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.

Mental Case – In a Flash(card)

You’ve probably noticed that I spend a lot of my time studying for things.  Seems like I’ve always been reading things or memorizing arcane formulae for one reason or another.  In the past, I have relied upon a large number of methods for this purpose.  However, I keep coming back to the tried-and-true flash card.  To me, it’s the most basic form of learning.  A question on the front and an answer on the back is all you need to drill a fact into your head.  As I started studying for my CCIE lab exam, this was the route that I chose to go down when I wanted to learn some of the more difficult features, like BGP supress maps or NTP peer configurations.  It was a pain to hand write all that info out on my cards.  Sometimes it didn’t all fit.  Other times, I couldn’t read my own writing.  I wondered if there was a better solution.

Cue my friend Greg Ferro and his post about a program called Mental Case.  Mental Case, from Mental Faculty, is a program designed to let you create your own flashcards.  The main program runs on a Mac computer and allows you to create libraries of flash cards.  There are a lot of good example sets when you first launch the app for things like languages.  But, as you go through some of the other examples, you can see the power that Mental Case can give you above and beyond a simple 3″x5″ flash card.  For one thing, you can use pictures in your flash cards.  This is handy if you are trying to learn about art or landmarks, for instance.  You could also use it as a quick quiz about Cisco Visio shapes or wireless antenna types.  This is a great way to study things more advanced than just simple text.

Once you dig into Mental Case, though, you can see some of the things that separate it from traditional pen-and-paper.  While it might be handy to have a few flash cards in your pocket to take out and study when you’re in line at the DMV, more often than not you tend to forget about them.  Mental Case can setup a schedule for you to study.  It will pop up and tell you that it’s time to do some work.  That’s great as a constant reminder of what you need to learn.  Another nice feature is the learning feature.  If you have ever used flash cards, you probably know that after a while, you tend to know about 80% of them cold with little effort.  However, there are about 20% that kind of float in the middle of the pack and just get skipped past without much reinforcement.  They kind of get lost in the shuffle, so to speak.  With Mental Case, those questions which you get wrong more often get shuffled to the front, where your attention span is more focused.  Mental Case learns the best ways to make you learn best.  You can also set Mental Case to shuffle or even reverse the card deck to keep you on your toes.

When you couple all of these features with the fact that there is a Mental Case IOS client as well as a desktop version, your study efficiency goes through the roof.  Now, rather than only being able to study your flash cards when you are at your desk, you can take them with you everywhere.  When you consider that most people today spend an awful lot of time staring at their iPhones and iPads, it’s nice to know that you can pull up a set of flash cards from your mobile device and go to town at a moment’s notice, like in the line at the DMV.  In fact, that’s how I got started with Mental Case.  I downloaded the IOS app and started firing out the flash cards for things like changing RIP timers and configuring SSM.  However, the main Mental Case app only runs on Mac.  At the time, I didn’t have a Mac?  How did I do it?  Well, Mental Case seems to have thought of everything.  While the IOS app works best in concert with the Mac app, you can also create flash cards on other sites, like FlashcardExchange and Quizzlet.  You can create decks and make them publicly available for everyone, or just share them among your friends.  You do have to make the deck public long enough to download to Mental Case IOS, but it can be protected again afterwards if you are studying information that shouldn’t be shared with the rest of the world.  Note, though, that the IOS version of the software is a little more basic than the one on the Mac.  It doesn’t support wacky text formatting or the ability to do multiple choice quizzes.  Also, cards that are created with more than two “sides” (Mental Case calls them facets) will only display properly in slideshow mode.  But, if you think of the IOS client as a replacement for the stack of 10,000 flash cards you might already be carrying in your backpack or pocket the limitations aren’t that severe after all.

The latest version of Mental Case now has the option to share content between Macs via iCloud.  This will allow you to keep your deck synced between your different computers.  You still have to sync the cards between your Mac and your IOS device via Wi-Fi.  You can share at shorter ranges over Bluetooth.  You can also create collection of cards known as a Study Archive and place them in a central location, like Dropbox for instance. This wasn’t a feature when I was using Mental Case full time, but I like the idea of being able to keep my cards in one place all the time.

