Death Certificates for Exam Cancellation – Another Reason to Loathe Pearson Vue

ADDITIONAL UPDATE 10/28/2013

VMware uses Pearson Vue for all of their certification exams. I have had several interactions with VMware’s certification personnel due to my participation in the VMware Beta exam process. I forwarded this blog post to Randy Becraft, Senior Program Manager, VMware Certification Team. After discussion with the Vue program manager assigned to VMware, Randy provided me with the following bullet points:

  • Pearson VUE delivers thousands of exams to hundreds of clients each month. Theirs is a business that has to have policies that apply to the large volume of candidates.
  • Some test centers have very high volume. Cancellations—particularly at the last minute—cost the test center revenue.
  • Historically enough candidates cancelled so many tests the same day that Pearson VUE had to implement a policy to provide a “buffer” from that business risk, hence the 24-hour cancellation policy.
  • When a cancellation must occur within the 24-hour period for a legitimate reason such as a death in the family, some form of documentation is required to ensure the cancellation privilege is not abused. In the case of a death in the family the policy does not specifically require a death certificate, though that is what was communicated in Patrick’s specific case. For instance, a newspaper death notice is acceptable.

UPDATE 10/28/2013

During my April encounter with Vue, I spoke with a customer service manager. I called him last week and left a voicemail asking for a call back.

The staff running @PearsonVue‘s Twitter account saw a flurry of retweets of this blog post. I received a DM this morning saying that I’d be contacted by one of the Vue staffers.

The customer service manager who got my voicemail just sent me an email. I did not explain my situation in the voicemail; I assume that the social media staff at Vue forwarded the Twitter activity to him. The email says:

Hi Patrick,

I got your VM this morning.  Sorry I was in training last thursday and Friday and missed your call.

While it absolutely is policy to need some sort of documentation to waive the reschedule policy for a death in the family, I booked you for a new exam for end of November as a customer service gesture..  You can go online, call our call center or give me a call to reschedule to a date/time that works better for you.  I am very sorry for your loss.  Please let me know if you have any questions or if there is anything else I can do for you.

Although I’m pleased that the manager did what I believe to be the right thing, I have to think it’s primarily because of the bad publicity on Twitter.  Another victory for social media.

Original post 10/26/2013

I failed my first attempt at the Cisco 640-916 DCICT exam by 4%. I studied in the evenings for a few weeks afterward, prepping for the retake. I worked a maintenance window for a client on the evening of October 23rd, finishing around 10PM. I was scheduled at the same client on the 24th, but that was a backup date in case the 23rd had problems. With no work left to do, I decided to book the exam for 1:30PM on the 24th. This would give me the morning to try cramming useless factoids into my brain.

I was unaware that as just as I was booking the exam, a family member was dying. It was a hospice situation; his passing was expected, but the speed with which it happened was not.

I got the call at 7AM.

I notified work. They didn’t ask for a death certificate. I cancelled my son’s appointments. They didn’t ask for a death certificate.

Then I called Pearson Vue. The cancellation policy requires 24 hour notice, an absurdity on its face because I booked the exam inside the cancellation window – 15 1/2 hours before the scheduled time. This policy means I couldn’t have cancelled the appointment ten seconds after making it. I booked it at an exam center with literally dozens of exam slots open – I didn’t take the final slot available on the 24th and prevent somebody else from testing on that day.

The Vue person demanded a death certificate. I won’t repeat exactly what I said in reply – I suppose the best way to put it is that I ‘impolitely declined’. Vue said there was nothing else that could be done and my exam fee would be forfeited. I hung up.

My wife and I planned to drive up to another family member’s house, which happened to be close to the testing center. At some point I began stewing over what had happened and decided if I forfeited the exam fee, Vue was somehow winning – beating me, stealing the exam fee. I can’t say the logic was sound, but that’s how my mind was operating at the time. I popped out and sat the exam for the second time. I failed by 10 points out of 1,000.

