Constructing your CCDE Practical Exam Strategy Part 2 with Nick Russo

This blog is the second of a two-part series focused on preparing candidates for success in achieving the CCDE. Mastering the tools available to you can be a “force multiplier” on exam day. There are three primary tools available to you during the practical exam: on-screen highlighting, built-in notepad, and a physical dry-erase board. I will discuss each of these in detail. All candidates have access to each tool for all four scenarios.


Highlighting: Similar to Microsoft Word or Adobe Reader applications, candidates are able to highlight keywords in documents and in questions. The highlights are persistent throughout the scenario, which makes it a good tool for quick-reference. The tradeoff is that you need to allocate about one minute to learn how to use the highlighter. It is not difficult, but you do need to understand how it works. There are many strategies around using the highlighting feature, and I personally know CCDEs that have passed using each of them:


1. Don’t use it at all: A valid strategy for people who simply cannot be bothered with it. This is a good option for individuals that have excellent short-term memory and reading retention skills. It is also valid for those with physical handicaps of their wrists or those who are simply slow at operating a computer mouse. You may decide to use the dry-erase board or built-in notepad instead.


2. Bookmark only: This minimalist approach only highlights keywords in a scenario and makes no attempt to identify key thoughts or messages of substance. Examples of bookmarks might be “subsecond”, “VOIP”, and “low OPEX”. Individually, these words mean little, so the bookmark serves as a reference only. You can skim for “VOIP” then re-read the entire VOIP section to find the relevant VOIP details. It is fast to execute since very little is highlighted, but slower to reference since you need to read more un-highlighted text to find the relevant information.


3. Key Information: This balanced approach focuses on key words and informational statements. Words can be highlighted so that they form semi-complete sentences when merged. Here is an example:

“Company ABC is deploying VOIP to all branch sites. The call management software is hosted in the public cloud and is accessible via the Internet edge block. They require very fast, subsecond convergence for VOIP bearer flows between branch offices.”


If you read only the highlighted words: “VOIP to all branch. Call management via the Internet edge. Require subsecond convergence.” This reads like a reasonably well-written paragraph and allows you to quickly capture the “story”, unlike the bookmark method. The tradeoff is that it takes longer to highlight more text, and skimming a document with too much highlighting can be detrimental.


4. Detailed multi-color: This method uses the balanced method plus introduces multiple colors. The practical GUI provides several colors (I forgot the number, but its plenty) for candidates to utilize. Different colors can mean whatever you like; a common strategy is to assign them as follows:

    • Yellow: Business requirement
    • Green: Technical constraint
    • Red: Design failure
    • Blue: Unclassifiable but important

The benefit of this approach is that your scenarios will be very easy to navigate. Answering specific questions, such as “What are the business problems for company ABC?” becomes trivial since you only need to scan for yellow highlights. The drawback is two-fold: this approach obviously takes a long time to do since you are being very explicit with your highlighting. Furthermore, you have to “make a decision” every time you highlight. The other methods are a binary “yes/no” decision on whether to highlight or not. This method requires a 5-way decision, for example, which can be mentally taxing. You already have to make hundreds of decisions on that day; why add hundreds more? This DOES for work many people, though, so be sure to try it.


The chart below compares these different strategies.

ConsiderationNo HighlightsBookmarkKey InformationMulti-color
Time requiredNoneLowMediumHigh
Decisions requiredNone2 (yes/no)2 (yes/no)1 (no) + # of colors used
Completeness of thoughtNoneLowCompleteComplete
Ability to reference informationNoneFast lookup, slow to readFast lookup, fast to readFastest lookup, fast to read



Notepad: In my experience, this is the least commonly used tool of the three, but some people have used it with success. The tool is similar to Windows notepad where you can type plain text into a document. Like the highlights, there are persistent across the whole scenario. For those that type faster than they hand-write, this might be a good choice for note taking as opposed to the dry-erase board. It can also be used in lieu of (or in addition to) the highlighting tool as a way to capture requirements and constraints. Note that standard functions like copy/paste from scenario text into the notepad is not supported, so consider it a “manual copy” tool, much like the dry-erase board. The chart below shows the major sections of the blueprint and lists some suggestions for utilizing the built-in notepad for those interested.