Mental Case is running a special on their software for the next few days.  Normally, the Mac version costs $29.99.  That’s worth every penny if you spend time studying.  However, for the next few days, it’s only $9.99.  This is a steal for such a powerful study program.  The IOS app is also on sale.  Normally $4.99, it’s just $2.99.  Alone the IOS app is a great resource.  Paired with its bigger brother, this is a no-brainer.  Run out and grab these two programs and spend more time studying your facts and figures efficiently and less time creating them.  If you’d like to learn more about Mental Case from Mental Faculty, you can check out their webiste at http://www.mentalcaseapp.com.


I am a Mental Case IOS user.  I have used the demo version of the Mental Case Mac app.  Mental Case has not contacted me about this review, and no promotional consideration was given.  I’m just a really big fan of the app and wanted to tell people about it.

Study Advice – Listen To That Little Voice

During Show 109 of the Packet Pushers podcast, I had the unique honor to be involved in an episode that included the uber geek Scott Morris, distinguished Cisco Press author Wendell Odom, and the very first CCDE, Russ White.  Along with Natalie Timms, the CCIE Security program manager and Amy Arnold, we discussed a lot of various topics around the subject of certification.  One of the topics that came up about 37 minutes in was about being persistent in your studies.  Amy brought up a good point that you need to find a study habit that works for you.  I followed up with a comment that I still have a voice in the back of my head that tells me I need to study.  I promised a blog post about that, so here it is only a month late.

I took three years to get my CCIE.  Only the last year really involved intense study on a regular basis.  The previous 24 months, I spent a great deal of time and effort with my regular job.  I picked up a book from time to time and refresh my memory, but I wasn’t doing the kind of heavy duty labbing necessary to hone my CCIE skills.  After I had some conversations with my mentors about what the CCIE really meant to me, I jumped in and started doing as much studying as I could every night.  Almost all of my study time came after my kids went to bed.  Basically, from 8 p.m. until about 1 a.m. I fired up my GNS3 lab and tested various scenarios and brain teasers.  I took me a bit of time before I really settled into a routine, though.  There were lots of things that kept tugging at my attention.  The devilsh Internet, the seductive allure of my television, and the siren call of video games all competed to see which one could lure me away from the warm glow of my console screen.  I had to spend a great deal of time focusing on making a conscious decision to drop what I was doing and start working on my lab.  It’s a lot like running, in a way.  Most runners will tell you that if you can get outside and start running, the rest is easy.  It’s overcoming all the obstacles in your way that are trying to keep you from running.  You have to push past the distractions and keep moving no matter what.  Don’t let an email or a text message keep you from starting R1.  Don’t let a late-night snack run distract you from loading a troubleshooting configuration.  The real key is to get started.  Crack open those lab manuals and fire up your routers, whether they be real or virtual.  After that, the rest just falls into place.

There is a downside to all that training, though.  It’s now been 13 months since I passed my CCIE lab.  To this day, I stil have a little voice in the back of my head telling me that I need to be studying.  Every time I flip on the TV or sit down on the couch, I feel like I should have a book in my lap or have a lab diagram staring me in the face.  I’ve taken some certification tests since the lab, but I haven’t really taken a great deal of time to study something that isn’t familiar to me.  I talked about what I wanted to do at the beginning of the year, and I firmly believe now that I’m halfway through that I’ve missed some opportunities to get back on the horse, as it were.  I know that the only way to satisfy that voice that keeps telling me that I should be doing something is to feed it with chapters of study guides and time in front of the lab console again.  I don’t think it will take the same kind of time investment that the CCIE did, but who knows what it might build into in the end?  I certainly never thought I’d be taking the granddaddy of all certification tests when I first started learning about networking all those many years ago.

