Exam Routines Make for Routine Exams

Today I got notification from VMware Education that I had passed my VCAP-CIA. A nice feeling, especially after the end of availability notice meant that I only had one shot at it!

A number of people at work and in the community have asked me for tips on sitting the advanced VMware exams, and so I thought I would write up my study process and share it with the wider community.

Study

First up – admin exams.

These are the most fun to prepare for. The exam blueprints give you *heaps* of information about what to expect. Build an environment, and start playing. Visualise the tasks that you might be asked to do. Build, modify, tinker. If you break something, don’t just blow it away – take the time to figure out how to resolve it.

Typically when it comes to admin exams I build an environment, and then pick the item on the Blueprint that I am least comfortable with. I do it over and over until I’ve internalised it, and then go back to the first objective. By tackling the hardest topic I build some really good momentum.

Command line driven tasks are purely muscle memory for me. I use my train travel for study, so whenever my connection to the lab drops out (I’ll get to that in a moment) I flip over into a text editor where I have a list of commands that I need to memorise. I type each one two or three times, and then flip back into the lab. In the course of studying for the VCAP-CIA, I would have managed a solid half hour per day of repetitive commands. So from when the exams were announced EOL on March 3rd, through to March 10th (the day before I sat my exam), I traveled for six days. This equates to 180 minutes or three straight hours of training my fingers how to type something once I’d started the first few characters.

Coming back to the remote lab piece. I found myself getting frustrated about my connectivity, and the latency that I had to deal with when on the train. Some time later I realised that it may actually be the most valuable aspect of my preparation. The lab experience in Pearson is quite abysmal from Australia, so this practice was allowing me to acclimatise to the kind of environment I would sit during the exam. Ace!

Next – design exams.

I hate reading text. Well, that’s not entirely true. I love reading novels, and also business/motivational books – I just don’t like reading for study. The sooner I can get onto a whiteboard, or doing something in a lab the better.

I find design exams are much easier to study in a group than on your own, as you are able to discuss your approach with peers and validate why you think a given thing. For the VCAP-CID I studied with Josh Odgers and Nathan Wheat – we met in the VMware offices in Melbourne on a Wednesday afternoon for three consecutive weeks, a full Saturday, and a full Sunday the following week. We took the exam on the following Monday. We used the Blueprint and the vCAT to prep, and spent a lot of time on the whiteboard throwing questions at each other about how we would design networks, orgs and VDCs based on fictitious requirements.

With that, I need to point out that I’m definitely a whiteboard guy. I move around a lot when I’m thinking and tend to be quite visual. It’s my learning style, and so it’s how I study. If you learn better by reading/listening/watching then dig in!

Timing

You’ll notice that I’ve made reference to the amount/timing of study involved with each of the exam attempts. This is possibly the most important point that you could take away from this post.

You are far more capable than you think. All you need is the appropriate motivation to achieve your goal.

Set an immutable date for your exam. Log in, book your exam and then find someone you trust to reset your password. Don’t set it months away, set it weeks away. My experience tells me that you can take the number of Sections in a blueprint, divide it by two and that should be the maximum number of weeks that you study. Any longer and you will lose motivation. At least I do, maybe you’re more disciplined than me.

Mental Preparation

For me, this is key. They day of my exam I don’t study at all. I like to book an afternoon session if at all possible because it means that there is no chance of sleeping in and having to rush to get to my exam on time.

I try my best to keep the exam in my peripheral vision. I play with my daughter, do some vacuuming, have a shave, get dressed into something comfortable and then go sit my exam. The act of “ignoring” my exam brings on a good mental state for me.

Hope that helps!