The Magic of the CCIE

I stumbled across a great Reddit thread this week: Is the CCIE as impossible as it seems? There are a lot of great replies on that thread about people passing and the “good old days” of Banyan Vines, Appletalk, and more. It’s also a fascinating look into how the rest of the networking industry sees exams like the CCIE and JNCIE. Because those of us that have the numbers seem to be magicians to some.

Sleight of CLI Hand

Have you ever seen the cups and balls magic trick? Here’s an excellent example of it from the recently departed Ricky Jay:

Impressive, right? It’s amazing to behold a master craftsman at work. Every time I watch that video I’m amazed. I know he’s doing sleight of hand. But I can’t catch it. Now, watch this same video but with annotations turned on. SPOILER ALERT – The annotations will tell you EXACTLY where the tricks are done:

Is it more impressive now that you know how the tricks are done? Check out this demonstration from Penn and Teller that shows you exactly how they do the tricks as well:

Okay, so it’s a little less mystifying now that you’ve seen how all the sleight of hand happens. But it’s still impressive because, as a professional, you can appreciate how the execute their tradecraft. Knowing that it’s not magic doesn’t mean it’s not an impressive feat. It must means you appreciate something different about the performance.

Let’s apply that to the CCIE. When you’re just starting out in networking, every piece of knowledge is new. Everything you learn is something you didn’t know before. Subnet masks, routing tables, and even just addressing an interface are new skills that you acquire and try to understand. It’s like learning how to take a coin from someone’s ear. It’s simple but it provides the building blocks for future tricks.

When you reach the level of studying for the CCIE lab, it does look like a daunting task. If you’ve followed Cisco’s guidelines you probably have your CCNP or equivalent knowledge. However, there is still a lot you don’t know. If you don’t believe that, go pick up Jeff Doyle’s Routing TCP/IP Volume 1 book. That book taught me I still had a lot to learn about networking.

But, as I slogged through the CCIE, I realized that I was acquiring skills. Just like the magicians that practice the cups and balls every day to get it right, I was picking up the ability to address interfaces quickly and see potential routing loops before I made them like I did in my first lab attempt. Each thing I learned and practiced not only made me a better engineer but also made the CCIE seem less like a mountain and more like a hill that could be climbed.

And I truly realized this when I was thumbing through a copy of the CCIE Official Exam guide. Someone had given me a copy to take a look at and I was happy with the depth of knowledge that I found. I wanted to pass it along to another junior engineer because, as I said to myself, “If only I had this book when I started! I could have skipped over all those other books!”

Practice, Practice, Practice!

That’s where I went wrong. Because I jumped right to the end goal instead of realizing the process. Magicians don’t start out making the Statue of Liberty disappear. They start out pulling coins from your ear and finding your card in a deck. They build their basic skills and then move on to harder things. But they most grand tricks in the magician’s top hat all still use the basic skills: sleight of hand, misdirection, and preparation. To neglect those is to court folly on stage.

CCIEs are no different. Every person that asks me about the test asks “How hard is it to pass?” I usually respond with something like “Not hard if you study.” Some of the people I talk to pick up on the “not hard” part and get crushed by the lab their first time out. They even end up with a $1,500 soda for their efforts. The other people, the ones that focus on “study” in my answer, they are the people who pass on the first attempt or the ones that get it right pretty quickly thereafter.

The CCIE isn’t a test. It’s a course in studying. It’s the culmination of teaching yourself the minutia of protocols and how they interact. The exam itself is almost perfunctory. It tests specific combinations of things you might see in the real world. And if you ask any CCIE, the real world is often ten time stranger than the lab. But the lab makes you think about the things you’ve already learned in new ways and apply that knowledge to find ways to solve problems. The lab isn’t hard because it’s easy. The lab becomes easier when you practice enough to not think the knowledge is hard any longer. I think Bruce Lee said it best:

I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.

Most people would agree that Bruce Lee was one of the best martial artists of all times. And even he practiced until his fingers bled and he body was exhausted. Because he knew that being the best wasn’t about passing an exam for a belt or about showing off for people. It was about knowing what you needed to know and practicing it until it was second nature.


Tom’s Take

The CCIE has a certain magical aura for sure. But it’s not magical in and of itself. It’s a test designed to ensure that the people that pass know their skills at a deep level. It’s a test designed to make you look deeper at a problem and exhaust all your options before throwing in the towel. The CCIE isn’t impossible any more than sawing someone in half is impossible. It’s all about how your practice and prepare for the show that makes the trick seem impressive.