For those out there just starting to study for your certifications, I would echo Ethan’s advice during the podcast.  You need to make a habit out of studying.  Many people that I talk to want to study for tests, but they want to do it on someone else’s time.  They want their employer to mark off time for study or provide resources for learning.  While I’m all for this kind of idea and would love to see more employers doing things like this, there is a limit that you will eventually reach.  Your employer expects you to spend your time providing a service for them.  If you truly want to have as much study time as you want, you will have to do it outside working hours.  Your boss doesn’t care what you do from 5 p.m. on.  In the case of the CCIE, it was a whole lot easier for me to try and do mock labs on Saturday than it was to try and do them on Tuesday.  The work week doesn’t afford many uninterrupted opportunities for study.  Nights and weekends do.

Make sure you take your study habits as seriously as you do your job.  It might be easy to kid yourself into thinking that you can just pick up the book for five minutes before the next TV show comes one, but we both know that won’t work.  Unless you immerse yourself in studying, all that knowledge that you gained in those scant minutes of furious reading will evaporate when the theme song to that hit sitcom starts.  You don’t have to have total silence, though.  I find that I do some of my best studying when I have some noise in the background that forces me to pay attention to what I’m doing.  However, if you don’t apply some serious consideration to your studies, you’ll probably end up much like I did in the first couple of years of my studies – adrift and listless.  If you can knuckle down and treat it just like you would a troubleshooting task or an installation project, then you’ll do just fine.

Cisco CoLaboratory – Any Questions? Any Answers?

Cisco has recently announced the details of their CoLaboratory program for the CCNP certification.  This program is focused on those out there certified as CCNPs with a couple of years of job experience that want to help shape the future of the CCNP certification.  You get to spend eight weeks helping develop a subset of exam questions that may find their way into the question pool for the various CCNP or CCDx tests.  And you’re rewarded for all your hard work with a one-year extension to your current CCNP/CCDx certification.

I got a chance to participate in the CCNA CoLab program a couple of years ago.  I thought it would be pretty easy, right?  I mean, I’ve taken the test.  I know the content forwards and backwards.  How hard could it be to write questions for the test?  Really Hard.  Turns out that there are a lot of things that go into writing a good test question.  Things I never even thought of.  Like ensuring that the candidate doesn’t have a good chance of guessing the answer.  Or getting rid of “all of the above” as an answer choice.  Turns out that most of the time “all of the above” is the choice, it’s the most often picked answer.  Same for “none of the above”.  I spent my eight weeks not only writing good, challenging questions for aspiring network rock stars, but I got a crash course in why the Cisco tests look and read the way they do.  I found a new respect for those people that spend all their time trying to capture the essence of very dry reading material in just a few words and maybe a diagram.

I also found that I’ve become more critical of shoddy test writing.  Not just all/none of the above type stuff either.  How about questions that ask for 3 correct answers and there are only four choices?  There’s a good chance I’ll get that one right even just guessing.  Or one of my favorite questions to make fun of: “Each answer represents a part of the solution.  Choose all correct steps that apply.”  Those questions are not only easy to boil down to quick binary choices, but I hate that often there is one answer that sticks out so plainly that you know it must be the right answer.  Then there’s the old multiple choice standby: when all else fails, pick the longest answer.  I can’t tell you how much time I spent on my question submissions writing “good” bad answers.  There’s a whole methodology that I never knew anything about.  And making sure the longest answer isn’t the right one every time is a lot harder than you might think.

Tom’s Take

In the end, I loved my participation in the Cisco CoLaboratory program.  It gave me a chance to see tests from the other side of the curtain and learn how to better word questions and answers to extract the maximum amount of knowledge from candidates.  If you are at all interested in certifications, or if you’ve ever sat in a certification test and said to yourself, “This question is stupid!  I could write a better question than this.”, you should head over to the Cisco CoLaboratory page and sign up to participate.  That way you get to come up with good questions.  And hopefully better answers.

My Thoughts on IOU-For-Learning

This week, Learning@Cisco announced a new program designed to help those people out there that want a virtualized router platform upon which to study for the CCNA and CCNP.  While the idea behind an emulated IOS platform is one that has been desired for a long time, what Cisco released today isn’t quite what we’ve been clamoring for.  The new programs use the now-famous IOS on Unix (IOU) setup that has been used internally at Cisco for a while now and was made famous by Jeremy Gaddis in this post.  This is also the same platform that is used in the troubleshooting section of the CCIE Routing & Switching Lab.

