Career Advice in 5 Steps


I passed the CCDE practical in November 2016 along with some of the finest engineers I know, from whom which I’ve learned a few things that I wanted to share with you. This two-part blog series is meant to be a descriptive (not prescriptive) enumeration of the different study strategies and tools you’ll have at your disposal. These strategies are not often discussed but are important in achieving the CCDE. Specifically, this first blog discusses the study strategy component.



I hold CCIE certifications in Routing & Switching (RS) and Service Provider (SP), both of which were earned before starting my CCDE journey. I feel like it is important for me to discuss these very briefly since they are used for comparative assessment later in the document. This blog will begin by summarizing my two CCIE journeys, then detailing my CCDE journey.


CCIE RS: As my first CCIE, I was not confident in my own abilities to be able to self-study and instead joined a well-known vendor’s training program. I was highly reliant on the vendor for learning and often did not explore much past what the vendor told me. I attended an on-site bootcamp, which was excellent. Aside from that, I studied in a vacuum mostly by labbing and reading a few books.


CCIE SP: I studied 100% alone for this certification. I did not use any vendor products and I only skim-read one book. Instead, I taught myself everything on the blueprint by setting up my own lab and spending several months learning by trial and error. It was not exactly the easiest or best way to learn! The blueprint was very new and no other vendors had content in early 2015, so I authored a book and published it at the end of my journey. I didn’t know a single person in the world also studying for the test, so learning in isolation seemed like the best and only option.


CCDE: Studying for the CCDE required an entirely different outlook on my study habits, because it is an entirely different test than the CCIE. These differences are well documented and are not discussed here since it would be duplicative. I am also not going to give general or frequently given tips for the same reason. I did want to offer a few pieces of advice that I believe are under-emphasized:


1. You have a lot to learn: The CCDE is very wide in scope and deep in detail. It is highly unlikely that candidates are going to have extensive experience in all areas of the blueprint. This drives the need for continuous and meaningful collaboration with your peers. Create a study group, use real-time conferencing applications, record and archive the sessions, encourage technical diversity, etc. This will be one of the best uses of your time, trust me. Control group membership access by only admitting people who are serious about pursuing the CCDE to maximize the quality and frequency of the discussions. Without our study group, I would not have passed.


2. Don’t be afraid to hit the CLI: I spent tens of hours labbing for the CCDE. Why, you ask? See #1 … because I don’t know everything. Notice I didn’t say hundreds or thousands of hours. The goal of CCDE labbing is not to master the CLI, gain speed, or practice the copy/paste method from notepad. It is to instill confidence and fill knowledge gaps. One concrete example for me was IPSec VPNs. I have deployed DMVPN/GRE + IPSec quite a bit, but very little GETVPN and legacy crypto-map technologies.  I didn’t quite understand how RRI or HA worked with crypto-maps, either. I also had no idea why IPSec AH or ESP-null would ever be useful in real life. Most importantly, I did not understand the operational use-cases for these designs, which is a huge red flag for a CCDE candidate. Some lessons are best learned by trial-and-error rather than reading them in a book or blog; be sure to commit a few hours a week to tinkering with your weakest topics so you understand their operation. Again, don’t focus on the commands or nerd-knobs; focus on the technological function and how it might solve some business problems.


3. Read what is important and skip what is not: This sounds obvious but can be difficult to execute for those accustomed to CCIE study habits. Be laser-focused in your reading lest you’ll be distracted and delayed. There are three key books I would recommend for CCDE candidates:

    • CCDE Study Guide by Marwan Al Shawi
    • Definitive MPLS Network Designs by Jim Guichard, et al
    • End to End QoS Design (second edition) by Tim Szigeti

This blog is not a book review, but I want to draw attention to the QoS book. The introductory chapters (before the CLI is exposed) are essential for CCDE candidates. Understanding the nuances of application behavior and the QoS tools used to enhance application performance on the network is critical information. The book is very heavy on Cisco-specific features, including excellent command references; this is all out of scope for CCDE. Discipline yourself by not reading it. I did not read the configuration at all, yet read the introductory chapters at least four times. The goal is to maximize your ROI. For what it is worth, I read the first two books cover-to-cover two times each.


4. Get accustomed to being wrong: This ties in with #1 again. When you are collaborating with other engineers at your skill level, you are going to be wrong often. Argue for the right reasons in a professional manner. Don’t defend losing battles because your personal pride demands it; it is destructive and is a testament of your inability to learn. Every idea that is suggested, even very strange or obviously incorrect ones, should be entertained and discussed by the team. I guarantee that you will surprise yourself by finding interesting solutions this way. A rapid and thoughtless rejection of foreign ideas will not earn you a CCDE number. One of the best ways to measure whether you are “ready” for the CCDE is to take a very uncommon way of solving a problem and find many legitimate use-cases for it. The CCDE is not a “corner case” exam but it will challenge your ability to apply unique solutions to meet business requirements, not cookie-cutter best practices.


5. Give back: Though it seems like a waste of time or something that “can wait until I pass”, I suggest you start it during your studies. By “give back” I would suggest creating scenarios/challenges for one another in the study group. This takes a lot of time and seems like it benefits them more than you. You’re right, it does. But what happens when 10 people make 10 scenarios? That means you created 1 scenario and got 9 in return. The larger and more committed the group, the better this ratio becomes. If you take the sum of all professional scenarios written by all CCDE training vendors, you’ll end up with ~15 or so, which is a relatively small number. Scenarios and other smaller challenges are great resources for study; by creating them for your study group, you are assisting everyone else. You’ll learn quite a bit for yourself in this process, too. Anecdote: every single person who created a full-length scenario for our study group is now a CCDE.


I wanted to wrap-up this section with a comparison chart (all CCDE candidates love them) that summarizes the points above. Note that any row with “hours” is an estimate. The main point of this chart is to show three completely different strategies to success; all of them work. For CCDE, I would argue that an increased level of collaboration combined with some hands-on lab testing was a major success factor. Just because I spent less total hours studying for CCDE does not mean it was easier. It comes down to having a good team and being honest with yourself about your technical shortcomings.


Lab/practical attempts221
Books read2Less than 13 + re-reads
Bootcamp/training attended (length)2 weeksNone1 week
Reliance on training vendorsHighNoneMedium
Level of collaborationLowNoneHigh
Total collaboration hours50 (bootcamp)0100
Total labbing hours80090050
Total reading hours (book, PPT, VOD)350100650
Total hours studied12001000800


This first blog of the series focused on the studying strategies to help you be successful at your CCDE practical exam, and the second part will focus on the CCDE practical exam test-taking strategies.


About the Author

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, not necessarily those of Cisco.

pic Nick Russo.jpg


Nicholas (Nick) Russo, CCDE #20160041 and CCIE #42518 (RS/SP), is a Network Consulting Engineer with Cisco. Nick served six years in the US Marine Corps, many of which were in a technical networking capacity, then went on to support the US Army as a civilian. Nick also holds a Bachelor's of Science in Computer Science, and a minor in International Relations, from the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). Nick lives in Maryland, USA with his wife, Carla, and their daughter, Olivia.


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