Certifications Are About Support

You may have seen this week that VMware has announced they are removing the mandatory recertification requirement for their certification program. This is a huge step from VMware. The VCP, VCAP, and VCDX are huge certifications in the virtualization and server industry. VMware has always wanted their partners and support personnel to be up-to-date on the latest and greatest software. But, as I will explain, the move to remove the mandatory recertification requirement says more about the fact that certifications are less about selling and more about supporting.

The Paper Escalator

Recertification is a big money maker for companies. Sure, you’re spending a lot money on things like tests and books. But those aren’t usually tied to the company offering the certification. Instead, the testing fees are given to the testing center, like Pearson, and the book fees go to the publisher.

The real money maker for companies is the first-party training. If the company developing the certification is also offering the training courses you can bet they’re raking in the cash. VMware has done this for years with the classroom requirement for the VCP. Cisco has also started doing in with their first-party CCIE training. Cisco’s example also shows how quality first-party content can drive out the third parties in the industry by not even suggesting to prospective candidates that this is another option to get their classroom materials.

I’ve railed against the VCP classroom requirement before. I think forcing your candidates to take an in-person class as a requirement for certification is silly and feels like it’s designed to make money and not make good engineers. Thankfully, VMware seems to agree with me in the latest release of info. They’re allowing the upgrade path to be used for their recertification process, which doesn’t necessarily require attendance in a classroom offering. I’d argue that it’s important to do so, especially if you’re really out of date with the training. But not needing it for certification is a really nice touch.

Keeping the Lights On

The other big shift with this certification change from VMware is the tacit acknowledgement that people aren’t in any kind of rush to upgrade their software right after the newest version is released. Ask any system administrator out there and they’ll tell you to wait for a service pack before you upgrade anything. System admins for VMware are as cautious as anyone, if not moreso. Too often, new software updates break existing functionality or cause issues that can’t be fixed without a huge time investment.

How is this affected by certification? Well, if I spent all my time learning VMware 5.x and I got my VCP on it because my company was using it you can better believe that my skill set is based around VCP5. If my company doesn’t decide to upgrade to 6.x or even 7.x for several years, my VCP is still based on 5.x technology. It shouldn’t expire just because I never upgraded to 6.x. The skills that I have are focused on what I do, not what I’m studying. If my company finally does decide to move to 6.x, then I can study for and receive my VCP on that version. Not before.

Companies love to make sure their evangelists and resellers are all on the latest version of their certifications because they see certifications as a sales tool. People certified in a technology will pick that solution over any others because they are familiar with it. Likewise, the sales process benefits from knowledgable sales people that understand the details behind your solution. It’s a win-win for both sides.

What this picture really ignores is the fact that a larger number of non-reseller professionals are actually using the certification as a study guide to support their organization. Perhaps they get certified as a way to get better support terms or a quicker response to support calls. Maybe they just learned so much about the product along the way that they want to show off what they’ve been doing. No matter what the reason, it’s very true that these folks are not in a sales role. They’re the support team keeping the lights on.

Support doesn’t care about upgrading at the drop of a hat. Instead, they are focused on keeping the existing stuff running as long as possible. Keeping users happy. Keeping executives happy. Keeping people from asking questions about availability or services. That’s not something that looks good on a bill of materials. But it’s what we all expect. Likewise, support isn’t focused on new things if the old things keep running. Certification, for them, is more about proving you know something instead of proving you can sell something.


Tom’s Take

I’ve had so many certifications that I don’t even remember them all. I got some of them because we needed it to sell a solution to a customer. I got others to prove I knew some esoteric command in a forgotten platform. But, no matter what else came up, I was certified on that platform. Windows 2000, NetWare 6.x, you name it. I was certified on that collection of software. I never rushed to get my certification upgraded because I knew what the reality of things really was. I got certified to keep the lights on for my customers. I got certified to help the people that believed in my skills. That’s the real value of a certification to me. Not sales. Just keeping things running another month.

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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.