The new program is completely hosted by Cisco.  All of your access to the IOU environment is done via web and SSH.  You, as the end user, have no access to the files that comprise IOU.  Since the emulator is presented as a component of a learning package, there is no opportunity to modify the topologies presented.  They are canned and align with the courseware you purchase.  This is great for people that are just starting out in the networking world that have no access to the proper gear to learn how to enable telnet sessions and address an interface.  By limiting the access you have to a topology, you get rid of some of the confusion that surrounds tools such as GNS3, namely the dearth of options that tend to confuse the first-time users.

I have a couple of problems with what Cisco’s released so far:

1.  IOU isn’t a true layer 2 emulator.  The software that comprises IOU is great at simulating IOS running on a router.  That’s because it’s essentially an IOS image that has been modified to run on a different “hardware” platform.  So long as all you are worried about is working with routers, IOU is a great resource.  However, if you really want to dive into the second layer of the OSI model, you’re going to come up short rather quickly.  Basic layer 2 configuration is fine for a CCENT/CCNA type of student, but by the time you reach the CCNP level of switching, you’re going to find the interface of IOU wholly unsuitable.  Since IOU emulates a router, it has to emulate switching as it would be on a router with an ESM switch module.  That means that anything that relies on an ASIC to function, such as QoS, is right out the window.  Which means that some of the more esoteric and hard-to-learn parts of using IOS on a switch remain off-limits.  I’ve been able to use 16-port switching modules in GNS3 to emulate switches for some of my studies, but I quickly reached the limits of this configuration with things like advanced spanning tree configuration or specialized tasks like Storm Control.  I think that Cisco needs to put a little more effort into providing an emulated environment for switching.  Finding a way to emulate the ASICs of the QoS functions would make those learning VoIP QoS on 3560/3750 switches much happier.

2.  There’s still no proof-of-concept for engineers.  As luck would have it, I have a small lab at $employer to test some of the things customers ask me about.  It’s been cobbled together with bits and pieces of cast off equipment over the years.  Where I run into trouble are those cases where the customer has a setup that I can’t quite reconstruct with the equipment I have.  What would be nice is a kind of emulation environment that allows me to reconstruct this setup quickly.  This is the perfect scenario for something like IOU.  Being able to quickly reconstruct a customer’s environment or duplicate your own environment for things like change control and internal testing would be a dynamite idea.  By utilizing a Cisco UCS cluster with the right topology files, I could have my WAN configuration duplicated and run several sample configs for maintenance window changes quickly with the capability to roll them back if something horrible breaks.  That’s where the true power of having an emulator lies for the advanced engineer.

3.  Strict control of IOU cuts out the “gray market”.  It’s no big shock that Cisco has taken the stance with the 360 Program that you’re either with us or you’re the “gray market”.  Vendors like Internetwork Expert (INE) and IPExpert have their own courseware and rack space designed to aid their students.  These racks use real routers and switches to allow students the ability to do practical studying.  However, these kinds of study aids are prohibitively expensive for a training provider to get into.  Now, imagine if you could fire up and virtual rack of routers and switches for your students at the touch of a button.  The barrier to entry becomes much lower to those companies wishing to get involved in the training market.  The possibility then exists that you could have some bad apples in the bunch that might dilute the training offered to students and put a black mark against your name.  By holding all the cards in the IOU discussion, Cisco ensures that the technology never leaves their house, so any training partners wishing to leverage the power behind the emulated IOS platform must abide by Cisco’s rules if they want to keep playing.  Cisco can then force training partners to use 360 materials or the equivalent for CCNP/CCNA/CCENT training.  That forces the non-Cisco approved partners out of the space sooner rather than later.

