How I achieved the CCDE certification

On November 17th 2016, I was able to pass the CCDE Practical exam in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. I became certified as CCDE #20160047. Quite a few people have asked me for more information about how to prepare for and achieve the certification, so I thought I’d share my own personal experience. Please be aware that what I’m sharing is what worked specifically for me, and your mileage may vary based on your existing training, professional experience and preference of learning methods.

Also, a word of caution… before embarking on your journey to achieve the CCDE, understand that this is a huge time and energy commitment, and you will have to put your family, friends, hobbies, etc. aside to fully dedicate yourself to this program in order to be successful!

In order to become CCDE certified, a candidate must pass the two required CCDE exams:

1)     the CCDE Written Exam, which is a 2 hour qualification exam where a candidate must answer approximately 100 multiple choice questions

2)     the CCDE Practical Exam, an 8 hour practical exam which requires a candidate to go through four customer design scenarios and analyze, design, implement and optimize solutions

I would estimate I spent a total of 1000 hours studying for the CCDE exams. It took me 4 months to pass the CCDE Written Exam (it took me 2 attempts to pass this exam), and an additional 2 months to pass the CCDE Practical Exam (which I was able to pass on my first attempt). So I spent a total of 6 months to successfully pass these two exams.

Now, allow me to go through the 6 month timeline to explain how I prepared for the exam.

My Starting Point

At the beginning of my studies, I made a decision that I wanted to pursue the CCDE certification and actively started to study for a few hours every day (in the Evenings and also throughout the day during the weekends). I had the right background to pursue the certification. My existing Cisco certifications consisted of the following (including the year that I became certified):

-         CCIE Routing and Switching (2008)
-         CCDP (2007)
-         CCDA (2006)
-         CCNP Routing and Switching (2006)
-         CCNA Security (2009)
-         CCNA Routing and Switching (2003)

Also, I possessed over 10 years of network design experience – a mixture of exposure to Enterprise and Service Provider networks. In addition, I had some business skills as well, from my current role as a Systems Engineer working with Enterprise business clients in a technical pre-sales capacity. Having a basic business acumen will go a long way in your success to achieving the CCDE certification and you need to be familiar with concepts such as business objectives and constraints. 

For anyone seriously pursuing the CCDE, Cisco recommends 7+ years of experience. I would encourage you to honestly assess your experience in the field of network design. In order to pass the CCDE, you need to be intimately familiar with advanced internetworking theory and practical design principles across the Routing and Switching and Service Provider domains – as well, you should also be familiar with Security and Data Center technologies as well. Having a CCIE really helped me to pass the CCDE, especially because I was already accustomed to the lengthy, high pressure format of the practical exam.

Although it had been quite a few years since I had completed the CCDA and CCDP certifications, the training that I went through for these certifications also helped me out quite a bit during my studies.

The first 4 months

As mentioned above, I spent 4 months preparing for the CCDE Written Exam.

Let me tell you something very important – you need to focus on one goal at a time. While you are studying for the CCDE Written exam, you will also be learning about the technologies that are tested on the CCDE Practical exam; however, do not set your target on the CCDE Practical at this point. You need to focus on passing the CCDE Written exam first!

On September 13th 2016, after about 4 total months of aggressive studying, I was able to pass the CCDE Written exam. As mentioned previously, I had previously failed this exam – mainly because I wasn’t completely comfortable with all of the exam topics, and also because I did not have a good exam strategy. I passed on my second attempt. This time around, I felt very comfortable with the technologies that I was tested on. I also had a much better test taking strategy, which was to really pay a lot more attention to each question and to each possible answer presented to me. I also was able to accurately manage my time, and finished with only a few minutes left on the timer.

Having passed the CCDE Written qualification exam, I was now eligible to attempt the CCDE Practical exam. The CCDE Practical exam is only administered quarterly, and the next testing cycle was to take place on November 17th 2016. As soon as I got home from having passed the CCDE Written, I immediately booked my seat at the testing center (a Pearson Professional Center, or "PPC") in Ottawa.

How did I prepare myself to pass the CCDE Written Exam? Over a period of 4 months, and a total of 700 hours, I read books, watched Cisco Live videos, read CVDs and I also familiarized myself intimately with my own company’s product offerings, many which are tested on within the CCDE exams. Note that I currently work for a Service Provider.