Since 2009, I have sat 21 exam sessions at Pearson Vue at a total cost of $5,000. I haven’t canceled any sessions, although I’ve had an exam canceled due to Vue’s gross incompetence. I think it’s reasonable to give me the benefit of the doubt that a family member did indeed pass away. I would think that even the questionably skilled techs at Vue could design a way to track same-day cancellations. It could be a single field on a form; one column in a database; even just an entry in the comment field. Perhaps Vue could consider dropping the policy altogether. Are there really that many people cancelling appointments on the same day? People spend countless hours preparing for these exams, I highly doubt that there is a flood of same-day cancellations other than true emergency situations.

I wish I could say that I was going to avoid a Vue testing center from now on, but that’s obviously not going to happen due to my career requirements.

 

 

 

 

 

 

My VCAP5-DTD exam experience

I took the VCAP5-DTD beta exam on January 3rd, 2013. Like many people, I received the welcome news today that I passed the exam.

I’m laughing a little to myself as I write this post because my certification folder contains a log of my studying. I downloaded the beta blueprint on December 17, 2012, but I already had Microsoft exams scheduled for December 28th.  I did no studying for this VCAP until the day before the exam, January 2rd, where you can clearly see my feverish morning download activity. I will say though that I have several years of View deployments under my belt, so my knowledge on the engineering side was up-to-date and at the front of my mind.

VCAP5-DTD Folder

I downloaded every PDF referenced in the exam blueprint, and I already had most of the product documentation already downloaded. I am primarily a delivery engineer, but to be successful on the exam you need to put on your designer’s hat. I tried to keep that in mind as I pored through the PDFs – it does make a difference because different information will stand out if you actively look for design elements.

My exam was just after lunch and it was well over an hour away, so I left early and brought my Kindle. I continued going through the PDFs until exam time. The sheer volume of information you have to read through makes VMware design exams quite difficult. I suggest reading the answers before you read the question – this helps you identify clues in the question. There are detailed descriptions requiring 6 or more paragraphs of reading just to answer a single multiple choice question.

The GA version of the exam has 115 questions and 6 diagramming scenarios. Keep track of the number of diagramming questions you get so you can budget your time appropriately. You should not spend any more than 15 minutes on a diagram. Keep in mind that 15 * 6 = 90 minutes, leaving you only 105 minutes to answer 109 questions. The pace you have to sustain is mentally exhausting. The beta was even more difficult with 131  questions, plus the expectation to provide comment feedback on the questions.

I found the diagramming questions to be even more involved than the DCD questions.. I’d say the tool was a bit better behaved than the DCD exam, but not by much. It’s easy to get sucked in to a design scenario and waste far too much time. Remember that you’re not designing the perfect system, it just has to be good enough to meet the stated requirements.

Fear and Loathing of Pearson Vue

Computer testing vendor Pearson Vue suffered a massive outage this past week – at least most people would call it an outage. Pearson Vue’s spin team tried to say their systems were 100% up, only slow, but countless posts online contradict this.

The issues were first acknowledged on the company’s Facebook page.
April22-OutageAcknowledgement

An entire day goes by and they claim the issue is fixed.
April23-Fixed

But shortly thereafter, another acknowledgement of an ongoing problem.
April24-DownAgain

On April 24th, another acknowledgement of a problem.
April24-DeliveryFailures

A second generic post again on April 24th.

April24-SecondPost

I first learned of this outage when I walked into a Vue testing center for an exam on April 24, only to discover that they were unable to deliver because Vue’s servers were not accessible. The center called in to Vue, and customer service said all their systems were frozen and nothing could be done.

Pearson Vue put up another April 24th post suggesting that users try scheduling during non-peak hours.

April24-TryAfterHours

On April 25th came the first of many outright lies posted by Pearson Vue.

April25-FAQ1

This leads you to believe the system is up but slow. This was not the case. I tried many times to log in without success, as did others such as this Facebook poster.

April25-WebsiteDown

Here is the rest of the FAQ from April 25th
April25-FAQ2

I called multiple times, only to be told by customer service that they could not log in. This happened to people worldwide, here are a few of the many posts on Facebook.

April25-CustSvcCanNotSchedule April25-CustSvcCanNotSchedule2 April25-CustSvcCanNotSchedule3

Testing centers were not able to deliver exams, either.

