The Unassuming Architect with Phil Monk (2/2)

Welcome to episode 186 of the Nerd Journey Podcast [@NerdJourney]! We’re John White (@vJourneyman) and Nick Korte (@NetworkNerd_), two Pre-Sales Technical Engineers who are hoping to bring you the IT career advice that we wish we’d been given earlier in our careers. In today’s episode we share part 2 of an interview with Phil Monk detailing some resources for understanding dyslexia, the story of Phil getting a job offer out of nowhere, Phil’s pursuit of the VCDX certification, and how we can all learn to think like technical architects.

Original Recording Date: 07-23-2022

Phil Monk is currently a Principal Architect in the Critical Accounts Program at VMware based in the UK. Catch part 1 of our discussion with Phil in Episode 185.

Topics – Resources for Understanding Dyslexia, A Unique Offer, Pursuing VCDX, Think Like an Architect

4:11 – Resources for Understanding Dyslexia

  • Phil mentions Christopher Campbell as a good resource for understanding dyslexia. He makes short TikTok videos and uses humor to promote dyslexia awareness (since he is also dyslexic).
    • Christopher makes videos on his own challenges with reading, short term memory, and colors. Listen to Phil’s story about a post confusing emojis like dyslexics can sometimes confuse words.
  • For formal education stuff, there are a number of videos on YouTube.
  • Phil has learned not every person is the same in the way they experience challenges. Certainly writing and spelling challenges are common as is the typing.
  • Phil is able to better read PowerPoint slides in dark theme (has trouble reading them and seeing colors in light theme).
    • He would ask at previous VMworld conferences about getting a copy of a presentation in dark theme because he could not follow what was happening in light theme.
    • Thanks to the power of difference community for neurodiversity inside VMware the slide decks are now issued internally using light and dark theme.
  • If you know someone who is dyslexic, talk to them about their experiences and ask for resources to learn more.
  • Nick mentions some books:
    • The Dyslexic Advantage by Brock L. Eide M.D. M.A. and Fernette F. Eide M.D talks about strengths of the dyslexic brain, one of them being mechanical.
    • Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz.
    • Note that both of these are available on Audible!
  • Nick’s daughter’s has trouble with spelling, memory is not bad if she can hear something (usually has it down once she hears it), and she remembers experiences very well (might even remember something that was said to her only once).
  • It’s interesting that a weakness in one area can manifest itself as a strength / advantage in another. John gives the example of the mechanical strength. You could learn other things almost by casting other things onto that mechanical mental model.
    • John has seen other people do this and didn’t really understand it at the time. Listen to John’s story about a college math professor explaining differential equations using the illustration of a spring.
    • This process can help with learning abstract things.
  • Phil mentioned he started out recording customer conversations to help with memory challenges. He later learned through a friend of a friend about the concept of a memory palace.
    • It took Phil about 2 years to really learn how to do this for himself.
    • If Phil comes across something he really needs to remember, he will picture the home where he grew up in is his mind (which he knows really well). Phil then maps the thing he needs to remember to an event that happened in his childhood home. This allows Phil to recall it and use the mnemonic later for memory recall.
    • This has worked pretty well for Phil and has been better than just recording things.
    • This reminds John of Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer (also available on Audible. In the book the author enters a memory competition and wins using the idea of the memory palace to do it. Nick and John talk about some of the things contestants have to memorize (such as a deck of cards, phone numbers, etc.), but see also the World Memory Championships.
    • It’s interesting that the memory palace can be used as a coping mechanism for dyslexia.
  • John mentions personal knowledge management, sharing that it is like a series of connected nodes with the nodes and links between them being equally important.
    • It’s very writing based, and tools like Notion and Obsidian can be used for this. You can create a thought node and radial connections to other thoughts. This allows for a visual representation and a spatial representation of the information.
    • See also Episode 156 and Episode 157 with Josh Duffney for more on personal knowledge management and the smart notes methodology.
    • Phil uses MindNode, which is a mind mapping tool that is similar to the idea John mentioned. Phil will often use this tool to dump out his thoughts when there is too much going on in his head.
  • John was a bookworm as a kid, reading at times 5 books per week. In many ways it was a manifestation of his ADD.
    • He had the hyperfocus but never the hyperactivity and would cope by hyperfocusing on reading. This was often times at the cost of paying attention in class.
  • As a member of Generation X, John sometimes is skeptical of new mediums like TikTok, but he feels like one of the most amazing things is people using this medium to talk about and express their otherness (using the platform to educate).
  • John mentions MindTools as another helpful resource.