Design LifecycleNotepad Use Cases
  • Capture requirements, constraints, drivers, failures, key points
  • Determine additional information you need/want before being asked
  • Record stream of consciousness for design plans and solution ideas
  • Suggest alternative solutions before being asked (backup planning)
  • Use as scratch-pad for arranging migration plan steps
  • Identify gaps in technology insertion plans and how to correct them
  • Use as scratch-pad for listing why you choose a given solution
  • Justify alternative solutions before being asked (backup justification)



Dry-erase board: If you would like a clean dry-erase board after scenarios 1 and 3, you can either clean it yourself (if tissues are provided) or ask the proctor for a new one. There are two main schools of thought:

1. Strategic: Prepare the dry-erase board for some specific purposes or small set of purposes. Some candidates have used it to build a table with multiple columns to utilize as an index: business requirements + document number, technical requirements + document number, etc. This is similar in concept to the “bookmark” method of highlighting except uses the dry-erase board and uses text, not colors. When you see a question that requires detailed analysis, you can quickly reference the documents based on your index. This might be faster than highlighting, depending on the person.


2. Tactical: Leave the whiteboard blank and use it for whatever you think is important. This could be for diagramming a “quick fix” to a design failure problem, detailing an implementation or migration plan, quick note taking, or anything else. Using the dry-erase board for quick diagrams is useful because the other tools have no graphical capabilities, only text. This is also a good technique for first-time testers; you don’t know where you will struggle and you don’t know what the exam looks/feels like, so leaving the dry-erase board as your backup plan for unexpected circumstances can be useful.



The final part of this blog details my personal strategy. I will make selections on how to use each tool and justify my decisions.

1. Highlighting: I chose a combination of the “bookmark” and the “key information” methods. For documents that were extremely long or scenarios in which I was tight on time, I used the “bookmark” method. For shorter documents or documents with interesting verbiage, I used the “key information” method. This hybrid approach granted me flexibility and allowed me to adapt to the scenarios. I only used one color as this reduced the number of decisions I had to make. I experimented with multi-color during some practice exams but found that I was spending more time asking myself “Hmm, is this a business or technical requirement?” rather then progressing with the scenario. This is a good training drill at home, but not during the exam. I also experimented with the “No Highlights” method, which I found ineffective. I must reinforce that ALL of these methods have been used by successful CCDEs in the past; experiment with ALL of them.


2. Built-in notepad: I did not use this feature at all. I felt that I did a good job of highlighting and utilizing the dry-erase board that introducing a third tool to my strategy would have been overly complicated. For those that did use it, their usage was mostly centered on the use-cases documented above.


3. Dry-erase board: I used this tool primary for quick diagrams in a tactical fashion. I do not suggest re-creating the diagrams presented in the test, but it can be useful when you are troubleshooting a routing issue or a network migration. When I needed to arrange implementation steps or eliminate wrong answers, I scribbled on the dry-erase board as I found it to be faster than the built-in notepad. It is easy to draw all the migration steps, for example, as a visual confirmation of your answers before clicking the “Next” button. I experimented with creating a strategic document index, as some of my colleagues chose to do, but found that I was moving too slowly with it.



In conclusion, the combination of highlighting for requirements or constraints capturing and the dry-erase board for diagramming was a winning combination for me. Be sure to try out all the different combinations for yourself. During your practice exams/scenarios, use different methods early in your studies to eliminate those that do not work.  It is easy to simulate these tools outside of the exam engine using commercial software (notepad.exe, etc.). Continue to hone your skills using a smaller set of strategies (with respect to the tools). At some point, identify one strategy that works “best” for you and stick to it for the remainder of your studies and for your exam attempts. This will allow you to focus more on the CCDE content and less on the tools, as you should have a clear vision on how you intend to utilize them before starting the exam.



About the Author

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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