I recently became a CCIE, and I want to share some lessons learned during my 2 years of studying. I will not describe in detail what topics to study, but I will describe some valuable lessons I learned during my studies. My hope is that this will help someone in their journey because I am a guy that likes to give back to the community.
Assess Your Life
The first thing you need to do before starting your journey is to assess yourself: where are you now? I don’t only mean this from a technical perspective. You should also ask yourself, “Where am I right now in my life?” The CCIE is a long and lonely road, and you need to find the right time in life to get through it with a number at the end.
If you have a significant other, now is the time to explain what the CCIE is about. Explain roughly how much time it will take and the costs associated with it, but let them know that you can still spend time together. Explain the benefits of becoming a CCIE, such as a higher status and pay in the industry. You need to have this person with you on this journey. If you end up arguing all the time due to the studying, you will lose focus and likely even your relationship. When I started my studying for the CCIE, my son was 2 years old. When I passed the lab, he was 4 years old, and I also had a baby daughter. Studying with kids is difficult, but not impossible.
It Takes Time
Depending on your current certification and skill level, you will need to put in somewhere around 1,000 hours or more before you’ll be able to pass the lab. Some people need less time and some need more, but it gives you a rough estimate of the time needed. What you need to remember is that this is a marathon and not a sprint; you need to pace yourself. I see too many people studying like maniacs for a couple of weeks, and then they get burned out. They never get anywhere. Studying is pretty easy, but it requires discipline and motivation.
Prepping For The Written
To earn your ticket to take the lab, you first need to pass a written exam. There are several different methods on how to study for this. Some people study for the lab and pass the written as a byproduct of that. Others like to just get it out of the way, read the certification guide, and then go for it. I studied for about 6 months before taking the written, and put in somewhere around 250 hours of reading. I did this for a couple of reasons.
- You need a strong foundation to stand on when studying for the lab.
- My motivation was that I wanted to be a better engineer, and not just study for a test.
I would study on my commute; this is the perfect time to read (if you’re not driving 😉 ). Also, I would do some reading in the evenings. You can find recommended reading lists in many places, but they often neglect to mention the classics. Don’t just read the certification guide and think you are ready. Read books like TCP/IP Illustrated, Internetworking with TCP/IP, Routing TCP/IP and Internet Routing Architectures. Becoming a CCIE is not just about commands, it is also about knowing the protocols and thinking at a CCIE level. When you do pass the written, the clock starts ticking. You need to take the lab within 18 months or else retake the written again. When you take the lab within 18 months, then your written will count for 3 years, so you don’t have to retake it for a while. Hopefully, you will pass within that time span.
Prepping For The Lab
After the written, it is time to study for the lab. There are several workbooks out there, and you need to pick a vendor that you think will provide you with good material for a decent price. Usually, the workbooks are divided into different volumes, where each volume has a different focus. This may vary between vendors but usually they are divided like this:
- Vol. 1 – Small, technology-focused labs
- Vol. 2 – Full scale labs similar to a real lab exam
- Vol. 3 – Core topic practice labs designed to improve your speed
- Vol. 4 – Troubleshooting
Also, many vendors will have some video based training. These videos basically go through the whole blueprint as a CCIE instructor explains the concepts to you. This can be a good compliment to the workbooks. If you haven’t already made some form of schedule then you should do it now when you are studying for the lab. I would try to sit 4 hours for 4 times each week. This is 16 hours of labbing. Since I would also do reading/labbing on my commute, I totaled somewhere around 20 hours per week studying.
The Volume 1 type labs will give you the foundation needed to get on with the full scale labs. When you do these labs don’t rush through them all, and don’t try to memorize the commands. Do them to learn; try tweaking them a bit. What happens if I change things this way or that way? Take notes; I used paper and pen, but keeping digital notes might be a better idea with Evernote or something similar. If you need to look something up, you should use the Official DocCD. Forget about Google. Google does not exist in your life any longer, at least not when studying.
