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My CCDE Journey – Part 2

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Welcome to part 2 of this 3-part series about my CCDE journey. This post reveals the study materials I used, my study habits and the timeline. I have sprinkled in a little bit of advice as well.

Part 1 provided you with information about the program.
Part 3 talks about exam day and my strategies for the exam itself.

Challenge Accepted

If you are still reading, there is a good chance that you have already made up your mind to prove that you are an expert network designer. CONGRATULATIONS! Before we dig into the study material, let us talk about planning. The journey to CCDE is not for the faint of heart. Although it does not require near the level of planning that Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps required, it would be foolish not to plan at all.

Every good plan requires a budget, a timeline, and, depending on your personal and professional situation, support. There are a few conversations you should think about having with various people in your life before you start your journey. These conversations will gather important information for the creation of both financial and time budgets, and also gauge the level of support you will be offered and let you communicate the support you can return.

One of the conversations should be with your employer. Will they help you financially with study material and perhaps some lab gear? Do you have access to a corporate training budget, or will you need to fund some or all of this yourself? Will they help you with time? Is the use of company time for study acceptable, or will you need to pursue this on your time only? Can some of your deliverables at work be re-assigned to other resources? Can some deadlines be extended?

Additional conversations should be with your friends and loved ones. For example, if you are married with children, does your spouse support you, and are they prepared to take on some of your family and household responsibilities? Decide which functions and activities you are prepared to give up and those you simply cannot miss during this endeavour? Create a reasonable schedule that allows you to focus on your studies while remaining connected to family and friends.

The information you gain and the decisions made during these conversations are some of the most essential ingredients for your plan.

Study Material

Deciding what study material to use for a design certification can be a little subjective. After all, there is usually more than one correct network design that meets all business and technical requirements, so why shouldn’t there be a multitude of study resources that cover various design options?

Get familiar with the CCDE blueprint and the learning matrix. Perform an honest self-assessment of your knowledge. Choose study material that will enhance your weak areas while reinforcing your areas of strength.

Books

Here is the list of books I studied for CCDE. I have read several of these books more than once during my career.

  • Evolving Technologies Study Guide
    • Nicholas J. Russo
  • CCDE Quick Reference
    • Mosaddaq Turabi and Russ White
  • Optimal Routing Design
    • Russ White, Don Slice and Alvaro Retana
  • The Art of Network Architecture: Business-Driven Design
    • Russ White and Denise Donohue
  • Routing TCP/IP, Volume II: CCIE Professional Development, Second Edition
    • Jeff Doyle
  • MPLS Fundamentals
    • Luc De Ghein
  • BGP Design and Implementation
    • Randy Zhang and Micah Bartell
  • IPv6 Fundamentals: A Straightforward Approach to Understanding IPv6, 2nd Edition
    • Rick Graziani
  • OSPF and IS-IS: Choosing an IGP for Large-Scale Networks
    • Jeff Doyle
  • End-to-End QoS Network Design: Quality of Service for Rich-Media & Cloud Networks, Second Edition
    • Tim Szigeti, Christina Hattingh, Robert Barton and Kenneth Briley Jr.
    • Shameless self-plug: Rob Barton mentioned me in the “Dedications” section
  • Foundation Learning Guide: Designing Cisco Network Service Architectures (ARCH)
    • John Tiso
  • Definitive MPLS Network Designs
    • Jim Guichard, François Le Faucheur and Jean-Philippe Vasseur
  • CCDE Study Guide
    • Marwan Al-shawi
  • Top-Down Network Design, Third Edition
    • Priscilla Oppenheimer
  • CCDE In Depth
    • Orhan Ergun

I converted everything I read to 100% digital a few years ago and have realized these benefits:

  • Ability to study anywhere, any time.
  • Ability to use the most convenient device for the situation — phone, tablet, computer.
  • Ability to switch between resources quickly without having to carry a stack of books.
  • Access to the latest updates for each resource.

With the exceptions of “Evolving Technologies Study Guide” and “CCDE In Depth,” I was able to access the entire reading list from O’Reilly using my Association for Computing Machinery membership.

Bootcamps

I attended two training courses, and both were excellent. The value in any training course is being able to focus on the subject while having direct access to the great mind teaching that subject. Another benefit is the ability to interact with classmates and engage in design and technology conversations. All of this helps with getting into a design mindset.

Videos

The CCDE learning matrix contains a list of recommended videos from the CiscoLive on-demand library. I watched all of them, some more than once. I expanded the list and found benefit from watching any CiscoLive video that contained elements of design. The following is a list of videos I watched on O’Reilly.