April25-CanNotTakeExam

Later in the day on April 25th came a post with another outright lie saying “our systems are operational, just not optimal”

April25-BestBrightest

That post prompted me to post the following, which was not replied to or acknowledged in any way.

April25-Patrick1 April25-Patrick2 April25-Patrick3

On April 26th, a series of posts came out saying that engineers had found the problem and they were bringing the system back to expected performance levels.

April26-ProblemFound April26-ProblemFound2 April26-ProblemFound3 April26-ProblemFound4

A Facebook post directly under the above message shows a user who still can’t schedule an exam using customer service – the timestamp on this is April 28th, 9:30AM CDT.

April28-StillProblems

On April 28th at 10:30 AM CDT, Pearson Vue had the audacity to ask users to stress test the system for them.

April28th-PleaseLoadTestForus

 

The user impact of this outage has been massive. It was more of an inconvenience for me. But for others, there were signifiant impacts in time, expense, and even their ability to work.

Here is one Facebook post from a user who has no Pearson Vue facility in their country. They have to get a visa to leave the country to sit an exam. In order to get a visa, they have to make an appointment with their embassy. Once they get their appointment, they have to register for the exam and bring printed confirmation. Unable to register for over a week, this user loses the embassy appointment.

Impact1-Visa

Did Vue suffer data loss on top of the outage?
April28-DataLost
A user needing to test for starting a job next week.

Impact2-Job

I know for a fact that I saw dozens more posts with similar problems – physicians unable to go to board exams, nurses unable to work because of results delays. I wish I had thought to screencap more while this was going on, but I didn’t. It appears that those posts were either eaten up by Facebook (yeah right) or deleted by Pearson (likely, but can never be proven).  At least one user wrote a post confirming post removal. None of my posts were deleted.

RemovedOurPosts

As an IT professional, I find this outage appalling. The company states this was started by an upgrade. Every place I’ve ever worked at upgrades during off hours and rolls back on failure. Pearson deployed a faulty upgrade then forced its users to pay the price while programmers scrambled desperately to fix their poorly written code. Pearson Vue’s suggestion that they carefully planned and tested their upgrades is nonsense. A proper load test reveals these kinds of failures. Their post from today ‘inviting’ us to load test their fixed system also points to the fact that they are unable or unwilling to test their own systems.

The fact that this upgrade caused a global outage for both scheduling and test delivery demonstraties critical failures of their architecture. Are the same webservers used for scheduling also used for exam delivery? Could a breach of vue.com could then result in the theft of exam content?  Or instead are they separate servers connected to the same backend database? In any event, their architecture is an abomination. The global failure to deliver exams points to only two possibilities. Do all global Vue delivery centers connect to the same datacenter, meaning the ability to deliver exams globally relies on a single point of failure? If so, this is a catastrophic design flaw. If they do have datacenter redundancy, then they deployed their upgrade across the entire system at the same time. This demonstrates atrocious planning. Why would you risk multiple datacenters with the same upgrade?

Pearson Vue is a billion dollar, Fortune 500 corporation. This kind of an outage is both unacceptable and inexcusable. Considering the power that Vue wields over people’s careers, it’s frightening to witness the depth of ineptitude demonstrated in this disaster.

 

 

 

Is It Time To Remove the VCP Class Requirement – Rebuttal

This post is a rebuttal of @networkingnerd‘s blog post Is It Time To Remove the VCP Class Requirement.

I would like to acknowledge that it’s easy for me to have the perspective I do as a VCP holder since version 3. I’ve already got it, so I naturally want it to remain valuable. The fact that my employer at the time paid for the class has opened up an entire career path for me that would have otherwise been closed. But I believe the VCP cert remains fairly elite specifically because of the course requirement.

First, consider Microsoft’s certifications. As a 15-year veteran of the IT industry, I believe I am qualified to state unequivocally that Microsoft certifications are utterly worthless. This is partially because of the proliferation of braindumps. There is no knowledge requirement whatsover to sit the Microsoft exams. You don’t even need to look at a Microsoft product to pass a Microsoft test – go memorize a braindump and pass the test. We’ve all encountered paper MCSEs – their existence completely devalues the certification. I consider the MCSE nothing more than a little checkbox on some recruiter’s wish list.

