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How Does Cisco's Overhaul of the CCNP Certification Affect CCNP Candidates? An Interview with Wendell Odom

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Linda Leung talks with Wendell Odom about the major changes in the new Cisco CCNP exams, what new knowledge is required of candidates, and how the changes benefit network professionals in their careers.
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Cisco last month introduced a complete overhaul of its CCNP certification track to better reflect the evolving job tasks of global network professionals. Greater emphasis has been placed on maintaining a highly secure, complex routing and switching network that supports branch offices and mobile workers, as well as deliver voice and video services. Cisco has reduced the number of exams for the certification from four to three: ROUTE #642-902, SWITCH #642-813, and TSHOOT #642-832. The changes ensure that networking professionals have a deeper knowledge of the tasks they need to perform in the real world, with more emphasis on troubleshooting and planning.

The exams are scheduled to be available in March/April 2010, and the last day to take the old exams is July 31, 2010. To help you prepare for the new exams, Cisco Press has published (or will soon publish, in some cases) a comprehensive portfolio of CCNP self-study resources. One key title is CCNP Routing and Switching Official Certification Library (Exams 642-902, 642-813, 642-832), by Wendell Odom, David Hucaby, and Kevin Wallace.

I caught up with Wendell and asked him what are the major changes in the new CCNP exams, what new knowledge is required of candidates, and how the changes benefit network professionals in their careers.

Linda Leung: What are the overarching differences between the new CCNP vs. the old?

Wendell Odom: The biggest difference is that the old had much broader topic coverage, while the new CCNP gives much more focus on skills, and probably more depth for each topic. Gone are the ISCW and ONT exams, which together included QoS, multicast, wireless, MPLS, and security. The ROUTE exam removes IS-IS and multicast as well. But the addition of the TSHOOT exam is huge: a skills-based exam with a large degree of coverage from the ROUTE and SWITCH topics. There's also more emphasis on implementation and verification planning. So, think deeper mastery, more focused topic breadth, with the emphasis on routing and switching.

LL: Do you think Cisco's other certifications will undergo similar overhauls?

WO: First off, this would be an educated guess, and not based on any insider information. But I'd actually say that the next go round with the other CCxP certs will be less dramatic than with CCNP. I think the biggest guidance on the next rev of the rest of the professional track will be driven by the integration with the CCNA concentrations. The next CCSP and CCVP rev will be the first since the CCNA Concentrations were announced back in summer 2008, so it'll be Cisco's first chance to adjust the CCSP and CCVP to align with those concentrations. I think the changes will make each CCxP cert a little smaller in terms of days of classroom training related to the cert, just as was done for CCNP (approximately 17 days of classroom and e-learning training, vs. 20 for the old CCNP). Also, CCVP already has a troubleshooting exam (TUC). I could see Cisco removing duplication of coverage between the concentrations and CCxPs, toss in some e-learning, and get the number of classes and exams reduced by one, just like they did for CCNP.

LL: Cisco says the CCNP is suitable for candidates with at least one year's worth of networking experience. However, the changes to CCNP suggest that the exams have gotten harder. Is it really realistic to say that candidates can pass with just a year's experience?

WO: I'll buy that the new CCNP is deeper, but I'm not so sure I'd buy harder. The volume of topics in the old CCNP contributed to it being hard, and the depth of skills required for the new CCNP will be a big contributor for the level of difficulty. But the more interesting part is whether one year of the right kind of experience could be enough. Such jobs exist, but I think those jobs are the exception for the folks going for CCNP. If that one year is in a job where you do second-level support work, where you troubleshoot the harder networking problems, plus the job requires that you take designs and then plan the configurations and implementation work, in a medium to large shop, and that work was router and switch specific, yep, I could see that making you ready for CCNP in one year. I think those jobs exist in large shops, maybe in a few medium size shops.

I've not seen any real demographic info on the range of CCNP candidate jobs, but in my experience, you see a lot of folks who do route/switch as maybe 20% of their jobs, and they're also the voice, security, and maybe server support. Or you're in a big shop, and you might take support calls, but seldom plan configs, and vice-versa. So, I think one year experience before being ready for CCNP for a typical candidate is a bit of a stretch.

LL: You mention that the overarching changes that affects all three exams, especially ROUTE and SWITCH, is the testing for planning skills. That is the ability to develop an implementation plan that tells others what changes need to be made. Also required is the ability to develop a verification plan that gives other engineers one command that will tell them whether the changes have been successful. How does an engineer obtain these skills?

WO: I spent a lot of time pondering this very question when writing the new ROUTE Official Cert Guide. Clearly anyone who does these planning tasks as part of their job will be much better prepared. But to prepare for the CCNP exams treatment of these planning topics, the first thing to know is that it's not one particular convention for what a planning doc looks like. Instead, it's a mindset. For example, if you have some level of knowledge of config commands related to EIGRP, and you're practicing in a lab, there's a tendency to use help (by typing a ?) in EIGRP mode, which identifies most of those commands related to EIGRP. It's perfectly reasonable to use the ? to be reminded of a command or parameter, but the skill you need for the exam is that next bump up where you can identify all the commands and their purpose without getting help. The best way to remember those skills is by using the commands more frequently, rather than sitting down to memorize the list. So, the exams will favor those with more real experience, and those that practice hands-on more (in my opinion, at least).

