The Cisco Certified Architect certification. There has never been another certification that commands such reverence — and controversy. For mere mortals, the CCAr is perhaps out of reach. Luckily, in the IT career field — everyone can attain the status of network design god. You just have to study really hard and have the right experience.
The CCAr is absolutely attainable, but there’s a bigger question: Is it worth it?
In the past we’ve argued the CCIE might not even be worth it. Yet there are nearly 60,000 Cisco experts out there in the world who decided it was right to pursue Cisco certification to the max. That’s a stark contrast to the number of CCArs walking around. If the CCIE Hall of Fame can be trusted, there are only about 10 Cisco Certified Architects.
Most people stop at the CCDE for good reason. The testing requirements for CCAr are grueling and super expensive. Still, the CCAr exists. And if there’s anything we dig talking about it’s certifications, so let’s jump into the deepest of deep ends.
Why Does the CCAr Even Exist?
If you’re not completely familiar with Cisco certifications, the image below is a good primer. Rows are certification levels. Columns are the knowledge areas. The long box at the bottom is the CCENT. It’s the typical starting point for Cisco certifications. The next rows are CCNA, CCNP, and finally the CCIE. Note there’s the one box that occupies a row alone. That’s the CCAr.
The CCAr is the pinnacle of the Design knowledge area — a path devoted to designing of WAN and LAN networks. Starting out with a CCDA, you learn the concepts of network design to build scalable and fault-tolerant networks. The CCENT or CCNA is a prerequisite for the CCDA, so this path isn’t devoid of technical knowledge. But Cisco-certified designers focus on applying that knowledge to the bigger picture.
From the CCDA, the path continues up to the CCDP, then Cisco Certified Design Expert (CCDE), before maxing out with the CCAr. While CCDP and CCDE don’t have any prereqs, the CCAr does require you hold a valid CCDE first.
CCAr is the cream of the crop in the Design track, but it’s much more than technical work. Cisco describes the CCAr as focusing “on understanding the business strategy and translating it into technical infrastructure requirements.”
Engineers at this level (CCDE and CCDP as well) must work through complex networking problems and business requirements to create design solutions to satisfy both requirements. This is obviously getting into some thorny work, and the need to spotlight the best of the best in the network design world brought about the CCAr.
How to Earn the CCAr
Maybe you have big aspirations and want to push the number of CCArs higher into the double digits. That’s going to be a long road. First, like we mentioned, you must hold a valid CCDE, and that alone is asking a lot.
The CCDE is a tough exam. Like all expert-level Cisco exams, there are two parts — a written and practical exam. The written exam is two hours long, and covers L2 and L3 control planes, network virtualization, design considerations, and evolving technologies. You have to pass the written portion to take the practical exam.
In eight hours, you’re expected to work through four complex real-world scenarios, answering 25 to 35 questions for each scenario. Each scenario is 25 to 30 pages long, so that’s 100-plus pages of dense, technical material to read. You then have to answer questions addressing the requirements and problems in the material. You get two hours for each scenario, which is about five minutes per question without even reading them. It’s tough, but doable. Just like the next exam in the series.
CCDE aced? Congrats! If you were a CCIE, then that’s it. You’ve maxed out your Cisco certification pathways. As a CCDE, you still have one more level. If you want that CCAr, then submit your $3,750 nonrefundable application fee. That’s just the application fee.
Next, the actual application. You must submit your resume and “an application summarizing [your] project experience and other qualifications,” then a phone interview. If you pass all this, you’re invited to schedule your Board Exam and pay the $11,250 fee. Yup. That’s $15,000 total.
For the Board Exam, you are given a scenario and three weeks to “develop and defend a network architecture that can effectively support a given set of business requirements.” Then you fly out to the in-person exam where you defend your work before three judges. Easy, right?
Why Would Anyone Go For the CCAr?
Maybe at this point you’re thinking CCDE is enough. That’s our working premise, too, but let’s give credit where it is due. Imagine the CCAr in the context of a company’s org chart. The CEO makes the biggest high-level decisions. They’re less in the weeds. Instead, they spend their time making strategic choices that drive the company. They hand down objectives and decision-making responsibilities to the company. Few are experienced or qualified enough to operate effectively as a CEO, but you don’t need a bunch, just one.
In this scenario, the CEO is the CCAr and the managers are CCDEs (or even the CCIEs). The CCAr makes the big decisions on huge projects, possessing all the technical and leadership skills to know what’s possible, and handing down a master plan for execution.
CCArs typically move out of the technical space. A lot of them actually work at Cisco, driving projects for their biggest customers. They may not be on the terminal anymore typing commands to routers, but they are running interference with those customers, translating their needs back to the designers, and running plans through the filter of their vast technical experience to avoid problems before they can happen.
Why the CCDE is Just as Good — or Better
The reality is most of us will not achieve the CCAr in our lifetimes. It’s not that we aren’t capable. Instead, the CCAr just doesn’t make sense for most people.
The CCDE (or even CCDP) is an incredibly valuable and hard-earned certification that can lead to fantastic career advancement! Both are much more attainable, much cheaper, much less demanding, and in ways serve similar enough purposes to meet the needs of most organizations. So though we might all remain puny humans, the path towards design expert is still bright.