What it’s like to be a Cisco Subject Matter Expert:  An interview with Wouter Pins and Stephen DollingerHave you ever wondered what it would be like to become a Cisco Subject Matter Expert (SME) for the Global Certifications team?  For this post, the Certs and Labs team caught up with a few of our dedicated Subject Matter Experts to give you insight on their experiences as a SME.  Wouter Prins, CCIE #25628, has over 20 years of networking experience.  He has been working as a certification SME for over a year and has been involved in a few "rounds" of developing exam content for the CCIE Routing & Switching written exam.  CCNA/CCNP Cloud SME Stephen Dollinger has been with Cisco since 2010. He has a background in Data Center and infrastructure support. He has dedicated the last year contributing to the new Cloud certifications.


We are glad to share some key insights from our interviews with the SMEs to give you a better understanding of what it is like to serve as a SME.


How did you get started as a SME?

Wouter tells us, “I was attending Cisco Live 2014 where I met Exam Program Manager Bruno van de Werve.” To Wouter’s surprise, Bruno provided him a way to make a difference. He introduced him to the Cisco SME program, explained what it was all about and provided him with the URL to apply as a SME candidate.  After just a few weeks, Wouter’s application was approved and he was officially a SME.


Stephen explains how he was introduced to the program: “I didn’t know about the SME program until another Cisco employee informed me about their work with other SMEs for exam development.”  Once Stephen was introduced to the program a year ago, he has been contributing ever since.


Why be a Cisco SME?

There are several types of projects to which a SME can contribute. Wouter and Stephen’s roles consisted of two of those tasks: developing exam content through item writing and reviewing items developed by other SMEs.  “I’ve been a SME for one year now and enjoy being ‘on the other side’ of the exam developing exam content,” says Wouter, who candidly admits that he underestimated the time needed to write and review good test items.  He loves working on such a widely known exam that is taken worldwide by many CCIE candidates and being a part of the process that will make an impact on the exam.


Stephen’s motivation came from the other end of the spectrum. Instead of being a part of the most widely known certification, his excitement came from being a part of the latest and greatest solutions-based technology. Contributing to the Cloud certification development allowed him to be on the cusp of this emerging technology. It was an opportunity to work with peers to gain a better understanding of the technology, job roles, and depth of knowledge for the exam topics.  “I wanted to have an impact on how the current tests are being taken and pretty much change it for the better. I want to bring a better experience for the end user, and being able to write these questions is an honor” says Stephen.


What does it take to be a successful SME?

Creating a good question with the right answer and solid distractors (plausible but incorrect answers) is quite a task, says Wouter. Stephen suggests being very creative and doing research into some of the technologies and exam content domains may be mandatory. But, both Wouter and Stephen agree on some basic principles needed to create a quality item.  First, the SME must have ample experience with the technology for the exam to which they are contributing and a strong understanding of the exam topics. In addition to writing exam items, one of the most critical parts of being a SME, according to Stephen, is reviewing other SME-developed content. Most importantly, you need to decide whether the questions are technically accurate.  Beyond that, you need to step into the shoes of the candidates taking the exam and ask yourself questions like: Does the question make sense? Do the answer options make sense? Is the item too easy or too hard for this level certification? Does the item align with the blueprint? Does the item cover the topic well enough?


These are just some of the many questions SMEs must consider when reviewing each other’s written exam items. Both Wouter and Stephen admit that item writing and review is harder than it sounds, which is why we provide training to all SMEs who join our program.


Why should others become a SME?

Contributing as a SME is a great way of staying aligned with the Exam Topics for your technology track and certification level. As they evolve over time, so can you.  An additional benefit to a SME is that you can extend the deadline to renew your certification for the exam you are assisting with. Being a SME allows you to work with other highly qualified experts in your field, and you are able to build knowledge as well as professional relationships that can help you in your career growth. “Being a SME is not for everyone,” says Wouter. “You must have a thorough understanding of the technology and pull from your experience of working with that technology.” If being a SME is for you, the experience is one of the most rewarding you will have in your professional career.  If you are interested in becoming a Cisco Subject Matter Expert, please apply through the Cisco Certs and Labs SME portal for consideration.