  • An Introduction to Software Defined Networking (SDN) LiveLessons—Networking Talks
    • Terry Slattery
  • Intermediate System to Intermediate System (IS-IS) Routing Protocol LiveLessons
    • Russ White
  • IPv6 Fundamentals LiveLessons
    • Rick Graziani

The Community

I found the greater network community to be a treasure trove of design information. From blogs to YouTube channels and podcasts, there are many resources available to learn any technology, and, more importantly, how to design with that technology.

  • https://lostintransit.se/category/ccde/
    • Daniel Dib blogged about his entire CCDE journey.
  • ipSpace
    • Ivan Pepelnjak is dedicated to equipping network engineers with the tools and knowledge to create sound network designs.
  • NANOG
    • The database of session recordings contains many topics relevant to CCDE and overall design.
  • Network Collective
    • Jordan Martin and friends
    • The History of Networking series goes into great detail about how and why design decisions were made for many technologies that were either formerly or are currently in use.
  • Packet Pushers
    • Ethan Banks, Greg Ferro, and Drew Conry-Murray
    • Any material that covers design and design decisions is helpful.
  • Rule 11
    • Russ White, the father of the CCDE
    • You don’t need to think like Russ to be successful at network design, but it helps.
    • New episodes of the History of Networking series are hosted here.

The CCDE is about analyzing requirements and constraints. After that, it is about developing, implementing, validating, and optimizing network designs. You need to have a design mindset as opposed to a configuration mindset to pass this exam. Exposing your brain to network design of any kind only helps to create the correct state of mind.

Practice Scenarios

As the CCDE practical exam is scenario-based, it only makes sense to practise with as many scenarios as you can. However, that is easier said than done, as there are not very many adequate scenarios out there. One reason for this is the time, effort, and attention to detail involved to create them. Another problem is that if you need more than one attempt to pass the CCDE, practising the same scenarios multiple times has diminishing returns.

I drilled myself with scenarios from Martin Duggan, Orhan Ergun, Jeremy Filliben, and Nick Russo.

Solid Footing

Every old idea will be proposed again with a different name and a different presentation, regardless of whether it works.

Ross Callon

Some of the most important advice I can offer to you is to learn the fundamentals. Learning how and why the technologies work has way more benefit than memorizing a litany of configuration commands or protocol settings.

One way to do this is to let RFC1925 rule 11 be your friend. There exist many protocols and technologies created to solve the same problem. If you understand the fundamental problem being solved, you are well on your way to understanding the foundation of a proposed solution.

One example of this is with routing protocols. You could try to memorize every nuance of the well known interior gateway protocols (i.e., RIP, EIGRP, IS-IS, and OSPF) and then try to decide where best to use each one when designing a network. A better method is to understand why an IGP is needed in the first place. What problem is being solved? Once that is understood, the next question to ask is, how do link-state and distance-vector protocols approach this problem? For link-state protocols, the final question is, how do OSPF and IS-IS differ in their approach. Similarly, for distance-vector protocols, how do RIP and EIGRP differ in their approach. Given the requirements and constraints (i.e., the details of the problem), which protocol should you choose?

Learning the fundamentals also helps when comparing totally different technologies that can be used to solve the same problem. An example of what I mean here is when trying to connect islands of IPv6 networks with an ocean of IPv4 networks between them or vice versa. Various NAT and tunnelling methods should immediately come to mind. Knowing the fundamentals of NAT and tunnelling, and then drilling down into the different types will be much more efficient than memorizing the nuances for every kind of NAT and every type of tunnelling technology. Combining this knowledge with the original problem details is a recipe for success.

Understanding the fundamentals of a technology combined with understanding what problem you are trying to solve leads to way less resource utilization in your brain. Less memory is used to retain random facts and network party trivia. Fewer brain cycles are used for recalling that trivia so they can be directed to creating a solution.

This segment of the post is brought to you by channelling my inner Ivan Pepelnjak and inner Russ White.

Study Group

I have been collecting technical certifications of all kinds since the start of my career. Without exception, studying for these certifications has been a series of solo efforts. I believe the predominant factor for this is that there is no subjectivity to any of the previous exams I encountered. One could simply regurgitate enough facts or configuration commands to get a passing score on exam day. I am not suggesting that this makes those exams any easier. The CCIE remains a challenging and laudable achievement. What I am suggesting is that the subjectivity of the design world should be considered when crafting your study plan.

I joined an online study-group in 2018, and it contributed immensely to my success. Everything in network design is subjective, especially when you throw business requirements and constraints into the fray. Leaving the requirements and constraints open to interpretation is a catalyst for hours of design-centric discussion and debate in a group setting.