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Why Is The CCIE Lab Moving?

Cisco confirmed big CCIE rumor this week that the RTP lab was going to be moved to Richardson, TX.

The language Cisco used is pretty neutral. San Jose and RTP are being shut down as full time lab locations and everyone is moving to Richardson. We knew about this thanks to the detective work of Jeff Fry, who managed to figure this out over a week ago. Now that we know what is happening, why is it coming to pass?

They Don’t Build Them Like They Used To

Real estate is expensive. Anyone that’s ever bought a house will tell you that. Now, imagine that on a commercial scale. Many companies will get the minimum amount of building that they need to get by. Sometimes they’re bursting at the seams before they upgrade to a new facility.

Other companies are big about having lots of area. These are the companies that have giant campuses. Companies like Cisco, Dell EMC, Intel, and NetApp have multiple buildings spread across a wide area. It makes sense to do this when you’re a large company that needs the room to spread out. In Cisco’s case, each business unit had their own real estate. Wireless was in one building. Firewalls in another. Each part of the company had their own area to play in.

Cisco was a real estate maven for a while. They built out in anticipation of business. There was a story years ago of a buried concrete slab foundation in Richardson that was just waiting for the next big Cisco product to be developed so they could clear away the dirt and start construction. But, why not just build the building and be done with it?

Remember how I said that real estate is expensive? That expense doesn’t come completely from purchases. It comes from operations. You need to have utilities for the building. You need to have services for the building. You need to pay taxes on the building. And those things happen all the time. Even if you never have anyone in the building the electricity is still running. That’s one of the reasons why Cisco shuts down their offices between Christmas and New Year’s every year. And the taxes are still due. Hence the reason why the foundation in Richardson was buried.

Real estate is also not an infinite resource. Anyone that’s been to Silicon Valley knows that. They’re running out of room in the South Bay. And building the new 49ers stadium on the corner of Tasman Drive and Great America Parkway didn’t help either. Sports teams are as hungry for real estate as tech companies. The support structures that cropped up for the stadium ended up buying the Letter Buildings from Cisco, which is why the lab was moved from Building C to Building L years ago.

Home Is Where The Work Is

The other shifting demographic is that more workers are remote in today’s environment. A combination of factors have led people to be just as productive from their home office as their open-plan cubicle. Increased collaboration software coupled with changing job requirements means that people don’t have to go to their desk every day to be productive.

This is especially true now that companies like Cisco are putting more of a focus on software instead of hardware. In the good old days of hardware dominance you needed to go into the office to work on your chipset diagrams. You needed your desktop CAD program to draw the silicon traces on a switch. And you needed to visit the assembly lines and warehouses to see that everything was in order.

Today? It’s all code. Everything is written in an IDE and stored on a powerful laptop. You can work from anywhere. A green space outside your office window. A coffee shop. Your living room. The possibilities are endless. But that also means that you don’t need a permanent office desk. And if you don’t need a desk that means your company doesn’t need to pay for you to have one.

Now, instead of bustling buildings full of people working in their shared offices there are acres of empty open-plan cubicle farms lying fallow. People would rather work from Starbucks than go to the office. People would rather work in their pajamas than toil away in a cube. And so companies like Cisco are paying taxes and utilities for open spaces that don’t have anyone while the offices around the perimeter are filled with managers that are leading people that they don’t see.

CCIE Real Estate

But what does this all mean for the lab? Well, Cisco needs to downsize their big buildings in high-value real estate markets. They’re selling off buildings in San Jose as fast as the NFL will buy them. They are downsizing the workforce in RTP as well. The first hint of the CCIE move was David Blair trying to find a new job. As real estate becomes more and more costly to obtain, Cisco is going to need to expand in less expensive markets. The Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) area is still one of the cheapest in the country.

DFW is also right in the middle of the country. It’s pretty much the same distance from everything. So people that don’t want to schedule a mobile lab can fly to Richardson and take the test there. RTP and San Jose are being transitioned to mobile lab facilities, which means people that live close to those areas can still take the test, just not on the schedule they may like. This allows Cisco to free up the space in those buildings for other purposes and consolidate their workforce down to areas that require less maintenance. They can also sell off unneeded buildings to other companies and take the profits for reinvestment in other places. Cutting costs and making money is what real estate is all about, even if you aren’t a real estate developer.