I would go so far as to say that Microsoft’s test are specifically geared towards memorizers – they acutally encourage braindumping by focusing on irrelevant details and not on core skills. Passing a Microsoft exam has everything to do with memorization and almost nothing to do with your skill as a Windows admin.

On the other hand, to sit the VCP exam you have to go through a week of training. At the very least, you’ve touched the software. You installed it. You configured it. You (wait for it)… managed it.  Obviously there are braindumps out there for the VCP exam too, but everybody starts with the same core of knowledge. The VCP exams have improved to a point where they are not memorize-and-regurgitate. A person who has worked with the product actually stands a reasonable chance of passing the exam.

Quoted directly from the blog post:

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.

There is a tiny window of opportunity after the release of new vSphere edition to go take the exam without a course requirement. Those of us who are able to pass the exam in that small window are the people who do exactly as you say – we are downloading and installing the software in our labs. We are putting in the time to make sure that our knowledge of the newest features is up to par. Many of us partipate in alpha and beta programs, spending far more time with the software than a typical certification candidate. Some of us participate in the certification beta program, where we have just a couple of short weeks to study for and book the exam. I’ve put in quite a few late nights prepping for beta exams.

VMware forces us to learn the new features by putting a time limit on the upgrade period. We have a foundation of knowledge that was created by the original class that we took. There isn’t enough time for braindumps to leak out there, and the vast majority of upgraders wouldn’t use one anyhow. VMware can be reasonably certain that a VCP upgrader without the class really is taking the time to learn the new features. @networkingnerd is correct, the value IS in the knowledge, but the focus is ensuring that every VCP candidate starts with the same core of knowledge.

@networkingnerd suggests an alternative lower level certification such as a VCA with a much less expensive course requirement. I think it’s an interesting idea, but I don’t know how you’d put it into practice. I’m not sure what a 1-day class could prepare you for. It’s one thing for experienced vSphere admins to attend a 2-day What’s New class. But what could you really teach and test on? Just installing vSphere? There’s not a whole lot of value for an engineer who can install but not configure.

Again quoting from the article:

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.

This suggests that the entry-level certification from the leader in virtualization is somehow not well-known. While I would agree that the VCAP-level certifications do not enjoy the same level of name recognition as the CCNP, I talk to seniors in college who know what the VCP is. There is no lack of awareness of the VCP certification. I also agree that it’s ridiculous to send a VMware admin who has years of experience to the Install Configure Manage class. That’s why the Optimize and Scale and the Fast Track classes exist.

I don’t believe dropping the course requirement would do anything to enhance VMware’s market share. The number of VCP individuals has long since reached a critical mass.  Nobody is going to avoid buying vSphere because of a lack of VCPs qualified to administer the environment. While I agree that Hyper-V poses a credible threat, Microsoft is just now shipping features that vSphere has had for years. Hyper-V will start to capture the SMB market, but it will be a long time before it has the chance to unseat vSphere in the enterprise.

My EMC E10-001 exam experience

I passed the EMC E10-001 exam on Thursday, giving me the EMCISA certification. My primary study material was the insanely long-titled Information Storage and Management: Storing, Managing, and Protecting Digital Information in Classic, Virtualized, and Cloud Environments. I went with the Kindle edition to save money as well as the ability to read the book anywhere – phone, laptop, or Kindle.

Everything you need to know for exam success is in this book. I found the first few chapters to be basic IT skills review, but it soon moved into material that I was hazy on – FCoE, object-based storage, and array-based replication technology. It’s a fairly lengthy read at over 500 pages, but I went through the book once, did my Kindle highlighting, then headed over to the practice test.