LL: The new CCNP loses breadth of topics, but gains in depth. How is it beneficial to network pros to know fewer topics in depth than a wide variety of networking topics? Wouldn't this put them at a disadvantage when going for the higher level CCIE and Cisco Certified Architect certifications? I'm guessing this makes taking some of the Cisco specialist courses and exams even more worthwhile, though.

WO: If you compare CCNP vs. CCIE Route Switch at any point in their history, there's always been a noticeable gap in both topic depth and topic breadth. I think that the new CCNP makes the candidates much better prepared in depth compared to CCIE Route Switch, and less prepared in relation to breadth. It does beg the question as to where you go to get the right breadth of other topics — in fact, there's been a bit of a theme in other public forums about "where's QoS" and "where's multicast," now that they've been removed from CCNP. Some of the topics in the CCNA Security exam are actually part of the CCIE Route Switch test, so maybe picking up that cert will be of some use. I think the tactics of going from CCNP to CCIE R/S changes a little, but I don't think it's a disadvantage.

LL: The revisions sound like the gap between CCNA and CCNP has widened. What advice would you have for CCNA students who have CCNP in their sights?

WO: I don't know that I'd buy the idea that there's a wider gap from CCNA to CCNP, but that may be my interpretation. Probably half of the major topics in ROUTE and SWITCH overlap some with CCNA (e.g., EIGRP, OSPF, IPv6), and CCNA already has some troubleshooting focus since the revisions made back in 2007 for the now-current exams. But I have a lot of opinions about how folks working towards CCNA should prepare if going for CCNP down the road: focus on building skills when prepping for CCNA, and don't be as concerned about cramming just to pass the CCNA on a certain date.

Deeper skills are better for real life, and better for moving on to CCNP. Second, I'd say don't wait long (if at all) between passing CCNA and starting to study ROUTE or SWITCH.

LL: Kevin Wallace, writing as your guest blogger, wrote that the troubleshooting exam in particular is designed to make it difficult for candidates to pass using braindumps because 90% of the exam consists of trouble tickets that need to be resolved. How far does this make it difficult for hired gunmen (hiring someone else to take the exam for you) to pass the exam?

WO: That's an interesting question. I watch the whole exam cheating issue with interest, but not as an expert in how to monitor and prevent those problems. I think TSHOOT might weed out the less skilled hired gunmen who rely on memorization of questions. But for the gunmen on a team, who are organized, and/or who have real skills, I don't think it'll stop them. It's kind of like the police needing special units for organized crime, because all the dumb criminals have already been caught.

I think this particular problem is a testing process issue, and Cisco seems to have done a lot to help prevent this problem, with picture IDs required, and photos taken at the testing center, etc.

LL: Cisco included a troubleshooting course in a previous version of the CCNP exam but decided to pull it. Would this lack of emphasis on troubleshooting in the previous version put current CCNPs at a disadvantage?

WO: Thinking about this from the cert candidate's perspective, I think the verdict is still out on whether it's better to have the old CCNP or new CCNP. We've had some discussions in the last year or so in my blog about the benefits of going wide vs. deep in skill-set. The new CCNP is clearly deeper and narrower, and almost all its main topics have been in the CCNP since its inception in 1998.

Fewer jobs require you to know only routing and switching, as compared to jobs that included the skills in the older CCNP. In some ways, the new CCNP may require job candidates to go for at least one other cert past CCNA, maybe a CCNA concentration, or another CCxP.

The advantages for new CCNPs are a bit more obvious: deeper knowledge and skills at the most central topics to many networking jobs. But I do expect there to be some perception of the old vs. new CCNP, and that one is better than the other (at least from the cert holder's perspective), and it will be interesting to see what kind of perception develops in the workforce.

LL: Cisco Press has published (or will soon publish, in some cases) a plethora of study guides, cert kits, flash cards, and other reference materials. What's your recommendation for must-have materials and in what order should they be consumed?

WO: On the must have list? This will sound self-serving, but I'd say it even if I didn't have a book in this mix: the CCNP Official Certification Guide Library from Cisco Press. I get paid when you buy those, just for full disclosure here. It's got the SWITCH Official Cert Guide from Dave Hucaby, which is an updated version of the former BCMSN Exam Cert Guide. There's a brand new book from Kevin Wallace, the TSHOOT Official Cert Guide. The third book is the all-new ROUTE Official Cert Guide. The Library has all three books for a cheaper price.

LL: Cisco has reduced the number of exams from four to three. It sounds great to have to go through fewer exams, but of course, the amount of content and the knowledge that students should know remains the same. What advice do you have for candidates taking the more in-depth exams?

WO: Two things will help most, I think. It may be obvious, but use tools that take you deeper on the topics. That's why I think the Cert Guide Library will help. The second suggestion is to pay more attention when reviewing, and when you're a little weak on a topic, note it, and dig a little more than maybe you would have in the past. Each exam is now long enough to test each person on all the topics, so it's worth taking the time to play in the lab a little more, read a second source, watch another of the Video Mentor labs in the Cisco Cert Kits.

Finally, when labbing, take the time to write down the config before touching the CLI, and writing down a shorthand of a verification plan, again without using help from the CLI. It'll help build a few more connectors in memory that will be helpful for the exams.

LL: Final question: How have the changes been received by the students and readers you've come across?

WO: So far, there's a lot of excitement and positive comments about the new TSHOOT exam. I think it's a great direction to go. I've seen a lot of comments from folks saying that they want to take CCNP just because of TSHOOT, even though they already have a CCNP. I haven't seen much negative yet, other than lament over the topics removed from the mix.

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