Tom’s Take

I’m sad to see the labs moving out of RTP and San Jose. Cisco has said they are going to frame the famous Wall of Pain in RTP as a tribute to the lab takers there. I have some fond memories of San Jose as well, but even those memories are from a building that Cisco doesn’t own any longer. The new reality of a software defined Cisco is that there isn’t as much of a need for real estate any more. People want to work remotely and not live in a cube farm. And when people don’t want an office, you don’t need to keep paying for them to have one. Cisco won’t be shutting everything down any time soon, but the CCIE labs are just the first part of a bigger strategy.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this post accidentally referred to David Mallory instead of David Blair. This error has been corrected.

How High Can The CCIE Go?

Congratulations to Michael Wong, CCIE #60064! And yes, you’re reading that right. Cisco has certified 30,000 new CCIEs in the last nine years. The next big milestone for CCIE nerds will be 65,536, otherwise known as CCIE 0x10000. How did we get here? And what does this really mean for everyone in the networking industry?

A Short Disclaimer

Before we get started here, a short disclaimer. I am currently on the Cisco CCIE Advisory Board for 2018 and 2019. My opinions here do not reflect those of Cisco, only me. No insider information has been used in the crafting of this post. Any sources are freely available or represent my own opinions.

Ticket To Ride

Why the push for a certified workforce? It really does make sense when you look at it in perspective. More trained people means more people that know how to implement your system properly. More people implementing your systems means more people that will pick that solution over others when they’re offered. And that means more sales. And hopefully also less support time spent by your organization based on the trained people doing the job right in the first place.

You can’t fault people for wanting to show off their training programs. CWNP just announced at Wi-Fi Trek 2018 that they’ve certified CWNE #300, Robert Boardman (@Robb_404). Does that mean that any future CWNEs won’t know what they’re doing compared to the first one, Devin Akin? Or does it mean that CWNP has hit critical mass with their certification program and their 900-page tome of wireless knowledge? I’d like to believe it’s the latter.

You can’t fault Cisco for their successes in getting people certified. Just like Novell and Microsoft, Cisco wants everyone installing their products to be trained. Which would you rather deal with? A complete novice who has no idea how the command line works? Or someone competent that makes simple mistakes that cause issues down the road? I know I’d rather deal with a semi-professional instead of a complete amateur.

The only way that we can get to a workforce that has pervasive knowledge of a particular type of technology is if the certification program expands. For everyone that claims they want to keep their numbers small you should have a bit of reflective doubt. Either they don’t want to spend the money to expand their program or they don’t have the ability to expand it. Because a rising tide lifts all boats. When everyone knows more about your solutions the entire community and industry benefit from that knowledge.

Tradition Is An Old Word

Another criticism of the CCIE today is that it doesn’t address the changing way we’re doing our jobs. Every month I hear people asking for a CCIE Automation or CCIE SDN or some thing like that. I also remember years ago hearing people clamoring for CCIE OnePK, so just take that with a grain of salt.

Why is the CCIE so slow to change? Think about it from the perspective of the people writing the test. It takes months to get single changes made to questions. it takes many, many months to get new topics added to the test via blueprints. And it could take at least two years (or more) to expand the number of topics tested by introducing a new track. So, why then would Cisco or any other company spend time introducing new and potentially controversial topics into one of their most venerable and traditional tests without vetting things thoroughly before finalizing them.

Cisco took some flak for introducing the CCIE Data Center with the Application Control Engine (ACE) module in version 1. Many critics felt that the solution was outdated and no one used it in real life. Yet it took a revision or two before it was finally removed. Imagine what would happen if something like that were to occur as someone was developing a new test.

Could you imagine the furor if Cisco had decided to build a CCIE OpenFlow exam? What would be tested? Which version would have been used? How will you test integration on non-Cisco devices? Which controller would you use? Why aren’t you testing on this esoteric feature in 1.1 that hasn’t officially been deprecated yet. Why don’t you just forget it because OpenFlow is a failure? I purposely picked a controversial topic to highlight how silly it would have been to build an OpenFlow test but feel free to attach that to the technology de jour, like IoT.


Tom’s Take

The CCIE is a bellwether. It changes when it needs to change. When the CCIE Voice became the CCIE Collaboration, it was an endorsement of the fact that the nature of communications was changing away from a focus on phones and more toward presence and other methods. When the CCIE Data Center was announced, Cisco formalized their plans to stay in the data center instead of selling a few servers and then exiting the market. The CCIE doesn’t change to suit the whims of everyone in the community that wants to wear a badge that’s shiny or has a buzzword on it. Just like the retired CCIE tracks like ISP Dial or Design, you don’t want to wear that yoke around your neck going into the future of technology.

