Monday, September 17, 2018

How to Differentiate Yourself in the Job Market

Most readers of this newsletter can safely be classified as experts in the field of networking. This article is intended to provide advice on how to differentiate yourself in the field, and perhaps leverage your unique experience into a more profitable career. 

This post was inspired by the Seth Godin’s Akimbo podcast, specifically episode 12 . While the podcast episode is geared toward freelancers, I think we should all consider ourselves freelance network engineers. If you work for a consulting firm, you are basically a freelancer with a specific employer. Especially at the level of most CCDEs and CCDE candidates, it is the marketing of your personal experience and reputation which allows your consulting employer to find work. If you work for an end-user organization (ISP, enterprise, content provider), you may not be with the same organization for your entire career. It is quite rare for an individual to spend their entire career with a supportive, successful employer. You should do what is necessary to prepare for a move to another employer, even if you intend to stay in one place as long as possible. The best time to prepare for your next job is when you don’t need one.

There are at least one million active network engineers in the world. In the US alone, there are nearly 400,000. How can you stand out in the field? Getting certified is a big help! There are about 50,000 CCIEs in the world, and only about 400 CCDEs (many of which are reading this article). But that isn’t enough. To truly stand out, I suggest experts find a small networking niche and dominate it. The aforementioned podcast defines the term Minimum Viable Market. This is the smallest market which will support an individual freelancer’s business. Defining and owning a Minimum Viable Market seems counterintuitive; after all, why would someone want to narrowly focus their career? Isn’t it better to broaden your market so you can be open to additional opportunities? Surprisingly, no, it isn’t. The reason for this is “available time”. Once you’ve become an expert, your compensation is defined as the product of your time and your bill rate:

Hours x Rate = Income

Of these two inputs, the number of hours available is fairly static. For most, it is around 30 - 50 hours per week, or roughly 2000 hours per year. If you push yourself, you may get to 2500 or even 3000 billable hours in a year. And if you’ve tried working this many hours in a year, you’ll realize quickly that it isn’t sustainable. The range is pretty much fixed.

The actual variable in the equation is your Bill Rate. This is the lever you can push to increase compensation. The best way to do this is to become the world renowned expert in your chosen niche. The tighter you define that niche, the more likely you can stake out your position. Proving to the world that you are the best ISP engineer is difficult. You have a ton of competition, and the field is incredibly broad. It would be much better to work toward defining yourself as the world’s expert on DOCSIS 4.0 in suburban cable deployments. Rather than claiming to be the most experienced wireless access network designer, define yourself as the world’s expert in designing wireless access networks for open-air sports stadiums. IPv6 expert? Instead, IPv6 deployment for content delivery networks. I’m sure you can think of many additional examples. When determining your niche, look at your experience. We all have unique backgrounds; there should be something in there to leverage going forward.

Once you have chosen your niche, how do you stake it out? Writing books and articles will surely help. The more publicity you can generate specific to your niche, the better. Speaking engagements, especially in front of your target audience, are wonderful opportunities to define yourself to your market. You should attempt to focus your future work on opportunities in your chosen niche. This will build your reference file. I also highly recommend starting a website or blog and focusing it on the type of business you wish to work with. Name it something like “Stadium Focused Networking” and publish articles about the problems faced by these organizations. Be sure to include recommended solutions and links to other publications that address the same challenges. Your goal is to be the first person thought of when a new project in your niche begins. Rather than competing with the masses, you will be the go-to architect for you area of expertise. This makes rate negotiation much easier. Instead of competing for the opportunity, companies will be competing for your time (eventually.. hopefully).

Obviously, this sort of transition can’t be completed overnight. Like anything worthwhile, it will take work. But it is work you likely to do anyway; the goal of this article is to help you focus your work in a way that provides additional value over the long term.

By the way, I don’t recommend focusing on a specific piece of networking equipment or even a vendor. Companies generally look for experts in their field. It is better to define yourself from the business perspective instead of the technical side.

