How I Passed the CCIE Lab Exam

The CCIE Plaque

**Warning…this is a VERY LONG post

Your CCIE status is certified (CCIE# 50726)…

That one line sentence at the homepage page of the CISCO OLSM brought mixed feelings as I sat at the roadside eatery in Deira clutching my phone. I had heard about how the results came in super quick when you had passed, but this score report seemed too swift in arriving. On my first attempt it had taken about 6 hrs for the FAIL verdict to arrive. Finally…The 2 year journey had come to an end. I was exhausted and tired but very relieved. I don’t remember exactly when I decided to pursue the CCIE certification but meeting a CCIE for the 1st time certainly made a deep impression on me that it was an attainable goal. It turned out that they were flesh-and-blood beings like myself and not the demi-gods I had perceived them to be. The truth is that they are not too many of them in my country and at the time of passing there were probably only 5 or 6  homegrown CCIE’s. It all begun by preparing to take the Written Exam which involved a massive amount of reading. It took me about 4 months to read cover to cover the 900+ pages of the v4 Official CCIE Written Cert Guide  by Wendell Odom cover to cover (The v5 Written Guide is now  in 2 volumes with a total of 1500+ pages) Although quite boring, it’s important to go through this chore the right way as it helps you build a theoretical base knowledge of the technologies in the Lab exam. A deeper knowledge and study of these topics is required when preparing for the lab exam itself. I didn’t just read the book but made sure to lab up most of the scenarios to give me a better understanding of the theory.

After narrowly passing the Written Exam in October 2013 it was time to focus on the beast of the lab itself. I had bought and shipped down a fully loaded v4 physical lab of about 15 devices to go with the INE Workbook topology and I was really pumped up to go all out for the lab prep. This was around November 2013 and shortly after ordering my kit the v5 lab revision was announced to commence in June 2014. I was disheveled as my goal was to attempt the mobile lab in Lagos in August 2014. Nevertheless I decided to go ahead and learn the core L2/L3 technologies and leave out the topics removed from the new version of the lab like Frame Relay and other platform specific features.The v5 was going to be delivered in a 100% virtual format via Cisco IOU/IOL. That begun the long nights after work of labbing up the INE Workbook Vol 1 using the INE fast track plan, holed up in my study with device fans whirring and generating enough heat to break out a sweat. It’s not funny when Task 1.1 of Workbook Vol. 1 leaves you clueless and feeling dumb at your inability to configure a Layer 2 logical topology from the physical topology. That in itself took a day or two getting it cabled up the right way! A quick visit however to the IEOC forum revealed that you were not the only confused soul thinking that maybe pursuing the CCIE might have been a wrong choice after all.

After some weeks of labbing you begin getting a feel for the workbook exercises but you know you are still a couple of months away from being ready for the lab itself due to the sheer volume of material to be covered.The CCIE is more of a psychological test than of technical knowledge in my opinion. You hear people say that a lot but till you go through the experience yourself  you do not appreciate it fully. Of a great help was the book authored by the 2 Double CCIE ‘s Vivek Tawari & Dean Bahizad which I strongly recommend to every CCIE candidate. It deals with the non-technical aspects of preparing for the lab.Fast forward to about 3 months down the line and I take a break from lab prep for some time due to work commitments and having to focus on learning some other technologies I needed to deliver on some key projects.

 

The CCIE v5 was finally released in all its glory during this downtime. It took some time to get used to the new exam format (TS+DIAG+CONFIG) and scoring scheme(How could PASS+PASS+PASS=FAIL???), but thanks to the presentations and demo videos/seminars by Bruno van Der Werve and other presenters at Cisco Live and  the resources from the Cisco Learning Network  the new format became clearer with time. While my primary vendor INE updated their workbooks and Advanced Technology Class videos to reflect the new content, I focused on learning and mastering the new core technologies especially DMVPN. From the blueprint about 40% of the exam focus would be the L3 routing technologies and I spent some time reading and labbing to drill deep down on these core topics. The year 2014 ended and with 6 months for my written exam to expire I had to step up my preps and change my study strategy to use more virtual resources such as GNS3 and Cisco IOU.This was to get a feel for the exam interface and improve on speed and accuracy in producing configs. One good advise is to become extremely familiar using Notepad (old school type, not Notepad++ which is NOT available in the lab) to copy and paste the repetitive configs (hello BGP!) You simply cannot in my opinion complete the lab by typing out all configs no matter your WPM. Even if you could, it’s not a really efficient path to take, unless you enjoy typing that much. Speed is of essence!!