Tom’s Take

Cisco’s getting to the educational platform party ahead of some of the other network vendors, like HP and Juniper, but they’re doing it with baby steps.  High level engineers have been hoping for a truly unlimited emulator for testing things for quite a while now.  I think they’re still going to be waiting for a while to come.  This new learning program is leveraging IOU to replace aging programs like the Boson Network Simulator or the NetSim products.  By tailoring it toward the entry-to-mid learner, it allows them to work out the kinks in the presentation while still keeping control over the platform for the time being.  I’ve heard that they will expand this idea to encompass security offerings and one day the CCIE as well.  I think that the IOU Learning Platform will be integrated into the 360 program and will only be offered as a part of the materials that you receive from your subscription to it.  I seriously doubt that even a CCIE-level student will have unfettered access to IOU in their own lab, since the possibility of a non-crippled version of IOU being readily available creates too many complications for Cisco support.  It’s already fairly easy to get a copy of IOU if you know where to look.  Imagine what would happen if a copy from a CCIE candidate got out into the wild without fixed configurations or limitations that you face in the hosted CCNA version?  I applaud Cisco for the steps they’ve taken in the right direction for allowing students access to emulated educational software.  Now it’s time to observe what happens and meet the needs of those of us on the other end of the scale.

If you think that Cisco needs to offer a full IOS platform for educational purposes, please head over to Greg Ferro’s site and put your digital signature on the educational IOS petition.  The more signatures that are gathered, the more pressure that can be brought to bear on Cisco to show them the will of the engineer.

So? So, so-so.

By now, many of you have read my guidelines to presentations HERE and HERE.  I sit through enough presentations that I have my own opinions of how they should be done.  However, I also give presentations from time to time.  With the advent of my new Flip MinoPRO, I can now record my presentations and upload to whatever video service I choose to annoy this week.  As such, allow me to present you with the first Networking Nerd presentation:

47 minutes of me talking.  I think that’s outlawed by the Geneva Convention in some places.  So you can follow along, here’s a link to my presentation in PowerPoint format.

I don’t like looking at pictures of myself, and I don’t like hearing myself talk.  You can imagine how much fun it was for me to look at this.  I tried to give an IPv6 presentation to a group of K-12 technology directors that don’t spend  a lot of time dealing with routing and IP issues.  I wanted to give them some ideas about IPv6 and what they needed to watch out for in their networks in the coming months.  I have about a month to prepare for this, and I spent a good deal of that time practicing so my delivery was smooth.

What’s my opinion of my performance?  Well, as you can tell by the title of this post, I immediately picked up on my unconscious habit of saying “so”.  Seems I use that word to join sections of conversation.  I think if I put a little more conscious thought into things, I might be able to cut that part down a bit.  No sense putting words like “so”, “um”, and “uh” in places where they don’t belong.  They are crutches that need to be removed whenever possible.  That’s one of the reasons I like writing blog posts much more than spoken presentations: I can edit my writing if I think I’ve overused a word.  Plus, I don’t have to worry about not saying “um” while I type.

You’ll notice that I try to inject some humor into my presentation.  I feel that humor helps lighten the mood in presentations where the audience may not grasp everything all at once.  Humor has it’s place, so it’s best to leave it out of things like eulogies and announcing the starting lineup at a Yankees game.  But if you watch a lot of “serious” types of presentations, a little levity goes a long way toward making things feel a lot less formal and way more fun.

I also try to avoid standing behind a lectern or a podium when I speak.  I tend to use my hands quite a bit to illustrate points and having something sitting in front of me that blocks my range of motion tends to mess with my flow a little.  I also tend to pace and wander around a bit as I talk.  Having to be held to a physical object like a lectern would drive me nuts.  I would have preferred to have some kind of remote in my pocket that I could advance the slides with and use a laser pointer to illustrate things on the slides, but I lost mine some time ago and it has yet to turn up.  Luckily, I had someone in the room that was willing to advance my slide deck.  Otherwise, there would have been a lot of walking back and forth and out of frame.  Note to presenters, invest in a remote or two so you can keep the attention focused on you and your presentation without the distraction of walking back and forth or being forced to stay close to your laptop.