If you need to lab something more to get a deeper understanding, then create your own scenarios. This is great for improving the learning experience. One thing to consider is that just because you are labbing does not mean you should not read books any longer. Books will complement your understanding; don’t forget the RFCs! If you get stuck, then use the forums available to get help.
When first starting out with Volume 2 labs, you will be shocked. There is a lot to configure, and the time flies by fast. Mixing features that you don’t usually use can be really confusing. Don’t rush through these labs; now is not yet the time to do mock full labs. You need to go through these at your own pace, taking notes. If you need several days to get through a lab, then so be it. Speed will come with time. I recommend that quite early in your studies you start using Notepad for typing configurations. This will help you with retention of commands, improve your speed, and reduce errors. At the end of your preparation for the lab, you will be able to look at a diagram and configure BGP with route reflectors entirely in Notepad, just pasting the code in – quite the feeling!
Don’t be afraid to throw extra stuff into the labs – things that you don’t do that often like PPPoFR, PPPoE, CHAP/PAP, private VLANs, etc. If you configure this weird ones a couple of times, they won’t be so scary the next time. Right from the start, practice your verification. Many candidates have failed the lab due to lack of verification. For every command you enter, you should know what it does and how to verify it. If you can’t verify your configuration, then how can you know if you solved the task? Every candidate will use different solutions for the tasks. Don’t be too hard on yourself, your solution may very well be valid, as long as you don’t break any restrictions set in the lab scenario. Remember that the real lab is results based, so if you achieve the same result without breaking restrictions, then you are good to go.
Troubleshooting is a big part of the CCIE lab. You need to be good with troubleshooting as the time can be quite limited. Troubleshooting will really test your knowledge of the protocols. How are they supposed to work? What parameters can you mess with to make them not work? You can’t just do TS scenarios and expect to become good with troubleshooting. You need to practice the protocols and try to work troubleshooting challenges into your regular labs. I practiced troubleshooting by building up different scenarios; this is good practice in itself. Then, I would break it in different ways like disabling CEF, using duplicated RIDs, mismatching authentication strings, and other things like that. That way, you will learn what commands to use to quickly identify errors in the network. Also, you should practice with the vendor TS scenarios.
The Big Day
Now the big day comes. You are taking the lab! What are some things you should consider?
- Well, first of all you should try to get a good night’s sleep – easier than it sounds! For me, working out the day before makes it easier to go to sleep in the evening. Do whatever works for you. You should wake up in time to not feel stressed and have a good breakfast.
- You will start with the TS section and you need to be focused straight away. During the troubleshooting, you really need to have a good strategy. It is not unusual for candidates to get stuck for a long time on a few tickets, solving a lot of them in the end. So you need to stay focused and don’t give up! You should not spend more than 5-10 minutes per ticket depending on complexity. Try to take care of the tickets that seem easier first. If you get stuck on something, you need to move on, or that could be the end of your lab attempt.
- I like to wear ear plugs to be isolated from other candidates typing and from voice candidates in the room.
- For the configuration section, you need to read through the entire lab, don’t start typing immediately. There will be some tricky things and dependencies that you should be able to catch by looking at diagrams and reading through the lab. Don’t draw diagrams if you feel the ones provided are adequate, but if you need to, then do it. A layer 2 diagram might help your understanding of the topology.
- As with the TS section, you can’t get stuck on any task for too long.
- Stick to your strategy.
- After doing each task, you MUST verify. I can’t say this too many times; verification will make or break your lab.
- Remember that the exam is results based, so solve the task the way you see fit without breaking the restrictions.
- You should keep track of your progress on the scrap paper provided. Write down each task, the number of points, and check it off when you have completed it.
- Try to leave some time for verification in the end. You will make small mistakes which hopefully you caught the first time around but you will surely find some more errors in your 2nd verification run. This is very critical. If you are stressed for time, you might have to choose between doing more tasks or double-checking the ones you already have done. Hopefully if you are prepared enough, you can do both.
- All that is left now is to wait for the e-mail from Cisco. Hopefully you will see PASS in the score report.
Feel free to ask me any questions, and I will reply to them as long as they don’t break the NDA.