January 14, 2018, marked my 10th anniversary as a Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert, and I’m using this milestone to recount my CCIE journey in my first-ever blog post.
CCIE JOURNEY BLOG INTENTION
I originally posted my journey on the now-defunct GroupStudy.com mailing list. That post received many positive reviews in the months that followed. Their common theme was how much that post had helped people modify their plans to garner success on their CCIE journey.
Judging by the Internet activity surrounding the CCIE, it’s clear that it hasn’t gotten any easier to pass the 8-hour lab exam. Candidates still spend thousands of dollars on training materials and log hundreds and hundreds of hours of lab time in hopes of passing.
This post shares my journey to help those that are working towards their CCIE. Whether you’re preparing for your first attempt at the lab or a subsequent attempt, I hope you find something in this post to help you reach your goal.
CCIE LAB EXAM ROUND ONE
After passing the qualification exam in January of 2006, the countdown from eighteen months had begun. I needed to sit the lab exam within eighteen months or re-write the qualification exam before attempting the lab. It’s incredible how quickly time flies by with looming deadlines. My first objective was to renew my CCNP by passing the CCIE qualification exam - mission accomplished. The second objective was to become a CCIE. Here’s where the real work began.1
Speed Bag Training for Exam Preparation
Speed bags are used in boxing to create speed in the hands, improve eye contact, and help with rhythm in punches. However, they are only one of many tools used to train boxers, and successful fighters don’t limit themselves to speed bag training. As it turned out, I limited my CCIE lab preparation to one tool for my first attempt.
Quite a bit of time elapsed between passing the qualification exam and diligent study for the lab began. When I finally picked up the books again, I completed a quick refresher of fundamental topics from the exam blueprint. The remainder of my preparation consisted of labs, labs, and more labs.
I attended the CCIE boot camps at Global Knowledge, purchased the lab workbooks from IPExpert, and built a lab out of used Cisco routers and switches. I spent the next several months working on labs, putting in 12 to 16-hour days until the day before my exam.
Step into the Ring - CCIE 1st Attempt
After doing well in my lab sessions, my plan was simple. Show up, pass the exam, and go home with my shiny new digits.
“Everyone has a plan until they’ve been hit.” - Joe Louis
The proctor said, “go,” and I dived into the exam. The first couple of tasks went well, and I was feeling good. Then I got hit.
Full disclosure: I went into the exam with some weaker areas in my knowledge, specifically, quality of service (QoS) and multicast. The 8-hour lab is indeed an expert-level exam that will expose weaknesses. I took a few uppercuts from QoS and multicast tasks.
I also ran into trouble in the most unlikely of places. Topics I thought I had mastered were suddenly escaping me. As I sat there, staring at the screen and scratching my head, I kept telling myself, “I know this stuff.” Why couldn’t I recall it from memory? I started looking through the documentation, at the time it was called UniverCD, for hints, but this was futile. There was a sea of information, and I didn’t know how to navigate it properly. I moved on to the next task only to discover a dependency on the previous one. I moved further into the exam and found questions that didn’t have dependencies. I completed some, but my memory failed me in others.
Not surprisingly, I didn’t finish the exam, and I knew I had failed before even walking out of the exam room.
As it turns out, an expert-level exam requires more than just expert-level technical knowledge. My other weaknesses, exposed by the exam, were a lack of a proper plan, exam management, time management, and not knowing the Cisco documentation nearly as well as I should.
I had three takeaways:
- I was completely capable of crushing that exam.
- Develop a plan to work on all my areas of weakness while at least maintaining and hopefully improving my areas of strength.
- Figure out why I had trouble recalling information regarding topics where I already had expert-level knowledge.
CCIE LAB EXAM ROUND TWO
After returning home, beaten but not defeated, I took another couple of months off from studying. I needed to recharge my batteries and spend time with my family. It was summer in Saskatchewan, and summer is not to be missed here.
Slow Sparring for Exam Preparation
Slow sparring is a training method used by boxers to improve reaction times, develop a greater variety of counters, adapt to different styles, spar intelligently for extended periods, and increase creativity.
When I started studying again, I dedicated a few weeks to QoS and another few to multicast. I focused on material I already owned, ordered the lab workbooks from InterNetwork Expert (INE), and found many excellent resources on the Internet. Before preparing entire lab scenarios, I made study notes and practiced QoS and multicast situations independently. My comfort level was so high with these two topics that I was hoping for hard questions on the exam. Ok, maybe I wasn’t hoping for complex questions, but I certainly was prepared for them.
From my first attempt, I learned that 12 to 16-hour days of doing 1.5 to 2 labs each day was too grueling. I was exhausting myself, and I couldn’t retain much from each session. My brain really couldn’t absorb everything I covered each day. It’s little wonder I had difficulty recalling the required information during the exam. My adjustment was to limit my study to 8 hours per day. Even if I didn’t feel tired, I stopped for the day once I hit 8 hours.
I also slowed the speed at which I progressed through each lab and worked on labs to gain knowledge rather than focusing on speed. It took me two and sometimes three days to finish a lab. This slowing of lab work followed a two-pronged approach.