I’m happy that Cisco has a force of CCIEs. I’m deeply honored to know quite a few of them going all the way back to Terry Slattery. I can tell you that every person that has earned their number has done so with the kind of study and intense concentration that is necessary to achieve this feat. Whether they get it through self-study, bootcamp practice, or good old fashioned work experience you can believe that, no matter what their number might be, they’re there because they want to be there.

Is Training The Enemy of Progress?

Peyton Maynard-Koran was the keynote speaker at InteropITX this year. If you want to catch the video, check this out:

Readers of my blog my remember that Peyton and I don’t see eye-to-eye on a few things. Last year I even wrote up some thoughts about vendors and VARs that were a direct counterpoint to many of the things that have been said. It has even gone further with a post from Greg Ferro (@EtherealMind) about the intelligence level of the average enterprise IT customer. I want to take a few moments and explore one piece of this puzzle that keeps being brought up: You.

Protein Robots

You are a critical piece of the IT puzzle. Why? You’re a thinking person. You can intuit facts and extrapolate cause from nothing. You are NI – natural intelligence. There’s an entire industry of programmers chasing what you have. They are trying to build it into everything that blinks or runs code. The first time that any company has a real breakthrough in true artificial intelligence (AI) beyond complicated regression models will be a watershed day for us all.

However, you are also the problem. You have requirements. You need a salary. You need vacation time. You need benefits and work/life balance to keep your loved ones happy. You sometimes don’t pick up the phone at 3am when the data center blinks out of existence. It’s a challenge to get you what you need while still extracting the value that is needed from you.

Another awesome friend Andrew von Nagy (@RevolutionWiFi) coined the term “protein robots”. That’s basically what we are. Meatbags. Walking brains that solve problems that cause BGP to fall over when presented with the wrong routing info or cause wireless signals to dissipate into thing air. We’re a necessary part of the IT equation.

Sure, people are trying to replace us with automation and orchestration. It’s the most common complaint about SDN that I’ve heard to date: automation is going to steal my job. I’ve railed against that for years in my talks. Automation isn’t going to steal your job, but it will get you a better one. It will get you a place in the organization to direct and delegate and not debug and destroy. In the end, automation isn’t coming for your job as long as you’re trying to get a better one.

All Aboard The Train!

The unseen force that’s opposing upward mobility is training. In order to get a better job, you need to be properly trained to do it. Maybe it’s a lot of experience from running a network for years. Perhaps it’s a training class you get to go to or a presentation online you can watch. No matter what you need to have new skills to handle new job responsibilities. Even if you’re breaking new ground in something like AI development you’re still acquiring new skills along the way. Hopefully, if you’re in a new field, you’re writing them all down for people to follow in your footsteps one day.

However, training is in opposition to what your employer wants for you. It sounds silly, doesn’t it? Yet, we still hear the quote attributed to W. Edwards Deming – “What happens if we train our people and they leave? What happens if we don’t and they stay?” Remember, as we said above you are a protein robot that needs things like time off and benefits. All of those things are seen as an investment in you.

Training is another investment that companies like to tout. When I worked at a VAR, we considered ourselves some of the most highly trained people around. The owner told me when I started that he was “going to put half a million dollars into training me.” When I asked him about that number after five years he told me it felt like he put a kid through college. And that was before my CCIE. The more trained people you have, the easier your job becomes.

But an investment in training can also backfire. Professionals can take that training and put it to use elsewhere. They can go to a different job and take more money. They can refuse to do a job until they are properly trained. The investments that people make in training are often unrealized relative to the amount of money that it costs to make it happen.

It doesn’t help that training prices have skyrocketed. It used to be that I just needed to go down to the local bookstore and find a copy of a CCNA study guide to get certified. I knew I’d reached a new point in my career when I couldn’t buy my books at the bookstore. Instead, I had to seek out the knowledge that I needed elsewhere. And yes, sometimes that knowledge came in the form of bootcamps that cost thousands of dollars. Lucky for me that my employer at the time looked at that investment and said that it was something they would pick up. But I know plenty of folks that can’t get that kind of consideration. Especially when the training budget for the whole department won’t cover one VMware ICM class.

Employers don’t want employees to be too trained. Because you have legs. Because you can get fed up. Because you can leave. The nice thing about making investments in hardware and software is that it’s stuck at a location. A switch is an asset. A license for a feature can’t be transferred. Objects are tied to the company. And their investments can be realized and recovered. Through deprecation or listing as an asset with competitive advantage companies can recover the value they put into a physical thing.

