Death to OEQs!


Just when you think things can’t get any more interesting, a little nugget of news slips out and makes your day fun.  An announcement about changes to the CCIE Security exam leaked out this morning and was quickly retracted to be polished before being reissued tomorrow or the next day.  However, Natalie Timms, the CCIE Security Program Manager confirmed in this thread that the changes were the removal of the Open Ended Questions (OEQs) and more addition of hands-on configuration.  As soon as I saw this, my wheels starting spinning.

Note: What follows is mostly conjecture based on opinions and conversations I’ve had with people in the industry.  Many of these facts are not confirmed as solid, but will be cited where appropriate.  Please don’t go telling people that my words are the gospel truth.  I don’t know any more than anyone else.

I think this movement is the beginning of the end of the OEQs.  They’ve been gone from the R&S lab for over a year now. The Voice lab has done away with them as well.  In the case of the R&S lab, they kept the new troubleshooting section in place as it served the same purpose as the OEQs, a section that could be rapidly changed to provide a method of varying the difficulty of the lab quickly.  The Voice lab introduced troubleshooting into the lab itself, either by making you diagnose broken things in your equipment or by forcing you to debug errors and do things like copy them to text files like you would if you were going to forward the files to TAC.  Integration of troubleshooting allows Cisco to have a good gauge of the candidate’s abilities and more closely ties the exam to the real world skills of a network enginee…rock star.

The remaining CCIE tracks (Wireless, Service Provider/Operations, Storage, and Security) still have OEQs attached to them.  Makes for an interesting briefing in the morning when the proctor has to give 3 different sets of instructions based on what the initial setup of your lab might look like.  Candidates hate the OEQs.  They are a trivia section at best.  People say that they are easy, CCNA-to-CCNP level questions that any CCIE candidate should be able to answer.  I find the lack of specificity in the old OEQs I took to be maddening in some cases, and the lack of proctor assistance was irritating.  In fact, the continued inclusion of OEQs on the other CCIE tracks has made them a little less appealing to me, should I find myself crazy enough to even think about attempting it all over again.

With the announcement, retraction, and eventual re-announcement of the removal of the OEQs from the Security track, I’ve got high hopes now.  I think Cisco has enough data based on their year of R&S and Voice troubleshooting to see it as a viable alternative to Trivial Pursuit: CCIE Edition.  I’ll bet that there is going to be a section similar to the Voice lab where faults are injected (or user-created) in the lab and you’ll be required to diagnose and perhaps log them in files on the desktop.  This makes the most sense, as some of the hardware can be emulated like the IOU images that run in the troubleshooting section but emulation of the specific ASICs and software on something like an ASA would be problematic at best.  By adding troubleshooting, the Security lab will start feeling more like a real-world scenario.

The Wireless track is due for a revamp in November.  Don’t be shocked to see the OEQs get stripped from it as well.  Wireless is a hard track with all the specific hardware required and would also lend itself well to a Voice-style troubleshooting inside the lab exam.  The CCIE Storage exam is on its last legs and is most likely about to be replaced by a new CCIE track more focused around Cisco’s Unified Computing System (UCS), along with Nexus switching, Wide-Area Application Services (WAAS) as well as Fiber Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) storage that will require the MDS switches from the old Storage lab.  This CCIE Data Center track (if that’s what it ends up being called) is probably one of the worst-kept ‘secrets’ in the CCIE world, as I’ve had several people mention to me, and a couple of candidates even ask the proctors when the lab would be retooled to include it.  In the interest of complete fairness, the proctor’s comment was “No comment.”

That leaves Service Provider and Service Provider Operations left as the only OEQ-enabled labs here.  I doubt that Cisco will leave the OEQs here if it removes them from other tracks.  The SP lab recently received a refresh and the SPO lab is very new.  I think that there will be an announcement very similar to the Security lab that removes the OEQs, but I think rather than injecting faults in this lab, they may try for a troubleshooting section down the road similar to the R&S lab.  This could be accomplished with the IOU images that are in use now for the R&S TS section.  Addition of the IOS-XR content would require something different, perhaps the mythical “Titanium” emulator for XR that I keep hearing about yet have never seen (much like IOU only a few months ago).  The addition of a real TS section would change the content drastically though, so it would require 6 months notice before being implemented.  In that time, however, they could use an in-lab troubleshooting method just like the other tracks.

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*EDIT*

Thanks to Youssef El Fathi for pointing out that the SP lab has not had OEQs since the 3.0 revision early in 2011.  The thread confirming this from June 8th is HERE.  If that truly is the case, then I don’t see any reason why there should continue to be OEQs in any other tracks.

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Tom’s Take

There you have it.  A road map for eliminating the OEQs and banishing them to the same circle of hell as ARCNet and MicroChannel buses.  While I can’t confirm any of my suspicions outside the semi-firm announcement of the removal of OEQs from the Security exam, it makes the most sense that Cisco is ready to implement this change track-wide in the lab.  OEQs take a lot of time to grade and are slightly subjective.  Troubleshooting is pretty easy in comparison – it either works or it doesn’t.  By standardizing on troubleshooting instead of OEQs as the preferred rapid-change method of candidate testing, it makes things a little more fair all around.  I plan on finding the CCIE program managers when I go to Cisco Live this year and asking them about upcoming changes to the tracks so that I can nail down what might be happening.  If they tell me that the OEQs really are going away please don’t mistake my tears for sorrow.  They’ll be tears of unadulterated joy.

I’m going to say it again to avoid an international incident: This is all conjecture at this point.  If I turn out to be wrong, so be it.  However, I feel the time of the OEQs is over.  Don’t tell everyone on Groupstudy or or OSL that this is the absolute truth until you get a confirmed press release from someone whose name ends in “@cisco.com”.

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