I booked the lab 3 months out and from that time on I knew I had to change gears in my seriousness towards the preparations. It’s funny how the days literally ran by and suddenly every waking moment was spent thinking about the lab and when and how I could practice. Combining the lab prep with work meant 15-18 hr days and lots of lost sleep. I figured out quickly at this point that studying at home wasn’t as effective as before.It was easy to doze off and fall asleep so I preferred staying late in the office. That’s the strategy which worked best for me since I started combining work and studying for certification exams. In what seemed like only a matter of days it was time to board a flight to face the lab. I actually started typing this blog entry on the flight in anticipation of the victory that was awaiting me. Very few people go into the lab not expecting to pass on the 1st attempt. Some do, they probably have some form of company sponsorship and can afford to go in just to audit the lab. Not for us who have to pay for ourselves and make sacrifices to pool together the financial resources to make it happen.

In a few hours I landed at Dubai International Airport at dawn and managed to navigate my way through the airport to board the metro from Terminal 3 to Dubai Internet city. I made my way to the Holiday Inn Express Hotel after a few false leads. The hotel is actually about a 5-minute walk from the Cisco Office. I had to wait a bit to get a room due to my early morning arrival and dozed a bit in the foyer. After finally settling down I took a walk to Cisco and saw the welcoming sign at the entrance to CCIE Lab candidates with some instructions and I thought to myself “This is it…No turning back now!!” I returned to the hotel and did my last bit of revision; a mock TS lab, went over some configs and my study notes and went to sleep.

I awoke early the next morning and was out of the door by 7AM to Cisco where 3 guys had  already arrived with another 2 joining not long after. One came also for RS, 1 for Collaboration, 2 for SP and 1 for DC. We engaged in some small talk as we waited for the proctor who was a bit late in arriving. He welcomed us inside the foyer, checked our ID’s and we made our way up to lab room. We were directed to our pods and after a few ground rules we were asked to start. TS came first. 10 tickets in 2 hrs, plus an optional extra 30 mins which is deducted from your config time of 5hrs 30 mins. Now cracking the TS is all about strategy and I will refer you to Anthony Sequeira’s Cisco Live presentation which does some justice to this issue. I had taken it for granted and realized I was spending too much time trying to fix tickets without a clear strategy. I managed to fix about 4 tickets in the 1st hour and spent the next hour hopping from ticket to ticket trying to fix faults to achieve the desired output. I opted for the extra 30 mins after which I had mixed feelings about the TS section. Next came the diagnostic which was much tougher than I had expected it to be. The amount of configs and show output for the devices was simply overwhelming but I was able to go through the first two and answer the questions. I hadn’t noticed the timer counting down somewhere down in the corner and by the time I was halfway through the 3rd ticket I had just 5 mins remaining. I skimmed through the possible answers and used a best-effort approach to select what seemed like the best responses immediately after which the session closed automatically. “That wasn’t so bad”, I thought to myself.

We went on to the config section by which time the room temperature was freezing cold. I had ignored to bring a jacket along although the confirmation email explicitly asked candidates to bring one due to the temperature of the room. I had ignored it thinking it wouldn’t be that cold. After all this was the Middle East where sunshine and hot temperatures were the order of the day. How wrong I was proved to be. I read through the whole lab to get a feel for what was required and knew I was in for a challenge. I begun typing out configs and had to often crack my knuckles and do some neck exercises as my muscles were tensing up under the pressure. An hour into config the proctor called us out for  break time. We interacted with him and told him about our backgrounds and the work we did and how we had progressed in our careers up to  appearing for the lab exam. Thirty minutes later we were back at our pods after lunch ended. Some config in Layer 2 section was not working right and my Layer 3 configs were not coming up as a result. After about 30 mins of troubleshooting unsuccessfully I decided to proceed with the rest of the lab and come back later. It ruffled me a bit and I would come back to do some checks after every few sections to see if I could identify the Layer 2 issue, but to no avail. The sheer number of tasks was daunting and my fingers and mind were doing their best to keep up.I knew that I had erred by not forcing myself to sit for at least 6 hours straight doing mock labs uninterrupted during my lab preps. My body was not used to this kind of rigour which was taking its toll on me. About 45 mins to the end of the exam I spotted the problem in Layer 2 and on fixing it my Layer 3 configs started working. I started doing my verification but alas the time was not enough and before long the proctor was asking us to save our work and close our sessions.I was still not very certain if I was going to make it but decided to remain positive.

