On August 16th I was surprised to learn I actually passed the CCDE Practical. Holy cow! As with all Cisco E-level certs, a pass is a pass – we have no idea if I JUST made it or if I crushed it, but I felt like it would be nice to return the favor so many wonderful folks delivered and write my very own post-mortem. There is a healthy amount of imposter syndrome that creeps in any time I talk about recent events, but I hope that I can share some of what others passed along that influenced my own pursuit. After having the unexpected Pass result from the May 30th CCDE exam for a couple of weeks now, this is as good a time as any to share a little about the journey and what nuggets I found helpful.
Why the CCDE for Me?
First, know that I am a sucker for punishment – I take cert paths to force myself to make progress in my learning. Without certs, my undiagnosed Attention Deficit Disorder kicks into high gear and I will be 4,027 mouse clicks and pivots into a rat-hole before a study session is over. Certs guide and focus my efforts. Cisco certs in particular are excellent in that most abide by a blueprint – a document that in most cases does a pretty solid job of defining the scope and laying out the topics. I say most, but we’ll see in a second that the CCDE is not like most exams 😉
Second, most of my coworkers, friends, and family will tell you I have an unhealthy addiction to failing. I was a fail-fast learner before it was cool. I like to think of it as every experience having two possible outcomes: Passing and Learning. I put this in practice with 3 attempts to pass the written exam. Each showed improvement, but with each I dialed in my instincts, eliminated gaps in knowledge, and calloused myself once again to failure. What is the worst that can happen? They can’t take away your birthday – just go in there and have a good time with it. Immerse yourself in the learning!
Third, and this is a big factor – the cert really does fit the pre-sales role I do every day. That I loved the study and prep for this certification probably makes sense as I am a huge geek and actually love the role I am in. The gist of the CCDE is exactly what my day job should entail. I listen to what customers are saying (or not), ask clarifying questions, make some educated guesses, and make recommendations or assist them in marching to a more mature, scalable, secure, and resilient architecture. If that sounds like fun, or even better, you get to do this and love it every day, CCDE is made for you!
Any expert cert requires a commitment from the top, and understanding that commitment and getting stakeholders (family, management, friends, teammates) to understand and support you is key. You have probably heard that the more folks you tell that you are going to do something, the more likely you are to follow through. I lucked out – all of the folks who I needed onboard were not only permissive, but great cheerleaders for me, helping me overcome obstacles and keeping me accountable. They helped me stay committed. At a more granular level, I found accomplices – folks I knew had the same drive and passion and goal who I could work with, learn from, and set out on the path together with. Great people, but now I had a group I couldn’t dare let down. So even when I was down and out, or busy, or losing steam, I had to keep going. You can’t quit on them. This is a two-way street though. We’re not done till we are ALL done – no one is left behind.
Now as if the immediate team isn’t cool enough, the most unexpected surprise for me was how quickly and irreversibly that circle of accountability and support expands. You find out just how many awesome folks are willing to help you, even without having met! I received advice and guidance from countless mentors, advisors, and CCDE candidates and cert holders on the path, from all over the globe. Ever gotten exam pacing advice from a Scot? I have! Ever had a Venezuelan study buddy make you laugh till it hurts during a 4 AM study session? I highly recommend it. I am lucky to have found so many willing mentors or advisors, and all had valuable perspective.
Don’t forget to offer something in return! Don’t be afraid of being wrong. My Rocket.Chat connections and study pals have been de-sensitized to it, just from dealing with me. Volunteer yourself, your knowledge, your time and it is amazing how much we can accomplish when we all band together. Your cause becomes our cause! If I had known I would meet and befriend so many folks in this pursuit, I might have tried it earlier. Maybe high school would have gone a little smoother?
I know some folks came for the study tips. So, hear it goes: we all come from different backgrounds and walks of life and technical depths. Surveying so many people and honestly assessing how I measured up with them in the blueprint areas helped me see my gaps and choose the most often recommended resources to cover them. For me, I had the CCIE R&S, but Service Provider technologies were a huge gap. I also work in smaller networks in my day job, so more complex WANs, IP Multicast, and IPv6 are still rarer than unicorn’s teeth in my resume. And nobody trusts me with their data centers yet – I might try and segment them, oh no! Anyways, I had some serious work to do.
In my 40 something year, I have figured out how I learn best – I am a sprint and drift sort-of-guy. I need a chapter of reading, followed by some VoD, chased by some discussion and debate. I don’t read entire books well – I get bored or lose focus. So I worked with it. All of us can use some help there. Some I study with are reading machines and can’t stand VoD. Play to your strengths in learning and know yourself! Our group structured our study plan using a spreadsheet that offered some options for everyone’s order of battle. We tracked some useful links, reading options, but more importantly we made sure to meet or touch base whenever we could manage it. Usually we met for 2 hours a week in the Written prep, whereas towards the end we were meeting for ~10 hours per week. Talking our heads off, white-boarding like our lives depended on it. Collaboration isn’t big on the blueprint, but it is essential to your prep!