Our group met two times per week for a minimum of 2 hours each. Technology Tuesdays were used to cover a specific technology. We would take turns presenting and teaching each other about technologies identified in the blueprint. Someone would create a slide-deck of MPLS one week. Someone else would cover IPv6 transition technologies another week. Nothing makes you learn a technology more urgently than having to teach it.

Scenario Saturdays were used to cover design scenarios. These included scenarios that we each purchased as well as those we created ourselves. Because there are not many practice scenarios on the market, we would create our own miniature scenarios. While sometimes these were made up, most often we would discuss real-life experiences that someone in the group was either working on at the time or had worked on in the past. Because the actual requirements and constraints were available, we had ample fodder for discussing how the various technology and configuration options could be combined to create the best solution. We had some long, productive discussions.

We also had access to a Webex Teams room for asynchronous communication. It was used to clarify points, quiz each other, stay in touch, and to reach out when it most suited us. We developed a brotherhood that provided support, coaching, and accountability. We didn’t want to let each other down. Like all brothers, we managed to have some fun at each other’s expense too.

Do yourself a favour and join a study group.

Study Methods

Being a member of a study group had a multiplier effect on my knowledge. I can honestly say that I got more out of it than I put in. I also feel confident in saying that every member of the group feels this way. I was a member of a 7-person group. Every time someone contributed knowledge or experience, seven people benefited. The contributor probably realized the most benefit as they had their thought process challenged through probing questions and potentially new technical information. Because of overlapping technical knowledge in the group, the multiplier effect was not seven times, but it was still very significant. There was much less overlap in design and career experience, so this brought the effect to almost seven times.

Before joining a study group, you need to make sure you are in a position to be a contributor. I used several solo study techniques to make sure I would be able to pull my weight and help others when they needed it.

Handwritten notes: I have a stack of notebooks filled with point-form text and hand-drawn diagrams from all study materials. Creating them was laborious, but I find that I can recall information more readily and for a more extended time than when using typed notes, or simply highlighting passages of text. To save time, I only created notes for information that was new to me.

Flashcards: I didn’t start using flashcards until late in my studies, but I’m glad I did. These were most effective for committing definitions, acronyms, and other simple concepts to memory.

Mind maps: I had never used mind maps for anything until I started studying for CCDE, and now I use them for everything. Even this blog post started as a mind map. The maps I created were used to describe broader concepts like MPLS or Multicast. Here is the mind map I created for IPv6 transition technologies.

Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.

Albert Einstein

There is knowing the technology, and then there is knowing where that technology applies and does not apply given a set of requirements and constraints. When learning something new, ask yourself a few questions:

  • Where can that solution be implemented?
  • How will it interact with other solutions and technologies already deployed?
  • What problem(s) can this technology solve?
  • What additional challenge(s) can it create?

Rather than ingesting information like a dog eats its food, think your way through the study material.

Timeline & Effort

My CCDE journey officially kicked off in the spring of 2017 when I started studying for the written. After passing in November of that year, I immediately started studying for the practical. 

I failed my first attempt in September 2018. I did not have all the technical knowledge I needed, as I was only half-way through my reading list. My intentionally slow method of learning, creating handwritten study notes, caused me to run out of time. I knew I was running out of time, but I did not re-schedule as I wanted the experience of attempting the exam. I was not surprised or disappointed that I failed. It was the expected result.

After taking a month off from studying, I got back on the horse and passed my second attempt in February 2019. I managed to work my way through all the material by this time, so I would have been disappointed had I failed.

My final month of preparation consisted of practice scenarios, quizzing from the study group, and light technology review. The technology review consisted of going through the notes, flashcards and mind maps I created along the way.

Although not nearly as epic as the travels of Odysseus, I estimate my odyssey to be about 1,200 hours of study time. The vast majority of which, probably at least 80%, was spent on the practical.

Final Thoughts

I have just shared the study regimen that helped me realize my goal of attaining CCDE. Your level of knowledge, type of experience, preferred learning methods, and the amount of time you can commit probably means you will need to create and customize your study plan differently than mine. I hope that reading this post presents you with a shortcut for that purpose.

Feel free to reach out if you have comments or questions, or just need to chat further about your journey.

Now get started on your plan! The sooner you start, the sooner you will become a Cisco Certified Design Expert.


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Published inCertificationDesign

3 Comments

  1. Rao Rao

    Congrats on your CCDE. Well written and useful. Thank you.
    What is the best way to validate yourself that you are ready for this test?

    • You’re welcome. I’m glad you like it and find it useful.
      You can validate yourself against the information provided on the CCDE website. You’ll find exam topics and learning matrices that list everything you should know.

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