Cisco Live 2012 gave me an opportunity to sit in a session dedicated to the newer Cisco expert certfications. BRKCRT-8862 is for CCIEs that are looking at moving to the Cisco Certified Design Expert (CCDE) and maybe even the Cisco Certified Architect (CCAr). The CCDE is a pretty well known certification at this point. Developed in large part by Russ White, the CCDE tests a candidate on their knowledge of taking a set of requirements and producing a valid design for a given scenario. Originally envisioned as a board certification exam not unlike the VMware Certified Design Expert (VCDX), the CCDE is instead an 8-hour exam with some multiple choice and some fill-in-the-blank type questions. The CCDE is a prerequisite for the CCAr, which is the culmination of something Cisco is trying to do with focusing on solutions. The CCAr tends to focus more on the Planning and Preparation areas of the PPDIOO model. Cisco tends to see them as “big picture” solutions engineers that focus on more conceptual ideas that revolve around things like business contraints and specific use cases. From what Cisco was describing, it appears that the role of the CCAr is to gather information about the customer desires that will then be given to the CCDEs to generate a design. The CCAr is a 5-month long board exam that is graded by three judges (mostly existing CCArs) that are with you during the entire process, from the initial submission of your application up until the final board review. Note that not all those that apply to the program will be selected for review.
The BRKCRT session highlighted a lot of hesitation in the CCIE ranks where the CCAr is concerned. Cisco has spent a lot of time over the last three years attempting to have the CCDE reach parity with the CCIE in terms of importance. Had they simply called it the CCIE: Design it would likely have been much more accepted in the community. However, there is a legacy of the original failed CCIE: Design track from a decade ago, so I’m sure that Cisco wanted to avoid carrying the negativity forward. Instead, they’ve had to fight the reputation that the exam has gotten for being too focused on very specific technologies or being a bad representation of what a design test should be. Much of this criticism focuses on the major test developer, Russ White. When I first heard of the exam going live, many people said it was easy so long as you asked yourself “What Would Russ White Do?” With the new version of the exam being recently released, as well as Cisco offering the exam at new locations, the CCDE may very well be on the road to gaining a little more respect.
The CCAr, on the other hand, is a pretty big target. CCIEs are upset that the CCDE is the only prerequisite for the exam. After almost twenty years of being told that the CCIE is the most important certification inside of Cisco, if not the world, now we’re told that the CCIE isn’t even good enough for us to get our foot in the door of the Architect board. I think some of this comes from the reality that many CCIEs are called upon to do designs in their every day work. Often, after a CCIE goes through all the training necessary to pass the lab exam, they have a very good idea of the capabilities of the product set within their particular track. Therefore, many companies call on them to produce designs, as they are usually the best suited to make the decision between using a particular model of switch or router or firewall. However, not all CCIEs are good at design. Many of them have a “bottom up” view of things that tends to lead them down the path of point solutions without regard for higher-level thinking. Call it a “forest for the trees” type of mentality. They get so bogged down on the decisions between what line cards to use or why they’d rather use a 4500 in place of a 6500 that they lose sight of the bigger goals. There’s also no guarantee that a CCIE will be able to produce a valid design from a pile of non-technical interviews and business requirements instead of data sheets and performance specs. The CCDE teaches engineers how to keep a bigger view of things in mind when planning a design.
The problem, however, is that both the CCDE and CCIE are still focused on providing their respective documents, whether they be for design or implementation. Someone still has to lay the groundwork for the project and figure out how to focus the task of the designers. Without an even bigger picture, design is just throwing things at the wall until something sticks. Some designers understand that and ask specific questions before diving into their work. These are the folks that are the target of the CCAr program. Cisco doesn’t just want a bill of materials or a pretty Visio document handed to the customer. They want a cohesive plan and design delivered to sell a vision, whether it be an architecture like a connected sports stadium or a connected energy grid. Architects take into account more than just technology. They are constantly thinking about esoteric things like regulatory laws and other logistic restraints. These are the kinds of things that CCIEs and CCDEs either shy away from or would rather not think about.
Look at it like this: The CCAr is like the CEO of the team. They have the vision and the desire to go out and kickstart things by looking at the big picture. They have to play the role of project manager and pre-sales at the same time. They keep a handle on the non-technical aspects of the project. Once they’ve determined the direction, the send in the CCDEs. These guys take all the documentation the CCAr has generated and meld it with the best practices needed to create a valid, working design. Once the CCDEs have everything in order, it’s up to the CCIEs to go out and make it all work. They are the technical piece that gets the hard work accomplished. The CCAr may not be typing commands in on the CLI, but they are the ones running interference from the other side by keeping customers appraised and kicking over rocks to find things the designers need to know.
If you’d like to read a few more takes on the CCDE, check out Russ White’s Why CCDE? post at the Packet Pushers site. Also, read about the journey to CCDE success from CCDE 2012::1, Ronnie Angello (@rangello)
I’ll be shocked if there are ever more than a hundred Cisco Certified Architects. The level of thinking required for this exam isn’t something that can be taught. You are either born to be a technical architect or you aren’t. With that being said, I think that the skills that are crucial to having a well rounded view of architecture are best served by requiring both the CCIE and CCDE as a prerequisite for the CCAr. Design without technical know-how is a dicey proposition at best, but trying to attain and architecture role without knowing how to design is equally capable of colossal folly. Just like any recipe, you need a good mix of both to make the final product come out right.