The JNCIE-ENT Alpha Experience

After participating in the JNCIE-ENT alpha lab on June 28, 2011, I decided a post detailing my experience was in order. I’ll trying to include as much information as I can, while making sure to not violate any candidate non-disclosure.

Some time last fall I was asked if I would be interested in attending the JNCIE-ENT exam design workshop. I wanted to be there, but unfortunately I had to at a customer site in Chicago that week and was unable to reschedule that engagement. I really missed out, it seems, as the people who attended actually got to write the tasks for the lab exam. I had figured it was just a workshop meant to get input on what should be tested, maybe some high level design, etc. Finding out what I missed out on made me even more upset about not being there, especially since the Chicago engagement turned out to be a bust and could have EASILY been done remotely.

Skip forward four months, and I was being invited to the JNCIE-ENT alpha exam. Liz Burns (@JuniperCertify) and Stefan Fouant (@sfouant) were both instrumental in getting me into the very exclusive group of alpha lab candidates, which also included Doug Marschke (@DougMarschke), Dan Backman (@jonahsfo), Tommy Perniciaro (@perniciaro) and Doug Hanks (author of the Juniper Day One Guide: Securing the Routing Engine).

We decided to fly Virgin America. If any of you out there have never had the experience of flying this airline, you need to make sure you give them a try. Mood lit cabin, big comfy seats (even in the main cabin), touchscreens that let you order food and drinks, play video games, watch TV, and even chat with other passengers. The first class seats have electric seat adjustments, including a footrest. Oh did I mention the massagers built into the first class seats?? But, I digress…

We landed at SFO and I picked up my bag (I checked my carry-on size bag because I’m too lazy to deal with the ridiculous liquids policy), picked up our rental car (some gutless wonder with a Cadillac badge on the front) and headed to downtown San Francisco for food. We ended up meeting one of our account managers and some dude from Apple at a place called Oola, and they have the absolute best ribs I’ve ever had. Then we headed to our hotel in the Sunnyvale area. I went straight to bed, and actually got some decent sleep.

The morning of the exam I woke up and met Tommy in the hotel lobby. I really wished I had eaten something, as my tummy was grumbling all morning. We got to the address listed in our invite email, but that was apparently for the main building, or something. We had to drive over to another building. Once there, we signed and and were greeted by our proctor, Jon Looney. I’d met Jon once before when I had dinner with him and Dan Backman the last time I was in San Francisco. He’s one of those guys who seems laid back and funny, but you just know he’s a brilliant guy by the way he talks.

Also meeting us in the lobby was Doug Marschke. I’d never actually met doug before, but he was nothing at all like I was expecting. I don’t know why, but I almost expected a mix between Wendell Odom and Jeff Doyle. Not… even… close!

Once we got in, we sat down in a classroom with some laptops on the desks. They had super annoying rubber key protectors on them, which made typing on them a pain. We were each given one of three exams: routing, switching, or multicast. They were all the same exam, but with the full exam likely to take 15-20 hours total, they had each of us focus on a certain area to make sure everything gets tested. I got the switching exam, for example, and had little to no multicast and only half the BGP section, but I was the only one who had to do the entire switching section. This may seem weird, but considering we weren’t there to take a real test, but rather for us to critique and fix the exam, it makes sense to try to cover as much as we can in a limited time period.

Our proctor Jon went over the format, and the issues with the exam. He also came by and changed things on our diagrams and exam booklets in pen. A pretty sure sign of how broken it really was. The layer 3 diagram was also very bad, with OSPF areas appearing to overlap. We were asked to do the best we could and try to get as far as we could. He gave us our login information for our terminal servers, and away we went!

After pounding away for a few hours on some broken tasks (including one that was hit by a nasty bug), we had lunch. Juniper’s cafeteria is significantly better than the one at the Cisco office during my CCIE. I was very impressed. We had some great discussions with Jon and Doug regarding Juniper, education, and the business in general.

After lunch, we went back to our seats and started pounding away at the lab again. After another 6 hours or so it became clear that we weren’t going to make it through all the material, so I started skipping parts that I knew were going to be covered by the other two guys exams. I even skipped the protocol-independant routing section in order to be sure to be able to give some feedback on the CoS section. I wanted to be as useful as possible, and since I was there more to give feedback than to actually hope to pass, I felt it was more important to cover as much material as possible.

At about 5pm, Doug bowed out, saying he was finished for the day. He said he would be glad to come back and go over the rest, as he had no intention of passing. Like the rest of us, his primary concern was to give as much feedback as possible.