18:22 – A Unique Offer

  • Back when Phil was working at XOR, he was working with a customer on vCloud Director. At the time (around 2012), VMware professional services did not have anyone that could deliver an engagement on this software (nor did partners in the area).
    • Phil started getting phone calls asking if he was looking for another job. He said he was not. But, he did end up getting asked to work on this particular project.
    • There was a very heated exchange between personnel from the partner engaged at this customer (called 2E2) and Phil about his abilities to deliver the very technical implementation of vCloud Director. He was about 26 at the time with most of them being older and a bit more seasoned. That, and they didn’t know vCloud Director like he did.
    • It was challenging to work with the people from this partner, but Phil did his best and worked with them.
    • At some point a number of professional services personnel from VMware showed up on site (about 6 people who were delivering a number of other VMware products for this customer.
    • Phil started working less with the 2E2 folks and more with the professional services folks from VMware.
    • After about 6 weeks, he was getting along with these folks really well. They treated him with an incredible amount of respect. Phil was impressed because these people worked for a company where he had always wanted to work (VMware).
    • One day one of the professional services personnel told Phil there would be a job opening on the VMware website in about an hour. When Phil could not see it, one of the professional services folks sent it to him (job posting only viewable via that link).
    • Phil applied for the job, and an hour later he had a contract in front of him offering him the job. Phil was ecstatic about this.
    • As a result Phil did not quite know how to tell his employer (XOR) that he got another job. Phil had been expecting to get an end of year bonus in a few weeks.
    • Phil received some advice from a former manager at T-Systems that said he should just be honest with his employer and let them know he was leaving only because of an amazing opportunity.
    • Phil turning in his resignation did not go great. The company had a bunch of work lined up for Phil at that time. He stayed on for 12 weeks and helped them find a replacement, leaving on good terms.
  • After joining VMware Phil worked on vCloud Director engagements for about 1.5 years before branching out into other products.
  • You never know what situation could be a formal job interview without you realizing it.
  • At the time Phil joined, the professional services team was small with him being about the 7th employee. When he moved into the customer success organization inside VMware in 2018, there were more than 120 people in professional services.
  • Phil learned a great deal while working in the professional services organization, and he mentioned it helped him get his VCDX.

23:43 – Pursuing VCDX

  • VCDX is the VMware Certified Design Expert certification and the highest level you can obtain. Phil is VCDX-DCV (datacenter virtualization) #274 as shown in the VCDX Directory.
    • Achieving the certification requires a defense in front of a panel and not many pass.
    • Phil is not a panelist and likes to mentor others who are seeking after this certification to build up the community. Phil cites great mentors as one of the reasons he passed the defense, which did not happen until his 3rd attempt.
    • Phil is a target driven individual. Without something to aim for, he gets really uncomfortable.
    • Phil was in professional services at VMware since 2013. His first VCDX attempt was in 2016, the second in 2017, and the 3rd and final attempt in 2018 where he passed.
    • Phil had also set a goal of moving from a senior consultant to an architect, furthering the skills he had learned from his consulting days before coming to Vmware – requirements gathering, risk assessment, business alignment, designing and making decisions, how to do design board reviews with customers, how to have challenging conversations, etc.
    • Moving up to a consulting architect moves you up in pay band and requires some justification. Phil worked on VCDX while he was working toward this.
    • Phil says his first attempt at VCDX was utterly terrible. He went in looking to get some valuable feedback for the second attempt at it. The second pass was close but did not pass.
    • To be able to do a defense you have to submit a design that is evaluated against a blueprint with criteria and passed. Phil’s design was passed through to defense the first time, and it was the defense where he fell flat.
  • The design document was one he had done for a customer. It took Phil a long time to get his document in the right shape.
    • Phil used several mentors when preparing for his 2nd defense attempt who helped him review the document.
    • Through this process, Phil discovered Speechify, which can be leveraged to read your documents back to you as they are written. Phil continues to use this tool even today.
  • Getting feedback when you don’t measure up is hard. Phil says not everyone agrees with the way feedback on VCDX defenses is delivered.
    • For those who do not pass the defense, the feedback is given via a template pointing back to evaluation criteria and standards. In many ways candidates are expected to figure out where they failed.
    • John mentions there can be a tension between those who are looking for a cookie cutter architecture and those who build architectures for customers based on business requirements, limitations, etc.
    • Phil has had some of these exact conversations. It is difficult to communicate the value of properly building an architecture that suits the need when they may not understand the process.
      • Certainly there are some public reference architectures, but if someone wants Phil to produce a design, he lets folks know it is going to take time to understand a number of metrics (what this should do for the business, how it will perform, understand the risks of the choice and how to mitigate them, assumptions made when deploying, etc.).
      • John shares a great analogy about someone asking for a standard blueprint to build a skyscraper and how it overlooks many different elements to consider.
        • Maybe it makes more sense to present a standard bathroom layout and communicate a couple of assumptions, but this isn’t going to work for the skyscraper (far too many variables there).