Professionals, on the other hand, aren’t as easy to deal with. Sure, you can list a CCIE as an important part of your business. But what happens if they leave? What happens when they decide they need a raise? Or, worse yet, when they need to spend six months studying for a recertification? The time taken to learn things is often not factored into the equation when we discuss how much training costs. Some of my old coworkers outright refused to get certified if they had to study on their own time. They didn’t want their free non-work time taken up by reading over MCSE books or CCNA guides. Likewise, the company didn’t want to waste billable hours from someone not providing value. It was a huge catch-22.

Running In Place

Your value is in your skillset at the company you work for. They derive that value from you. So, they want you to stay where you are. They want you trained just enough to do your job. They don’t want you to have your own skillset that could be valuable before they get their value from you. And they definitely don’t want you to take your skillset to a competitor. How can you fix that?

  1. Don’t rely on your company to pay for your training. There are a lot of great resources out there that you can use to learn without needed to drop big bucks for a bootcamp. Use bootcamps to solidify your learning after the fact. Honestly, if you’re in a bootcamp to learn something you’re in the wrong class. Read blogs. Buy books from Amazon. Get your skills the old fashioned way.
  2. Be ready to invest time. Your company doesn’t want you using their billable time for learning. So that means you are going to make an investment instead. The best part is that even an hour of studying instead of binge watching another episode of House is time well-spent on getting another important skill. And if it happened on your own time, you’re not going to have to pay that back.
  3. Be ready to be uncomfortable. It’s going to happen. You’re going to feel lost when you learn something new. You’re going to make mistakes while you’re practicing it. And, honestly, you’re going to feel uncomfortable going to your boss to ask for more money once you’re really good at what you’re doing. If you’re totally comfortable when learning something new, you’re doing it wrong.

Tom’s Take

Companies want protein robots. They want workers that give 125% at all times and can offer a wide variety of skills. They want compliant workers that never want to go anywhere else. Don’t be that robot. Push back. Learn what you can on your time. Be an asset but not an immobile one. You need to know more to escape the SDN Langoliers that are trying to eat your job. That means you need to be on the move to get where you need to be. And if you sit still you risk becoming a permanent asset. Just like the hardware you work on.

Time To Get Back To Basics?

I’ve had some fascinating networking discussions over the past couple of weeks at Dell Technologies World, Interop, and the spring ONUG meeting. But two of them have hit on some things that I think need to be addressed in the industry. Both Russ White and Ignas Bagdonas of the IETF have come to me and talked about how they feel networking professionals have lost sight of the basics.

How Stuff Works

If you walk up to any network engineer and ask them to explain how TCP works, you will probably get a variety of answers. Some will try to explain it to you in basic terms to avoid getting too in depth. Others will swamp you with a technical discussion that would make the protocol inventors proud. But still others will just shrug their shoulders and admit they don’t really understand the protocol.

It’s a common problem when a technology gets to the point of being mature and ubiquitous. One of my favorite examples is the fuel system on an internal combustion engine. On older cars or small engines, the carburetor is responsible for creating the correct fuel and air mixture that is used to power the cylinders. Getting that mix right is half science and half black magic. For the people that know how to do it properly it’s an easy thing that they can do to drive the maxim performance from an engine. For those that have tried it and failed, it’s something best left alone to run at defaults.

The modern engine uses fuel injection. It’s a black box. It can be reprogrammed or tinkered with but it’s something that is tuned in different ways from the traditional carburetor. It’s not something that’s designed to be played around with unless you really know what you’re doing. The technology has reached the point where it’s ubiquitous and easy to use, but very difficult to repair without a specialized skill set.

Most regular car drivers will look under the hood and quickly realize they know nothing about what’s going on. Some technical folks will be able to figure out what certain parts do by observing their behavior. But if you ask those same people how a fuel injection system or carburetor works they’ll probably give you a blank stare.

That’s the issue we find in modern networking. We’ve been creating VLANs and BGP route maps for years. Some people have spent their entire careers tuning multicast or optimizing layer 2 interconnects. But if you corner them and ask them how the protocol works or how best to design an architecture that takes advantage of their life’s work they can’t tell you aside from referencing some old blog post or some vendor’s validated design on their hardware.

Russ and Ignas each touch on something important. In the good old days before there were a hundred certification guides and a thousand SRNDs people had to do real work to find the best solution for a problem. They had to put pencil to paper and sort out the mess before they could make something work. That’s where the engineering side of the network comes from.

