to study to avoid sitting in traffic longer than necessary. I drank enough coffee to induce anxiety. I kept listening to podcasts. When people asked me what I was studying, I would tell them my end goal – passing the VCP-DCV 6 Delta. I even opted out of a work social event the night before the test to make sure I was well rested.
When the day of the test came, I felt far more prepared than I had on the previous attempt. By the end of the test, I had marked nearly a third of the questions for review. With only 65 questions, I knew it would be close between passing and failing. I tried not to change answers if I wasn’t completely certain, but I still made last minute changes. And then I got to see the final result – 285. Another failure. It was better than last time, but I missed passing by 15 points.
This time was different. I had felt prepared and still blew it. Honestly, missing on this one crushed me. I was so mad and frustrated with myself for wasting time and money only to fail for a second time that I broke down in tears. I had to go tell my wife, my daughter, my extended family, my friends, and my co-workers that I failed.
After getting some of this out of my system, my wife brought me back to reality with great advice that sometimes you don’t have the strength to give yourself. Take that anger and frustration with yourself and channel it into your studies. Pursue it with renewed vigor. You have to show your daughter she shouldn’t quit just because something is hard. Show her that daddy isn’t going to give up.
Truth be told, I never thought of quitting. But I did wonder if I could beat the time crunch to not lose my certification. I had to explain to a 7-year-old that daddy had failed the test again. Dad, that guy she thinks seems to know a lot of things, found out two different times he really doesn’t know that much. All I could muster was that I just didn’t know the material well enough and needed to study it again. This was another chance to learn and another chance to build a bit more confidence.
I took the weekend off and part of the rest of that next week to regroup. From a high level, I felt I had the concepts down. When I compared the first and second failure reports, I found some common areas (areas I thought I had mastered). I decided to go deeper into the details this time in these areas. That was the only way to not have to think twice about answers to the test questions. And though the blueprint gives to a list of topics covered, you really don’t get a lot of guidance on how deep you will need to go.
Attempt # 3 – August 12, 2017
Test morning came, and I was feeling good about it. I spent the morning in some last minute review of my notes. I listened to Eye of the Tiger to pump myself up for the test as one should do in any pressure situation. My wife left me a note that morning that said “no matter what happens with your test, I believe in you and am proud of you.” Maybe that’s all I really needed.
This time was different. This time concepts I wasn’t sure about on previous attempts were no longer fuzzy. There were still a handful of questions I marked for review, but in the end, the score was 408. And that meant a decisive success! You have no idea how great I felt when I finally passed.
Learning from the Failures
As I prepared for that third test, I really tried to examine what went wrong the first two times I took the test. I just wasn’t prepared the first time; there’s no doubt in my mind. As for the second time, I honestly think second guessing myself at the end cost me a passing grade. Before that final attempt, I began to visualize myself passing the test and would think about how great it felt to have it behind me, relieving the self-imposed pressure.
I used to have a sign in my classroom years ago that said “a mistake is a chance to try harder.” That is so true. Each time I failed I had to own it. I had to accept the reality of the failure and move forward. Many times we don’t even want to consider the possibility of failure, and maybe that is the error in the logic. No matter what you do in life, at some point you will fail. And if you cannot accept and embrace the failure to the point where you are willing to let it rip you apart and humble you, all you want to do is quit. But here’s some advice – don’t quit. Let the failure make you better. Let it teach you something that you really need in order to succeed the next time. Read Romans 5:1-5, and keep going.
And if you want to hear more about failure, listen to this podcast by The Geek Whisperers.
How Should You Study for a VCP-DCV exam?
As Joseph Griffiths phrased it, the VCP exam requires you to take a test and not do things using the software. But it is helpful to play with these features in a lab environment to cement the concept. Everyone has a different learning style. Mine is actually read and write most of the time with some kinesthetic as well. Let me read the material, take some notes, and make sure I understand the concept.
Here are some of the tools available if you’re trying to prepare:
- Mastering vSphere 6 by Nick Marshall
- Unofficial VCP-DCV 6 study guide by Jason Langer and Josh Coen (downloadable PDF)
- Vladan’s VCP-DCV 6 study guide
- VCP-DCV 6 study guide by Hersey Cartwright
- VCP-DCV 6 Delta study guide by Scott Driver
- VCP-DCV 6 Delta study guide by Mike Wilson
- The vBrownBag VCP-DCV 6 podcast series (the ones most helpful to me listed below)
- VMware Hands on Labs on vSphere 6
- VCP-DCV 6 Practice Quizzes on Elastic Sky
Every one of these study materials is valuable, but how do you decide what you should use? That decision alone can be overwhelming. From what I found there are not many study guides dedicated to the VCP-DCV 6 Delta (a subset of the full VCP-DCV 6 list of topics). Even so, my personal recommendation is to take every link to every VMware official doc on the exam blueprint, and dig through every one of them. Let the VMware documents be your guide, and take your own notes.
And remember, at the end of all the studying, every exam objective might not show up in the form of a test question. The blueprint is a list of things about which you could be asked. So buckle down, know your stuff, get the support of your friends and family, and believe you can do…even if you fail along the way.
Thanks to the good Lord for allowing me to learn from my failures. Even though you may not know them, I would not have been able to dedicate all this time to my studies without the support of my wife and my daughter. Thanks to my extended family who believed in me from the beginning. Thanks to every friend and co-worker who told me I would get it next time when I told them I had failed and for congratulating me once I passed. Thanks to Joseph Griffiths, Scott Driver, and John White for their help and encouragement and for letting me pick their brains.