Last February at VMware Partner Exchange (PEX), I sat the VCAP5-DCD BETA exam. I detailed that experience here. The exam consisted of 130 questions to be answered in 225 minutes. I squandered a lot of time in deep thought on some questions and also spent time providing feedback on many of the questions. I was fairly comfortable with the content but based on the time I spent on each question, I came up 30 or 40 questions short of being answered. Pass/Fail results came in late April with a detailed exam report in July. I didn’t pass the BETA exam but I was surprised how close I came to passing despite the large number of questions I didn’t get to. Oh well, the beta exam cost was marked down 50% and worth a shot.
This afternoon I exercised the free retake voucher (thank you VMware certification department, and I do sincerely mean that despite the sharp criticism I’ve had no moral issues in sharing.) I’ll be honest, not passing the beta exam initially only bothered me in that I’d have to wait for it to GA and sit through it again. But as the weeks and months passed, coupled with the VCA4-DT failure by a close margin last winter, I was starting to question my abilities in a market I’ve dedicated my career to.
For me, the key to passing the VCAP5-DCD exam was simply better time management. I recognize over the past few years I’ve slipped into the habit of being more methodical and spending too much time on each exam question. While being careful and meticulous in the real world can be considered a positive attribute, there’s just no room for it on the VMware VCAP exams. The publicly available VCAP5-DCD exam consists of 100 questions and 225 minutes. That averages out to be 2m 15s allowed to answer each question. But that’s not the reality. At the beginning of the exam, a general exam tip is given that a number of the questions in the exam are the design tool type and that 1h 15m should be allotted to answer these questions.
My new exam approach:
I need to create time in the exam room. There are a few ways I’m going to accomplish this:
- For answers that I’m quite confident in, mark the correct answers and move on immediately, especially on the valuable short reading questions which can be knocked out in 30 seconds. There is absolutely no sense in wasting valuable time debating what I already know to be the best answer.
- For obscure questions which frankly I have no real clue what the correct answer is (and there definitely were a few of these types), quickly choose what looks to be the best answer and move on immediately. There is absolutely no sense in wasting valuable time debating an answer which will never come to me in this exam’s lifetime. There were some bizarre questions on today’s exam which were not worth fighting over. Cut your losses and move on in the interest of time.
- When a design tool question pops, immediately flag it for review and move on to the next question. I want to get through the lion’s share of the questions and save the “time sync” questions for the end, whether I have enough time left get through them all or not. This approach actually works well – I think using the design tool in end-to-end consecutive questions yields more design tool use efficiency rather than dealing with the design tool in sparse frequency. Once I got through the first design question with the tool, I found myself able to use it very swiftly for the remaining questions.
- Find the buried questions faster. There’s really not enough time to read each question from beginning to end. There is so much to digest with a lot of the questions, only to find that the question could have been appropriately answered by reading the last few sentences of the question first or by reading the question in reverse order from bottom to top hunting for the facts, while already having a preview of the possible answers and what details the question is really focusing on. There’s plenty of fluff in many of the questions. Basically don’t waste time reading, memorizing, or getting wound around the fluff axle.
These are not new techniques. I’ve been sitting certification exams since the mid ’90′s (mostly Microsoft) and I quickly learned the above tactics in test taking but over the years I’ve had a gradual departure, employing quality and thought provoking debate in each exam question I encountered. That’s a big mistake because these exams just don’t provide the time for it.
What a difference it made:
Looking back the last few years, a common exam room theme had clearly developed for me: Either I ran out of time on the exam leaving questions unanswered or I came very very close to running out of time. Today I reached the end of the exam with well beyond the recommended 1h 15m required to go back and address the design tool questions. I completed the design tool questions at a pace faster than what VMware recommends by applying the basic methodology of not getting wound around the axle. That’s not to say my designs were perfectly accurate but I felt pretty comfortable with half of them.
After getting through the design tool questions, I still had plenty of exam time left to three times go through a handful of other questions I had marked to review.
Final thoughts before pressing “End Exam”:
Although I rocked the time component, there were some new elements this time which I let get the best of me to some degree.
It was a late afternoon exam. I only sit morning exams. I never sit exams in the afternoon, especially 4 hour exams staring at a computer after lunch. To avoid any post-lunch sleepies that might show up, I opted to take a quick nap in lieu of lunch. This helped immensely, no drowsiness whatsoever during the exam.
