How the New CCIE Fixes Three Problems with the Old Exam
I have no regrets about completing the CCIE. I passed the CCIE Collaboration lab in 2015, and it was worth it. It has no doubt propelled my career and made me a much better network professional. But I have always believed it fell short in three very important areas.
First, the old CCIE was technologically dense, but wasn’t a good analog for the real work of a CCIE. That’s changed. The new practical exam is now aligned with the Service Lifecycle and includes Design, Deploy, Operate and Optimize. It’s a little bit of everything required of a network engineer — design it, build it, maintain it, improve it, and supercharge it with some automation.
A full three hours is dedicated to the design module in which you will need to analyze email threads, network diagrams, and customer requirements — in order to design the environment. I doubt that anyone thought reading emails would be part of a CCIE exam, but it actually makes a lot of sense.
Second, the old recertification path siloed you further into your specialty. In its current form, the aim of the CCIE curriculum is to create individuals with extreme levels of technical competency in their chosen track. Anyone who has attempted the lab exam can recall thinking “I would never do this in real life, why is Cisco testing me on this?”
It was simply to prove that you knew how; certainly not because it made any real sense to do so. The new CCIE still takes you down the rabbit hole, and recertification is geared toward skill diversification. You can still pass another CCIE exam, but you now also have the option of obtaining a CCNP in another technology area or mixing continuing education credits with specialty exams. As someone who needs to recertify in the near future, I have a feeling that many IT pros are going to gravitate to the new options.
Third, the CCIE certification needed to change its focus from creating technical experts to creating technical leaders. Today’s CCIEs need to be able to bridge the gap between stakeholders and the IT department. They need to become an integral part of every project by ensuring that new solutions are not only technically sound, but also return measurable value to the organization. By aligning the new exam topics to the Service Lifecycle, candidates will be trained to think not only about the technical aspects of the build but also service management and business driven outcomes.
The new CCIE goes a long way to address these shortcomings. Ideally, the changes should result in a certification that is not just sought after by professional services teams and the biggest of employers. Instead it will hopefully become a certification that every organization recognizes as a must-have for the success of their organization.
The Reality of the CCIE
When I started my CCIE journey, I had two primary goals in mind:
I wanted to make sure that I would never be in a situation where I did not have the skills required to deliver. In my mind, obtaining CCIE certification was the best way of ensuring I was prepared for the job.
I wanted to make a ton of money. Completing the CCIE would set me apart from thousands of other network engineers and justify the yearly salary I was looking for.
The day finally came when I received those coveted numbers. I remember fantasizing what this would mean for my career on the flight home from Raleigh. I imagined employers rolling out the red carpet. I imagined fighting off recruiters.
I was going to be so good at my job. Projects would be done in half the time and my billable rate would be hundreds of dollars an hour. I added everyone I knew on LinkedIn and updated my email signatures so that I could show off my accomplishment. All I had to do was sit back and wait for the job offers to start rolling in.
Reality ended up being a lot different than what I envisioned on that flight. While I was able to obtain a new position and a significant raise within weeks, deployment and troubleshooting were just a small sample of the tasks at hand. My new job consisted primarily of meetings, design documents, builds of materials, and statements of work — tasks that I was ill prepared to deliver on.
My First Project as a CCIE Was a Disaster
My first project was a simple migration from an old legacy PBX to a full suite of Cisco unified communication products. The build and testing stage went well, but things started to go sideways after the migration. Customer calls were not arriving at the right department. Other call flows were failing entirely.
I was getting angry calls from my boss asking to explain what was happening and how I intended to fix it. I spent months fixing issues as new problems and unexpected requirements kept coming in. What was initially scheduled as a two month project ended up taking nearly six months to complete.
Here’s Where I Went Wrong
The PBX to UCC migration failed in the design stage, an area almost entirely out of scope in the current CCIE exams. The design stage is the foundation of the entire solution and everything that follows relies on this being done correctly.
When I look back at the design document that I provided during the project, it was focused entirely on the technical aspects of the build. At no point did I talk to the business units to ensure that what I was building aligned with their business processes.
The design document was full of codec settings, system specs, encryption settings, and other low-level configuration items. Basically, it was full of things on which I would be tested during the CCIE exam. A technical engineer on the client side signed off on a technical document — and away it went to the users.