Today, it’s more “plug and play”. You drop in pieces of a solution and they should work together. In practice, that usually means all the pieces have to be from the same vendor or from approved partner sources. And anything that goes awry will need a team of experts and many, many consulting hours to figure out.

Imagine if we could only install networks without understanding how they work. Could you see a world where everything we install from a networking perspective is a black box like a fuel injector? That’s the case to a certain degree with cloud networking today. We don’t see what’s going on under the surface. We can only see what the interface exposes to us. That’s fine as long as the applications we are using support the things we’re trying to do with them. But when it comes to being able to fix the network at the level we’re used to seeing it could be difficult if not downright impossible.

Learning The Ropes

But, moreover, are the networking professionals that are configuring these networks even capable of making those changes? Does anyone other than Narbik really understand how EIGRP works? Facebook seems to think that lightweight messaging packets for routing protocols are outdated. So they used ZeroMQ without understanding why that’s a bad idea for slow speed links. They may understand how a routing protocol works in theory, but they don’t completely understand how it’s supposed to work in extreme cases.

Can we teach people the basics and understanding of protocols and design that they need in order to make proper designs outside of vendor reference documents? It’s a tall order for sure. Most blog posts are designed to talk about features or solve problems. Most literature from creators is designed to make their new widget work correctly. Very little documentation exists about integration or design. And a good portion of what does exist is a bit outmoded and needs to be spruced up.

We, as the stewards of networking, need to help this process along. We need to spend more time talking about design and theory. We need to dissect protocols and help people understand how to use the tools they have rather than hoping someone will build the best mousetrap ever to solve each piece of a complicated puzzle. We need to teach people to be thinkers and problem solvers. And, yes, that does mean a bit less complaining about things like vendor code quality and VAR behavior.

Why? Because those people are empowered by a lack of knowledge. Customers aren’t idiots. They have business reasons for the things they do. Our technology needs to support their business needs. Yes, that means we need to think critically about what we’re doing. And yes, they may mean eating our words now and then to avoid a showdown about something that’s ultimately unimportant in the long run.

If we increase the amount of knowledge about the important topics like design and protocols it should make the overall level of understanding go up for everyone. That means better designs. More integrated technology. Less reliance on being force-fed the bare minimum information necessary to make things work. And that means things will run faster and much more smoothly. Which is a win for everyone.


Tom’s Take

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know the dirty mechanics of Frame Relay switching or how to tune OSPF Hello timers for non-standard link types. It’s a skill I don’t use every day. But I know where to find them if I need them. And I know that it can help in certain situations where you see odd protocol behavior. Likewise, I know that if I need to go design a network for someone I need to get a lot of information about business needs and build the best network I can with the constraints that I have. Things like budget and time are universal. But one of those constraints shouldn’t be lack of knowledge about protocols and good design. Those are two things that should be ingrained into anyone that wants to have a title of “senior” anything.

Mythbusting the CCIE Continuing Education Program

It’s been about a month since the CCIE Continuing Education program was announced ahead of Cisco Live. There was a fair amount of discussion about it both on this blog as well as other places, like Jeff Fry’s post. Overall, the response has been positive. However, there are a few questions and ideas about the program that are simply not true. And no, this is not The Death Of The CCIE Program (just Google it). So, let’s take a look at this edition of Mythbusters for the CCIE CE program.

Myth #1: The CE Program Is Just A Way For Cisco To Sell More Training

This was a good one. The list of CE classes that was release at the beginning of the program included Cisco Live classes as well as Cisco Authorized training classes. Those were the only thing on the list as of right now. When some people saw the list, they jumped to the conclusion that the reason why the CE program exists is because Cisco wants to push their training courses. Let’s look at that.

Let’s say you want to start a global program that requires people to keep track of their training credits to turn them in for some kind of reward, whether it be money or credit for something else. Do you:

  1. Open the program for submissions of any kind and then hire a team to sort through them all to verify that they are legitmate
  2. Use a small list of verified submissions that can be audited at any time internally and are known to be of good quality based on existing metrics

I can only imagine that you would pick #2 every time. Remember that the CCIE CE program is barely a month old. It was announced so people could start taking advantage of it at Cisco Live. The list of classes included on the list was small on purpose. They were Cisco affiliated classes on purpose. The CCIE team can audit these classes easily with internal metrics. They can drop in on them and ensure the content is high quality and appropriate for learners. They can revoke classes deemed too easy or add advanced classes at any time.

