Is It Time To Remove the VCP Class Requirement?

While I was at VMware Partner Exchange, I attended a keynote address. This in and of itself isn’t a big deal. However, one of the bullet points that came up in the keynote slide deck gave me a bit of pause. VMware is chaging some of their VSP and VTSP certifications to be more personal and direct. Being a VCP, this didn’t really impact me a whole lot. But I thought it might be time to tweet out one of my oft-requested changes to the certification program:

Oops. I started getting flooding with mentions. Many were behind me. Still others were vehemently opposed to any changes. They said that dropping the class requirement would devalue the certification. I responded as best I could in many of these cases, but the reply list soon outgrew the words I wanted to write down. After speaking with some people, both officially and unofficially, I figured it was due time I wrote a blog post to cover my thoughts on the matter.

When I took the VMware What’s New class for vSphere 5, I mentioned therein that I thought the requirement for taking a $3,000US class for a $225 test was a bit silly. I myself took and passed the test based on my experience well before I sat the class. Because my previous VCP was on VMware ESX 3 and not on ESX 4, I still had to sit in the What’s New course before my passing score would be accepted. To this day I still consider that a silly requirement.

I now think I understand why VMware does this. Much of the What’s New and Install, Configure, and Manage (ICM) classes are hands-on lab work. VMware has gone to great lengths to build out the infrastructure necessary to allow students to spend their time practicing the lab exercises in the courses. These labs rival all but the CCIE practice lab pods that I’ve seen. That makes the course very useful to all levels of students. The introductory people that have never really touched VMware get to experience it for real instead of just looking at screenshots in a slide deck. The more experienced users that are sitting the class for certification or perhaps to refresh knowledge get to play around on a live system and polish skills.

The problem comes that investment in lab equipment is expensive. When the CCIE Data Center lab specs were released, Jeff Fry calculated the list price of all the proposed equipment and it was staggering. Now think about doing that yourself. With VMware, you’re going to need a robust server and some software. Trial versions can be used to some degree, but to truly practice advanced features (like storage vMotion or tiering) you’re going to need a full setup. That’s a bit out of reach for most users. VMware addressed this issue by creating their own labs. The user gets access to the labs for the cost of the ICM or What’s New class.

How is VMware recovering the costs of the labs? By charging for the course. Yes, training classes aren’t cheap. You have to rent a room and pay for expenses for your instructor and even catering and food depending on the training center. But $3,000US is a bit much for ICM and What’s New. VMware is using those classes to recover the costs of the lab development and operation. In order to be sure that the costs are recovered in the most timely manner, the metrics need to make sense for class attendance. Given the chance, many test takers won’t go to the training class. They’d rather study from online material like the PDFs on VMware’s site or use less expensive training options like TrainSignal. Faced with the possiblity that students may elect to forego the expensive labs, VMware did what they had to so to ensure the labs would get used, and therefore the metrics worked out in their favor – they required the course (and labs) in order to be certified.

For those that say that not taking the class devalues the cert, ask yourself one question. Why does VMware only require the class for new VCPs? Why are VCPs in good standing allowed to take the test with no class requirement and get certified on a new version? If all the value is in the class, then all VCPs should be required to take a What’s New class before they can get upgraded. If the value is truly in the class, no one should be exempt from taking it. For most VCPs, this is not a pleasant thought. Many that I talked to said, “But I’ve already paid to go to the class. Why should I pay again?” This just speaks to my point that the value isn’t in the class, it’s in the knowledge. Besides VMware Education, who cares where people acquire the knowledge and experience? Isn’t a home lab just as good as the ones that VMware built.

Thanks to some awesome posts from people like Nick Marus and his guide to building an ESXi cluster on a Mac Mini, we can now acquire a small lab for very little out-of-pocket. It won’t be enough to test everything, but it should be enough to cover a lot of situations. What VMware needs to do is offer an alternate certification requirement that takes a home lab into account. While there may be ways to game the system, you could require a VMware employee or certified instructor or VCP to sign off on the lab equipment before it will be blessed for the alternate requirement. That should keep it above board for those that want to avoid the class and build their own lab for testing.

The other option would be to offer a more “entry level” certification with a less expensive class requirement that would allow people to get their foot in the door without breaking the bank. Most people see the VCP as the first step in getting VMware certified. Many VMware rock stars can’t get employed in larger companies because they aren’t VCPs. But they can’t get their VCP because they either can’t pay for the course or their employer won’t pay for it. Maybe by introducing a VMware Certified Administration (VCA) certification and class with a smaller barrier to entry, like a course in the $800-$1000US range, VMware can get a lot of entry level people on board with VMware. Then, make the VCA an alternate requirement for becoming a VCP. If the student has already shown the dedication to getting their VCA, VMware won’t need to recoup the costs from them.


Tom’s Take

It’s time to end the VCP class requirement in one form or another. I can name five people off the top of my head that are much better at VMware server administration than I am that don’t have a VCP. I have mine, but only because I convinced my boss to pay for the course. Even when I took the What’s New course to upgrade to a VCP5, I had to pull teeth to get into the last course before the deadline. Employers don’t see the return on investment for a $3,000US class, especially if the person that they are going to send already has the knowledge shared in the class. That barrier to entry is causing VMware to lose out on the visbility that having a lot of VCPs can bring. One can only hope that Microsoft and Citrix don’t beat VMware to the punch by offering low-cost training or alternate certification paths. For those just learning or wanting to take a less expensive route, having a Hyper-V certification in a world of commoditized hypervisors would fit the bill nicely. After that, the reasons for sticking with VMware become less and less important.

