The A-Ha Moment by Michael “Zig” Zsiga


I first heard about the CCDE from a few of my colleagues and close friends that had already attempted the CCDE practical exam a couple of times but hadn’t been successful. These same colleagues and friends made similar statements that with my background I could go take the CCDE practical exam today and pass it. Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to pass two CCIEs, Routing and Switching and Service Provider, both on the first attempt. So I figured why not, I will see what all the fuss is about with the CCDE. After a few discussions with work and home, I was ready to start on this journey. Little did I know that I would attempt the CCDE practical four times before becoming a CCDE, with each attempt being a successful learning experience for me professional and personally.


First Attempt

For the first attempt, the timing between deciding to start this journey and the first available CCDE practical date was not the best. I believe I had six weeks to successfully pass the CCDE qualification exam and schedule the CCDE practical. I was rushing for sure but mainly because I didn’t want to wait for the next CCDE practical sitting date. I had some key colleagues in the networking industry believe I could just take the CCDE practical now and pass it based on my technical ability but little did they know the mindset issues I would have with this exam.


Right around this time, just before passing the CCDE qualification exam and scheduling the CCDE practical, I was unexpectedly invited to a CCDE Study group, though it was by far the single most important step in this entire process, I was oblivious to how important and what a crucial role it would take at this time.


I honestly looked at this attempt as a learning experience either way, pass or fail.  Well I failed, but no sweat it was a great learning experience. Though, in hindsight, I should have done a lot more research specifically around my "I'll wing it" strategy. I literally had no strategy at all for this exam or attempt, and would not recommend this to anyone. Looking back on it now, I honestly do not know how I even scored as well as I did the first attempt. I had time management issues, connecting to the scenario issues, over-analyzing issues, dwelling on question issues, the list went on and on. Also to note, I honestly had a good number of technical issues that I needed to resolve as well which was a shock to me.


Second Attempt

Marching on! It was time to pick up the pieces and start to really figure out what I needed to do. I focused heavily on the technical issues I had from the first attempt. To be forthcoming, this was the easy part and I just didn't know where to really focus from a strategy perspective yet. Even the CCDE Study group I was in was more focused on the technology vs. the overall strategy and business side of the house. The group of us setup a Saturday schedule, where we would go over each technology in-depth with the group for approximately 3 - 4 hours. We would discuss and debate designs for that technology topic in question. While these were great, unknowing to us we were missing some key items in our study plan: business requirements, time management, skim / speed reading. Keeping in mind here, we were all learning together.


The second attempt came around and I was ready! I was confident...probably way over confident if I’m being honest. Failed again and a lower score than the first time. I felt like I had been hit by a truck. My first reaction was that I wasn't showing progress. Something was wrong with how I was studying and I needed more help / guidance than what I currently had. I needed to change something but I just didn't know what it was.


Third Attempt

About this time, Cisco Live US 2016 was around the corner so I used this opportunity to take as many CCDE-related seminars as I could afford and fit into the schedule. I signed up for the CCDE Cisco Live Techtorial, which was one of the best experiences. I would highly recommend taking this seminar if you are able too.  I was also fortunate enough to have a couple of long one-on-one session with Elaine Lopes, Yuri Lukin, and Marwan Al-Shawi, really discussing strategy for the CCDE. This is when I first started to see, but not fully understand, my underlying issue.


I thought I had a much clearer picture for the third attempt, and while it was clearer than the previous attempts, I was still seeing through a window with a thin layer of film on it. I was relaxed as I sat down for this attempt, thinking that I might have a break in my own 60 Limit as Martin Duggan had documented. This was not the case as the first scenario launched and before I knew it I had spent almost 3 hours on it with no end in sight. I had failed my time management strategy because I was trying to overly connect with the scenario. This was by far the worst attempt and I honestly wasn’t sure if I was going to continue my CCDE journey or not at this point. I had thought my entire issue thus far was my ability to connect with the scenario and pull the business requirements out but this was not the actually case. I took some time to really think about everything. A few days later a light bulb turned on in my head, I knew what my issue was and it was a personality issue which I will attempt to show with a non-technical and a technical example below.


My “A-Ha” Moment!

Let’s say you are doing your normal grocery shopping and on your list you have fruit but you do not know what to get. At the grocery store they have apples and bananas. Both of these choices would fit into your “fruit” bucket. Now without any further information, I would assign attributes based on past information and not information specifically related to the current grocery trip. Normally, where I live, apples are cheaper than bananas, so I would intuitively assume that they would be cheaper for this trip as well.