The practice test lets you know what you got wrong, but not the correct answer. I went back and studied up on the ones that I got wrong. When I got a 90% on the practice test, I booked the exam. Since I’d never taken an EMC exam, I wasn’t sure whether I’d get Microsoft-style pure memorization questions, or Cisco-style conceptual questions. I was pleased to find the EMC questions were more like a Cisco exam. I found the questions to be straightforward, no material beyond what is covered in the book and no trick questions.

With the EMCISA certification knocked out, the path is now clear to pursue a Specialist-level EMC certification.

 

 

My MCSA 2012 upgrade exam experience – MS 70-417

I passed the Microsoft 70-417 exam today; it wasn’t my first attempt. I don’t pursue many Microsoft certifications because I find them to be of questionable value. The use of braindumps is rampant in IT certification, particularly true in the case of Microsoft exams. I feel this is in part due to the ridculous nature of most of the questions. There are always going to be people who simply don’t want to learn, the so-called “paper MCSEs”. But unlike exams from other vendors such as VMware and Cisco, experience with Microsoft’s products has nothing to do with passing their exams. Microsoft’s inability to write decent exam questions is truly baffling to me.

I had many questions that forced me to try and remember where in the GUI certain options were. As an example, think about the advanced NTFS permission list. Is “Create files / write data” before or after “Create folders / append data” in the permission list? You probably don’t know and you surely don’t care. If you do happen to know, it doesn’t make you a better administrator. It doesn’t demonstrate much of anything other than a photographic memory. The 417 exam is loaded with these kinds of worthless questions. Even worse is trying to remember a particular switch for a PowerShell command – that’s why cmdlets are self-documenting.

NTFS permissions

The 70-417 exam is divided into 3 parts, the 70-410 (Install and Configure), the 70-411 (Administering) and the 70-412 (Advanced). My exam had 61 questions and you have to take each section invidually. Once you complete a section, there is no going back. I would never have passed this exam without J.C. Mackin’s Exam Ref 70-417: Upgrading Your Skills to MCSA Windows Server® 2012 and Timothy Warner’s 70-417 videos on CBTnuggets.

I’m normally proud and excited when I pass an exam, but not this time. I mostly feel anger toward the Microsoft Certification team for wasting my time. The exam hasn’t measured my actual skill with Server 2012, all it’s done is measure how well I can remember trivia. I’m happy to have this one behind me. I doubt I’ll look at any more Microsoft exams until this MCSA expires.

My VCAP5-DCA beta experience

Update 8/13/2012: I passed!

I took the VCAP5-DCA beta exam on 5/17/2012. At the request of the beta team, I have refrained from posting about the beta exam until the end of the beta period.

First, the basics. The blueprint listed the exam as 26 questions in 3.5 hours. There was something wrong with one of the questions – when I reached it, all it said was “This question will not be graded, please skip it.” There were only 25 questions on the exam. You get 2 ESXi hosts, vCenter, vMA, and a CLI machine with PowerCLI and vCLI. You get access to PuTTY and you have all of the PDF documentation available as well. You aren’t going to have time to dig around in the documents though – it’s good for reference if you can’t remember the correct sequence to do something, but it’s not like you can go into this thinking it’s an open book test.

There is a single password common across all of your components – Windows administrator, root, vi-admin are all the same password. Usernames and passwords are listed at the bottom of every question, so you don’t have to worry about writing it all down.

For those of you who took the VCAP4-DCA, you’ll notice that the version 5 exam has significantly fewer questions on it. It certainly didn’t feel any shorter to me. Although they reduced the number of questions, I think they added more depth to each question. I would say that the level of difficulty remained consistent – if you’ve taken version 4, version 5 will feel about the same. One big advantage over 4 is that you don’t have to mess around with ESX classic.

I found nothing unreasonable about any of the tasks I was asked to perform. The trick is the time limit. There’s no doubt in my mind that I would be able to configure 100% of what was asked, but I would need more than 3.5 hours to do it. You have to be FAST. 3.5 hours divided by 26 questions means just over 8 minutes per question. At first glance, this seems like a huge amount of time for a single question, but it’s not. The environment is unfamiliar… you don’t know the IP ranges, you don’t know the passwords, you don’t know the machine names. So you burn time going back and forth looking them up. Tick tick tick. There are multiple tasks for every question. Tick tick tick. You’re in a restricted remote desktop – as you open more and more windows, it gets more and more challenging to switch back and forth.Tick tick tick. You start an operation that will take some time to complete. Do you wait, or do you go ahead and come back later to check on it? Either way, tick tick tick.