The list of training classes looks the way it does because Cisco thinks that these are classes that CCIEs would learn from. They weren’t picked at random to get class sizes higher or to make more profit for Cisco. These classes are something that people would benefit from. And if you’re going to be taking the class anyway or are looking to take a class on a subject, wouldn’t you rather take one that you can get extra credit for?

Myth #2: The CCIE CE Program Was Designed to Sell More Cisco Live Conference Passes

Another chuckle-worthy conclusion about the CCIE CE program. People assumed that because Cisco Live courses were included in the acceptable courses for CE credits, Cisco must obviously be trying to push people to register for more Cisco Live courses, right?

It is true that the CCIE CE program was announced right before Cisco Live 2017. I personally think that was so the CCIEs attending the conference could get credit toward any classes they had booked already. Yes, the courses count. And yes, the longer 4-hour and 8-hour Techtorial classes count for more credits than the 1-hour sessions. But, there is a limit to how many classes count for credit at Cisco Live in total. And there is a cap of 70 credits per cycle on Cisco Live credits in total.

Even if Cisco wanted to use the CCIE CE program to push Cisco Live attendance, this isn’t the best way to do it. The Cisco Live option was to reward those that went anyway for things like advanced training classes and the CCIE NetVet lunch with the CEO. If Cisco wanted to make the CCIE dependent on Cisco Live, they could easily go back to the model of a specific conference just for CCIE recert as they did in the past. They could also just require a specific number of 3000-level classes be taken to recertify, again as in the past, instead of awarding points for other things like Techtorials. Thanks to Terry Slattery for helping me out with these last two points.

Additionally, tying CCIE CE credits to Cisco Live is a horrible way to push conference attendance. Most of the “cool stuff” happening at Cisco Live right now is happening in the DevNet Zone. Many people that I talked to ahead of the conference this year are strongly considering getting Explorer or Social passes next year and spending the whole time in the DevNet Zone instead of the conference proper. If Cisco wanted to push Cisco Live conference pass purchases, they would lock the DevNet Zone behind a more expensive pass.

Myth #3: There Are No Third Party CCIE CE Credits Because Cisco Hates Competition

This myth is currently a half truth. Yes, there are no third party CCIE CE options as of July 2017. Let’s go back to myth #1 and take a look at things. Why would Cisco open the program to the whole world and deal with all the hassle of auditing every potential source of CE credits just after launching the program? Sure, there are a lot of great providers out there. But, for every Narbik bootcamp there’s a bunch of shady stuff going on that isn’t on the up-and-up. But investigating the difference requires time and manpower, which aren’t easy to come by.

Ask yourself a simple question: Do you think Cisco will never have third party options? I can almost guarantee you the answer is no. Based on conversations I had with CCIE program people at Cisco Live this year, I would speculate that the CCIE CE program will expand in the future to encompass more training options, including third parties. I would bet the first inclusions will be certified trainers offering official courses. The next step will be auditing of classes for inclusion, like bootcamps and other semi-official classes. Expansion will be slow, but the classes that make the grade will help enhance the program.

What won’t be included? Youtube videos. Training webinars that are just cleverly disguised promotional pitches. Anything that is given without any way to track down the author and verify their knowledge level. And, as much as it pains me, I can almost guarantee that blog posts won’t count either. Cisco wants to be able to verify that you learned something and that you put in the effort. The only way to do that is through class attendance auditing and verification. Not through Youtube views or blog post counters.


Tom’s Take

For a program that’s less than a month old, there were a lot of people rushing to pass judgement on the hard work put into it. To pronounce the death of something that has endured for more than 20 years is a bit presumptuous. Is the current version of the CCIE CE program perfect? Nope. However, it’s better than the lack of a CE program we had three months ago. It’s also a work-in-progress that will only get better over time. It’s a program that Cisco is going to put significant investment into across the entire certification portfolio.

Rather than tearing down the hard work of so many people for the sake of ego stroking, let’s look at what was delivered and help the CCIE program managers build a bigger, better offering that helps us all in the long run. Cisco wants their CCIEs to succeed and go far in the networking world. And that’s no myth.

What Happened To The CCDE?

Studying for a big exam takes time and effort. I spent the better part of 3 years trying to get my CCIE with constant study and many, many attempts. And I was lucky that the CCIE Routing and Switching exam is offered 5 days a week across multiple sites in the world. But what happens when the rug gets pulled out from under your feet?