If you do decide to go down this path, I wrote an article once about Books or Blogs. I recommend reading it, as well as Scott Lowe’s well-informed reaction post. Scott’s point is valid; writing a book is quite different than writing a blog. If writing a book is something you wish to do, I recommend defining your professional goals in advance of the effort. Writing a technical book does not lead directly to profits; but writing a book to define yourself as the expert in a field is potentially worthwhile.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

A Short Summary of Planes

A Short Summary of Planes (the network kind)

When the CCDE program was first developed, Cisco conveniently broke down the included technologies into five categories: Routing, Tunneling, Quality of Service, Security and Management. Cisco also provided an extensive resource list for the first four topics, consisting of RFCs, Cisco Press books and videos. The network management section was noticeably bare. I bought the one Cisco Press book listed in the category, Network Management Fundamentals. I'm sure I picked something up from from the book, but I still felt that there were gaps in my knowledge. One area I was especially unsure of was the difference between the Control/Data/Management planes. The following is my attempt to provide clarify in this area.

Let's start with the Data Plane (also known as the Forwarding Plane; they are both terms for the same concept). The function of the Data Plane is to receive packets and forward them according to a pre-programmed forwarding table. This table is known as the Forwarding Information Base (FIB). The Data Plane does not have intelligence; it is best to think of it as a hard-coded set of forwarding tables. With modern hardware, such as the Nexus 9k platform, these forwarding tables are distributed to the individual line cards. Incoming packets are classified by specific attributes, such as a layer 3 destination address and QoS marking. This information is compared to the FIB, and an outbound interface is chosen. The layer 2 destination address is updated and the packet is forwarded.

How does the Forwarding Plane get programmed? That is the Control Plane's job. The Control Plane is where routers run routing protocols. By exchanging control-plane messages, routers build a Routing Information Base (RIB). This RIB is translated into a Forwarding Information Base (FIB), which is downloaded to the Data Plane. The separation of the Control and Data Planes permits us to forward packets even when the Control Plane is unavailable, such as during an In Service Software Upgrade (ISSU).

Finally, how is the Control Plane built? That is the Management Plane's job. Whether you log into a router via CLI using telnet or SSH, or you push a configuration via SNMP or NETCONF, you are using the Management Plane to program the router. The Management Plane is also used to retrieve information from the device, such as interface statistics or the current running configuration.

I hope this helps clear up any confusion you may have had about these concepts.


Wednesday, August 30, 2017

What Drives Change in Enterprise IT

This week I am in Las Vegas attending Future:NET, a two-day conference on the Future of, well, Networking. The conference is aptly named :)

The Packet Pushers asked me to join a moderated panel with the topic “Can we Accelerate Change in The Enterprise?” This spurred me to think: Why does the Enterprise need to change? Once we build a great IT environment, why can’t we just sit back, drink our coffee and hammer TCP 80 all day long? I came up with five broad categories; presented in no particular order. Well, almost no particular order. I saved the worst for last. The examples below will be networking-centric, but the general concepts apply to most IT silos.

Reason For Change in Enterprise IT: Obsolescence

You may love your Catalyst 6500 with SUP32 supervisors. They still meet all the requirements of your network: gigabit to the user, routing protocols, security capabilities. Unfortunately, Cisco has made it clear that they no longer want to support them. Now you need to either take on the risk of using unsupported hardware/software, or you need to upgrade to the new model. Traditionally my view was to move with the vendor since the new gear provided enough benefits, like faster ports or new protocols. I am now more open to taking the risk and running unsupported gear. In some areas of networking, such as the campus, there are no compelling new capabilities to require upgrades.

This goes for provider technologies as well. Many of us remember using Frame-Relay networks which meet all of our needs. In most cases the benefits of L3VPN MPLS (or L2VPN/VPLS if you are a sadist) were not compelling, but our carriers forced us to move forward to one of those solutions.

