Cisco unveils practical CCDE exam

* CCDE exam in beta now, will be ready in October

At the beginning of this year, Cisco launched the written test for its Cisco Certified Design Expert (CCDE) program, which lets IT pros demonstrate expertise in network infrastructure design principles and fundamental concepts.

The missing piece – until now – was the practical exam. How would Cisco create a test to objectively measure network design, which some would argue is far from being an exact science?

Cisco Subnet blogger Michael Morris, who is one of the exam’s beta testers, offered a sneak peek to Network World readers on June 19, showing screen shots of the computer-based exam that’s written in Adobe Flash. Cisco then gave me a preview over the phone, acknowledging that the exam is a departure from the vendor’s typical lab-based exams, but expressing confidence in the cert's ability to assess design skills.

“Some people say design is subjective,” says David Bump, portfolio manager of Cisco Learning's design track. “But the way these questions are built, there’s only one right answer.”

The test, which is entering beta and will be ready in October, lasts eight hours and is divided into four two-hour sections, each of which uses a hypothetical business scenario and requires test-takers to answer questions based on a set of business requirements. In one scenario, a business is involved in a merger and acquisition.

The test candidate receives documentation from IT management, points of contact, a series of e-mails between the companies, compliance requirements, and other information.

The main requirement in one scenario might be 24/7 availability, and in another it could be high security.

“There is more than one way to build a network, but from a business requirements standpoint, if you look at what the business needs, there is a best way,” Bump says.

Bump says Cisco had “the best guys in the industry” create the test.

“These are guys who do this every day,” he says. “Yeah, design is subjective, but if you talk to these guys, you’ll understand there’s a right way and a wrong way to do design analysis.”

The test is mostly multiple choice, with some questions using “drag-and-drop” functionality, Morris says.

“I think generally they’ve come up with a great concept here,” Morris says. “It’s really hard to come up with a test on this.”

During the exam, “they’re going to give you requirements and documents, and you’re supposed to determine the best network technologies to use,” he says.

The candidate doesn’t actually draw a network diagram during the exam. But the questions lead the candidate from the initial request to development of a design plan.

“We’re assessing the candidate’s ability to find the right information … and then develop requirements,” Bump says. “You’ll be given reference materials and asked a series of multiple choice questions.”

While Bump says there’s only one right answer to each question, some answers are less wrong than others. If the best answer is worth the maximum number of points, the second-best answer would be worth somewhat less.

The test, which costs $700 to take, is targeted at people with seven to 10 years of experience in network design and architecture. There isn’t any coursework to prepare. Either you know it or you don’t, Bump says. The written CCDE exam which came out in January is a prerequisite for the practical exam. So far, only about 100 people worldwide would be eligible to take the practical exam, Bump says.

While Morris credits Cisco with issuing a good test, he notes that it’s extremely difficult to accurately gauge a person’s design skills in a practical setting.

“I think it’s close. It’s not great,” he says. “It’s hard to test design, which is what they’ve been running into for the last 18 months. It’s just hard to do it in a single environment via computer. Network design takes people, it takes meetings, it takes communication. It’s not something you do in a closed room with a computer.”

The success of the certification may ultimately depend on Cisco’s marketing of the test to businesses and employers, Morris says. Hiring executives need to understand the benefit the certification brings to an employee.

“If they market it appropriately and make sure the PR is done correctly, I think it can be successful,” he says. “If they don’t do that right, I think it could be a real failure.”

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