Scott Morris (Guest Editorial): On the New Cisco Certified Architect

    Scott Morris 240 x 200.jpgCisco Certified Architect: Ready to See What Makes the Rockin' World Go 'Round?


    Hey! Guess what? There's talk around the CCIE/CCDE water-cooler these days! CCIEs and CCDEs had been at the top of the pyramids. But, there's a new guy in town...and life may be a little different now. In the immortal words of Marvin the Martian, "Where's the kaboom? There was supposed to be an Earth shattering kaboom?"


    When Cisco first announced the Cisco Certified Architect on June 29th, I had some mixed emotions about the whole thing. In case you hadn't been paying much attention, there's (still) a decent discussion on the message boards about this.


    There was a large initial outcry on different message boards about the devaluation of the CCIE. Completely unrelated! Well, OK, from a hierarchical graphic representation of where the Architect falls into play, perhaps not. But still, nobody will dispute the CCIE's capabilities for implementing technologies in whatever track they are in! Then we start talking about business drivers, and vision, and network design. That's a different pool to be playing in. (Funny enough, the complaints died down within about 24 hours, so apparently the pain wasn't that deep!)


    The main page for information, of course is The Cisco Certified Architect Page, which still has some information duplicated from the CCDE pages, but will hold the details about this certification. Want to know the funny thing? There's not a whole lot there yet! Lots of rumors and conjecture though! But that's all good for something that's brand new! But never enough for those who want the entire story.


    Different media outlets showed different prerequisites for this obscure, but prestigious, certification, and I certainly did not want to be left in the category of The Ill-informed! Being that we were all at Cisco Live 2009 (aka Networkers), it was the prime opportunity to meet with some of the people behind this monster and find out the truth!


    I actually received some good answers along the way and, I have to say, my mindset changed a bit along the way! One of the big things revolves around the "why" rationale. We have a CCIE already that has been around for 16 years now, and we have a CCDE program that just recently started gaining momentum (not even a year yet since the beta). So, I (among others) have wondered "Why now?" and "Why not wait a little major life event at a time?"


    The answer, I was told, has to do with what the industry is looking for. "It's not that we're creating this defined job role skillset," said Fred Weiller, Director of Marketing for Learning@Cisco. "It already exists. People are already operating at it. It's just that we are now able to define what criteria exists between Associate Level, Professional Level, Expert Level and Architect Level."


    The prerequisites that are listed are simply CCDE and a resume of your professional experience (assumed to be 10 years or greater). My main objection  to that was the fact that CCIE was listed no place in this (contrary to what a couple of other media outlets reported). Odd since the Architect position is depicted as an umbrella over both the implementation (CCIE) and design (CCDE) pyramids of certification.


    Right now, all seven (7) certified CCDEs happen to have one or more CCIE certification as well, but that may not always be the case! (While everyone seems to agree that it's recommended that a good designer have some experience actually DOING the work, it's not a requirement!) So this was a harder "why" question to pose to the team in choosing the CCDE only. The answer demonstrated insight into what was being envisioned for the position as well!


    "There will be people who pass the CCDE who do not become Architects," said Erik Ullanderson, the Manager of Global Certifications for Learning@Cisco. "It is not an assumed pattern. Many people want to go there, but not everyone will."


    "You've taken multiple CCIE Lab exams," Weiller stated, referring to the four CCIE certifications I have. "So you know that it's not just a matter of understanding the concepts. It's a matter of being able to very rapidly, under pressure, implement those specific commands. Is that really a skill that an architect needs?"


    The differences set apart the different roles. Between each level of the "pyramid" for all the Cisco certifications we have come to know and love, there are always differences: Professional levels are harder than Associate levels; Expert levels are harder than that. And now there's the Architect level. But it's not so much a difference in difficulty as it is a difference in focus. The focus at the highest level is more about business then it is about any specific product or technology. And having been in many roles over the years, I can see that skillset as a valuable one to have--but now it's one can be measured and certified.