Reason For Change in Enterprise IT: Cost Pressure

When your CIO/CTO says next year’s budget is going to shrink, often this requires new IT solutions. Perhaps we need to move from private WAN bandwidth to the public WAN. Or we need to change equipment vendors due to constantly increasing support costs.

Reason For Change in Enterprise IT: (Internal) Business Change

If we are lucky, as soon as we’ve solved all of our current IT needs, new ones arrive. If we aren’t lucky, they arrive before we’ve solved the current challenges. The latter happens far more often. Physical office/data center moves, new applications with new requirements, business-level mergers/divestitures… these all present opportunities for change.

Reason For Change in Enterprise IT: External Change

Regulators, auditors, business partners — They all have input into our IT solutions. I can’t count how many times I’ve implemented a new security product to meet some other organization’s requirements. Suppose your company has decided that Network Access Control is unnecessary. If a valued business partner makes it a requirement for ongoing cooperation, it now has become your requirement. Do not be afraid to push back, sometimes a bit of clarification with the auditor/partner is enough to find out that it isn’t as required as first believed.

Reason For Change in Enterprise IT: New and Shiny Things

When was the last time you bought a new (or new to you) car? Why did you do it? A significant number of new car purchases are result of “New and Shiny Syndrome.” There’s nothing wrong with your current vehicle, but the new one looks/smells better.  Or all your neighbors are driving new cars, and you feel left out. These are generally bad reasons to buy a new car, but it’s your money, so do what you want. Here’s a tip — maybe you should consider leasing.

If "New and Shiny Syndrome” causes you to swap out your data center LAN, or change routing protocols, you are a poor steward of your company’s IT budget. Sure, it’s more fun to attend conferences and talk about the new protocols/equipment that you are using, but this isn’t a reason to go through the expense and time of changing your environment. If you simply can’t go another day looking at your tired, boring LAN switches… change employers!

Am I missing a driver for Enterprise IT change? Let me know in the comments or via email.

Thank you,


Wednesday, July 5, 2017

CCDE Program Updates from Cisco Live 2017

This year's Cisco Live has been a busy one for CCDE candidates. Cisco offered an 8-hour techtorial, led by my friends Elaine Lopes and Russ White (among others). During this event it was announced that Cisco is returning to the pre-2012 policy of scoring CCDE practical exams after the exam. This means that candidates will no longer receive an immediate PASS/FAIL result. Scores will be provided to candidates approximately 10-12 weeks after their test date. I am sure this is disappointing news to candidates, as it is frustrating to wait. I know; I waited 12 weeks to find out I passed back in 2009. This news does not mean the return of the dreaded Open-Ended Questions on the CCDE Practical exam. Cisco is not adding fill-in-the-blank questions, so it isn't a complete return to the CCDE version 1 model.

So, what should a candidate do with this information? First, know the various places you can go to find out if you pass. During the 2008 - 2011 timeframe, there were two sources of 'pre information' for pass/fail status. The first place that was updated with a passing status was the CCDE verification tool. Candidates entered their names and various CCDE numbers (in the format 201700xx) to see if their name popped up. This was how I first discovered I passed. The second source of pass/fail information was the Pearson Cisco profile. Immediately after the exam, the test status was "Taken." At the 11 week mark, some statuses changed to "Fail." The several of us that never changed from the 'Taken" status all eventually received news that the passed. Lastly, the Cisco Certification Tracker was updated. This took place around the same time the postal mail (yes, hand-written envelopes with stamps!) arrived. I received my letter before this was updated, but for those who lived further from Cisco in the USA, this source was useful. I do not expect that Cisco is going to use the postal mail in 2017; but I didn't think they would do that in 2009 either :)

So how do you plan for your next attempt, without knowing whether you passed this one? There are two valid strategies. One, you can schedule your next exam immediately after completing the current one. Hold off on the transportation/lodging reservations. If you receive a PASS result, Cisco has historically allowed you to cancel the next Practical date without penalty. If you receive a FAIL result, make last-minute travel arrangements and try again. The downside to this is that it can be difficult to maintain your study plan if there's a chance you passed and won't need to take the exam again. This leads to the second option; only take the exam every six months. This allows you to receive you result and still have three months to prepare for the next attempt. The second option is the one I would most likely follow if it were me.

