CCIE - First Lab Attempt Experience

This is from a post on, shortly after my failed first CCIE lab attempt:

You haven’t heard much from me recently for a very good reason. I have had no life. None whatsoever. No biking, no going out, no watching TV, nothing. All my spare time has revolved around one thing: CCIE study. This year I set myself a challenge, of becoming a CCIE (Cisco Certified Internetworking Expert). This is a top-level networking certification, highly respected within the industry.

Becoming CCIE certified involves passing a written exam, taken at any one of hundreds of testing centres around the world. That part needs a bit of study, but it’s straightforward. That then qualifies you to register for the real meat of it – the 8 hour practical exam, taken at a limited number of lab locations around the world. These have limited seats available, and depending on where you are, it can be tricky getting seats. Luckily my nearest location is Sydney, which is usually not too tricky to get space at.

Because of other rather important things going on in my life – i.e. I’m getting married next week – I had to schedule my first lab attempt for this week. I always knew that it was a bit tight to get ready by this time, but I thought I could just about do it. I don’t do any hands-on work with Cisco equipment these days, so all the practice I get is in my time, on my dime. I’ve mostly been using training materials from INE in my study program. These give me some structure to work from, as I try to cover the enormous range of topics covered in CCIE Routing and Switching these days.

Almost every night I’m either reading, or practising scenarios on rented routers and switches. At least one whole weekend day is taken up with practice lab scenarios. Closer to lab time, this was both weekend days. My iPod has audio lectures loaded on it. When I’m driving to and from Tauranga for work, this is usually what I’m listening to. Some people keep track of the total hours they spend studying. I don’t, but trust me, it’s a lot. I really don’t know how Anna puts up with it all, I really don’t. She has been amazingly supportive though.

All this work, but it turns out that I’m not quite there yet. Close, but just not quite there. Recently I tried a couple of practice labs from Cisco 360 program. These offer a pretty reasonably simulation of what you might expect from the lab. One of them I was just below passing, the second one I passed. Note: There are two parts to it, troubleshooting and configuration, and you need 80% in both parts to pass.  So I knew I was on track. Not certain to pass, but certainly in the frame.

This week I travelled to Sydney, for my first lab attempt. Things started out reasonably well, and I was reasonably sure I would pass the first part, troubleshooting. Sometimes candidates know they’ve failed the first part, and so they don’t make a proper effort in the configuration part. But I thought I was doing OK, and I thought I was going OK for time. I wasn’t rushing, I spent a bit of time reading through the questions, looking at the diagrams, getting a feel for what’s going on. The last thing you want is to find that a question near the end of the exam completely changes how you should have done something at the start. It’s a classic Cisco trick, to have something late in the day that breaks everything you thought you’d configured earlier.

I started working my way through the configuration section. I could understand pretty much all the core stuff, but the problem was time. After a couple of hours, I realised I just wasn’t moving through the marks fast enough. I also got tripped up by the deliberate mistakes Cisco had inserted. I was prepared for a misconfiguration, I wasn’t ready for something added that would actively break things. That took a little longer than it should have to track down and fix. At lunch time I was OK, but only just.

After lunch, I worked my way through the rest of the items, all except for 3. Two of them were on a complex, but niche topic, and would have required a huge amount of work for the marks. One was dependent on the other, so I chose to skip those questions, as it didn’t affect anything else. The third thing I could have worked it out, but I was running out of time, and didn’t want to risk breaking other things. I took too long configuring things, and I didn’t have the time to properly verify everything, other than full connectivity. Provided I got every other section right, I could just scrape through, even with the missing sections. So I wasn’t certain I’d failed, but it would be tough to pass.

This morning I got my score report. Passed troubleshooting (the section that trips up most candidates), but failed configuration. No CCIE number for me today. I think the thing that got me was three little words: “No partial credit.” If a question has 5 requirements, and it’s worth 3 marks, it means you need to get everything working correctly to get any points. You can’t get 4 things working, and get 2 out of 3. So what they’ll do is have 4 straightforward requirements, and one to catch you out. Clearly I’d made a few little mistakes along the way, because I lost too many points to pass. If I’d been faster, I would have had more time to verify, and maybe I would have picked up those mistakes.

Am I down about it? I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t down, at least a bit. I’ve put in a lot of work, but I’ve still got more to go. But I need to keep this in context – the numbers I’ve heard are that there is a 10% passing rate for first timers, and overall about a 26% passing rate. So I’m in good company. It’s not wasted effort either. It’s not cheap, taking a week off work, flying to Sydney, paying $1650USD for an exam, and coming away empty-handed. I’ve spent thousands on training materials too. But this is all good experience, and I know I can pass this exam. It’s just going to take a bit more work. I know I deserve to be there attempting it – passing the troubleshooting part proves that. But first things first, I need to take a break. I’m getting married in just over a week, then I can take a good holiday. Hopefully I don’t forget too much while I’m away! Next attempt will be around April/May I think. Have to negotiate with Anna…