This is a live lab exercise. Any change you make persists for the duration of the exam. This means you have the potential to introduce a misconfiguration on a question and have that mistake also cost you points on other questions. The exam builds on itself. I’m not going to use any vSphere examples because I don’t want to accidentally reveal exam content. I’ll use a Windows example instead. Question #1 might be “Create a new IIS website named MySite with the default settings”. Then question #10 might be “Create a custom error 404 page for MySite that says ‘Move along, nothing to see here'”. And question #15 “Enable MySite to use existing SSL certificate ‘MyCert’ on TCP8443. Force all browsers to use SSL when visiting MySite”.

There is no flag for review interface like the VCP exams. When you reach question 26, going back to question #1 means clicking “back” 25 times. I recommend writing the numbers 1 through 26 on your dry erase board as soon as you sit down. My strategy was to go through each question as quickly as possible. I assumed from my v4 experience that the v5 exam would build on itself; I wanted to spend the most time on groups of questions that would maximize my points. I spent almost no time puzzling through anything – I either started configuration immediately or I skipped it. Any question that I was 100% confident on, I crossed off the dry erase board. Any question I wasn’t sure on, I circled. I also wrote a small note so I knew what category the question was in. Reusing my Windows example – I got to the end of my first pass through the exam and saw that I had 4 IIS questions, 2 NTFS questions, and the rest were single topics. My best shot at the most points was to dig into IIS, so I focused on the IIS questions next. I had slightly less than 2 hours to go after my first pass.

The exam team carefully built the environment to ensure that none of your exam tasks take your environment down. Infrastructure components that you shouldn’t touch are very clearly marked. Don’t touch them unless you want an early exit on your exam.

I am confident that I correctly answered 17 out of 25 – if each question had equal weight, that means I passed with a score of 340. But of course they are not equally weighted, so there’s no good way to estimate my actual score. The beta exams have to go through the lengthy process that I detailed in this post – they could toss out some of the questions I missed and improve my score. Or they could toss out some of the questions I answered correctly and reduce my score. I don’t expect to get beta results until the beginning of August.

My CCNA certification experience

I achieved the CCNA certification in April. A number of people have asked me what I did to pass the exam, so I thought I’d write a quick post about it.

I had basic knowledge of how IP networks function, but knew very little about the nuts and bolts. I had distant experience doing basic T-1 support (is the interface up? Red or yellow alarm?), but hadn’t touched a Cisco router in over 4 years. I had never configured anything other than default VLANs and I had no experience with routing protocols.

When I decided to pursue the CCNA, I found I had 2 options – take the full CCNA exam, or take the ICND1 and ICND2 exams. ICND1 gives you the CCENT certification. Passing the ICND2 exam then gives you the CCNA. I typically prefer to take fewer exams, but in this case I thought splitting the exam content was a better choice. Cisco does a great job separating the focus of the exams. The ICND1 truly is basic networking. The OSI model, tons of subnetting, and basic Cisco configuration. The ICND2 is much more difficult for a server admin. There are plenty of exam areas that the average server admin hasn’t even heard of, let alone configured. OSPF, EIGRP, and frame relay were the main areas where I came in with no knowledge at all.

Just as I was about to start studying, my company made a corporate purchase of the entire CBTNugggets library. Jeremy Cioara’s ICND1 and ICND2 videos were the only study materials I used. The man knows his stuff and I clicked with his training style. I can honestly say that his videos are an amazing blueprint for the exams. If you can perform every task he goes over in the training, I would almost guarantee a pass on the exams. I watched the ICND1 series straight through without much difficulty. The ICND2 videos took much longer. I spent a long time watching and rewatching routing protocols to understand what was going on.

