Matt Schmitz/ October 19, 2018

Just over a year ago I posted that I was starting work toward the CCIE R&S exam. My original goal was to take the written exam by June of this year – so what progress have I made, and where am I at now?

Well I ended up missing the original goal I had set. It’s now October and I haven’t even scheduled the written exam yet. I haven’t given up though – and my current plan is to shoot for attempting the written before the end of 2018. 

That being said – The past year has been an interesting experience, and I want to talk about some of the things I’ve dealt with that caused me to completely miss my goal.

Having the right support is important.

This was one of the biggest things that has impacted my progress. My first IT job was working for a local consulting company who was a Cisco Partner – so they highly valued certifications and continued education. They offered a ton of free training options to employees, and occasionally offered incentives to achieve certain levels of certification. This is where I passed the vast majority of certifications that I still hold today and I felt like I had a lot of fun working toward them. I was constantly surrounded by other people who were also working on certifications or just general training. Getting time to study or lab new stuff never felt like work – but instead it was very exciting and I really enjoyed it (More about this later….). 

After I left that job, I worked for a couple of companies who didn’t place much value on certifications. Unfortunately this shift made those environments counter-productive toward certification studies. There wasn’t much interest/support for what I was working on, and it was very difficult to get study time or training money. Once in a while I was able to get reimbursement for a passed exam, but even that wasn’t the easiest thing to come by.

All of this meant that getting started in the CCIE studies ended up being more difficult than I wanted it to be. It might seem stupid – but it was hard to get myself motivated when it seemed like I had no support behind me. I tried pushing through anyways, but eventually it became clear that I wasn’t enjoying it. I still kept making progress, but extremely slow progress – maybe reading only a few pages every week or two when I thought about it. This caused me to start doubting myself a bit, and begin wondering if maybe I just lost that early-career excitement.

Lucky for me, this changed in a big way in June of this year. I left my prior job to begin a new adventure working for Cisco. I was expecting a bit more of a supportive environment, since it’s a Cisco certification – but I was very surprised with what I actually got. A number of people I met asked if I had a CCIE cert or if I had any intention of getting one – and they encouraged me to go for it. Once I said I was working on it, most people were more than willing to talk through their experiences and offer support or advice. My manager has also offered to help me with time and materials that I might need. Needless to say, I’m getting excited about getting back into learning and labbing.

There is a lot of content.

The amount of content to be consumed for the exam is enormous. As I’ve talked to a few people recently, I keep comparing the CCIE against what I used to do for a CCNA/CCNP level exam. For example, the CCNP certification is so cleanly broken into three parts – so each exam has a somewhat smaller focus area to study. The SWITCH exam only focuses on switching and layer 2 technologies – and the overall exam blueprint is a manageable list. When I studied for the SWITCH test years ago, the amount of time investment was comparatively small. I spent time watching training videos, reading through the cert guide once or twice, and then some amount of labbing along the way – and that was enough to do well on the exam. At the time I was also allotted time within work hours to study, since I was still working for the consulting company who valued certifications. This all made it feel significantly quicker and easier to work toward than what I’m facing today with the CCIE.

Comparing that to what the CCIE Routing & Switching exam covers in a single test – it feels a bit crazy. There is such a wide base of topics covered that it’s easy to sit back and wonder how you’ll ever manage it. And not only do you need to know fundamental routing and switching concepts/protocols/etc, but you need to have a much deeper understanding of them than before. Now while that’s the part that I really enjoy, it does become a bit overwhelming to keep track of. I’m finding it easy to feel discouraged by the lack of progress I’m making – especially given how much easier prior exam study was. I am actually reading a lot – but it’s still just a small percentage of the overall material. I guess it just takes a bit of a mental refocusing to account for the scale of things. After all, this isn’t something you can accomplish overnight – so why expect that you can?