I walked back to the hotel with 2 of the other guys who were also staying there. The other RS guy had encountered a similar issue in his Layer 2. The Collaboration guy also had faced some issue with some sections and we were all hoping our trip ups would not stand in the way of success. At about 8 PM a call came in from the front desk and it was from the Collaboration guy who was asking if my score report was in. He apparently was on edge waiting for the results and had found  it hard to sleep. I assumed because we had taken the lab on a Sunday  we would have to wait till the following Monday. I fell asleep by 9PM and woke up around 5AM next morning. I picked my phone up to see the much awaited email which had come in around 10PM the night before. “Your CCIE lab score report is ready” Moment of truth. What was it going to be? I said a prayer, opened the email and was redirected to logon with my CCO account. FAIL!! It was as if time stood still for minutes as I assimilated the bad news I had been presented with. I had a FAIL in the Config and TS sections and a PASS for the Diag. Some of the section by section scores were so terrible that for days after I thought the score report was mixed up with someone else’s. I had to pick myself up, so I got dressed and went sightseeing in downtown Dubai the rest of the morning and then on to the desert safari. That was quite an exciting adventure and I enjoyed every bit of it thoroughly to kill the disappointment and get me re-oriented to begin the prep for a 2nd attempt.

I returned home the next day and took a one week break to focus on the next attempt. I did a candid re-assessment of my preps and where exactly I had faltered. I needed to firm up on some core topics and increase my speed in generating the necessary configs in Notepad. I thought to be ready within a month or two for the next attempt but that turned out to become 6 months. Chief among the reasons being the renewal of my passport which took about 3 months alone. During this waiting period, more late hours were spent in the office doing more lab practice, more reading of blogs and watching of the INE ATC CCIE RS videos. I developed a sure-fire strategy for the TS especially which consisted of several passes and note-taking of faults discovered and fixes effected so I could go and come back to the tickets that were not fully fixed with ease.

I booked the 2nd attempt in July, 3 months again to the date of the lab exam and started the countdown yet again. Months became weeks, which also became days and all too soon I was on a plane to Dubai yet again. I arrived earlier this time with about 2 days to spare so I could settle down fully. I lodged some distance away from Cisco this time to save some cost on the hotel bill and had to meet up with a friend on arrival who lent me his laptop to use for my last bit of practice. My backpack with my laptop had been stolen from my car just 3 days before with all my prep material. That was an incident in itself which could have destabilized me but I had to brush it aside and focus on the lab exam less than a week ahead.

So the d-day arrived and I left the hotel by 6AM to catch the first train to Dubai Internet City in order to arrive in good time. At the Cisco office there were two guys waiting and another two guys joined later on.We went through the same formalities as the last time. I was more relaxed as the experience was not new to me. We were assigned to our pods by the proctor as usual and after confirming the time we proceeded to start work. The TS tickets looked similar to the 1st attempt but since that was some time back I had a fresh outlook to them. Using my developed strategy I was able to fix about 6 tickets in the 1st hour which was good progress. By the end of the 2nd hour 8 tickets were done convincingly. I opted for the extra 30 mins since I figured that 5 hours for the config was sufficient. After the 2.5 hrs passed I was sure I had nailed at least 9 out of 10 tickets including the 4 pointers. I couldn’t fix the last ticket but I was sure I had enough points to pass. With renewed enthusiasm I proceeded onto the DIAG and with the experience from the 1st attempt made sure to pace myself accordingly, went through all the output as required and chose the best answers for the tickets. After that was completed it was time to face the beast of the config. With my jacket zipped up and shoes unlaced I proceeded to attack the multiple sections with a firm resolve to crack it this time around. Reading through the whole exam while taking notes I came up with a strategy to group all the similar configs across the sections so that I could have an overall view of the completeness of the tasks. This is important as some configurations would not work till later due to their dependency on subsequent tasks.