Let me know what you think, good or bad.  If you think I spaced out on my explanation of the content, corrections are always welcomed.  If you don’t like my gesticulations, I want to know.  Even tell me if you thought my Spinal Tap joke was a little too corny.  The only way I can get better as a presenter is to get feedback.  And since there were 8 people in the room, 7 of which I knew quite well, I don’t think I’m going to get any feedback forms.

The Nerd Presents: Tips for Presenting

Everyone in the world has at least one good presentation in them.  It doesn’t take much to put something down in a few slides and talk about it.  For most people, the hardest part is getting up in front of a group and actually speaking.  Once you get over that, the rest is easy.  However, in my job I get to listen to a lot of presentations.  I’ve had a lot of time to look beyond the content to things that tarnish your image when in front of customers or learners.  I won’t profess to be an expert when it comes to the art of presentation, but I think most would agree with me that looking at these tips will help out in the polishing department.

Close down Outlook and turn off your mail notifications. As professionals, we are all married to Outlook/Thunderbird/Entourage.  No matter what it seems impossible to escape it today with the ability to load it on our desktops, laptops, and mobile devices.  However, when you stand in front of me to start pitching your software or tell me about a new technology, please turn off your mail client and notification system.  Think about it like this: you don’t leave your cell phone ringer on when your presenting because of the distraction.  Why would you leave the new mail popup in the corner?  At best, it causes me to shift my focus from the content of the slide deck to whatever new message you just received.  At worst, I may be privy to inside information from your company, sales targets and customers, or in rare and somewhat ironic cases, end of life notices for the very product you are trying to sell me.  Ask yourself this question: If you were listening to me tell you about how great my Project Foobar is and I receive an email from my lead product specialist with the subject “Inability of Project Foobar to Address Basic Business Needs” would you still be interested in hearing my pitch?

Shut down instant messengers. For that portion of the crowd that thinks email is so yesterday, there is the instant messenger (IM).  People use a variety of clients, from the tried-and-true AOL instant messenger to newer things like Trillain or Pidgin or even Cisco Unified Personal Communicator.  Guess what?   Shut it down before you start talking to me.  All of the reasons above still apply to IM conversations.  In the case of IM though, people are a lot more informal.  So conversations may not start out with simple hellos.  You may get something more pointed or perhaps a greeting too salty for the taste of the group your are presenting to.  Imagine a co-worker sending you profanity laced tirade during a speaking engagement with a Catholic school.  Or something leaning toward the more delicate and personal from your spouse when you are speaking to a prospective customer.  The ability to embed pictures in IMs makes this prospect even scarier.  And before you say “I can just set myself to away” think about all the times that an “emergency” has come up and you’ve been pinged on IM even when your away.  Chalk that particular one up to most people assuming that “away” means “I’m sitting right here and I just don’t want to talk to you right now”.  Better to just shut yourself off from the IM cloud for a while and not take any chances.

Change your desktop wallpaper to something bland. I’m guilty of this one, so allow me to start casting stones.  I like wallpapers.  Generally something abstract or landscape oriented.  I do have the occasional cool picture of something fire and ice related.  But for the most part, I tend to avoid pictures of people or animals or quotes.  Especially if they could be construed as the least bit offensive.  But even my conservative taste in wallpaper can be distracting when presenting.  You say, “But no one is going to see my desktop if Powerpoint is up the whole time.”  True enough, but how many times are you only using Powerpoint?  What happens if you have to switch slide shows?  Or look at a document on your desktop?  Or switch to a web browser to load a live video?  There are a variety of reasons to jump out of Powerpoint, and if you don’t think ahead of time, you might just find yourself showing a picture of your last trip to Cancun to all of the members of your church group.  Even in the case that it’s a picture of your newborn daughter, your presentation focus will be lost as people start cooing about how cute she is, how old she is, whether or not she’s sleeping yet, whether or not you’re sleeping, ad infintium.  In my book, it’s best just to change your wallpaper to basic black and move on.