33:18 – Think Like an Architect

  • Phil tries to teach his mentees to think more like architects.
  • The team Phil works on sits within global support even though he and his peers are architects. They get people who come into the team that are progressing from being in a support role. Often time Phil helps enable and guide these folks in an architect’s way of thinking.
  • One thing Phil emphasizes with people is not to assume anything.
    • Many times folks coming from a support or professional services background make a lot of natural assumptions. Their desire is to jump in and fix or build something without realizing the undocumented assumptions they have made about what the customer really wants.
    • People often are scared by documenting to the level of Requirements Traceability Matrix (RTM).
    • Phil tends to encourage people to start with a mind mapping exercise.
      • Listen to his example of asking people what they need to know when deploying VCF (VMware Cloud Foundation). They tend to get all the technical pieces (something we as technologists naturally gravitate toward) but then fall flat.
      • For example, what availability does the customer want? That is not the same as turning on vSphere High Availability and an indication you are making an assumption. Ask the question. If the customer wants five 9s of availability, consider the impact of that decision (certain number of hosts required, certain type of storage needed, etc.).
      • These then map to risks and mitigations.
      • It’s not just about the technology. It’s about what you actually want the solution to do. This is a solution that will host applications, for example, and if it fails and does not come back up for 2 days, who will scream at you?
  • Teaching people to ask the right questions is really what Phil’s methodology is all about, and it’s difficult when you have not thought of these things previously.
    • John agrees that we forget the focus on the business sometimes as technologists. We need to consider what something will do for the business and how success will be measured, seeking to align with success metrics of stakeholders involved at all levels of a project.
    • John also cites the VCDX Podcast by Simon Long as being extremely helpful even though it appears to have gone inactive.
      • John listened to it multiple times and felt he got a great deal out of it despite having no aspirations to go after a VCDX himself.
      • In a pre-sales technical role it is difficult to be involved enough to come across a design that could be documented for VCDX purposes.
      • For John it was a combination of opportunity and desire plus the time commitment.
      • Regardless of how far down the path you go, the though processes are applicable and helpful to all of us to remove blind spots. Listening to others going through the journey can be very useful (and was certainly useful to John).
    • Phil says if you’re considering VCDX, check out multiple communities and listen to the ones that provide guidance you think will fit and support the way you work.
      • Phil had joined one of the larger VCDX communities during his attempts, and at the time the advice was more centered around the presentation deck than the methodology. Phil felt like this wouldn’t help him as much in the defense, which prompted him to seek out individual mentors who provided good advice.
        • For example, if you need to put in an introductory slide to allow yourself to feel comfortable, do it. Don’t worry about it taking 30 seconds if it will make you successful.
        • John cites this as customized advice rather than blueprinted advice.
  • You can find Phil on social media for follow up:

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