What happens when some of Cisco's most senior CCIEs realize they don't have the correct knowledge of IOS trivia to pass the CCIE R/S written exam? They create a new certification program that more accurately covers their current roles, of course! In addition to this predicament, Cisco was getting pressure from customers and partners to develop engineers who could build more scalable and resilient networks. Many readers will agree that the CCIE program develops excellent network implementation skills. Active CCIEs know most of the IOS knobs that can be turned to make networks do things no one else could imagine. One thing the CCIE program does not develop, however, is a solid understanding of network design. The CCIE lab exam is an excellent guide for what not to do in a production network, with three (or more) active routing protocols in an eight router topology. Many CCIEs (especially senior ones) are looked upon to provide network designs and are given titles like 'Network Architect' or 'Network Design Engineer', but historically there was no way to differentiate CCIE-certified individuals who have design skills and those who do not.
In 2007 Cisco commissioned a team to develop a certification program that would test candidates on their ability to design and redesign networks that support the goals of resiliency, scalability and supportability. While I was not a member of this team, I have spoken with team members about this phase of the CCDE program. Cisco included several large customers in this program design phase to ensure that the resulting certification actually covered the skills that customers were seeking in the hiring decisions. The program was formally announced to the Cisco engineer community at Cisco Live 2007 in Anaheim, California. I was fortunate enough to be invited to this meeting. Russ White, Steve Barnes and Bruce Pinsky (all Cisco employees at the time) discussed the goals of this program and offered several example written exam questions. During the following Q&A period there was a spirited discussion concerning the focus of the exam. Was it a Service Provider exam, or an Enterprise exam? The team asserted that the skills being tested were universal, and that a good design engineer with proper technical knowledge of the tools at his/her disposal could develop network designs that meet the needs of either company. At the time this was an eye-opening concept. While I had worked in both the SP and Enterprise realms, I considered myself an Enterprise network engineer/architect and found little use for concepts like MPLS and L2TPv3 in my work. Follow-up discussions with other meeting participants revealed that many others felt the same as I did. I've come to find that even today the CCDE exam is a bit of a Rorschach test; engineers with an Enterprise background often remark on how SP-focused the exam is, while SP engineers feel the exam has too much Enterprise-related content!
The CCDE team, led by David Bump, invited all participants to take the CCDE written Beta exam in the Fall of 2007. They supplied an extensive book list, which was only slightly different than the current book list found at https://learningnetwork.cisco.com/docs/DOC-1673. I immediately decided that this would be my next certification goal, as I had recently taken and passed the CCIE R/S written exam to maintain my CCIE certification, but I too found the process to be difficult (I failed the exam once due to my lack of knowledge concerning L2 LAN technology).
After what seemed like an eternity, the CCDE team announced that they would unveil the CCDE practical exam format during Cisco Live 2008. The Cisco Certification Lounge hosted a computer with an early version of the CCDE Practical Exam Demo (the current version can be found athttps://learningnetwork.cisco.com/docs/DOC-2438). For most of the week there was a crowd around this PC, and to add to the pressure the screen contents were simulcast to a large overhead display monitor so everyone within 25 feet could watch you take the exam. Talk about pressure! I earned a score of 22% on the demo and surprisingly that made it onto the makeshift leaderboard. I checked back at the end of the week and noted that the highest score achieved was only 44%. Clearly the practical was going to be a difficult exam.
The first offering of the CCDE Practical exam was an ungraded Alpha exam presented to selected Cisco employees in mid-2008. It did not result in any passing scores; its goal was to iron out any bugs in the testing engine. At Cisco Live the certification team also announced that there would not be a large-scale Beta exam for the CCDE practical. While the first offering was referred to as a Beta exam, it was not restricted to CCDE Beta team participants and only CCDE Beta program participants were able to receive the reduced price ($980 instead of $1260; current price is $1500). This first official CCDE Practical Exam was offered in October 2008. While I was unable to attend due to a personal commitment, my friend Colin McNamara did a nice job of writing up the experience on his blog. The post can be found at http://www.colinmcnamara.com/my-experience-taking-the-ccde-practical-beta/. After ten weeks of grading, three of the forty-two candidates received passing scores.