The first prong was methodically using Cisco’s documentation. Before entering any command on the lab gear, I looked it up manually without searching. I found each one no matter how buried it was. Not only did I locate each command and read all its associated options, but I also found other valuable knowledge along the way.
The second prong was trying multiple solutions for most tasks in each lab. If there were various solutions for a problem, I tested them all before moving on, staying loyal to first researching every command in the documentation. I learned in my first attempt that the exam often restricts your choices. For example, a task may want you to make traffic follow a specific path, but you are not allowed to use a particular set of commands. In the real world, these would be the exact commands you would usually use, but you have to avoid them here. Knowing multiple ways to accomplish a task is invaluable during the exam.
To summarize, there was a difference in my studying this time around. I studied slower, covered less content per study session than I usually would, worked the practice labs multiple times, and tried numerous solutions for most tasks. All these things combined made me more creative, knowledgeable, faster, and confident. I also developed a plan for taking the exam.
The Rematch - CCIE 2nd Attempt
While studying, I found that taking a day or two off between practice labs kept my brain fresh, while working labs consecutively got boring and caused my performance to suffer. With this in mind, I stopped studying four days before my exam and arrived in San Jose two days early rather than the day before, like last time.
The temptation to cram was immense, but I resisted. Instead, I worked on the growing honey-do list at home that now seemed more daunting than the CCIE. When I got to San Jose, I went sightseeing. I walked, got fresh air, and saw some cool things during these two days. Good sleep is a crucial ingredient in maintaining an alert brain, and all of this walking contributed to the two excellent nights of sleep I had going into the exam.
“The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses; behind the lines, in the gym and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.” - Muhammad Ali
When the proctor said “fight,” er, I mean “go,” I used the provided paper to create a table to capture exam notes and progress. This table had four columns with the following headings: Task# and name, Notes, Points, and Complete.
Next, I read the exam all the way through while filling in the appropriate cell for each task in the table I had just created - I did this twice. This plan did three things for me:
- It got me relaxed and comfortable with the exam.
- Captured possible solutions right away, saving me from having to think of them a second time when I was under more pressure.
- I identified any dependencies in one task that might narrow down the possible solutions for another.
I didn’t log in to the first device until about 20 or 30 minutes into the exam.
Once I started the questions, I was able to move quickly. In my notes, I had already recorded at least one possible solution for almost every task. The only thing I needed to do was decide on the correct answer and configure it. As I progressed through the exam, I updated the table, sometimes taking extra notes and other times clarifying existing notes. When I completed a task, I put a checkmark in the relevant cell.
I consulted UniverCD about five or six times. The total time spent researching wasn’t very long because I knew where to go each time. Knowing the documentation allowed me to reserve some room in my brain for technical knowledge rather than using it to memorize commands. I also consulted the proctor a few times to get clarification on a few tasks. The strategy here is that I didn’t waste any time and didn’t allow myself to get stuck. If neither the documentation nor the proctors could provide me with an immediate solution, I made notes, moved on, and revisited that task when appropriate.
To my surprise, I had marked all tasks complete with two hours to spare. Rather than calling it a day, however, I used almost all of that time to go through the entire exam one more time. I was happy I did, as I found a couple of mistakes that didn’t meet some specific requirements. I don’t know if these mistakes would’ve caused me to fail, as they didn’t affect reachability, but I found them and fixed them.
When I left the exam room that day, I knew I had passed, and I couldn’t wait to get my result. I went out for dinner and then to a movie. I couldn’t sleep, so I checked my email every hour. Finally, at about 3 am, I got my result. PASS!
POST-FIGHT PRESS CONFERENCE AS A CCIE
Knowledge = Speed
I’ve coached enough sports (i.e., tae kwon do, hockey and baseball) for enough years to know that when introducing a new skill, refreshing a current skill, or if a player is having trouble with a technique or concept, slowing things down is often the best first step. This approach has never been more valid than my preparation for the CCIE lab exam.
Although the formula knowledge=speed isn’t as famous as knowledge=power, e=mc2, or a2+b2=c2, it’s equally valid. Studying for knowledge increased my speed. Slowing down the labs and trying multiple ways to accomplish a task allowed me to learn the basics of each protocol (i.e., Spanning Tree, OSPF, EIGRP, BGP, etc.) at a deeper level. As a result, I became quicker and more creative with my solutions and troubleshooting.
Value of the CCIE
My CCIE number is 19817. In 2008 there was much talk about certification devaluation from too many (>20K) CCIEs. While that debate rages on today, I think there are a few points to consider. It takes heart, persistence, dedication, and determination to attain the CCIE, and I don’t believe any employer will ever devalue those character traits. Also, achieving your digits shouldn’t be the end goal, causing you to rest on your laurels and allowing your knowledge to collect dust. Stay current, stay active, keep learning, apply that knowledge somewhere, challenge yourself, and keep growing.
Know thyself. How best do you learn? Try slowing down if you’re struggling with some knowledge or a particular skill. Who knows, once you attain your CCIE, you may try boxing.
After some procrastination ↩︎