CCIE R&S Written Changes – Kicking it up a notch or three

For folks who are ready to begin their journey towards CCIE R&S, passing the written is frequently viewed as something to get out of the way before starting the real work of prepping for the lab. Frankly, that's reasonable when you compare the time, effort, and challenge for passing the written versus the lab. While it might take 500-1000 hours of study and work combined to pass both parts of the CCIE, I'd guess the typical candidate spends no more than 20% of that time studying for the written, and that usually happens in the first few months or so of study.

Cisco announced on May 4th this year that they're making changes to both the CCIE R&S written and lab exams. So - does anyone care yet, with the cutover being 5.5 months away? It depends on how far out you think you'll need to take the written. But I do think that the new exam will be tougher than the old one by a notch or three. It's worth a few minutes to discuss what's changed, and then I'll comment on why I think it's incrementally a tougher test as a result. So, here's what's new; my opinions will follow:

Feature parity with lab exam: First, the new written and lab cert standards are almost identical, and are identical regarding all technology topics, both in feature and in wording. Actually, the written cert standard has a few more items, but those items refer to skills assessed on the written, and do not add any particular technology topics. (More on that in a minute.) Cisco wants to get to feature parity between the written and lab, and it appears they have made it, at least on paper.

Some new small/medium sized topics: Next, you can compare the old 3.0 written blueprint go the new R&S 4.0 cert standards for written, and see a lot of small to medium changes in the breadth of topics, but nothing earth shattering. To be honest, a detailed analysis 5 months out from the new exam is probably a waste for the blog today - it may be worthwhile come October. Some highlights: VRF Lite, Performance routing, SPAN/RSPAN, BGP path attribute manipulation (yes, that last one wasn't officially there in blueprint 3.0 for the written).

Implement, implement, implement: This may seem to be a very picky observation. The style of wording in the former CCIE written blueprints lists the technology topics, but no action words (describe, implement, troubleshoot, analyze, critique, etc). The new cert standards include an action word. In particular, the word "implement" shows up a lot.

No more CCNP-level questions: Cisco says that sometimes questions better suited for the CCNP exam have ended up in the CCIE R&S written. They're making an effort to pull those out of the question database for CCIE R&S written.

Troubleshooting on the Written: The written blueprint lists Troubleshooting as a separate topic, with 5 subitems: complex routing, complex switching, application performance (aka QoS), network services, and security.

"Evaluate Proposed Changes" exclusively on the Written: The network looks like X, you need to get to Y. What to do? If you take this set of actions, what happens? How much outage? Does it work? What alternatives work better? All these questions come up in most network engineering jobs, and now it's explicitly listed as part of the written exam.

A lot of this stuff is published at http://www.cisco.com/go/ccie and at http://www.cisco.com/go/learnnetspace (The Cisco Learning Network).

Those are the biggest changes I see for the written. So, what does it all mean? Tell me what you think; here's some of my impressions.

Feature parity doesn't change the focus of the written exam. The written will still test concepts and theory, and the lab will test configuration skills, knowledge of IOS commands, and troubleshooting. But I think written will creep more towards implementation, not as an end to itself, but as a side effect.

Implement? A little:  That word "implement" being all over the written blueprint bugs me, but in reality, I think it's a subtle change - but one we should be aware of. In the old days, you could get away with having little or no config knowledge at all on some of the smaller CCIE R&S written topics. I think you'll need knowledge of the basic config commands for those topics now. The written may not test those, but I imagine more questions will include configuration as part of the question.

No more CCNP gimmes: I contend that the removal of any perceived CCNP-level questions from the CCIE R&S written exam database may cost 1-2 percentage points to the test taker. Let's say in the past your 100 question test had 5 such questions. If we assume that CCNP level questions were a gimme, and now you have 5 legit CCIE questions instead, maybe you miss 1 or 2 of those. I have no problems with Cisco removing such questions, and I have no idea if there were enough of those to even see 5 out of 100 in one exam. But I think it does mean that the easiest of questions in the question database probably go poof come Oct 18th.

"Evaluate Proposed Changes" favors those with real net eng jobs: As someone who cares about this stuff, I really like the addition of this set of topics. As someone who writes books to help people prepare, I see it as something that's difficult to study for. (We're revising the Cisco Press "CCIE Routing and Switching Exam Certification Guide" to a 4th edition, out this fall, by the way.) The "evaluate changes" topics assess your skills, not your knowledge. How well can you understand a problem statement, apply your knowledge of related topics, synthesize/integrate that knowledge with the scenario, etc etc etc. The best preparation for these topics is to do real jobs that make you do the same thing, which is really good for making CCIE more realistic. Personally, I think these types of written exam questions will be tougher for those with only book knowledge but no real experience. I do think it means the pass rate lowers ever so slightly as a result.

Troubleshooting on the written?: I think it's really already in the written, to be honest, but now it's official. Is it overkill to test troubleshooting on the written when there's now a 2 hour section of the lab on troubleshooting? At first glance, I thought yes, but after a little thought, I think it's better to include a little on the written to give a little more breadth to assessing troubleshooting. The lab will test you on one (complex) scenario, but may not assess much breadth of troubleshooting topics.  

Net: I think the new written will be harder by a few notches. But I agree that the changes are good for the cert, except maybe some pickiness on particular technology topics. And, I don't think that it requires a lot of extra study time for someone who's working in a network engineering job already. Instead, I think people will just wait to take the written until later in the study process, after building solid config and troubleshooting skills. You have to do tons of hands-on practice anyway, so I don't think the written changes will be a big hit to study time.

Agree? Disagree? Flail away!

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