VMware Certification for Cisco People

During the November 14th vBrownBag, which is an excellent weekly webinar dedicated to many interesting virtualization topics, the question was raised on Twitter about mapping the VMware certification levels to their corresponding counterparts in Cisco certification.  That caught me a bit off guard at first because certification programs among the various vendors tend to be very insular and don’t compare well to other programs.  The Novell CNE isn’t the same animal as the JNCIE.  It’s not even in the same zoo.  Still, the watermark for difficult certifications is still the CCIE for most people, due to its longevity and reputation as a tough exam.  Some were wondering how it compared to the VCDX, VMware’s premier architect exam.  So I decided to take it upon myself to write up a little guide for those out there that may be Cisco certification junkies (like me) and are looking to see how their test taking skills might carry over into the nebulous world of vKernels and port groups.  Note that I’m going to focus on the data center virtualization track of the VMware certification program, as that’s the one I’ve had the most experience with and the other tracks are relatively new at this time.

VCP

The VMware Certified Professional (VCP) is most like the CCNA from Cisco.  It’s a foundational knowledge exam designed to test a candidate’s ability to understand and configure a VMware environment consisting of the ESXi hypervisor and vCenter management server.  The questions on the VCP tend to fall into the area of “Which button do you click?” and “What is the maximum number of x?” types of questions.  These are the things you will need to know when you find yourself staring at a vCenter window and you need to program a vKernel port or turn on LACP on a set of links.  Note that according to the VCP blueprint, there aren’t any of those nasty simulation questions on the VCP, unlike the CCNA.  That means you won’t have to worry about a busted Flash simulation that doesn’t support the question mark key or other crazy restrictions.  However, the VCP does have a prerequisite that I’m none too pleased about.  In order to obtain the VCP, you must attend a VMware-authorized training course.  There’s no getting around it.  Even if you take the exam and pass, you won’t get the credential until you’ve coughed up the $3000 US for the class.  That creates a ridiculous barrier to entry for many that are starting out in the virtualization industry.  It’s difficult in some cases for candidates to pony up the cost of the exam itself.  Asking them to sell a kidney in order to go to class is crazy.  For reference, that’s two CCIE lab fees.  Just for a class.  Yes, I know that existing VCPs can recertify on the new version without going to class.  But it’s a bit heavy handed to require new candidates to go to class, especially when the material that’s taught in class is readily available from work experience and the VMware website.

VCAP-DCA

The next tier of VMware certifications is the VMware Certified Advanced Professional (VCAP).  This is actually split into two different disciplines – Data Center Administration (DCA) and Data Center Design (DCD).  The VCAP-DCA is very similar to the CCIE.  Yes, I know that’s a pretty big leap from the CCNA-like VCP.  However, the structure of the exam is unlike anything but the CCIE in Ciscoland.  The VCAP-DCA is a 4-hour live practical exam.  You are configuring a set of 30-40 tasks on real servers.  You have access to the official documentation, although just like the CCIE you need to know your stuff and be able to do it quickly or you will run out of time.  Also, just like the CCIE, you are given constraints on some things, such as “Configure this task using the CLI, not the GUI.”  When you leave the secured testing facility, you won’t know your score for up to fifteen days until the exam is graded, likely by a combination of script and live person (just like the CCIE).  David M. Davis of Trainsignal is both a CCIE and a VCAP and has an excellent blog post about his VCAP experience.  He says that while the exam format of the VCAP is very similar to the CCIE, the exam contents themselves aren’t as tricky or complicated.  That makes sense when you think about the mid-range target for this exam.  This is for those people who are the best at administering VMware infrastructure.  They know more than the VCP blueprint and want to show that they are capable of troubleshooting all the wacky things that can happen to a virtual cluster.  Note that while there is a recommended training class available for the VCAP, it isn’t required to sit the test.  Also note that the VCAP is a restricted exam, meaning you must request authorization in order to sit it.  That makes sense when you consider that it’s a 4-hour test that can only be taken at a secured Pearson VUE testing center.