    My problem with this is: I have multiple CCIEs, and--by virtue of the amount of training, consulting and designing that I personally do--I like to think of myself as a viable candidate for a role like this. But that's laregely due to my own background and business-level capabilities. There's nothing in the certifications that I have to demonstrate or otherwise require that. So, it's a matter of trust. Or, as former president Ronald Reagan often used to say, "Trust, but verify."


    "No other certification was structured to start tying together the business rationale with a technology," Weiller noted, referring to the CCDE. "Everything else, even at the CCDP level, or all the other tracks, was purely technology-centric. With CCDE we started with, 'Hey, these are business issues we have to solve. What's your technical solution to that?' With Architect, we take that even broader and higher."


    "It's strongly recommended that one has CCIE capabilities as well." Ullanderson added. "It's not listed as a requirement though. When you go in front of the board for your defense, you'll have a 'CFO' in there. You're going to have other designers and the software implementation manager, too."


    "We're in a unique situation with networking. How often do you have an entire industry impacting the future of the world?" Ullanderson asked. "We have the ability to work with that next generation to help define those roles and support individuals to take on those roles."


    The business drivers, though, aren't the only thing being measured. Looking at those web pages listed above, we'll find some of the criteria that will/may be part of the certification exam process. Candidates first go through the approval process during which resumes and supporting information are presented.


    "We do want a resume, so that we can see that someone has network-design and architecture work," said Bruce Pinsky, a Distinguished Support Engineer at Cisco and one of the people behind the technical creation of the Architect certification. "We are going to be asking [the candidate] to describe or document, in addition to their resume, an architecture project that they worked on--on their own or as part of a team. So that they have some fluency in analyzing the business for the needs and requirements that will dictate how the network architecture will be put together."


    According to sources at Cisco, a resume check will be performed and the project experience will be validated, at least to some level. (In other words, don't make things up!)  Those who pass the initial screen will receive some sort of architectural "challenge."


    Upon receiving an architectural challenge, the candidate will supply:


    • A functional specification
    • High-level architectural diagrams
    • Summarized business-requirements documentation
    • Rationale supporting the proposed architecture
    • Outline for presentation


    If accepted, the candidate gets to go before a board for review. That board review will deal with challenges from both an "executive team" (business) and a "design team" (technical), which means the candidate will need presentation experience from both a business  and technical perspective! I have always been in favor of this part, and at last Cisco agrees with me! (grin)


    "How many people do we know that are unbelievable engineers," Ullanderson asks, "but, we would never put them in front of a customer or a chief financial officer? Yet, we always go to those people when we have a technical issue. They're part of a group that we might be consulting with. But they aren't architects."


    The board review process begins by evaluating the candidate's responses to the challenge. The board has certain criteria they must adhere to in evaluating that candidate. If accepted, then the candidate gets to actually meet the board.


    "There will be two types of presentations expected," stated Pinsky. "You will be expected to speak and respond to two different audiences. Obviously one audience is the technical leadership--they are going to want to hear your technical perspective. The other is upper-level management, who wants to see

    your business side. What are the business challenges we are trying to address by going in [whatever] direction?"


    So the big question that will be asked next would be surrounding things like dialect or vocabulary or other things that affect one's presentations skills. I know that over the years I've been both ranked high and ranked low by different people (from the same speaking event) in presentation capability! So that makes things appear fairly subjective. But the good thing is it's not just that.


    "This isn't just six people sitting in a room making [stuff] up on the fly," Pinsky notes. "It is not intended to be a very subjective thing. It's intended to be objective."


    Ullanderson added, "There is structure and logic and science behind the evaluation."