This collaboration also helped tune our comprehension and retention skills, and perfect our analytical chops. Kim Pedersen wrote some great advice on how you can better leverage others and hone your listening and analytical skills, and I think this something we can all work on. It was critical to obtaining speed in the real deal – the exam inundates you with information, so being used to that and efficiently sorting and filtering info is a huge help.
My Prep Phases:
For the Written exam, I pretty much followed the well-written guidance of Daniel Dib in his fantastic blog. Bear in mind, Emerging Technologies appear only on the written, so be sure to use the Nick Russo bible and augment any gaps with the resources provided by the Cisco Learning Network folks! The blueprint for the Written is pretty in-depth and quite expansive, just be sure to use the right one, make a spreadsheet, and track your progress, useful links, develop your plan of attack, etc. While we are on the topic, Nick’s CCIE SP guide is not only massive, but a huge help if you are the kind of candidate who likes to lab for understanding.
I made heavy use of a Safari Online membership (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED) to not only access the books below, but to have the Live Lessons on Large Scale Network Design, IP Multicast, MPLS VPN, and IPv6 on constant rotation in the car, on the plane, etc. The best part? You get to skip several months of pop music fads and your kids pickup OSPF area uses by osmosis in the morning commute!
For the Practical exam, I re-committed to 2 books: the CCDE Study Guide and Definitive MPLS Designs. To help me better contrast and compare and tune my B.S. detector, I filled in the rest of my ‘free time’ with a steady diet of the best CLUS sessions I could find, even digging a few years back to find long-lost sessions on IS-IS etc. Again, Live Lessons were a huge help, and I did a fair amount of Cisco Validated Design reading to see what the exam might try to trick me into selecting 😉 There are no Emerging Technologies that aren’t otherwise relevant to the CCDE’s own blueprint, so you have that going for you. The blueprint, by the way, is not nearly as useful as others are alone. I applied the criteria of the Practical Blueprint to everything in the Written Blueprint and that might, honestly, have been the difference. After all, in the practical, you don’t need to know all of the nerd knobs, but you better grasp how each option or approach might impact OPEX/CAPEX, scale, other technologies, etc. I practiced and debriefed regularly with a scenario or two every week, drawing from the Definitive MPLS book, INE’s CCDE scenarios, and Martin Duggan’s new scenarios on LeanPub. All of them offered value, with the Definitive MPLS scenarios being a dense but passive educational exercise while Martin Duggan’s provided a challenging serious pressure-cooker experience to make you sweat. INE’s were a little long in the tooth, but I highly recommend as many as you can get. I also used scenarios generated by folks who have gone before me – some were torture, but they all gave you some good practice at reading for comprehension and making decisions. I know others (Orhan, et. al.) have scenarios, but I never was able to review them.
As I closed in on the May date, my management helped clear the way for the Jeremy Filliben CCDE boot camp 6 weeks prior. Jeremy does a fantastic job helping you think like a CCDE. If you can bear the cost or find someone to sponsor you, I can’t recommend this step enough later in your prep. The more knowledge you bring the more fun and value you will get, as the whole process isn’t so much about teaching you from a blank slate, but rather helping you see the contrast, apply the knowledge, and identify the trade space. Register 3 months out, but plan it for the session prior to the Practical. Think of it as a great tune-up, where you work out your strategy and learn to set aside your bias and fear. It also helps to bring some friends – homework was much more valuable with study pals who can tell you when you are wrong without any hesitation. The scenarios are fantastic for humorous but impactful discussion, and his support before, during and after was top-notch.
Clear as mud, no? If you take one thing away from any of this, please be true to yourself. Learn how you learn and use it. Be honest with yourself, both in assessing those learning styles and quirks and in addressing your own weaknesses. Survey the community too! I found a wide variety of opinions and everyone offered something I used – a reading tip, a note taking hack, a study planning tweak – and I owe them all so much for their selfless assistance. The process is worth it in its own right. I really enjoyed the study group concept as well. By contrast, my CCIE pursuits were so much more of a solo adventure, whereas the CCDE was about the sparring and perspective and banter for me. Unexpectedly I came away with so much more than a plaque and number out of the ordeal. I now have a close-knit group of like-minded friends all over the world who I’ve gotten to know purely from this pursuit. At some point it stops feeling like work and more like fun.