By Justin Mescher, Vice President of Cloud and Data Center, ePlus

GameDay

At ePlus, an AWS Advanced Consulting Partner, moving organizations to the cloud and helping them get the most out of it is our business.

We work with teams in verticals such as healthcare, education, government, and financial services—all areas where digital transformation has been pushed into overdrive due to COVID-19.

Especially now, leaders want to give their teams more hands-on experience with Amazon Web Services (AWS). That’s why, in the summer of 2020, we sent customers from our mid-Atlantic region an invitation they couldn’t refuse:

“Congratulations on your new position at Unicorn Rentals! We are the largest provider of mythical creatures in the world, and we are seeking elite talent….”

It might seem counterintuitive at first glance. In the heart of a global pandemic, we asked busy system administrators and directors of IT infrastructure to tear themselves away from their responsibilities at schools, healthcare systems, government agencies, and businesses.

By participating in our AWS GameDay—a collaborative learning exercise that tests skills in implementing AWS solutions in a gamified, risk-free environment—they would devote the better part of a day to a fictional startup with a fanciful premise, and an even more comical deadline to migrate everything to AWS…by the end of the day!

Participants would apply their precious brain cells on a hypothetical cloud migration with no documentation, and we would give them six hours to figure it out. Over Zoom, no less.

Maybe we were wrong. Maybe our customers would refuse this offer.

But AWS GameDay isn’t your usual invitation. The 27 people who RSVP’d had a great time. Just as important, they gained lessons and insights they are using right now in their everyday jobs. “I’m 2,000 times better today than before the event,” one participant told us.

AWS Game Day is truly a “unicorn” among technology learning experiences, and it’s a hands-on learning opportunity we’d recommend even for today’s overloaded IT teams. In this post, I am excited to share highlights from our experiences as both GameDay participant and host.

Experiencing Unicorn Rentals for Ourselves

Earlier in the year, our AWS Partner Network (APN) team suggested an AWS GameDay for some of our data center and networking engineers.

So, 32 members of the ePlus IT team joined AWS for the Unicorn Rentals challenge: migrate the startup’s most critical applications to AWS in a mere six hours, with limited documentation and no help from the original team who had built the application.

At ePlus, we are always looking to learn and expand our team of cloud experts. Through GameDay, we discovered anew there is no substitute to hands-on experience when it comes to things like:

  • Identifying inventory and assessing configurations.
  • Scaling application infrastructure.
  • Accommodating for more users or new code and using native AWS security and deployment tools to track and manage these changes.
  • Decoupling systems.
  • Maintaining a secure environment through access methods and encryption.
  • Employing tactics like instance optimization and cost management tools to make the migration more cost effective.

AWS GameDay combined the best of structured curricula and “school of life.” Just like in a real customer scenario, we had neither lab guide nor right or wrong approaches. Participants worked together in teams, under a finite timetable, with rewards or penalties reflected on the leaderboard based on efficiency and effectiveness.

Unlike an actual cloud engagement, however, this migration was risk-free. We had the benefit of working with actual AWS systems and tools. Yet, if we messed anything up, no data would be breached or lost, no networks or systems compromised or down. The only collateral damage was our pride.

Furthermore, GameDay was truly engaging. Activities stretched the full range of muscles: configuring, scaling, security, management, and beyond. Especially for those in specialized roles, participants got to see the challenges their colleagues were facing, the solutions to address them, and how these all affected the greater migration.

Watching progress on a shared leaderboard throughout the event ignited a competitive spirit in even my most laid-back coworkers. Everyone wanted to be on the team who saved the day.

This was a friendly competition, and we were all thrown into the shark tank of Unicorn Rentals’ migration. We were all engaged in a common cause: using the knowledge and resources we had to make it work.

The GameDay event proved a resounding success for ePlus, with overwhelmingly positive feedback. “This was an amazing experience; we have to do this for our customers,” one participant remarked.

Paying it Forward as an AWS GameDay Host

With that, AWS GameDay was on the schedule for our mid-Atlantic customers in August 2020.

You’d imagine that coordinating a day of learning would be a breeze for a company that delivers a portfolio of training services, from technology workshops to hands-on boot camps.

We were nervous, though, as running a successful customer event is challenging under normal circumstances. You want everything to go perfectly, and for participants to enjoy themselves and consider the experience worth the time spent away from their daily responsibilities.

