Sunday, September 1, 2019

VMworld 2019 HOL Odyssey Competition. We won!!


As VMworld 2019 approached, I received a marketing email from the team at VMware Hands-on-Labs linking me to a blog post talking about a brand new competition this year called “VMware Odyssey.”  It would be a 3 day event, allowing teams to compete against each other by completing specific tasks in the hands on labs while being timed.  I thought it looked interesting, and decided “why not?” (not to mention it appeared that anyone competing would get a decent looking jacket out of the deal.  I’m always a sucker for unique swag.)  As I didn’t know anyone else competing, I filled out the form and left it open to be randomly assigned to a team.

The event schedule went like this:

Monday:  Check in with the Odyssey team and receive a briefing covering the competition schedule, rules, how the system functioned, etc.  24 teams would be split into 2 groups, “Group A” and “Group B”.

Tuesday: Round 1 - Group A would compete first, followed immediately by Group B.  Both groups would start with a lab on vSan.

Wednesday:  Round 2 - Group B would compete first, followed by Group A.  This lab was based on vSphere Performance.  After this round, the field would be cut to the top 12 teams based on the combined times from the first 2 labs.

Thursday:  The top 12 teams compete in a lab on NSX-T for the Semi-Finals.  The field would then be cut in half again, and the top 6 teams would immediately compete in the Finals using a lab on vRops.  The winner would then be determined based solely on the quickest time from this final lab.

Tuesday morning at team check-in would be the first time I would meet any of my team members.  That's when I met Dmitry (@dvmikin).  I would later describe him to my wife as "this crazy Russian dude".  Dmitry was pretty intense and got REALLY into it, which was great.  Our third team member was MIA, and left just Dmitry and I to compete in the vSan round.  Unfortunately, neither of us really had any experience with vSan, but were somehow able to fumble our way through and pull off an 8th place finish.  This is when Dmitry noticed Nick (@nmorgowicz) sitting next to us who was competing solo.  His 2 other team members were also no-shows.  After chatting between the 3 of us, we decided to check with competition organizers to see if it would be possible to merge teams so that we could form a complete 3-man team.  We were told that after the 2nd round was complete, as long as both of our existing teams made it into the semi-final, we would then be able to merge.

On Wednesday, Dmitry and I were able to fly through the vSphere Performance lab fairly quickly as this was a strength of both of ours, and finished 3rd overall in this round. Organizers had thrown in a twist that required creating a virtual machine and enabling Virtualization Based Security on it and successfully getting it to power on.  A number of the teams missed changing the Operating System selection to Windows Server 2016 or newer (or Windows 10) which would enable the checkbox for VBS.  It also had to be followed up by setting the correct memory and CPU reservations to meet the requirements to power it on.  Nick was also able to complete the lab, I believe with a 5th place finish, which would mean we were then able to merge teams and compete together in the semi-finals!

Thursdays semi-final round would have us competing to finish 4 NSX-T based tasks.  Although we all had NSX-V experience, none of us were overly confident in our NSX-T abilities.  Nick had the most experience with the NSX-T based labs, so we decided it would be best if he drove the keyboard and mouse for us.  Dmitry was also extremely dedicated, and had been working in the lab until about 1am that morning cramming in as much knowledge as he could.  Nick did an awesome job driving, and we really came together as a solid team racing to a 2nd place finish in this round.  The three of us were all pretty psyched with such a strong finish and that we made the finals, but I'm not sure any of us really believed we had a chance at the top spot.

The final round would then kick off with 3 vRealize Operations tasks.  The first task was easy enough, use vRops reclamation to delete unnecessary snapshots from the cluster.  The 2nd task would take a little longer, create an alert definition that would take an action once triggered (I don't remember the specific criteria, but it was outlined in the requirements).  This one held us up just a little bit as we forgot to enable the alert definition in the policy after we had created it.  I remember checking the leaderboard after that had validated and saw that we were somewhere around 3rd going into the final task.  The final task required the creation of a super metric that would average the "CPU Usage %" for the entire cluster.  Nobody on our team had any experience with super metrics other than a little bit here and there through the lab environments.  The first couple of attempts failed validation and sent us back to reviewing the criteria.  After the 2nd failed validation, Nick thought to bring up the preview window under the super metric criteria.  He changed just one part of the criteria from "Depth: 1" to "Depth: 2" (ultimately making the metric flow deep enough to apply to the VM's within the cluster) and we saw the preview window update with data!  Nick then clicked the "validate" button and we waited… and waited… and waited.  It was at this point that I started thinking to myself "this is taking much longer, this HAS to be a good sign".  Nick then noticed that the lab manual stated something along the lines of "Be Patient, successful validation could take up to 2 minutes to complete". It suddenly sank in that it could be a reality that we were going to pull this off.  FINALLY, the green window with "DONE" flashed up on the screen and we all jumped up and cheered in excitement!

Three engineers who had met just two days earlier, were able to come together and work as a solid team to win the first ever VMware Odyssey competition.  Each of our strengths would somehow work out to perfectly complement each other's weaknesses, and it was awesome.

I feel as though this is a perfect example of our vCommunity as a whole.  So many people are willing to come along and help each other out with issues, and share their knowledge with one another.

I would also like to thank VMware and the VMware Hands-on-Lab team for putting this competition together.  Like many others, I often find myself dealing with "imposters syndrome".  After signing up for the competition, there were many times that I considered dropping out to free up the spot for someone that would be "more qualified" to compete.  Developers have always had "Hack-a-Thons" to compete and demonstrate their skills, but I'm not familiar with anything similar for us engineers or architects (if I'm wrong, please let me know!).  Having this opportunity to compete, and ultimately win, has definitely (at least for the time being), given me a much needed boost in confidence.

So with that, I would like to encourage ANYONE who has the opportunity to take part in this competition or anything similar to do so.  It was incredibly fun all the way through, provided some professional validation, and gave me the opportunity to meet work with 2 amazing teammates in Nick and Dmitry.  

I sincerely hope that VMware decides to continue and even grow the Odyssey competition in future years!

Update #2

Another week down... Running/exercise: I really feel like I'm starting to find a good balance and relationship with the exercising....