Prior to sitting down, I was not looking forward to the 4 hour exam. The experience at PEX was dreadful. I wasn’t 100% invested into it and there were a lot of distractions which just made the exam feel like it took forever. I was caught in a stressful catch-22 where I just wanted the hell out of that cold and noisy room yet the reality was I had burned through so much time I would have needed an additional 2 hours to complete the exam with all questions answered. After sitting the beta, I was under the hopeful impression the GA version would be trimmed to something like 50 questions and 2 hours. When I found the GA version was still 100 questions in under 4 hours, I was anticipating the likelihood of a repeat experience if I wasn’t able to step up my time management game. And the other thing – 4 hour exams are too long and not what I’ve been used to prior to VCAP exams being invented. In reflection, today’s exam duration wasn’t too bad, in fact, time flew. Maybe because I was managing my time better. Maybe because of the power nap. I don’t know but today was ok. Ask me again tomorrow and I’ll tell you 4 hour exams are way too damned long. There should be a better way to measure design skill. Halve the number of questions and the time commitment.
While I was quite comfortable with the beta exam content to the point that I’m sure I could have passed the exam based on content mastery alone, today’s experience was actually quite a bit different. I was expecting to see the same familiar content. The truth is there were up to 40 questions I hadn’t even seen during the beta. While some of the content was familiar, there were quite a few new questions I wasn’t so confident in plus there were many familiar questions I was counting on being on today’s exam that were absent (low hanging fruit if you will).
While you might think there’s nothing more frustrating than facing a question for which you are completely unprepared for, even worse are questions with ambiguous dialogue either in the question itself and/or the answer(s). I came across several exam questions which I felt were left to the author’s interpretation. It’s really frustrating to know the right answers but a question is worded in such a way that it can be interpreted in different ways and there’s a correct answer below for each of the interpretations.
There was nothing left to do now but push that “End Exam” button. I gave this thing my best 3 hours and 45 minutes. Fortunately for me, the joyful message above was displayed on the screen. For sure it’s what I had hoped would be there, but I wasn’t 100% confident like I was with the beta exam.
Good time management clearly made a difference. The content alone on these exams is difficult enough, there’s no sense in creating additional obstacles to contend with. Having the time available on questions where I really needed it was king. And of course, completing the exam with no questions left unanswered also helps.
Someone tweeted me tonight asking me to divulge what to study. As I’ve said in the past, I find there’s not a whole lot to study for when it comes to the design exams. I mostly draw on my experience and brush up on a few things I’m weak on (such as PVLANs which I crashed yesterday and it paid off big time). Note the blueprint: Microsoft clustering also rears its head. While I was at one time a MSCS master from a Microsoft perspective, I struggle to keep all of the details straight with regards to vSphere. Frankly it has been a mess to track from day 1 and I wish MSCS would either be supported end to end or I wish it would just go away.
Back to that tweet, there’s a nightmare of a reality here: if you lack the experience or know-how to tackle at least, I’d say, 75% of the blueprint, there’s too much ground to cover in terms of “what do I need to study – point me to the white papers”. VCAP-DCD covers a very broad range of design topics but it also gets into the weeds on technical content you might expect to know for the VCAP-DCA exam. I don’t say this to intimidate anyone or to flex my ego. Today was a reality check and reminder for myself that the content on these exams shouldn’t be taken for granted even for someone like myself who spends his life immersed in the technology as much as possible. That said, I’m going to have to up my game for the upcoming VCAP5-DCA exam as I consider that one more difficult than the DCD. I’m not sure how much exam fuel I have left in me. A part of me wants to retire from the certification treadmill (the VMware cert treadmill is by far the most aggressive) but I definitely don’t want to let the VCDX lapse. I used to be able to knock out exams without too much trouble. Don’t get me wrong, I put forth all of the due diligence required by reading thick books and spending a lot of time with hands on in the lab. In the past, that formula always lead to a passing grade in the exam room. But it’s getting harder. At least it feels like it. Maybe it’s my old age catching up.
If you plan on sitting the VCAP5-DCD exam soon, I wish you the best of luck. Let me know how your experience was.