I had a client who was kind enough to lend me a pair of old switches that worked just fine for studying VTP and trunks. I wanted to follow along by building the same lab infrastructure as CBTNuggets, but I didn’t want to go buy a bunch of aftermarket routers and a frame relay switch, so I used GNS3 instead. I built a replica of the instructor’s equipment inside GNS3 so I could configure the exact same network that he was configuring. GNS3 can not emulate switches, so you either need to already know switching or you need to practice on physical switches.

I found the exams to be tough but fair. The typical Microsoft exam is memorize-and-regurgitate. The CCNA is nothing like that – you have to understand the material, then apply it. Cisco throws all kinds of questions at you – multiple choice, multiple answer, matching up columns, and live router configuration exercises. One thing that I really like about Cisco multiple answer questions is that they never give you the Microsoft style “Select all that apply”. Is it two answers? Three answers? Cisco always tells you how many answers they’re looking for.

Good luck in your certification pursuits!

My VCAP-DCA exam experience

9/29/2011
I passed! I am VCAP-DCA #421.

I initially found the test intimidating because I didn’t think that anybody outside of a consultant could possibly gain enough experience to pass this test. I wanted to update this to let people know that you don’t have to be a consultant. I was an admin at a Fortune 500 for my first attempt, and I’d only been doing consulting for a month when I took it the second time. Build a lab, put in your study hours and you can achieve the cert!

9/13/2011
I took the VCAP-DCA exam for the second time today because I failed my first attempt by 13 points. I walked out of my first attempt feeling like I had been run over by a truck. Today, I only felt like I had been pummelled by baseball bats. It is without a doubt the most difficult test I have ever taken. I am reasonably certain that I passed – I know I got more questions right than in my first attempt.

The version 4 exam remains the only version of the DCA available and it’s not clear when version 5 will become available. The exam is 225 minutes long and consists of 100% lab questions. You sit down at a remote desktop and you have a vCenter, 1 ESX host, 1 ESXi host, a vMA appliance, and the PDF documentation. No multiple choice, no guessing – you either have the knowledge to make the requested configuration changes or you don’t.

Many others have posted good exam reviews, including David Davis and Eric Sloof.  Some of my bits of advice are:

  • I found Sean Crookston’s study guides to be immensely useful.
  • Most reviews say this, but I will say it again – there is a lot of configuration to do and very little time. I ran out of time on my first attempt. There is no interface to “review later” like you can on the VCP exams, so you have to track your questions manually. On my second try, I used the Pearson-provided dry erase board to keep track of which questions I needed to revisit. Before I started the test, I wrote the digits 1 through 40 on my board. During the test, I marked an X through the ones I was confident on, and circled the ones I needed to come back to.
  • Certain tasks run for a while. Don’t sit and wait! Mark down the question number and move on to the next question.
  • Limit yourself to no more than 3 minutes per question the first time through. That will get you to the end of the test with almost 2 hours left to go back and tackle the tougher questions.  On my first attempt, I burned over 20 minutes on an early question; bad enough to waste time, but it also made me frustrated and threw me off for a while afterward.
  • You have to spend hours in a lab or you won’t be able to pass the test. I ran my entire lab on my laptop inside of Workstation – a domain controller, vCenter, ESX and ESXi host, vMA, and Openfiler for iSCSI.  It was slow as hell when it booted up, but it worked well enough. I’d rather have some kind of dedicated whitebox, but it’s not in my budget right now.
  • The lab engine during the test makes it possible for the edge of the vSphere client to be off the screen. This could end up hiding something important, or make you think you are losing your mind because you can’t find the place to make a configuration change. If you are feeling lost, step back and check your vSphere client.
  • Spend a little time learning what information is the official PDFs. The documentation is all sitting in a folder, i.e. a bunch of files like “vsp_40_config_max.pdf” sitting in a folder. If you can’t remember how to do something, it helps to know where to look it up quickly. You don’t have enough time to open them all and search.
  • It’s 225 minutes. There is no bathroom break.
  • The Advanced Fast Track course was great, though quite expensive, preparation for the exam. Fortunately the training was employer-paid.

Hopefully I get a passing grade – nothing to do now but wait.