There are also several news items of note for current CCDEs as well. First, all of your recertification dates for Expert-level certifications have been synchronized! This means that whichever of your recertification dates is further out on the calendar, that is now your official recertification date for all CCIE and CCDE certifications. You no longer have to carefully manage your recertification exam to ensure it counts for all of your certs! There is no official link available where this has been published, but check your dates on the Certification Tracker.

Second, you may now recertify WITHOUT taking a written exam. Cisco has recently announced a program whereby you can recertify your Expert-level certifications with Continuing Education credits. The link to this website is Take a look! If you attended Cisco Live, you already have some credits to apply to this program. I am also working to get my CCDE training included as an option for candidates. If accepted, this means CCDE candidates and even certified CCDEs will be able to recertify by attending my class and a few additional training courses.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Preparing for the August 2017 CCDE Practical Exam

You have surely heard that the May 11th practical exam was cancelled. You likely also heard why, but I’ll summarize the facts here, just in case. It is widely believed that a training company acquired actual CCDE Practical scenarios and taught from them in preparation for the February 22nd CCDE exam date. A remarkable (in my opinion, unbelievable) number of successful candidates associated with this training company passed the exam. Given this information, Cisco made the correct decision to pull these scenarios from the rotation used in the CCDE practical exam. Unfortunately, this means that Cisco cannot offer the exam in May 2017.

The unfortunate aspect of this decision is that many legitimate candidates’ preparation schedules have been disrupted. Given the eight-day notice of cancellation before the exam date, many candidates are stuck with nonrefundable travel reservations. They have also taken off time from their professional and personal obligations to prepare for an exam which is not taking place. While Cisco did provide full refunds for the exam cost, they are not offering to cover any of the travel expenses incurred by candidates. This is consistent with their prior stance. I know several CCDE and CCIE candidates who had to reschedule their exams due to Internet or power issues at the testing site. Their experiences were the same; no travel refunds, just a refund of the exam fees.

Ultimately, this incident will be viewed as a speed bump in the long-term history of the CCDE program. I am certain that Cisco will strip those who stole the exam content of their Cisco certifications, just as they have done in the past with CCIE cheats. I am also confident that Cisco will remove the CCDE credentials of those who attended the offending company’s training. This is a necessary step to restore credibility to the rest of us who earned their certification through hard work and study. This is especially true of those who passed the practical exam in February 2017, including several of my students. I saw first hand the effort each of them put into their preparation. If anyone doubts their credentials, let me know. And for those who were wondering why my list of successful candidates was a bit shorter in the last newsletter (and below), know that I specifically left off names of candidates who attended my training and are purported to have attended the other company’s class.

What Do I Do Next?

Now that the facts and speculation/gossip is out of the way, what should CCDE candidates do? First and foremost, schedule your August 29th exam ASAP. Demand for this exam date will be extremely high. If you live in a part of the world where CCDE exam seats are difficult to obtain, lock in your spot first! American and Canadian students can procrastinate as usual; it is relatively easy to find a seat in your countries. One student from Toronto recently mentioned that he has three testing centers within thirty minutes of his home. The rest of the world has to fight over spots, Hunger Games-style. A few of my European students and I estimated that there are less than seventy seats in the entire continent, and Africa has fewer than twenty. The Frankfurt testing center is notorious for filling up quickly, as is London. Recent students have had to consider traveling to Athens, Madrid, and even Istanbul to find a seat. Get yours now and save yourself the stress. Remember, you can cancel your exam with 30 days’ notice. Set a calendar reminder so you don’t forget to cancel, if you must. A secondary benefit is that your preparation will become more real when you have an exam date on the calendar. Trust me, it will improve your motivation; especially once that 30 day cancellation period has passed.