A global pandemic adds even more complexities. AWS GameDays are traditionally held in-person, but with this GameDay we had to move everything online. This complicates team problem solving, especially when the problem itself is particularly complicated, like Unicorn Rental’s dumpster-fire-by-design cloud migration.

Think about it. It’s more difficult for teams to chat and connect via screens than in a real-life conference room, especially if some members don’t already know each other. Participants are their own tech support when it comes to logging in, accessing, and using tools. If challenges arise, you can’t read body language or easily initiate side conversations.

Then there’s the infamous possibility of “Zoom fatigue” as the day wears on. If participants became bored, distracted, or disengaged, they no longer have to sneak by their colleagues with a creative excuse. All they need to do is log off.

Most importantly, we knew any educational content had to be unique and engaging. Amid the COVID-19 era’s glut of webinars and virtual happy hours, it’s not enough simply to send out a conference call link and hope for the best.

When the world is throwing us all non-stop curveballs, everyone—especially beleaguered IT teams stretched to the max—needs a fun, relaxing, and memorable experience along with their “value-added lessons learned.” We hoped to deliver all of that and more for our customers.

In Good Hands with AWS GameDay

Fortunately, we already had a template: the Unicorn Rentals scenario that has frustrated and delighted dozens of companies since 2017, when AWS GameDay first began.

The day’s agenda was tried and true:

  • Kick the event off with a brief introduction and overview of the GameDay challenge, including scenarios, tips, and tricks from previous participants.
  • Set the teams loose for a morning session of discovery and problem solving.
  • Reconnect for a late morning recap to share lessons learned and participants’ own tips and tricks discovered along the way.
  • Break for lunch, with catering provided by participants’ own kitchens.
  • Unleash the teams again for an afternoon of building, troubleshooting, and completing migration against their tight deadlines.
  • Finally, the unveiling of both the Unicorn Rental Challenge answer key (not available for screen shots here) and our winning team.

We also had the expert support of AWS, including three AWS Solutions Architects joining six of our Cloud Architects on the big day. These experts served as “proctors” in teams’ Zoom breakout rooms, unobtrusively listening and watching and ready to give a nudge if they saw participants veering too far off course.

And They’re Off!

Our customers’ teams replicated real life, with widely varying levels of AWS knowledge and experience. System engineers, administrators, and operation managers joined forces with Linux administrators, database administrators, mid-level tech managers, and directors of IT infrastructure—all united by a common goal.

Because most of our participant organizations had multiple individuals attending, the majority of team members had worked together previously. However, a few would be working together for the first time.

We wanted them to feel as comfortable as possible, and that’s where the virtual breakout rooms came into play. In these virtual rooms, participants could share desktops, whiteboards, and more, replicating in-person collaboration as much as possible. Members took turns “driving” the AWS and CloudEndure Migration consoles.

IT is a team sport, and our participants particularly excelled in their collaboration. For example, groups completed an expedited “mini” plan and design phase for each task. This gave them an opportunity to review AWS best practices before they deployed their resources. With this step, teams were able to envision the desired state and think about different ways for getting there.

A Race to the Finish

Review, plan, deploy, verify. Review, plan, deploy, verify. As our six teams rallied to be the first and best to bring Unicorn Rentals to the cloud, a live, interactive scoreboard kept score. Competition was tight until the final minute, with a winner being decided by only a few points.

Perhaps the most satisfying moment of the event, however, was when everyone reviewed the final architecture and shared lessons learned. We were thrilled to hear that even participants with extensive AWS knowledge felt they learned something new.

At the same time, novice users didn’t feel lost or left behind. One participant in the latter category remarked that, “I’m on calls at work all the time, and now I understand what they are talking about.”

Finally, participants had fun. Hands-on access to AWS tools gave them a chance to play in a risk-free setting. Personal access to AWS experts was like having a one-on-one tutorial in the middle of a real-life simulation.

The interactive head-to-head scoring was a big hit, too, as was the collaborative, gamified nature of the learning experience. This is not your usual demo or webinar.

Conclusion

If your team receives a memo from Unicorn Rentals about their cloud migration, don’t send it to your spam folder or say you’ll look at it later.

AWS GameDay is an investment that will pay itself off in multiples from day one. Your team gets valuable experience with AWS technologies, plus a break from their everyday routines.

Your organization will also benefit from invaluable tips and tricks for dealing with the unexpected and accelerating your digital transformation.

The content and opinions in this blog are those of the third-party author and AWS is not responsible for the content or accuracy of this post.

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