VCAP-DCD

The other VMware Certified Advanced Professional (VCAP) exam is the Data Center Design (DCD) exam.  This is where the line starts to blur between people that spend their time plugging away and configurations and people that spend their time in Visio putting data centers together.  Rather than focusing on purely practical tasks like the VCAP-DCA, the VCAP-DCD instead tests the candidate’s ability to design VMware-focused data centers based on a set of conditions.  The exam consists of a grouping of multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, and in-exam design sessions.  The latter appears to have some Visio-like design components according to those that have taken the test.  This would put the exam firmly in the territory of the CCDP or even the CCDE.  The material on the DCD may be focused on design specifically, but the exam format seems to speak more to the kind of advanced questions you might see in the higher level Cisco design exams.  Just like the DCA, there are recommended courses for the DCD (like the VMware Design Workshop), but these are not requirements.  You will receive your score as soon as you leave, since there aren’t enough live configuration items on the exam to warrant a live person grading your exam.

VCDX

The current king of the mountain for VMware certifications is the VMware Certified Design Expert (VCDX).  This the VMware’s premier architecture certification.  It’s also one of the most rigorous.  A lot of people compare this to the CCIE as the showcase cert for a given industry, but based on what I’ve seen the two certifications only mirror each other in number of attempts per candidate.  The VCDX is actually more akin to the Cisco Certified Architect (CCAr) or Microsoft Certified Master certification.  That’s because rather than have a lab of gear to configure, you have to create a total solution around a given problem and demonstrate your knowledge to a council of people live and in person.  It’s not a inexpensive, either in terms of time or cost.  You have to pay a $300 fee to even have your application submitted.  This is pretty similar to the CCIE written exam.  However, even if you submit the proposal, there’s no guarantee you’ll make it to the defense.  Your application has to be scrutinized and there has to be a reasonable chance of you defending it.  If you’re submission isn’t up to snuff, you get recycled to the back of the pile with a pat on the head and a “try again later” note.  If you do make the cut, you have to fly out to a pre-determined location to defend.  Unlike Cisco’s policy of having a lab in many different locations all over the world, the defense locations tend to move around.  You may defend at VMWorld in San Francisco and have to try again in Brussels or even Tokyo.  It all really depends on timing.  Once you get in the room for your defense, you have to present your proposal to the council as well as field questions about it.  You’ll probably have to end up whiteboarding at some point to prove you know what you’re talking about.  And this council doesn’t accept simple answers.  If they ask you why you did something, you’d better have a good answer.  And “Because it’s best practice” doesn’t cut it either.  You need to show an in-depth knowledge of all facets of not only the VMware pieces of the solution, but third party pieces as well.  You need to think about all the things that you would put into a successful implementation, from environmental impacts to fault tolerance. Implementation plans and training schedules could also come up.  The idea is that you are working your way through a complete solution that shows you are a true architect, not just a mouse-clicker in the trenches.  That’s why I tend to look at the VCDX as above the CCIE.  It’s more about strategic thinking instead of brilliant tactical maneuvers.  Read up on my CCAr post from earlier this year to get an idea of what Cisco’s looking for in their architects.  That’s what VMware is looking for too.


That’s VMware certification in a nutshell.  It doesn’t map one-to-one to the existing Cisco certification lineup, but I would argue that’s due more to the VMware emphasis on practical experience versus book learning.  Even the VCAP-DCD, which would appear to be a best practices exam, has a component of live drag-and-drop design in a simlet.  I would argue that if Cisco had to do it all over again, their certification program would look a lot like the VMware version.  I talked earlier this year about wanting to do the VCAP in some form this year.  I don’t think I’m going to get there.  But knowing what I know now about the program and where I need to focus my studies based on what I’m doing today, I think that the VCAP is a very realistic goal for 2013.  The VCDX may be a bit out of my league for the time being, but who knows?  I said the same thing about the CCIE many years ago.