Are you a student of mine who happens to live near me in the Mid-Atlantic area of the US? If so, I’ll extend to you my standing offer to buy your lunch during the August 29th exam. There are two conditions to this offer. First, you must take the exam at the Newark, Delaware, USA test center. Second, it’s a first-come, only-one-served offer. Students begin their lunch break as soon as they have finished their second scenario, so it would not be fair if I delayed lunch for subsequent candidates to finish. If you are interested, please email me. I’ll let you know if you were the first to respond. To further entice you, know that every student who has taken me up on this offer has passed the exam during this attempt. Yes, a 100% success rate. (one out of one, so don’t get too confident!). We will of course honor the NDA during lunch; there is no value in studying/researching during your break anyway, since after lunch you will start a fresh scenario.

The most significant concern I have heard from students is regarding the new exam content. Cisco has pulled all of the compromised materials from the exam. What does that mean for candidates? Cisco is working on new scenarios, with new questions. Thus far, word from Cisco is that they are not changing the exam format. It will still consist of four scenarios over eight hours (plus lunch). The exam will still be offered at Pearson Professional centers. I expect one or more may be removed from the lineup, given the theft that occurred (it is my speculation that the content was stolen from a test center and not from a Cisco server, but that is only my guess). If you notice a test center is missing, this could be the reason.

Cisco has committed to a six-month advance notice of any changes to the format of an Expert level exam. We are currently at CCDE 2.0, or CCDE 2.1 if you count the Emerging Technologies written changes. I personally do not count this as a change in the CCDE, as I am only focused on the Practical exam, which was not affected by Emerging Technologies. Developing CCDE 3.0 is at least a year long endeavor, and there is no evidence or even rumors that this process has begun. It’s probably imminent, now that recent events have forced their hand, but my best guess is that CCDE 3.0 will arrive in late 2018 (maybe November). I will save my hopes and speculation regarding CCDE 3.0 for a future newsletter article.

If you are a Cisco employee, you can plan to attend my class in San Jose the week of August 7th 2017. I invite all current students to my next CCDE quarterly review on Saturday, August 5th at 8am ET. Simply send me an email and I will put you on the Webex invite list. If your plans permit it, my final CCDE bootcamp of the year will be held in Orlando, Florida the week of October 9th 2017. You can also attend the October class vie Webex, if traveling to Florida is inconvenient.

The CCDE certification is not going away, I can assure you of that. Cisco is committed to guiding the next generation network designers, just as they helped thousands of engineers earn recognition for their configuration talents with the CCIE program.


Monday, May 8, 2017

Attending Cisco Live as a CCDE Candidate

How is attending Cisco Live as a CCDE candidate different than attending normally? Well, it doesn't have to be. But if you don't approach this opportunity with an effective strategy you will miss out on some amazing opportunities!

Formal Training

Cisco provides several training opportunities for the CCDE exam. There is a four hour lab session that covers a portion of a CCDE practical exam, and an eight hour Techtorial. Elaine Lopes, the program manager for the CCDE and CCAr certifications will lead these sessions. She is accompanied by one or more Cisco Certified Architects who walk participants through the types of questions on the CCDE written and practical exams, as well as an overview of the CCAr testing procedure.

Take your CCDE Written Exam

Whether you have already passed your CCDE written or not, it can be valuable to take the exam again. I make it a point to retake the CCDE written at each Cisco Live. There are two reasons for this. One, paying out of pocket for the CCDE written is now $450 USD. Getting a free exam is like getting 25% of your CLUS registration fee back!

Second, the CCDE written and CCDE practical exams use the same basic technology stack. Keeping current with the CCDE written exam is important to me for my training, but also for my other professional responsibilities.