By the time the proctor called us for lunch I felt I was on track with respect to progress made and had a good feeling about my chances of success. We had the usual Subway burger lunch (Cisco, variety please!!) and after a few bites and a drink I was done and ready to go back. We did the usual self introductions with the proctor during which one guy confessed the lab wasn’t going too well for him. Tough luck mate. 15 mins into the break the proctor informed us that if any of us felt we were OK we could go back and continue and that time would not count against us. That was a miraculous 15 extra mins which would prove critical in my eventual success. I returned to my seat and resumed the configuration while some of the guys stayed back to continue with their lunch break. Unfortunately the guy who had confessed the lab wasn’t going too well came in for less than 10 mins after lunch and left never to return again, having obviously been overcome and humbled by “The Beast”. It was section after section from that point, taking time to verify the configs as I went along, rather than waiting till the very end to verify. I was careful not to repeat the same mistakes which cost me my first attempt by verifying every config I did.

I had about 1 hour remaining after completing the config during which I went back to reverify from the beginning to be sure that all tasks were completed as  expected. This was crucial as I discovered certain errors and configs that had not been completed and would have cost me precious points. I completed all the verification tasks and output confirmations just as the proctor asked us to save our work and log off our pods. That extra 15 minutes had sure come in handy. Feeling very confident that it had gone well I proceeded to leave the Cisco premises, pausing to take a selfie at the building entrance of course. That was going to be a never-to-forget shot. The trip via metro back to the hotel was about 45 mins and I opted to grab a bite at an eatery nearby which had quickly become a favourite before returning to my room. Upon sitting down I pulled out my phone, refreshed my inbox and there was the email from Cisco indicating that my lab score report was ready. What?? It hadn’t even been an hour since leaving the Cisco office. Anyway, from previous accounts of others who had been successful at the lab, the results usually came in quickly after completing. If it’s good news why delay it right? With trembling hands I clicked on the link to log on to the OLSM portal to see the result. It took a number of refreshes as the mobile data quality wasn’t very good in the area, by which time my fingers and the phone were literally trembling with suspense!

That moment is what begun this blog entry…Your CCIE status is certified!! Such good & relieving news as this had not come my way in a long time. Finally, the 2-year journey had come to an end.The long hours of preparation, the sacrifice of time & money and the strain on family, friends and social life had paid off. It was like the weight of a 40-foot container was lifted of my back. I took a deep breath of relief seated at the table there by the roadside, said a prayer of thanks to God for bringing me thus far and proceeded to share the good news with all those who had been there supporting me through this journey. Thanks to all the family and friends who encouraged & inspired me from beginning to end. You know yourselves! All in all it was an awesome experience. The process transforms and toughens you psychologically, hones your skills as a network engineer, teaches you an awful lot about the technologies in the track you choose to pursue and shows you how to learn and discipline yourself.

To all those pursuing the CCIE credentials, I will end with the following pieces of advice for your consideration;

  1. Read the book by Vivek Tiwari & Dean Bahizad: Your CCIE Lab Success Strategy. An extremely helpful resource to help you on the non-technical but very important aspects of your CCIE Lab preparation.
  2. Be sure and convinced that you really, really, really want to pursue the CCIE. It’s not a light pursuit and you need to be absolutely sure it is something you are up for
  3. Don’t rush your preparation. Take your time to build your capabilities from the ground up. Learn what you don’t know and take time to develop a solid understanding of the technology
  4. Have a social support system , especially from your family & friends especially as your availability and visibility will be greatly impacted. Some will not understand why you have to become “scarce” for a long period of time.
  5. If possible take the associate & professional level exams as that will help you build a baseline of knowledge for the respective track especially if you do not have much experience already
  6. Love the technology! Without this the material becomes a chore and drag to go through.

Happy learning!!

 

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3 Responses to How I Passed the CCIE Lab Exam

  1. MissO says:

    Nice!

    Like

  2. francis says:

    such painstaking chronological events yet worth the voyage. Well done my boss.

    Like

  3. Wow! Inspired indeed…. Well done Nii, hoping to get there to add to the certified numbers in the country.

    Like

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