Sunday, July 13, 2008

CCDE Practical

Okay, I have to make a confession first. I’ve just realized that I need license to ride two-wheel vehicle. I need license to ride my Ninja! Can you believe that? Yeah, it is true, even in this part of the world it’s still true. And the worst part, without the street license I can’t apply to get a special license that will allow me to ride my bike inside the circuit. Instead of learning how to turn in high speed corner just like Valentino Rossi, now I have to face the fact that I can’t even ride my Ninja outside my neighborhood.

So in between my boring time to just ride around my home every morning and evening, I start looking at what I should do for my personal development in networking. As you can see from my previous post, I need to catch up and re-fresh my knowledge to keep me in shape as consulting engineer. I used to think that I should take Jxxxx certification just for fun. Well, another reasons are to keep me busy as well and to re-learn anything I may miss during the previous CCIE lab.

But then CCDE came into the picture.

I wrote it once that I know it will be difficult to measure design skill of someone, so I would love to see how the CCDE team is going to do it. And looking at what they have prepared so far and tested as beta exam, it seems like they may be able to nail it down.

Let’s start with the written test. Okay, it’s just regular as another Cisco computer-based test. Think about CCIE written. Or, since CCDE folks said there won’t be any configuration nor bit-level questions in the test, and it will be focused on the design implication, I guess it will be similar as the ARCH in CCDP exams. Perhaps much deeper and the coverage is wider since CCDE is for large-scale networks. Oh come on, just read the blueprint! What is worth to discuss from the written test for me is passing it will re-certify my CCIE. Nice.

Now about the Practice exam. It’s 8 hours just like CCIE lab. But no, it’s not a lab. In fact, it’s a computer-based exam. Disappointed? Wait, there are more. It’s scenario based. It starts with some information, document and email conversation from the customer. Then based on those, we need to dig more information by asking the right question. Have you seen iRobot movie? Where the detective must ask the right question or the hologram of Dr. Lanning would say "I'm sorry. My responses are limited. You must ask the right questions." Well, it’s a bit similar like that. Or not.

That’s just the beginning. Once we get more and more information, we need to answer a series of question related to the scenario. We must choose the right features to accommodate the requirements. And we always have to think about the implications. So no configuration. But it will really test the knowledge how to make a design to answer real problems. And we have to integrate business problems into it too.

Sound easy? Let’s just wait until we have a chance to do this test. Remember, it’s an 8 hours exam. There are several different types of questions: multiple right questions, drag and drop network diagram, ordering a list, match two lists. And if you check the reading list, the coverage looks heavy. Remember, the exam is developed by the team consist of senior design engineers who have been working for many years in Cisco. So they know what kind of challenges normally any designer must deal with and they have done many designs from beginning until implementation.

Another reminder, passing the exam doesn’t guarantee that we are a damn good designer. Just like CCIE lab, we must build our expertise on top of that. Passing the exam is, as always, just a beginning. Our design skill can really be tested once we have to meet the customer in real world, deliver the design that can satisfy the requirements, and make sure it can be implemented smoothly.

So I think the good side about CCDE practical exam format is it can really test the knowledge of each candidate in analyzing, making design, knowing the implication, and justifying the decision of the design and features. It requires broad technical knowledge, even there won’t be any configuration, and integrate all pieces into a useful whole. It also means each candidate must be able to understand the relation of customer’s business in every design and decision when choosing the features to be implemented. O yeah, CCDE team mentioned the exam can be considered as vendor neutral. So I guess there won’t be any specific question related to Cisco hardware there.

The bad side, there is no other aspect of designer skills tested in the lab. Skill in leading a requirements workshop to gather information, for example. Based on my experience some customers are not quite open until I gather all departments and meet them and try to find the missing information by initiating the discussion. And no test of presentation skill either. It is required during requirement workshop as well as design workshop when normally designer must explain, justify, and defend the design. Last but not least, it’s a computer-based exam. I mean, unless the CCDE team has a huge bank of scenarios the questions may become popular and repeatable after some time and people may pass by just memorizing the answers. I hope they find a way to tweak and modify the scenarios quite often so this won’t happen.

Btw, from where I got all this information? Some Networkers 2008 slides. I think it was presented last month. And if you have registered to Cisco Learning Network you can get more information, and you can even enjoy the discussion with the CCDE team directly. If you are not lazy enough, you can also find some example of CCDE practical exam. Oh yeah, some folk even put link to my blog somewhere there.

I think this CCDE practical exam can set the benchmark of minimum knowledge required to become a network designer. Just as CCIE has become a benchmark for any network engineer nowadays. And I really think it’s worth to take it. I can’t wait for them to release the practical exam world wide.

Monday, July 07, 2008

What Would I Miss? Part Two

I have been busy riding.

Perhaps I watch MotoGP and Superbike on TV a little bit too much so sometime last month I decided to order the new 2008 Kawasaki Ninja 250R. It has only 250 cc and 33 bhp but it’s red, it’s surely pretty and it’s in my garage now. I guess my next step is to learn how to do cornering and trail braking so I know what Valentino Rossi feels every time he does it.