The following is my reading list. Yes, I did a LOT of reading. I read some of these books multiple times. You don’t have to read every book from cover to cover – if you’re already really familiar with something, skip it. If you’re starting to get into the nitty gritty, for example you’re reading about packet header formats, skip it. Any configuration output, skip it.

Before going into my reading list, there’s something else that I really want to highlight. By reading all of these technical books, you will better yourself at reading comprehension in general. This is a critical skill to master before attempting the CCDE Practical Exam, so keep that in mind as you spend your time reading these books. I know some candidates that prefer to learn by watching videos, which is also an excellent study method, but do not neglect the books! During the CCDE Practical Exam, you only have a finite amount of time to chew through large quantities of text – you need to be able to decide what is important, what can be ignored, and you also have to understand that information without having to re-read it multiple times. All of this to say – don’t take shortcuts, and spend a lot of time reading the books!

My reading list, in no particular order

Evolving Technologies Study Guide by Nicholas Russo
CCDE Quick Reference Guide
Optimal Routing Design
Definitive MPLS Network Designs
MPLS Fundamentals
CCDP Designing Cisco Network Service Architectures (ARCH)
CCIE Routing and Switching Exam Certification Guide
Routing TCP/IP Volume 1 and 2
Layer 2 VPN Architectures
Selecting MPLS VPN Services
MPLS-Enabled Applications
Top Down Network Design
Building Resilient IP Networks
CCDE Study Guide
The Art of Network Architecture
CCDA Exam Certification Guide
BGP Design and Implementation
End to End QoS Network Design
Advanced MPLS Design and Implementation

Cisco Live Videos

I watched over 60 Cisco Live videos in total. I watched some of them more than once. My technique was to use a plug-in for Google Chrome which allows you to download the Cisco Live videos, and them play them at 1.4x speed on my laptop – this saved me an immense amount of time. Although I won't provide my list of Cisco Live videos, I watched anything related to technology design.

Cisco Validated Designs

I didn’t spend a whole lot of time reading through the CVDs. I would say I spent about 20 hours in total on CVDs. I honestly skimmed through a few of them, and focused on design-specific details within the documents. I made it a point to skip everything related to command line interface configuration.

Lab Time

In order to prepare for the CCDE Written and Practical Exams, I did not do ANY lab time. Yes, you read that right – 0 time spent doing hands-on configuration and testing. I do know some people who found it useful to lab up certain technologies during their CCDE studies, but for me this was not necessary.

Note Taking

During my studies, I took a lot of notes. In total, I took over 100 pages of typed notes in Microsoft Word. Taking notes helps me to learn and retain information. I also read through all of my notes on the day of the exam to refresh my knowledge. I definitely recommend that you also take a lot of notes during your studies.

Months 5 and 6

After clearing the CCDE Written Exam, I had 2 months to prepare for the CCDE Practical Exam. At this point I joined a global study group, and met a group of brilliant CCDE candidates. The study group was a huge contributor to my success and I would recommend it to you if you’re serious about passing the CCDE Practical Exam. If nothing else, find a study buddy to bounce ideas off of. I think it’s very hard, if not impossible, to pass this exam on your own. Team up, collaborate with others and they will help you fill your knowledge gaps and identify your weaknesses.

I spent quite a bit of time going through the Definitive MPLS Network Design book, dissecting the customer case studies. I actually took down 40 pages of notes going through this book. In my opinion this is the most important book to really familiarize yourself with during your studies. Understand the four customer case studies within the book and why certain design choices were made. I read this book from cover to cover twice during the 2 final months leading up to the CCDE Practical Exam.

I also re-read some of the books in my previously mentioned reading list above and spent more time watching Cisco Live videos. My focus was still nearly 100% on technology. I wanted to make sure that I understood the technologies very well before going into the CCDE Practical Exam.

I did purchase the Internetwork Expert (INE) CCDE Self-Paced bookcamp and went through their 4 scenarios and watched the videos twice. INE is the only training vendor’s material that I used so I cannot comment on the material from some of the other vendors on the market.

Through my company’s internal training portal, I was able to access a self-paced online course on IPv6 from a training company called Nephos6. I spent a total of 4 days going through this training, and I also took over 20 pages of notes; this was very useful for me as I knew that I was quite weak on IPv6 before starting this training course. After the course, I was a lot more comfortable with IPv6 including the transition and translation design techniques. If you can access the Nephos6 material, I highly recommend it to enhance your skillset around IPv6.