After migration, I spent most of the following months meeting with stakeholders to understand why the system wasn’t working for them. Once I took the time to sit down and analyze how the actual users interacted with the system, it became very obvious that the problems were not a result of misconfiguration. It was a result of missing configuration. They had a new system, but they were still operating within technical limitations of the old system. Where I assumed that they would use a feature native to the new environment, they had assumed the thing they wanted to do wasn’t possible. They were taking actions that I had not accounted for.
When done correctly the design phase not only ensured that the solution met the needs of the business, it also provided a tremendous opportunity to deliver increased value by utilizing new capabilities to make existing processes more efficient.
The New CCIE Recognizes Design Isn’t Just for CCDEs
My first project illustrates the addition of the design stage, which I think is the most important change. The new practical CCIE exam recognizes the importance of a proper design and validates a candidate’s ability to take business and technical requirements, factor in limitations, and then propose a solution that yields the most value. The three-hour design module is basically a CCIE-level written exam covering all of the topics required to properly design the environment.
The second module is five hours in length and focuses on the remaining three areas of the service lifecycle: Deploy, Operate and Optimize. There is no doubt that anyone who has legitimately passed a CCIE exam is capable of deploying and troubleshooting so there wasn’t much need for change in that regard. The operate and optimize topics of the exam cover the less favored items such as health monitoring, capacity planning, high availability, and reducing costs. These topics were previously left to the design certifications but they are an essential part of a network professional’s job.
Combined, the two modules in the practical exam essentially take everything that is required of senior network professionals and cram it all into a single exam. By aligning the test with the complete service lifecycle, it truly validates one’s readiness for the job at hand.
The New CCIE Encourages You to Diversify
Prior to the announcements at Cisco Live this year I was strongly considering allowing my certification to expire. Work and family commitments prevented me from keeping up on my studies. With the deadline fast approaching, I was unsure if recertification was right for me. I felt very strongly that I needed to diversify my skills into another technology, but I wasn’t confident that I could pass a CCIE-level exam in a new track with nine months to spare. Then the new changes were announced — and suddenly a more realistic path to recertification was available.
The first change was an extension of the recertification period from two to three years. This affords us a better balance between training, work, and life outside our jobs. Additionally, we now have multiple options to recertify. As an example, someone who holds a CCIE Collaboration and is interested in the new Enterprise track can:
Write the Enterprise core exam and an extra CCNP-level specialization exam. This qualifies them for the CCIE Enterprise practical exam and earns them CCNP Enterprise.
Write the Enterprise core exam and take a 40-credit eligible continuing education course. This qualifies them for the CCIE Enterprise practical exam, but does not earn the CCNP Enterprise. Earn 120 Continuing Education Credits. Pass an Expert-Level Exam.
While there may be some debate as to which path is easiest, there is clear advantage in diversifying into another track. The amount of time and effort involved is relatively equal for all options, but the first two are making progress toward new certifications. With technology changing so rapidly, having a second area of expertise provides more value to your employer and protects you from becoming obsolete.
Open the Right Door With Your CCIE
About two years into my first job as a CCIE things started to change. Lured in by the consistency of monthly recurring revenue, my employer shifted their focus away from capital projects toward hosted services and I found myself competing with my own employer for work. With the end in sight I began looking for new opportunities. To my surprise, it would take me a long time to find a new home.
My resume got me through a lot of doors and I was generally met with a smile by hiring managers excited at the prospect of being able to hire someone with a CCIE certification. Interviews went well for the most part, but I received very few job offers, none of which met my expectations. I began to notice a trend where that smile and excitement I was initially greeted with quickly faded away as they heard my salary expectations and realized that it wasn’t going to work out.
We were often miles apart, and in some cases I was outright laughed at. I began getting used to hearing the same response over and over again. It was usually something along the lines of “I would love to hire someone with your expertise, but I don’t really need someone who can configure a network in a day, and I simply can’t afford to pay a premium for it.”
Eventually I realized that I was marketing myself the wrong way. I thought that my CCIE certification was my biggest asset. I was focusing too heavily on my ability to build and troubleshoot complex solutions; skills that were nice to have but not required for many environments. Once I shifted the discussion toward my experience working with stakeholders to solve actual business problems I found a new job rather quickly.
Ultimately, employers rarely hire someone solely for the certifications they hold. They hire someone for the skills that were acquired in the pursuit of those certifications.
By aligning the exams with our real-world job duties and encouraging the diversification of skills as part of the recertification process, Cisco is expanding the skill set offered to employers by CCIEs. It also shifts the focus away from being a purely technical certification to one that creates well-rounded network engineers. In this regard everyone is set to benefit from the new CCIE curriculum.