When we only had about 30 minutes left (there was no official time limit, but Jon said he was hoping to get us out by about 7:30 or 8:00), Jon came around and went over the questions we skipped over to ask us how we would approach each task. I like to think the answers I gave were good ones.

We chatted with Jon for a bit about the exam and the certification program as a whole, and then we left. Tommy and I hit a Thai place in some sketchy neighborhood, and it was pretty fantastic. Then we headed back to the hotel, and flew home the next day, again on Virgin America 🙂

During our flight, Tommy and I discussed the lab exam, what was broken and what we’d like to see happen with it. We also talked about if/how it will be graded, and whether we’d end up with the JNCIE-ENT certification because of our efforts. I think we both agreed that since it would be very difficult to grade a very broken alpha exam, our fate would likely rest in the hands of our proctor. Jon had actually told us the exam would NOT be graded, so our assumption would be that he would either base a pass/fail upon his own impressions of our abilities (especially since our exam cover page even stated that we were there because we were ALREADY experts), or that it would simply not be graded and we would be asked to take it again once it was released. There was a lot of speculation about what would happen, with no clear answers being given from anyone.

The week after the exam, I was invited to a conference call to go over the exam and discuss comments that were made during the exam, as well as to modify or remove tasks on the exam. This was a LONG process, running more than three hours. They estimated that the exam we took was about 16-18 hours of material, so we needed to pare down a LOT. Unfortunately this ended up resulting in a lot of very good tasks being removed. In fact, my favourite task was removed, one that involved tweaking some route preferences and IGP metrics to make it work. It was tricky, but very straightforward if you understand routing policy. However, I was the only one to get this task working as intended, and even had a mini-argument with Jon about what should be the result of the task (which as it turns out, I was correct). I guess at one point I got snarky and said “I guess I just like the task because I actually did it right”. But, such is life.

Overall, I’d have to say I was less than pleased with the end result, but as we were informed that any significant changes to the content of the exam would require a whole new process and exam building workshop to happen, our hands were pretty tied. I almost wanted to say they need to just scrap it and start over, but I can’t imagine they’d be happy to hear that. I would have liked to see the tasks range from simple to complex to outright nasty, with points being allocated logically. As it was, we were getting a single point for a complex BGP task. I’d really like to be a part of the workshop for the next iteration of the JNCIE-ENT in a few years. I understand this is a brand new exam, and has some kinks to work out along the way. It will eventually become a fantastic exam – it just isn’t there yet.

So… the results…. Skip forward a few weeks, when I get the following in my email:

Dear Chris:

Thank you for participating in the alpha testing process for the new JNCIE-ENT exam.

The alpha testing process is very challenging and we are continually grateful that candidates like you choose to take these exams – providing us invaluable assistance in creating high quality, relevant exams.

Unfortunately you did not pass as you were not able to finish the critical tasks in the exam. We hope that you attempt the exam again, using your experience in the alpha test to help prepare. This exam is now live. You can register for it at Lab Exam Registration.

Please let us know if you have any questions.

Thank you again for your participation!
The Juniper Networks Certification Program Team

Needless to say, I was not happy. And not so much because I didn’t pass (though I did feel that if the exam had been a reasonable length and not horribly broken, I would have passed it), but because others did. In my opinion, I would have preferred a “thanks for the help, here’s a free seat for the exam once its released” for everyone, rather than passing some and failing others. I understand that an alpha exam is not a guaranteed pass, I was just stunned. It felt like a slap in the face, as if the hard work I had put in was all for nothing. Silly, I know.

Luckily I went to sleep before I said anything TOO harsh (Dan, Liz, Mike – I apologize if I was indeed out of line), and the next morning I came to accept it. As my IRC friend Brandon (@brandonrbennettsaid, “So you got to be a part of the process _and_ get a leg up on everyone else. Win.” He’s definitely right. I now know exactly what’s on the real thing, so I really should be able to just go in and blow it out of the water.

As for my thoughts of the process as a whole… I’m absolutely ecstatic that I was able to be a part of the process. From the invite to the workshop, to the invite to the alpha, I am so thankful to those who pushed to get me involved. It was an honour being allowed to work on this, and I very much hope I will have the opportunity to work with the Juniper Certification Program Team again in the future. I simply can’t say enough great things about those involved in this, and how much effort goes into creating a fantastic, challenging, fun exam. Again, thank you guys SO much for giving me this amazing opportunity!!

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