There are some videos that I watched, by Marwan Al-Shawi and Andre Laurent, called “Practical Network Design Fundamentals - CCDP Webinars”. I would recommend these videos to you (Marwan and Andre are also CCDEs and really know how to present network design topics).

Lastly, on the Cisco Learning Network, there is a blog section called Unleashing CCDE which contains numerous posts related to the CCDE program. Some of these posts are network design challenges, which are excellent – these design challenges allowed me to gauge my capabilities and find focus areas. The challenges also help you to understand how to properly business requirements and constraints. I read all of the posts (40+) on this blog and I advise you to do the same.

So up until the week before the exam, I readread and read some more. I focused on design principles, and “how” certain technologies worked.

The week before the exam

One week before the exam, one of the world’s CCDE trainers, Orhan Ergun, released a book called “CCDE In-Depth”. I purchased this book and read it from start to finish during the time leading up to the CCDE Practical Exam. Although I was already very familiar with a lot of the content in the book, it filled some knowledge gaps for me and I would definitely recommend this book during your CCDE studies to complement your study regime. This book allowed me to review nearly all of the exam topics over a 4 day period leading up to the exam.

After finishing Orhan’s book, I re-read all of my notes. As mentioned throughout this post, I took a ton of notes, so reading through my notes took me 2 full days.

The day before the exam

On the day before the exam, I spent 4 hours in the morning going through some very high level details and comparison charts. I made a rule that I would stop all studying by Noon, to allow myself to mentally unwind as much as possible before the exam. I did take some time off – the day before the exam, and the exam day itself - so on the day before the exam, I relaxed, went out for lunch with my wife, and did everything I could to take my mind off of the CCDE. The night before the exam, I followed the recommendation of my study group and drank a large, strong beer to help me sleep as much as possible. Unfortunately, I only slept about 3 hours that night, as my mind was too busy thinking about the following exam day than to sleep. I wasn’t too concerned about this though, as that was 3 more hours than I slept before successfully passing the CCIE Routing and Switching practical exam back in 2008.

Exam day

The big day. I was lucky enough to locate a testing center (PPC) in my city, so I didn’t have to travel at all in order to sit for the CCDE Practical Exam. I woke up very early and took a shower to wake myself up. For breakfast I ate some cereal, an egg and had some fruit. I also brought a banana with me to eat right before the exam, and packed some protein bars with me. I also packed a light healthy lunch consisting of a sandwich, yogurt, and more fruit.

I had a very clear and concise exam strategy, and I was mentally prepared for the entire day, from the time I woke up, to the drive over to the PPC, to the exam itself, lunch time, washroom breaks, etc. This is one of the most important contributing factors to passing this exam – you need to be completely mentally prepared for the day of the exam, you want to allow yourself to focus 100% of your energy on the exam itself. A good strategy can make a difference in your score and due to the very high level of difficulty with the CCDE Practical Exam, a good strategy can even push your score into the passing range. Make sure to have a planned exam strategy for the entire day from the time you wake up, to the time that you finish the exam itself.

Although I can’t discuss the specifics of the exam itself as I did sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA), I will mention that I used up almost all of my allocated time during the morning and afternoon exam sessions. During the morning, I went to the washroom once, and I also went to the washroom once during the afternoon. Plan your washroom breaks carefully, as time is critical during this one! Also, it’s important to have a good awareness of your mental state during the exam. If you start to panic, or if you get nervous, recognize that it is happening, and try to deal with it. For me, I work better under pressure, and I use that nervousness to keep me completely energized throughout this marathon of an exam. I did drink a small coffee in the morning before the exam, but I didn’t drink any coffee at all in the afternoon.

Also, I mentioned above that I brought my own lunch during the exam day. I ate my lunch in my car, listened to some music, and tried to unwind. It’s important to do everything possible to disengage yourself from the morning exam session so that you can go into the afternoon exam session with a fresh mind. This strategy worked for me, but again, I had a very strict and planned exam strategy in place. I used up the entire hour allocated to me during the lunchtime break.

After completing the 4th and final customer design scenario, I finished the exam with little time to spare. I was given an exam result immediately. As soon as I read the words “Pass” on the screen, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I stayed in my seat for a few minutes to acknowledge the result and double and triple check that my teary eyes weren’t deceiving me and that I had in fact passed.

I finished the Cisco post-exam survey, checked out of the PPC, and the rest... is history!

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