The CCDE (Cisco Certified Design Expert) practical exam which was set for May 11th 2017 has been cancelled. Globally. We still don’t know exactly why (and never will according to Cisco), something about irregularities. But let’s rewind a bit, shall we?
For those not familiar with the certification, it is a 9 hour computer based exam that consists of 4 different business scenarios, each with its own set of technical challenges. The test is taken at selected Pearson Vue Professional Centres around the world (in many cases requiring international travel) on 4 fixed dates every year.
My name is Cristian Sirbu and, ever since that CCNA course in high-school 15 years ago, I’ve been building my career around Cisco technology. I’ve taught Cisco Networking Academy classes, worked in enterprise, service provider, and mobile operator environments, been in support, design and implementation roles. I am also CCIE #43453 and very active both with my clients around EMEA and within the networking community, being one of the founders and organizers of the Irish Network Operators Group.
It’s the 3rd of May 2017
It’s about a week before the second scheduled CCDE practical exam date for this year. I’m outside the office at lunchtime, enjoying the amazing spring sunshine, when my phone beeps. I lazily take it out of my pocket and notice I have a new email. Subject: “Important Update – Cisco CCDE(p) Exam – Pearson VUE Customer Service”.
I quickly open it and read: “Our records indicate that you are scheduled for Cisco’s CCDE(p) event on May 11, 2017. Cisco has cancelled this event and requested we cancel your exam and refund you in full”. Luckily I am in a pretty large study group, so I immediately jump on slack and find out that, as others react to the news, this cancellation is happening on a global scale.
It takes me a while to actually read the last line in the email, which said: “If you have questions, please contact Brent Morris”. Oh, I had about a million questions by that point, but I sent a short and polite email to Brent asking what’s going on. Disclaimer: Brent has identified himself in a couple public places (see below) and all quoted information posted here is publicly available.
I won’t take you through the two days or so of anger and disappointment at the abruptness of this cancellation only a week before the culmination of a few good months of hardcore studying. I’m past that right now, so let’s look at the facts, as I’ve been thinking hard about the little information we know and also having discussed it at length with friends and peers.
In the end, the incongruous way Cisco has dealt with this cancellation is what motivated me to write this post.
For 2 full days from the automated Pearson Vue cancellation email on May 3rd we had nothing coming out of Cisco. As it happens, people like to talk, discuss, analyze. Friends, family, study group, colleagues, we went through the possible reasons of such a drastic measure.
Eventually Friday afternoon comes (May 5th) and Brent finally replies via email. He appears to have also posted a comment (!) on LinkedIn and an another on Cisco Learning Network, quoted below (emphasis mine).
My name is Brent Morris and I’m the enforcements project manager for Cisco’s Certification program.
Due to irregularities found on the delivery of the CCDE(p), Cisco needed to make the appropriate adjustments. The adjustments are required and have resulted in rescheduling the exam to August 29th 2017. The adjustments will also result in a better testing experience for the customer. We truly understand the inconvenience of this decision and Cisco did not make this decision lightly. Please understand this decision was made for the greater good of the CCDE certification and the test taking experience for the customer. Unfortunately, Cisco will not be able to provide any additional details on why this decision was made. We (Cisco) hope that our candidates respect our decision and we wish everyone good luck on their next attempt on August 29th.
This message should have been ready to send as soon as the cancellation trigger was pulled. And even if it had been sent then, it’s a great piece of legally safe writing that does not reassure me, the test-taker – the customer as Cisco rightly puts it – of anything. Both trust and confidence are shaken and a total and utter lack of transparency does not engender good will, quite the opposite in fact.
What’s even worse is that after waiting for clarity from Cisco, an email that tells us “it’s for the greater good” is all we’re getting. There’s no official statement for the larger community and no transparency about what’s actually going on with a certification that, through time and money, affects the personal lives and careers of a growing group of senior engineers/architects and trusted advisors worldwide.
A friend linked me The Ten Commandments of Damage Control – and guess what the first two are? “Full disclosure” and “Talk to your audience”. The others make for very insightful reading as well.
One of the most important skills I learned growing with the Irish Network Operators Group community from scratch, as an introvert engineer/architect no less, is the huge importance of open, clear and positive communication.
