During discussions that usually happen after my presentations, one of the most frequent questions is: “how did you study for the CCIE (Cisco Certified Network Expert) certification?”
Although this certification is widely recognized in the IT market for more than 20 years, it amazes me how it is still beset by doubts and exaggerated concepts. And the sheer number of CCIEs over these years both shows the growing interest for the certification and how hard it is to actually achieve it:
Without any doubt, I can say that the greatest satisfactions I ever had in my career at Cisco were surpassing this challenge three times (CCIE Routing & Switching in 2002 , CCIE Storage Networking in 2007 , and CCIE Data Center this month, as I have posted earlier here). And at each time, the preparation for the exams ultimately changed the way I studied, worked, and even thought.
Regardless of your intended CCIE specialty (Routing & Switching, Collaboration, Data Center, Security , Service Provider , Service Provider Operations, Voice, or Wireless), I truly believe that there are general good practices that can be used in the exam preparation. Of course, several other ways exist to reach a positive outcome but here I will describe a methodology developed by Alexandre Moraes, Marcos Yamamoto and me in the early 2000s. At the time, we were systems engineers in Cisco Brasilia´s office, blazing nights and weekends together to get certified.
A good analogy to the strategy would be: “train for a marathon and not for a 100 meter race”. Keeping your pace is as important as learning itself. And I can vow that such strategy was so successful that both Alexandre and I became triple-CCIEs and Marcos, a CCIE and an international marathon runner.
An important note: respecting the Cisco Certification and Confidentiality Agreement signed by all CCIE applicants, I will absolutely not discuss the content or any other information about the exams. As aforementioned, my idea is to solely describe the study strategy I have been using in the last 12 years.
Preparing for the Written exam
Nothing new here for those who have already studied for some certification exam from Cisco or any other IT vendor. The acronym “RTFB” (meaning, pardon my French, “Read the F… Books “) bluntly summarizes this step. At this stage, it is important that you follow what is being asked in the written test blueprint (visit http://www.cisco.com/go/ccie for these documents).
While studying, try to understand the concepts in a non-superficial way. Believe me; you’ll need them again repeatedly on the preparation for the lab exam.
Another valuable tip: schedule your written exam for no more than a month. As the day approaches you will be naturally “coerced” to study. And most importantly: even if you do not pass in the first time this first attempt will assess accurately your conceptual weaknesses.
To summarize the importance of this tip, a little bit of personal history: before 2001, I only scheduled exams when I felt truly prepared for them. However my manager at the time insisted at this very point and made me schedule the Routing&Switching written exam against my own will. I must say that he was absolutely correct (thanks, Wadih!) and that his lesson was simply “leave your ego aside and focus the positive result”.
With the success in the written test you will be entitled to set a date for the lab exam. I would suggest that you check to four to six months in the future. In most cases it can be pretty difficult to get dates inside the window above but keep on trying: many candidates change their dates and slots may be available for a few minutes.
Preparing for the Lab Exam
Now the fun really begins! Time planning is crucial for the lab exam study so aim to get at least 200 hours of laboratory practice until the day of the exam.
For example, if you practice two hours a day on weekdays and eight hours during each day of the weekend you will reach 26 hours per week. With this pace you will reach 216 hours in two months which is a particular good average considering that you will probably need to study a lot of theory during these early months. Again, this is an average figure: each individual obviously has his own pace, strengths and areas for improvement.
It is important that you plan to have access to “real” lab equipment during your study time. I know there are several simulators for these devices but I have always sought to practice in real environments as similar to the exam as possible (the CCIE website usually describes which devices and software versions are used in the exam). If you do not have equipment available for your immediate use, there are several companies, such as IPExpert and INE, that provide CCIE racks for reasonable prices. Another great tip is to use laboratories from Cisco PEC (Partner E- Learning Connection) for practice on specific topics.
My lab exam preparation was always separated into three main phases during approximately one month each. The first phase is focused on CONTENT, meaning the complete elimination of your doubts about design, configuration, and troubleshooting of features required in the lab exam blueprint. During this phase, it can be quite interesting to attend a CCIE lab bootcamp. These trainings are extremely good to point out your hands-on weaknesses.
Subsequently it comes the time to move to the second phase which is focused on the practice of FULL EXAMS. Your goal now is to learn how to use the content absorbed previously in simulations modeled on the lab exam. In this phase, both your mind and body will become used to long consecutive hours of hands-on required for the lab exam.
In the CCIE bootcamp training, you probably received some complete mock exams while others can be purchased in published books or CCIE workbooks from websites such as www.iementor.com. With at least 5 mock exams in hand you will be able to practice during the weekends and use the weekdays to resolve the doubts that hindered their execution. Be sure to mark the time you took for each mock exam: you will use them in the next phase. Try to solve problems using all possible ways and pay extreme attention to mock exam´s text, since it will probably require you to use a specific methodology that may differ from your personal preference.
You may move to the third stage when you have total confidence on all possible tweaks of the features required in blueprint (at this point I starting to having nightmares about commands that I had never heard of). The focus now is SPEED and your goal is quite simple: try to retake the mock exams spending half the time you used in the second phase. This procedure will force you to develop your own method for faster configuration.
In my case, I used the weekends to practice at least four mock exams and weekdays to develop and test acceleration techniques such as copy-and-paste into notepad and memorize wizards from graphical interfaces. At the end of this phase you will almost become an “IOS configuration printer” and time will no longer be your worst enemy.
Now you’re more than ready for the real thing. Until the exam it is important that you do not miss a beat: continue to conduct new simulations and inventing new methods to increase your speed. By all means, keep your pace for the ultimate marathon!
The Day of The Exam
Some quick tips for the D-day:
- Plan to arrive early to the exam site.
- Have a good breakfast.
- Prior to the exam, do not do anything you’re not used to, like taking tranquilizers or eat exotic food.
- Try to relax and trust your skills!
Do Not Give Up
As I have mentioned above, the CCIE certification may test you in ways you are not expecting at all. Of course, it is a great privilege to pass on the first time but this is an extremely rare situation as most candidates can attest. In my humble opinion, you should not “fight” the certification, complaining to yourself that a said question, topic or troubleshooting does not reflect the best practices. As my first CCIE proctor summarized: “this is not the real world, this is the CCIE lab exam”.
And if you don´t pass in the first time, as it happened to me, remember that there is ALWAYS room for improvement. Or in the words of the greatest film director of all time, Mr. Stanley Kubrick:
“I’ve never been certain whether the moral of the Icarus story should only be, as is generally accepted, ‘don’t try to fly too high,’ or whether it might also be thought of as ‘forget the wax and feathers, and do a better job on the wings.”
I sincerely hope this strategy can help you somehow. Good luck and Godspeed!