We left off last with the quasi-beta CCDE Practical exam which was offered in October 2008. Community reaction to the beta was mixed. Most participants felt that the process was worthwhile, as it had forced them to learn technologies and concepts that were outside of their comfort zone. The actual testing experience was (and still is) quite different from the CCIE labs we've all come to know. The entire exam takes place on a single PC, with no 'real-world' devices. There are no routers to configure and most importantly, no proctor to ask clarifying questions. This has been the primary complaint I have heard in the 3+ years I've been training CCDE candidates. The second most common complaint was the long wait time in receiving exam results. It was often the case that registration for the subsequent offering closed within a week of receiving results for the prior exam. Later in this article we will cover the new grading system, which addresses this issue.
The low pass-rate from the October 2008 offering, coupled with the slow announcement of results contributed to a very light turnout for the first exam offering in 2009. Only 27 candidates took part in this exam, which was now held in both London and Chicago. Approximately twelve weeks later, four candidates received passing marks (myself included). For the August 2009 exam date, Cisco announced that they were expanding testing to Hong Kong, but the test site was canceled due to lack of registrations (this also occurred in December 2009). A total of 14 candidates passed the CCDE Practical exam in 2009.
Cisco offered the CCDE Practical exam three more times in 2010. During this year only 13 candidates passed the exam. Testing locations were expanded to include Hong Kong and Sydney. During Cisco Live 2010 in Orlando, Cisco announced some upcoming changes to the Practical exam. The exam would soon be moving to a four-scenario format, rather than six scenarios. It would also be completely rewritten and reformatted to ensure that all major protocols and scenario types would be present on each exam. These announcements turned out to be a bit premature, as they were not implemented until the first test date of 2012. To be fair, CCDE Practical content development is hard work, and it takes a lot of effort to be certain that the test questions are valid. The registration fee also increased to $1400 this year. I believe this was an across-the-board increase for all Cisco Expert level certifications.
The CCDE made a strong push in 2011 to get more candidates into the CCDE program. If I recall correctly, there were several Webex-based CCDE overview sessions provided by the team. The CCDE team created Youtube overview videos to remove some of the mystery from the exam. The exam was offered four times in 2011, with a record 28 successful candidates. Testing was conducted in Bangalore for the first time.
As mentioned earlier, 2012 brought a significant changes to the CCDE Practical exam. The CCDE exams (both written and practical) were relauched as ‘CCDE 2.0.’ The Practical now consists of four distinct scenarios, as opposed to the previous six-scenario exam, but by all indications the exam did not get easier! The second development was that it is no longer possible to miss any significant technologies on the exam. Due to the mixing and matching of scenarios on previous iterations of the exam, it was possible to completely miss a core technology like IS-IS. The new format makes this extremely unlikely, if not impossible. The final significant change in 2012 was the announcement of all testing dates and locations at the beginning of the year. This allowed CCDE candidates to gear their preparation toward a specific test site and date. The CCDE Practical exam was offered three times this year, and testing expanded to include, at various times, San Jose, Raleigh, Istanbul, and Bangkok. According to the CCDE team, testing center locations are determined by candidate demand. They use the locations of CCDE written exam participants to judge whether they should offer the CCDE Practical exam in a specific location.
In November, the final CCDE Practical exam offering of 2012 brought a much-requested improvement to the candidate experience--immediate scoring! As candidates completed the exam and exited their Pearson Vue testing center, a score report was handed to them with either a ‘Pass’ or ‘Fail’ result, just like any non-Beta Cisco written exam. Even unsuccessful candidates were able to appreciate this immediate feedback, as it allowed them to consider whether they wished to prepare for the next scheduled exam date. There were 24 successful CCDE Practical candidates in 2012, bringing the worldwide number of CCDEs to 90. This includes the eight individuals who created the exam, and assumes no one has allowed their CCDE credentials to lapse.
Next month's article will cover the (near term) future of the CCDE program, CCDE certification and recertification requirements, and the numbering system used to identify successful candidates.
Jeremy Filliben is a 14-year CCIE (Routing/Switching #3851) and a CCDE-certified network architect. Jeremy was a member of the CCDE beta program and passed practical exam in 2009. Jeremy has trained ten of the roughly 62 individuals who have passed the CCDE practical exam since 2010 (more than all other training organizations combined). More information on Jeremy's CCDE training offerings can be found at www.jeremyfilliben.com.
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