Change The CCIE Portal Login!

It’s been said that achieving the CCIE is one of the more painful processes in networking and certification.  There’s a lot of time and effort that must be expended to obtain those singular digits that identify you as an internetworking expert in the eyes of Cisco.  However, the pain doesn’t always end after you get your CCIE.

All the information accrued by a CCIE candidate lives in a database somewhere at Cisco.  The access method for this database is somewhat archaic.  When you attempt to access any information from the http://www.cisco.com/go/ccie landing page, you must first log in using your Cisco Connection Online (CCO) login.  This is a pretty standard login for anything on the Cisco website, from software downloads to partner page access.  Once you input the information to log into your CCO account, you aren’t automatically granted access to the CCIE portal.  Instead, you are redirected to https://tools.cisco.com/CCIE/Schedule_Lab/CCIEOnline/jsp/UpdateProfile_Form.jsp.  For those that might not otherwise be familiar with this page, here’s what it looks like:

CCIE Login Page - Thanks to @MrTugs

CCIE Login Page – Thanks to @MrTugs

Anyone that has taken the CCIE written, tried to schedule the CCIE lab, or has passed the lab knows the pain of this page.  In order to access your score report or CCIE logos or even schedule a lab exam, you must first provide the laundry list of random information.  The candidate ID is easy enough to find since it’s the CSCO number that tracks you through the Cisco certification program.  The rest of the info is the pain point.

Why is it that almost twenty years after the inception of the program that I still need to provide my written score report information?  I could understand providing all this information the first time I log into the system.  PearsonVUE and Prometric require similar information from your first testing score report in order to tie your database record to a test and begin to track you in their system.  If I had to provide the score report for the first time to tie the CCIE written exam to my CSCO number, I would totally understand.  However, I need to provide my written score EVERY. TIME. I. LOG. IN.  Even after I pass the CCIE lab, I still need to remember that score to access my certification record.  If you’re someone that has taken several recertification exams it can be painful.  If you’re been a CCIE as long as Terry Slattery, it’s downright excruciating.  If you’re considering a multiple CCIE, the process is even worse.  You have to log into the system with your specific track score report in order to schedule a lab.  Don’t have your CCIE Voice score report handy?  Better not log in with your CCIE R&S information.  You won’t have access to schedule the lab for Voice.  It’s almost like the CCIE database is a series of separate databases running on someone’s desktop in RTP.

EDIT: Marko Milivojevic (@icemarkom) pointed out to me that the database is consistent if you are a multiple CCIE holder.  Using any one of your written exams allows you to log in and see all of your records.  You still need to use a track-specific written test to schedule the associated lab exam, however.

Cisco has a certification tracking database located at http://www.cisco.com/go/certifications/login.  It holds all the information related to non-CCIE certifications.  It also happens to be integrated with the CCO login completely.  I used to have to login to the Cisco Cert Tracker with my CSCO ID, but now I just have to login with my regular CCO login and I’m passed right on through to the pertinent information.  There’s even a field in the Cert Tracker for my CCIE number.  However, there is no information to be found related to the CCIE itself.  I’m pretty sure this has a lot to do with the historical separation between the CCIE team and the rest of the certification organization.  The CCIE was always held apart from everything else, both due to its grandfatherly status in the certification industry and the lack of any prerequisites to take the written exam.  It has only been recently that the CCIE team has been folded into the greater Cisco Certifications team.  If they truly are a part of the greater whole, it’s high time to start bring the CCIE portal over to the Cert Tracker.

I can’t see any reason to continue to require CCIEs in good standing to remember a decade-old score report in order to access a logo or look up a lab exam date.  I can see logging in with the score report information the first time to tie everything together to a candidate record.  But after that, you should only need to login with your CCO login or your CSCO number.  That information should be a unique enough value to guarantee non-overlapping logins.  You already require the CCIE candidate to have a valid CSCO number in order to take the written at a PearsonVUE testing center.  Why not use it as the sole login credential?


Tom’s Take

I’ve known too many CCIE candidates that have frantically tried to recall their written test information when the dreaded lab score report email comes.  I had my info saved in Chrome so it would auto-fill when I got to that page.  It worked until I changed laptops and didn’t import my Chrome info.   I had to dig through a filing cabinet to track down the information I needed to login.  Think about the CCIEs that have been certified for more than a decade.  Why should they be forced to produce information that has been lost to time?  My written score has been displaced by RSTP timers and EIGRP admin distance numbers.  Sure, I could keep that info somewhere safe (like a 1Password entry), but I think the better fix would be to bring the CCIE database into the 21st century and integrate it with all the other tools that Cisco provides.  You can stage the migration over the course of a few months.  Even just allowing your CCO login to access the CCIE portal would be a huge step forward.  I know this is a delicate process that has been going on for many years.  But the process is broken and silly and it’s time that someone fixed it.