But even I’m busy with the new Ninja it doesn’t mean I stop thinking and re-evaluating my life. Since I finished several projects last month I have more time to do so. And when I looked back my last post: 'What Would I Miss?' I feel like I need to add more into it, especially the part when I should compare what I have already had in hand right now and what I may have in the future.

I currently work for Cisco Advanced Services team as Consulting Engineer. This is a unique position because I have to act as both consultant and engineer. As consultant when I have to talk to executive to present the brief idea of the design, to learn about customer business in order to understand the requirements truthfully, use my interpersonal skill to build relationship with the customers, and to make the high level design and implementation strategy. As engineer when I have to really turn the design on paper into a working infrastructure, write down the low level design and implementation plan, build the configuration and interconnection in detail, test the interoperability and proof of concept, execute the migration plan to ensure it can be done within the agreed downtime window. So the coverage is beyond consultant and engineer as individual. To add more into it, in some scenarios I must use my leadership skill to set the direction for the team, help the sales team in some pre-sales activities, build deployment approach, assign tasks and manage resources with my project management expertise.

In summary, the role is started when the sales team has sold the product to the customer based on the high level requirement and it is time to drill down the requirement to more detail and put all the puzzle to one piece of working solution. And as per my comment above, sometime it is required to be involved during pre-sales process, to help define the scope of work, to verify the Bill of Material before it gets ordered, and to convince the customer that even we have yet to build the low level implementation design and plan but the project can be done and executed seamlessly.

Well, those stuff are actually not new to me. I have been doing similar tasks even before I joined Cisco. In fact, if I count since the first day I must work in a team to deliver project, I have already had more than 10 years experience.

Indeed, this role is not the same role with those who develop the products. Consulting Engineers are not required to write code. But this doesn’t mean we are not involved in product development!

See, we are the one who deploys the products and interact with the customers directly. If someone asks my opinion I would say that Advanced Services through the Consulting Engineers are the one who gets the real world feedback and know the requirements and challenges during deployment and operation of the products. I have seen many people from the team who may not know the language to write the code but have been contributing to product and protocols development. The key here is to understand the architecture of the hardware, software and the protocols by heart. Combine with real world experience and feedback from the field, AS engineers hold the key for the improvement of those and must be part of the discussions. Not everything can be tested only in the lab as normally development team does. And we also have Practice team who normally consists those with extensive deployment experiences combine with heavy lab testing results to provide Best Practices, Deployment Guides and obviously feedbacks to the developer.

So even I’m not part of the team who develops the product directly but I still have an important role. And I like to do so. And I have been doing this for many years.

Hence I think it’s fair enough to write down What Would I Miss if one day I decide to leave this role. Perhaps because of more money, more challenging roles or higher level position. I need to write this down to make it easier for me in making decision by comparing the new role with the existing that I have.

- The excitement when my design or my plan really works

In one life cycle of a product, it starts with the development by Business Unit, then sales team must fit the product specification with the requirement, then Advanced Services must deploy the products and make a working solution. So it’s in the end of the cycle before the customer can really utilize the products. For me, nothing can beat the excitement when all pieces are finally combined together and the design really turns to a working network. It is always good to see a new and shine production network based on my design or migration plan. Some projects can take several months, even years, to complete. But when it does, seeing the happy customers can fully utilize the products and the infrastructure can really give me full satisfaction.

The level of satisfaction increases as the project getting larger and complex, and has more components involved. I have been in the worst time and under very high pressure to submit the plan within short time or during limited downtime window to do migration. But once it has been done successfully and I look back I can only laugh happily and wish to repeat the moments.

- Freedom to do my work anytime, anywhere
I have disengaged from 8-to-5 type of work since several years ago. I’m a result oriented kind of person so how it is done sometime it is not relevant. And that’s what exactly provided by my existing role. What matters is if the project can be done successfully. The process is good as learning curve but in the end it’s the result that matters. I don’t even have to go to the office since I can work from anywhere as long as I have Internet and secure VPN connection to the closest access server. I can choose my working hours. I can decide to work beyond 70 hours this week so I can deliver as per the target but then work less than 20 hours next week to recover.

My role as consulting engineer with coverage in Asia Pacific countries, mostly in South East Asia, also mean I have to travel and do projects in different country. It was fun in the beginning due to the new experience and eventually I feel like getting addicted to it. I like to be challenged with different customer types with different habit. I like to visit new places and work with people from different culture.

- Deeper access to all Business Units and knowledge base
Due to the close relationship with development team, Advanced Services has more access and privileges compare to other non-developer teams in Cisco. We can read and follow a product or feature development process. We provide feedback from real world experience and we can re-use the information the development team gains from extensive lab testing. We get notified first if the development team finds discrepancy in the code and may impact the deployment in the field.

I have also met well known Cisco people since we are normally talking the same language: either we share similar deployment experience or we would like to exchange the real world experience with the knowledge gained during the testing in the lab. I enjoy listening to the discussion when the deployment team explains why and how the new features are developed, as much as I enjoy listening to the other AS team that has deployed the features in the real network and provide best practices and the feedbacks.

So I have all those above in hand. They are real.
They are what I normally do in daily life.
They, currently, are part of my life.

"It's not who you are underneath, it's what you do that defines you"
- Batman Begins