Another thing I’m still struggling with is separating which content is new vs review. It’s been easy for me to gloss over sections on some routing protocols or pretty much anything layer 2 – because I feel too comfortable with them. There is a lot of content that feels like just reviewing things I already know or I’ve studied before… but hidden away are still bits of information that are relevant. I know I need to get better at forcing myself to read through everything, even if it feels like the 500th time I’ve read about how to make BGP work. Even if I do feel like I know something fairly well, it’s worth reviewing to further solidify knowledge of those concepts.

Sometimes life happens.

Going for a CCIE-level certification isn’t necessarily something that you can just work on once in a while. It takes a fairly decent amount of dedication, time, and motivation. It consumes quite a bit of your free time – which can make things difficult when suddenly life decides to get in your way.

To start with, I probably shouldn’t have started studying when I did. I might say it was a bad time, but is there ever really a good time? Probably not – but I think I started chasing the CCIE for bad reasons. Don’t get me wrong, getting my numbers has been a goal of mine for a long time. However, at this time last year I was having a bit of a rough patch – finding myself feeling demotivated and struggling to keep interested in technology. I knew I used to love studying new stuff for certification tests, and I knew I wanted the CCIE eventually – so I figured it might be a way to kick-start myself back into getting excited again.

How did that go? Well months of making myself miserable for not making enough progress – and constantly feeling guilty for not studying enough. Unfortunately, I wasn’t fixing the root causes of my problems – I was just trying to distract myself with something else. Not my best idea, and something I can look back on now and easily identify – but at the time it was much more difficult. There were a lot of things playing against me. I was working too much, which meant that every night I came home and wanted to do absolutely nothing. I was on-call often enough that my sleep schedule suffered and some weeks I was only averaging 4-5 hours a night. I felt restricted in my ability to change or improve the situation. These and other things amounted to me no longer feeling interested in what I was doing every day, and even harder to get excited about studying something new. A few people I was talking to at the time suggested that I might be dealing with complete burnout – but I was stupid enough to think ‘nah, not me’.

While this whole thing is written in the context of studying for the CCIE exam, that’s certainly not the only thing that suffered as a result of my lack of motivation. I stopped writing much here, for one. In fact I pretty much quit all of my personal hobbies and interests. Any time I had an idea for something, I couldn’t find the effort to even try.

Did everything magically change when I got the new job this year? Not at all – but it was a start in the right direction. Unfortunately, recovering from that state of life takes time. So I did exactly that: I gave myself a while to get settled into the new job and start working on getting my life and sleep back to a good point. This included forcing myself to give up on the CCIE studies for a few months. I still spent a long time feeling like I wasn’t getting better, or maybe I was going to be permanently disinterested in technology. It was sometimes a bit terrifying, because when I started in IT I felt so excited about everything – and I just wanted to get back to feeling like that.

After a few months of giving myself time, I can finally say that I think I’m making some decent progress. I’m starting to get excited when I’m out talking to my customers about their networks. I’m able to reliably sit down several times a week and read some of my CCIE books. It’s not quite back to the way things used to be, but I’m at least finally hopeful that I’m headed in the right direction.

Sometimes life is going to get in your way, whether for CCIE studies or otherwise. I guess at some point you need to know when to give up and come back to it when the time is right. Sometimes you just need time.


This post ended up going in a direction that I wasn’t entirely intending on… but I’m going to leave it. Hopefully this might help out someone else out there who has been struggling with similar problems. And if you are – feel free to reach out. I would love to talk to you about it. 

As I said in the intro – I am still serious about going for the CCIE. I still need some time to catch up, but I feel that I’m making good progress now. I’m currently looking at trying to schedule an attempt at the written within the next few months. I’ll keep you guys updated!

About Matt Schmitz

Herding packets since 2007. Perpetually trying to automate myself out of a job. I believe that all problems can be solved by implementing more IPv6. Disclaimer: All opinions posted here are my own, and do not represent any vendor or current/former employer.

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