    According to Pinsky, the presentation is judged on the candidate's problem-solving capabilities and the solution more than on specific presentation skills. And, the ability to think on the fly is important. "Does the person adequately identify all of the known requirements in such a way that they have an understanding of the requirements? Do they have a low, moderate, or high likelihood of producing a good solution? Would they be absolutely successful?" Pinksky continued. "We have to lay out the salient points, and then assess if they addressed them." Pinsky added. "The goal at this point is to try to create a somewhat balanced kind of certification that would be more focussed on the business, moving to a higher role than a specific technical bias."


    The initial panel will likely consist of some of the original Cisco people who created the Architect certification. After the initial few times though, it is expected that the panel will be more self-perpetuating in nature.


    "Once you are a Certified Architect, you become eligible to be on the panel," Weiller said. "Once you prove you're at a peer level, you can participate."


    "This needs to be a community thing," Pinsky added. "This cannot be the six guys who initially developed it trying to carry it on for a lifetime. It needs to be a community of people who, as they achieve this certification, return to help."


    The next big thing that leapt out at me was the price tag. Again, my vision is of myself in the various and sundry roles I have going on. None of them particularly REQUIRES an Architect certification, so other than the "cool factor," just how does one justify a $15,000 expense for a certification?


    The nice thing is that you have to be accepted into the program before you are charged, from what I've heard! Once a candidate is involved in the process of the architectural review and board involvement, that's when the charge occurs. All of the preparation for the architectural challenge, the pre-board review, the board/oral portion of it and write-ups afterwards are where things come together.


    "That's a long, long time," said Weiller. "A lot of hours from a lot of very qualified people. That's going to cost a lot of money. Cisco is not intending to make a profit on it. It's the cost of making it happen."


    "You have to understand that this is not a standard exam," Ullanderson added. "It's not only human-capital intensive, it's high-level-human-capital intentsive!"


    While I personally see the $15,000 as a high price, I see it justified by the amount of work people on the back-end will be doing. Does that mean I would go out and spend the money for that? Great question! Ask me after I get my CCDE and fall into the realm of "qualifying". Putting on my business-view hat though, I'd have to weigh the cost versus benefit as would any other company/individual along the way. While the "cool factor" goes a long way, the question becomes does it do anything for my marketability. In my personal circumstances, probably not, but that's just based on what I do and how I market myself. Were I working for a services company, I would think it could have tremendous market value!


    The last thing I'd asked of the folks I was speaking with was to visualize the first 20 Architects and where they would come from. This obviously is getting ahead of the game since there's only a pool of seven potential applicants right now (the current number of CCDEs)!


    "The service segment," says Weiller without missing a beat. "You can bring in some consulting services. You can bring in some Cisco people. You can bring in some partners. You can bring in some independent people. You can bring in some system integrators. It's really the segment of people who already deal with very large network designs."


    I'm still miffed that CCIE or multiple-CCIE isn't part of the qualification. But I've realized I was miffed because I felt left out! Qualified, but excluded! The good part is that I have the ability to fix that, to grab what I think should be mine anyway! Perhaps this is part confidence and part cockiness. In the end, I can't fault the logic and thinking that Cisco put into this Architect certification.


    One last note. I know many have commented (as I did) about the fact that there is no acronym for this certification. Despite some legal mumbo-jumbo regarding trademark law and boring stuff like that, I was told that they will intentionally use no acronym to make the certification stand out. I'll chalk it up to another thing I may not agree with, but I do like the thinking! And since the CCDE and Architect are "thinking" certifications, I'd better get used to that!


    My two cents for the evening! Best described by another favorite cartoon quote from Yosemite Sam, who best describes my thoughts: "All right, all right, I'm a thinkin'! And my head hurts."




    Scott Morris (CCIE #4713) has four CCIE Certifications (Routing & Switching, ISP/Dial, Security and Service Provider) along with a myriad of other certifications. He has more than 23 years' experience in the field, including 9 years as an instructor. He currently provides high-end and CCIE-level training for Internetwork Expert, as well as travels the world as a consultant. He can often be found hanging around the discussion forums at Cisco Learning Network, where he is known to post messages at all times of the day and night.