Wednesday, August 19, 2009

CCDE Written and Practical Study Plans

In a recent blog post I made mention of creating a structured study plan and following it. To demonstrate this, I dug up my CCDE written study plan.

Background

I learned about the Cisco Certified Design Expert program on the shuttle ride from the airport to Cisco Live 2007. By chance, I was on the same shuttle as a Lee, a former co-worker that I hadn’t seen in seven years. He mentioned that there was an invitation-only announcement of a new expert level certification taking place at Networkers. As I had not received an invitation, I didn’t know anything about it. While wandering around the show area on Monday, I ran into David Bump, who was involved in the CCDE launch. He kindly extended an invitation to the kick-off meeting so I wouldn’t feel left out.

The attendee list in that meeting was impressive, to say the least. I saw a number of well-regarded network architects, and more than a couple friends and former colleagues. It was clear that Cisco invited the right group! The presentation and handout made me realize that I had a number of holes in my knowledge that would need to be addressed if I wanted a chance at success on the CCDE written beta exam.

Creating My CCDE Written Study Plan

My first step in creating a study plan was to make a duplicate of the handout, as I didn’t know if I would be able to get another copy. It’s now on-line at http://www.cisco.com/web/learning/le3/ccde/ccde_exam_information.html, so this step is no longer necessary. On my copy, I highlighted the areas that I felt were weaknesses. Unfortunately, it seemed like most of the paper had been highlighted. Who is Paul Baran* anyway? ;)

After analyzing the areas, I grouped the technologies into seven major topics, and I assigned a level of confidence in my abilities. I also planned to address some of the other blueprint topics, like Network Management and Security, but these were the topics I felt I should focus on:

OSPF Medium
EIGRP Medium-High
IS-IS Low
BGP Medium-High
Multicast Medium-High
MPLS Low
Quality of Service High

Next, I figured out what resources were available to me. I purchased several books from the CCDE Written Exam Reading List (Optimal Routing Design, Network Management Fundamentals, BGP Design and Implementation) and pulled a few classics off the shelf (Routing RCP/IP Volume 1, Developing IP Multicast Networks). I also had access to Cisco Live Virtual, and of course the RFCs were readily available. I mapped these resources to my topics, and determined how much time I had available to devote to each one. This is the result:

CCDE Study Plan:

66 hours total

OSPF (10.5 hours)

Routing TCP/IP OSPF Chapter - 2 Hours
OSPF Tech Notes - 4 hours
OSPF Handbook - 30 minutes
RFCs - 2 hours
Review - 2 hours

EIGRP (5 Hours)

Routing TCP/IP EIGRP Chapter - 1 hour
EIGRP Tech Notes - 2 hours
EIGRP Handbook – 30 minutes
Review - 1.5 hours

IS-IS (10.5 hours)

Routing TCP/IP IS-IS Chapter - 2 Hours
IS-IS Tech Notes - 4 hours
IS-IS Handbook - 30 minutes
RFC - 2 hours
Review - 2 hours

BGP (10 hours)

BGP Tech Notes - 4 hours
BGP Handbook - 1 hour
BGP Book - 3 hours
Review - 2 hours

Multicast (5 hours)

PIM RFC - 2 hours
Multicast Book – 1 hour
MBGP on CCO - 2 hours

MPLS (20 hours)

Intro to MPLS presentation - 2 hours
Other presentation? - 2 hours
Books - 10 hours
BGP/MPLS - 2 hours
Cisco website - 4 hours

QoS (5 hours)

RFCs - 3 hours
Translation to Transport Layer - 2 hours

I can’t say that I stuck completely to this schedule, but it served as a guide for my efforts. It allowed me to focus time on my perception of my weaknesses. As is usually the case, I did better on my ‘Low’ topics than I did on my ‘Medium-High’ ones. I try to remind myself to at least brush up a bit on my strengths, but life often gets in the way of studying, and I naturally concentrated on the less familiar topics. It’s the topics that I work on every day that give me the most trouble, because I consider myself an expert, but when I really think about it, I’m only an expert on the portions of the topic that I use regularly. For example, I was certain I knew Quality of Service cold.. but did I know how ToS gets mapped into MPLS EXP? No, because I didn’t run MPLS in my network. It’s a trap I fall into regularly when studying.

CCDE Practical Thoughts

To the group of engineers attempting the CCDE Practical on August 26th, good luck! I’d like to see a good number of successful candidates. I hope to hear that someone cracked the 50% mark, which I believe has not yet been breached in this exam. Like the CCIE exam, successful candidates do not get a graded score, only a PASS result, so this is a rumor, not a fact. My opinion is that passing this exam has been too difficult, and I fear that if the exam gets labeled as ‘impossible’, the certification program will lose its candidates, and ultimately its market value. I know a few of the unsuccessful candidates (personally and by reputation), and I can say that they are undoubtedly good network design engineers. If the goal of this certification program is to identify and recognize engineers of their caliber, it must be missing the mark, at least by a small degree. Perhaps they’re not good test takers, but it concerns me when obviously qualified candidates are unsuccessful. That said, we’re still in the very beginning of the life cycle of this certification. I am confident that it will be properly tuned to stop great candidates from failing.

CCDE Practical Advice

Unfortunately, I didn’t create a good study plan for the CCDE Practical, or I would share that as well. The two books that I think were most helpful in preparing for it were Optimal Routing Design and Definitive MPLS Network Designs. If I felt that Quality of Service was a weakness, I would have concentrated heavily on RFC 4594, Configuration Guidelines for DiffServ Service Classes and perhaps End-to-End QoS Network Design (but skip all the configuration; it’s not important for this exam).

The key to the CCDE Practical is to know the technology! I don’t believe it is possible to pass this exam if you have holes in your tech stack, so to speak. The exam is scenario-based, and if you run into a scenario based on IS-IS, and you don’t know the protocol, it would be practically impossible to make up the points in another scenario. It’s not that the exam is intended to test your technical knowledge; that’s not the primary goal. The issue is that is uses the technical blueprint as a basis for asking network design questions. You need to be able to speak the same technical language as the exam creator. For those with a programming background, it would be like testing application design skills using Java, when you only know C++ and Pascal. Before you ask, yes, my programming knowledge is that out of date.. feel free to substitute relevant programming languages if you retell this analogy :)

If you have the technology covered, the rest is pretty much intuition. There’s a certain feel to a good network design, as opposed to inefficient ones. The open-ended questions are very difficult, as the right answer isn’t staring at you from the options list. Also, because you can’t go back and change answers, you will certainly answer a question, click ‘Next’, and immediately learn you got the question wrong, based on the wording of next question. It happened to me at least once, and probably several times. Don’t let it get you down. As I mentioned above, I don’t think anyone has scored 50% on this exam yet. Answering incorrectly is part of the process. If (when) this happens to you, rethink the previous answer, and change your course of action from here out if you feel you were incorrect. Don’t be stubborn. There are no points available for being consistently wrong!

Again, good luck to all who are attempting this exam, whether it is in August, December or a future date.

Jeremy

* Paul Baran is the father of packet-switched networking.. something I’m almost embarrassed to say I didn’t know prior to studying for the CCDE.

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