Social Opportunities (not just the CAE!)

Cisco Live US is the best place to meet fellow networkers, including me! I will be in Las Vegas for the conference from Monday - Thursday this year. If you also plan to be in attendance and would like to meet up, let me know. There are many opportunities to chat at the World of Solutions, Lunch, in between sessions, etc. I look forward to seeing you there!

In addition to meeting me, you can schedule a 1:1 meeting with various Cisco experts to discuss CCDE-related technologies, and of course you should take the opportunity to meet up with Elaine to see if she will spill any CCDE secrets. Just don't get your hopes up on this front, she hasn't let anything slip to me :)

Lastly, be on the lookout for a CCDE lunch-and-learn table during your lunch break. Elaine will host it, and there will surely be CCDEs available to chat about the certification program and tips on how to prepare for your exam. I intend to stop by as much as possible.

If you simply want to corner an active CCDE and question them about their preparation, you can do that too! Look for the baby blue-colored ribbons that say 'CCDE'. Most CCDEs won't bite, in my experience. They are often happy to tell their war stories regarding exam preparation strategies.


Wednesday, December 14, 2016

History of the CCDE, Part 3 -- 2013 to Present

(Click these links for Part 1 -- Origin to 2008, and Part 2 -- 2009 to 2012)
First, congratulations to all of my students who successfully passed the CCDE exam in 2016. I am proud to announce that our community of CCDE candidates has nearly reached one hundred successful students, including fourteen students this year. A recent successful student wrote the following recommendation of my training after passing his CCDE exam:
I attended Jeremy’s virtual bootcamp in October 2016, 3 weeks before my first and final CCDE attempt. The bootcamp to be extremely helpful in achieving the CCDE mindset. Jeremy covers a wide variety of technologies at a high level; the expectation is that students are already technical experts and are seeking to sharpen their analysis and design skills. These core skills are what separate CCIEs from CCDEs and Jeremy’s training material best addresses these skills. His scenarios are very realistic and, again, are primarily focused on critical thinking and problem solving, which is precisely what the real exam does. I highly recommend Jeremy’s bootcamp and self-paced study material for anyone serious about achieving the CCDE. -- Nick Russo, CCDE 2016::41
This article picks up from the beginning of 2013. Over the course of four test dates in 2013, we nearly doubled the total number of successful CCDEs. We started the year with 90 CCDEs, and added 81 more. This was by far the largest number of new CCDEs in a single year. In 2014 we literally one-upped the previous year, as 82 candidates passed the Practical exam. During these two years we nearly tripled the total number of CCDEs to 253. This still stands as the record number of passing students in a calendar year.
These two years also saw a broad diversity of CCDEs. Just looking at my successful students during this time period we saw the first CCDEs from the following countries:
  • Chile
  • Colombia
  • India
  • Indonesia
  • Lebanon
  • Oman
  • Qatar
Over fifty of my students passed during these years. In some ways, it seems as though these years were the golden age of the CCDE program. After the great success of these years, 2015 and 2016 were slightly disappointing. Only 47 candidates were able to earn the CCDE certification in 2015, and this year saw exactly the same number of successful candidates. During conversations with CCDE program members I have learned that most of the reduction in successful candidates can be attributed to fewer candidates, and not to more difficult exams. Of course each exam date brings new content, so we cannot say with confidence that the exam difficulty has remained the same.
The last two years have also seen an global expansion of the CCDE program. I have had students pass the exam from countries such as Austria, Ghana, Luxembourg, Malaysia, and Romania. And of course, many students from the United States, Germany, France, etc. Thus far I have had successful students from 36 unique countries.
I am looking forward to what 2017 will bring to the CCDE program. With four upcoming exam dates and no announced changes to the Practical exam, we should see quite a few new CCDEs in the coming year. There are also rumors of changes to the recertification process. Stay tuned!

Thank you for reading!