Not Appearing In This Testing Center

The Cisco Certified Design Expert (CCDE) is a very difficult exam. It takes all of the technical knowledge of the CCIE and bends it in a new direction. There are fun new twists like requirements determination, staged word problems, and whole new ways to make a practical design exam. Russ White made a monster of a thing all those years ago and the team that continues to build on the exam has set a pretty high bar for quality. So high, in fact, that gaining the coveted CCDE number with its unique styling is a huge deal for the majority of people I know that have it, even those with multiple CCIEs.

The CCDE is also only offered 3-4 times a year. The testing centers are specialized Pearson centers that can offer enhanced security. You don’t have to fly to RTP or San Jose for your exam, but you can’t exactly take it at the local community college either. It’s the kind of thing that you work toward and get ready for, not the kind of spur-of-the-moment sales test that you have to take today to certify on a new product.

So, what happens if the test gets canceled? Because that’s exactly what happened two weeks ago. All those signed up to take the May 17, 2017 edition of the exam were giving one week’s notice that the exam had been canceled. Confusion reigned everywhere. Why had Cisco done this? What was going to happen? Would it be rescheduled or would these candidates be forced to sit the August exam dates instead? What was going on? This was followed by lots of rumors and suggestions of impropriety.

According to people that should know, the February 2017 exam had a “statistically signification pass rate increase”. For those that don’t know, Cisco tracks the passing exam scores of all their tests. They have people trained in the art of building tests and setting a specific passing rate. And they keep an eye on it. When too many people start passing the exam, it’s a sign that the difficulty needs to be increased. When too few people are able to hit the mark, a decision needs to be made about reducing difficulty or examining why the pass rate is so low. Those are the kinds of decisions that are made every day when the data comes back about tests.

For larger exams like the CCDE and CCIE that have fewer test taking opportunities, the passing rate is a huge deal. If 50% of the people that take the CCIE pass, it doesn’t say very much for the “expert” status of the exam. Likewise, if only 0.5% of test takers pass the CCDE on a given attempt, it’s an indicator that the test is too hard or overly complex and less about skill demonstration and more about being “really, really tough”. The passing rate is a big deal to Cisco.

According to those reports, there was a huge spike in the passing rate for the February CCDE. Big enough to make Cisco shut down the May attempts to find out why. If you have a few percentage points variance in passing or failing rates now and then, it’s not a huge deal. But if you have a huge increase in the number of certified individuals for one of the most challenging exams ever created, you need to find out why. That’s why Cisco went into damage control mode for May and maybe even for August.

The Jenga Problem

So, if your still with me at this point, you’ve probably figured out that there’s a good possibility that someone got their hands on a copy of the CCDE exam. That’s why Cisco had to stop the most recent date in order to ensure that whatever is out in the wild isn’t going to cause issues with the exam passing rates going forward. It makes sense from a test giver perspective to plug the leak and ensure the integrity of the exam.

Yes, it does suck for the people that are taking the exam. That’s a lot of time and effort wasted. One of the things I kept hearing from people was, “Why doesn’t Cisco just change the test?” Sadly, changes to the CCDE are almost impossible at this point in the game.

Even written exams with hundreds of test bank questions are difficult to edit and refresh. I know because I’ve been involved the process for many of them in the past. Getting new things added and old things removed takes time, effort, and cooperation among many people on a team. Imagine the nightmare of trying to get that done for a test where every question is hand-crafted and consists of multiple parts. Where something that is involved in Question 2 of a scenario has an impact on Question 8.

Remember, exams like the CCIE and CCDE are infamous for word choices mattering a lot in the decision making process of the candidate. Changing any of the words is a huge deal. Now, think about having to change a question or two. Or a scenario or two out of four. Or a whole exam revision. Now, do it all in two weeks. You can see what the CCDE team was faced with and why they had to make the decision they did. Paying customers are angry, but the possibility that the integrity of a complicated exam is compromised is worth more to Cisco in the long run.


Tom’s Take

What’s going to happen? It’s difficult to say. Cisco has to find out what happened and stop it immediately. Then, they have to assess what can be done to salvage the exam as it exists today. Scenarios must be created to replace known bad versions. Evaluation of those new scenarios could take a while. And in the interim, Cisco can’t just shut down the testing and certification process. It would be the end of the CCDE and cause a huge backlash in the elite community that exists to spread the good word of Cisco throughout networking circles. Cisco isn’t acting from a position of confusion, but instead from a position of caution. The wrong step at the wrong time could be disastrous.