Let’s now do this same problem with a technical example. You have a scenario that needs a DCI connection between two data centers. Your choices are MPLS Layer 2 VPN or MPLS Layer 3 VPN. Both of these choices would fit into your “DCI” bucket. Once again, without any further information, I would assign attributes based on past information and not information specifically related to the scenario. Normally in my experience, MPLS Layer 2 VPNs are cheaper than MPLS Layer 3 VPNs, so I would intuitively assume that they would be cheaper for this scenario as well.


The problem with my mindset was this need to 'jump to conclusions’, and the core of my issues with being successful with the CCDE practical exam. Hello, I'm Zig the preconceived notion guy! I will forever be known in our CCDE Study group as the preconceived notion guy!


Leave your preconceived notions at the door! I cannot emphasize enough how important this is. Bring all of your technical experience and understanding, but leave every other attribute that’s not related to the technology at the door. The scenario will be feeding you all of the information you need to make a valid decision. Your personal experience and opinion about a technology that isn’t technical will only get in your way, as it was in my way.


Fourth Attempt

With my personality issue for preconceived notions in check, I still wanted to prepare properly for the next attempt. With the low number of people in our CCDE Study group passing the last attempt, we needed to refocus our study group content and schedule. We focused on the different scenario case studies and a few of us even wrote our own scenarios for the Study group. I highly recommend anyone pursuing this journey to write your own scenario. If I had to rate its overall importance it would be in the top three. We also extended our Study schedule to include Sundays and some of the week nights for short sessions. Regarding the Study group, you need to be active and involved all of the time. You need to have open discussions on technology and ask why. When presenting a solution or design, leave your ego out of it and understand it's ok to be wrong, you are going to be wrong!


The day before this attempt, I spent the day with my son at school. We need to always remember why we are doing all of this for, and for me it was great to put the books down, stop studying, stop reading, and enjoy some time with my family.


Exam day came and I was relaxed more than I had ever been. There was still some level of stress and nervousness, but I was ready. I left all of my preconceived notions at the door and started the exam. Still had some issues with time management but not like the other attempts. I was actually having fun with the questions. I was just feeling good today, pass or fail; this was going to be my best attempt and I was ok with that. At the end of the exam, my nerves started going crazy, like only those who’ve taken this exam can understand, as I hit my timer on the last scenario. I had to click the always dreaded “End Exam” button and waited what seemed like a life time. I quickly searched the page for “failed” or “Sorry to inform you but you did not pass this time”, but I didn’t see either of these. It took me another 15 – 30 seconds to find the “Congratulations, you passed!”.


Key takeaways

  • You can’t do this without a strategy, each person’s strategy will be different but you need to come up with one that will work for you.
  • Do not dwell on questions that you do not know the answer for. You probably missed key information in the scenario that points to the correct answer, go find it!
  • Don’t focus on what the scenario chooses as an answer, be confident in your answer and move on!
  • Some questions might have more than one correct answer; stick with the answer you can properly defend the “Why did you choose it?” question.
  • When seeing a chart, check only the items that actually make sense to the scenario. Do not fall into the mental trap of needing to fill in the entire chart.
  • You need to connect with the scenarios but you also need to be reading the scenario fast. There is a happy middle ground here that you will have to determine for yourself.  What I personally found that helped me was skim reading and highlighting what was important.
  • Highlighting: Do what works for you. I was an overzealous highlighter in the first 2 attempts which makes it very hard to find the important information when everything is highlighted. Skim reading while sparsely highlighting is what worked for me in the end.
  • During your lunch break, use it all to relax your mind. This exam is a marathon and you need every minute to de-stress and relax.


I hope this information helps you along your CCDE journey!


About the Author

pic Michael Zsiga.jpg


Michael "Zig" Zsiga II, CCDE™ 2016::32, CCIE™ #44883 has been in the networking industry a little over 15 years. He is currently a Lead Technical Architect at ePlus in the New England region of the United States. Zig holds an active CCDE and two CCIE certifications, one in Routing and Switching and the second in Service Provider. Zig also holds a Bachelor's of Science in Computer Science from Park University. Zig is a father, a husband, a United States Marine, a gamer, a nerd, a geek and a big soccer fan. Zig loves all technology and can usually be found in the lab learning and teaching others. Zig is a co-organizer of The Boston Network Operators Group (, runs multiple CCIE Study groups, and is a newly published author. Zig lives in New Hampshire, USA with his wife, Julie and their son Gunnar.



Here are a few additional ways for us to engage and keep the conversation going: