Being a Cisco SME



I'm a person that you don't necessarily know, but you may be familiar with some of my work: I act as a Cisco subject matter expert (SME) developing questions for various Cisco exams. My intention here is to describe what it is like to act as a SME so that you may decide whether it is something for you. My experience may not be the exact same as what you (the reader) would experience as a SME, but this should at least give you an idea of what to expect.



What is it all about?

Being a SME is about participating in the development of high-quality exam items. Here are a few responsibilities that a SME typically has:


  • Authoring and editing items for written exams.

  • Reviewing items for the written exams.

  • Participation in Job Role Analysis meetings (JRA).

  • Participation in Job Task Analysis meetings (JTA).

  • Participation in Standard Setting meetings.


When you are selected as a SME, your first assignment will likely be authoring a certain number of items for an exam. Often you will be assigned specific blueprint topics to which you will write an item, but in some cases you are free to choose for yourself. Of course this depends on the current needs — the Exam Program Manager will instruct you on the specifics. Each authored item should map to a certain level (difficulty), which is defined as what a typical candidate for the given exam level is expected to know. This is based on an on-going analysis of tasks and skill levels found in real-life jobs on that specific level. Almost needless to say, the level you should be aiming for depends on which exam level you are authoring for — the typical tasks for a CCNA, CCNP, or CCIE level candidate are of course not identical.


Typical item types you will meet in your work as a SME are:


  • Multiple choice single answer (MCSA).

  • Multiple choice multiple answer (MCMA)

  • Enhanced matching (also known as Drag and Drop, or DND)


You may also come across simlets, but personally I have never done any work with simlets — I guess they're primarily developed in-house at Cisco.


Once you have been selected for a project, you will receive an email from the Exam Program Manager, which will outline the project and formally invite you to participate. First you will likely be invited to a briefing (approximately 1 hour) on WebEx. Here you will get some guidelines as to how to write proper questions (called stems) along with effective possible choices (where one or more choices should be correct while the rest should be plausible, but not correct under any circumstance). Ideally, this starts with a stem that is worded in a way, so that it does not leave room for interpretation and at the same time is short and easy to read and understand (things like avoiding complex and long sentences — you should be aiming at 7th grade English). Often, you will receive a slide deck that you can use for reference when actually developing the items. For instance, all IP addressing should adhere to RFC 1918 or certain subnets that Cisco has allocated for this purpose. For IPv6, you always use something in the 2001:db8::/32 range (the official demonstration/documentation prefix). There are other goodies in this slide deck too, so keep it near you.


After you have gained some experience as a SME, you may also be selected to review items authored by other SMEs. Your purpose in this regard is to assess whether the questions are fair, relevant, and technically correct. Your assessment is based on a number of factors, which might be (but is not limited to):


  • Is the item tailored to the actual exam level (CCENT, CCNA, CCNP, CCIE, and so on)?

  • Is the item technically correct?

  • Will adding an exhibit to the item make it easier to understand?

  • If there already is an exhibit in the item, is it relevant, correct, and relevant to the question?

  • Is it too easy or too hard (based on the expected skill set of the candidate)?

  • Is the item open to interpretation?

  • Is the item free of ambiguity or bias?

  • Is it clear and concise in its wording?

  • Is the item aligned with the current blueprint for the exam?

  • When you read the item for the first time, which answer would you pick?

  • Is the question actually measuring expertise of the candidate, or do you consider it a trivia or memorization question?


The input you provide will be collected and combined with input from other SMEs reviewing the same set of questions, and it will help the Exam Program Manager determine whether the item needs additional work before going into production or if it is ready as it is. Review projects will also be kicked off with a WebEx meeting to provide you with relevant information on the tasks ahead of you.


Once the WebEx meeting has been completed, you will receive your actual assignments (number of questions to author or review) along with a deadline. The Exam Program Managers are aware that you likely are doing this in your spare time, so if you run into problems keeping the deadline, just be open about it and communicate. Often you can get an extension of the deadline.


With regards to the JRA/JTA meetings, this is where SMEs meet to articulate relevant job role expertise, define the Minimally Qualified Candidate (MQC), define the knowledge, skills, and abilities a person needs to become certified, and also weight the blueprint. These meetings are crucial to keep the exams relevant and up-to-date, and if you are selected to participate in these meetings, you will not only be able to influence how the exam evolves, but you will also be able to network with other SMEs.


Finally, by participating in Standard Settings meetings you also get a say in what the cut score of an exam form should be.


Other activities could include helping create preparation materials, such as the Learning Matrix (previously known as Streamlined Preparation resources), or writing blogs, where you get an opportunity to share your views and thoughts on technologies, exams, and other topics related to certifications.


As you can see, there are many different aspects of being a SME. It really illustrates how important a role SMEs play in keeping Cisco exams up-to-date and relevant.


Please note that being selected as a SME doesn't guarantee that you will get to participate in all of the aforementioned activities.


What should I know?

First of all, you will be asked to sign a Non-disclosure agreement (NDA) for each project you participate in. This is because you obviously are not allowed to disclose any of the content you are exposed to during the project. This step is mandatory — you can't participate if you don't sign the NDA.


Signing the NDA also has other implications. You are for instance not allowed to mentor or teach classes within the same technology track as you are authoring/reviewing items for. This restriction is enforced for one year after your last activity in a project (the exact terms are outlined in the NDA you sign). So if you're involved in a Data Center project, you can't teach Data Center classes and/or mentor individuals pursuing exams in the Data Center technology track (at any level). Another thing worth mentioning is that CCSIs are excluded from participating in the SME program, because of the rather obvious conflicts of interest.


The amount of time you should expect to spend highly depends on your imagination and skills in writing the questions. When you first start out, you will likely spend quite a lot of time getting things right (and checking it, checking it, checking it, and checking it once again, just to be sure), but as you gain experience, you're likely able to get things done a bit faster. Personally, I can spend anywhere from five minutes to several hours developing a single item, depending on the specifics of the item. Is it a simple question on a topic, or are you doing some sort of simulation where you present some output for the candidate to analyze?


Reviewing items is also very dependent on the question. Some are easy to review, while others may require you to spin up a simulation to verify that everything is correct and without ambiguity.


As a rule of thumb, you should expect a project to take somewhere between 10 and 30 hours. Likely this is over a time frame of two to four weeks, which is usually what you will have to finish your work.


In order to participate in a project for an exam, it is a requirement that you hold a valid certification pertaining to that particular exam. So, if you're to develop items for CCNP ROUTE, you must have a valid CCNP Routing and Switching certification. Finally, writing questions for a specific exam does not disqualify you from taking the actual exam yourself - that is allowed.


What's in it for me?

You don't get paid for the work you are doing, but usually the Exam Program Manager can provide you with certain options as a token of gratitude, once the project has finished. This could be a time extension for your current certifications (on or below the level you've done work for), a Cisco Press title of your own choosing, or exam vouchers. This information will be communicated by the Exam Program Manager.


To me, this isn't the important thing though. The important thing is that you keep yourself up-to-speed and your knowledge sharp on the topics in the exams, where you are doing SME work. This can help you reach even higher personal skill levels. Obviously, you need pretty solid knowledge within a topic if you are to write meaningful questions on it. Personally, I really enjoy doing SME work. I benefit from keeping my knowledge fresh, but I also have the chance to influence the way Cisco exams are heading. I can actually help make sure that candidates get a fair and relevant test, when they sit down in front of the computer in the test center. That is my way of giving something back to the community and Cisco.


Now what?

If you are interested, you can head on over to this link, where you can also sign up: Cisco Certifications Subject Matter Expert Recruitment Program . Once you submit you application, Cisco will go through the submitted information. You might be requested to provide additional information such as a bio and/or resume. This will serve as a proof that you are qualified to work on the project you have been initially selected for.