Right now, all we know is something very serious happened in order to make Cisco pull the plug at such short notice. The email talks about “irregularities found on the delivery” of the exam, but that could mean almost anything. Of course assumptions fly left and right, back channels open up, and all sorts of rumours and hypotheses are circulated. As with many other high value industry certifications (e.g. the CCIE), once they become popular enough, people will try to cheat. But we won’t know if this was the case due to the complete lack of transparency.
What we do know though, is that the CCDE practical is a certification exam that costs $1600 USD + Tax and often requires its candidates to travel internationally. With the exception of the US, Pearson Vue Professional Centres can only be found in select major cities (the whole of Europe only has 6!).
The part missing from Brent’s message above (due to it being sent only via email) is Cisco’s complete refusal to provide any compensation for the personal expenses that are lost due to the exam cancellation. Cisco seems to consider sufficient a refund of the exam fees together with the assumption that everyone will immediately rebook for the next administration of the exam.
Without any further clarity from Cisco, my question is: how do we know that the “irregularities” that caused the cancellation this time will not happen again in August or November causing further loss of time and money?
The CCDE is a relatively new certification that hasn’t yet managed to gain critical mass in the industry. It is in a period of rapid growth, helped in equal parts by Cisco’s efforts, but also by the contributions of various other engineers and architects of good standing in the industry. As for the market, sadly many network engineers (don’t even mention managers or non-technical customers) have no idea currently what the CCDE is.
The move to cancel May’s exam was clearly done to protect the value of the certification. If say 50 cheaters suddenly passed, it would badly dilute the reputation and growth of the CCDE in the industry. Given the supposed circumstances, it may have been a necessary move. How it was handled on the other hand, brings us to the next and final part of this post.
Cisco certifications are a big force in the data networking industry. But they rely upon perceived value (for hiring, RFPs etc.), confidence in the engineering capability they represent, and trust. The trust of those using them as a benchmark. The trust of those using them as a professional development goal.
At this point, the complete lack of open and transparent communication is not doing the CCDE any good whatsoever – there is no clarity beyond the fact that Cisco went into damage control mode. Communication vacuums generate a range of incorrect assumptions, uncertainty, and spurious gossip, which only damage the trust of the outside world.
The CCDE is a certification aimed at engineers/architects who have reached a point in their careers when they realize the long term impact of design and architecture across many business functions. These designers blend business and technical requirements together to create solutions that allow businesses to thrive in the modern era.
Maintaining their trust is absolutely critical for the growth and long-term survival of such a Design Expert industry certification. Preserving its intrinsic value is only one side of the coin, the other being the trust of the community in the capability of Cisco itself to maintain the integrity, quality and longevity of the exam. If faith in either side is lost, why would anyone pay to take the exam, as opposed to simply honing their skills via other vendors, through self-study, or peer networking?
The Call to Action for Cisco
- Better Communication. Details always come out, but the only proper gateway is an official source, without rumours and subjective views filling the void. Revisit the details.
- Preserve the integrity of the CCDE program. Be ruthless when chasing cheaters. Publicly name and shame ‘brain-dump’ providers. Strip certifications from offenders (both cheaters and providers) and ban them all from Cisco certifications for life.
- Compensate and motivate those affected by your cancellation. Refunds of the exam fee alone don’t cut it. Time and personal sacrifices are hard to quantify, but travel expenses are not. A simple and straightforward solution is to issue exam discount vouchers – instantly providing positive reinforcement towards scheduling the exam again.
- Maintain trust. Come clean about the “irregularities”. Provide a plan that ensures the quality of the upcoming exams will be of a high standard (e.g. using paid trusted external sources for content). Prove that you are committed to making sure this never happens again.
Design and architecture are my favourite topics in networking, therefore my on-going learning has been focused in this direction for many years now (long before I even considered taking the CCDE exam). I’ve been closely following the CCDE program and firmly believe that it is a very positive influence and provides a valuable learning path for those that want to evolve their business skills in a technical context. This article embodies my hope that the CCDE program will head in the right direction and thrive in the coming years as a result.