Collect all your documents related to the presentation in one folder on your desktop. Most of my presentations are loaded with technical content.  Many of them, however, don’t have the density of the documents I used to put them together.  Making my slides into eye charts won’t help my audience understand my topic any better.  But if I mention that there is a document that includes more technical depth to this particular subject, invariably someone is going to ask to see that document.  Or ask about a fact or figure from it.  That leads to me needed to go spelunking through my file system to find it.  Call me somewhat old-fashioned, but I don’t really like people staring at my file structure and folder contents.  Especially if those folders contain competitive information.  What might happen if my customer sees a document named “Juniper ASA Comparison and Debunking.pdf”?  Sure, if I’m presenting one of those products it shouldn’t really matter, right?  But what if the other product is one that the customer has never heard of?  Yeah, if you’re researching firewalls and you’ve gotten to the point of hearing a presentation about one, hopefully you know about the other.  But in my mind, just the presence of that document could derail your presentation with questions that might not be pertinent to the discussion at hand.  Better to copy all of the relevant documents that you have sourced from your presentation into a folder labeled “Presentation Documents” and put it on your desktop so you don’t spend precious minutes searching for it.  And while you’re at it, consider changing your browser’s homepage if you shell out to the Internet during presentations.  Google is a good safe bet.  Your sports book?  Not so much…

Don’t read the slides back to me. Pet. Peeve. Number. One.  Don’t read your slides back to me.  I’ve walked out of presentations that I’ve paid for the honor of attending for this gaffe.  If you are reading the slides back to me word-for-word, it tells me you’ve done no research on the topic and you have no depth on knowledge on the subject.  Marketing people are the worst when it comes to this.  They just assume that what has been printed on the slide is the definitive answer to everyone’s problems and just start reading it to me like gospel.  Guess what?  I can read too!  As you’re outlining the contents of that slide, I’ve already glanced over it and picked out the most relevant pieces of information that interest me.  If you then start at the top and read the bullet points to me, I going to guess this is all new to you too.  I treat my slide deck like I would treat a stack of 3”x5” index cards that I use for notes.  I expand on each of the bullet points in my slide deck with additional discussion topics.  That’s also one of the reasons I print my slide deck ahead of time and make it available to the people that I speak to.  That way, they can jot down the notes I speak about and reference them against the printed slides.  The way I see it, you came to see me speak, not look at my fancy multiple-build-slide transition heavy corporate approved 100-slide deck.  If you want me to read the slides back to you, it’s going to feel way too much like circle time in my son’s kindergarten class.

Many, many moons ago I was an intern at IBM in Rochester, MN.  My first-line manager decided that the other intern and I needed to get some practice giving presentations to clients/customers.  She therefore decided to make us present some Windows 2000 tips to a group of users that had recently received new Thinkpad T20s (how’s that for dating myself?).  After I had put together my slides, my mentor told me that I needed to go grab a brand new laptop from the laptop pool and use it instead of my personal machine.  What I questioned her reasoning, she told me that by using a fresh laptop out of the box, the usual cruft that come along with my personal machine would be absent.  I wouldn’t need to worry about some of the things I’ve listed above, like Outlook (in this case Lotus Notes) or my desktop wallpaper.  I could concentrate on my presentation.  And while I won’t say that her advice made my presentation into something that changed the fabric of the IT culture at IBM, it was successful because I didn’t have any technologically-enhanced blunders.

If you don’t have the opportunity to give yourself a new laptop every time you need to present, you could always have a clean virtual machine that consists of a basic OS with a PDF reader and presentation software.  That way, you don’t have to worry about getting any unnecessary things popping up inside that VM.  Just make sure to keep it updated from time to time to ensure your machine won’t pop up with a Windows Update restart prompt every 15 minutes during your slides.

Just some things to keep in mind when it’s time to jump up in front of a hostile crowd and start talking about how this information will change society or how your product is the greatest thing since sliced bread.  If you don’t have to worry about some of the more mundane things in the background of your presentation, you’ll knock their socks off with the content in your slides.  Just be sure not the mention Gartner.  That tends to get the natives restless.