CCIE: Written Exam & Lab Prep

Written Exam

Finally in early 2019 I gave up on trying to gauge where I was at – and figured it was time to just give the exam a shot. I had already been studying for almost a year and a half, and I was craving some definitive way of figuring out where I was at. I went ahead and scheduled an exam for Tuesday, March 12th. 

When I walked into the written exam, my first question immediately made me feel unprepared. It was something specific to provider WAN switching – not a topic I had spent enough time on yet. I did my best to take an educated guess, but that first question gave me a lot of doubt about how well prepared I was. 

The written exam overall felt very…. all over the place. It didn’t feel like a single cohesive exam – instead it felt like 20 different banks of questions shuffled into one. Some people call the exam just random networking trivia – and in some ways that might be accurate.  For example, I might have a question on very basic L2, followed immediately by a very in-depth question on MPLS. Then probably over to something completely different. I didn’t want to admit it at the time, but I probably felt far less confident in answering many of the questions I got – and gave my best effort on guessing at quite a few.

Already not feeling great about how well I was doing, the test finally made its way into the evolving technologies section. This section did nothing to ease my nerves :). I completely understand why this section exists, but it felt like there was almost no effort put into some of the questions. Many of the questions I got made no sense, had grammatical errors, or gave a set of possible answers that didn’t line up with what the question was asking. Even for technologies that I did have a lot of experience with, it felt like the question was just written by someone who had no understanding of it. 

As I finished my last question, there was no doubt in my mind that I had failed. To me, it was just a matter of how badly did I miss and how can I better prepare for next time. I was already making several mental notes on what topics I desperately needed to go back and review for the next attempt. 

However – when I clicked through the remaining screens on the exam, I was extremely surprised to see that I had passed. It was only by a few points – but a pass is a pass! 

Walking out of the exam, I sent a message to a few people at work to let them know I had passed. Even with the score sheet in my hand, I didn’t feel comfortable saying that I had passed. At no point during the exam did I feel like I was doing well. Maybe that’s just part of the difficulty? I don’t know… I’m honestly glad to see the written exam requirement is being dropped from the new exam blueprints.

Studying for the Lab Exam

Once I had gotten past the written exam, my full attention went into working toward the lab. I spent too much time initially trying to get my lab environment all sorted out. Went back and forth trying to choose between EVE-NG and GNS3, before finally settling on GNS3. Then I wasted a bunch of time trying to find the right images to use and testing them to make sure everything worked.

Finally – I picked up a copy of “CCIE Routing and Switching v5.1 Foundations: Bridging the Gap Between CCNP and CCIE” and got started. Going through this first book was far less enjoyable than I had hoped. Each lab was a completely different topology with a lot of pre-work to get going – and in many cases completing the actual practice lab would take a fraction of the time it took to get set up. I got frustrated with this a lot – but tried to keep pushing through to at least finish the book as a starting point. This ultimately amounted to a rocky start to labbing for me. Not working on it as much as I should, and not necessarily looking forward to it. 

My next set of materials would be the INE workbooks – which honestly are structured far better. These labs were all on a shared topology that I could easily clone in GNS3 every time I started a new section. All of the pre-config is done for you – so that you can just focus on the pieces relevant to the topic. For example, if you’re working on a BGP lab – you don’t have to start from scratch with IP addressing or L2 configs. This made the content much easier to consume, and did a lot to help me spend more time working on practice labs. I got through these labs pretty quickly and repeated quite a few for additional practice.

At Cisco Live US 2019 – there was a huge announcement regarding certification changes. The CCIE exam & content was changing (along with pretty much everything else). I wasn’t entirely surprised to hear the announcement since the existing track was several years old, and I had come across a few rumors on the internet of possible changes. Even still, I was finding myself now up against a very finite amount of time to pass the lab exam. The old test would be phased out in just eight months (in February 2020). 

After the announcement, I talked to my manager about what to do. We decided it would probably be in my best interests to schedule a lab date, and do whatever I can to try and pass ahead of the exam changes. So – only a few days after the new content was announced, I had scheduled a lab date for October 9th, 2019. This was less than four months away, and I still had a ton of content / practice labs to get through. 

Having the looming deadline did great things for my motivation :). On the good side of things – It helped me to spend more and more time studying for the lab exam. I was able to focus more than before, and I was finding it much easier to push myself to practice even when I wasn’t necessarily excited to. Over the summer I nearly doubled the amount of time I had spent labbing compared to before the announcement. On the not-so-good side – I had also put together a week-by-week plan of what I still needed to accomplish between now and October. It was a tighter timeline than I was originally looking at, and now it felt like I didn’t have enough time to accomplish everything. I pushed through it anyways, knowing that October was just my first attempt. If I couldn’t finish everything in time, then I would still have time before the second try. 

Remember back when I mentioned that six year gap between getting the CCNP and starting on the CCIE? This is the big part where that helped me a ton. Going through a lot of the workbooks – I didn’t necessarily feel like anything was too crazy. Over the past 10+ years I’ve worked at a number of different companies and had the opportunity to play with a lot of networking gear. I had a great base of experience with most L2/L3 technologies, including quite a bit of practice with all the fun that BGP has to offer. 

One of the other big things that I think helped was that not all of my prior experience was on Cisco equipment. Having to learn how to configure BGP, VRFs, or switching on multiple vendors forces you to think beyond the syntax. Every vendor implements things in their own unique way – and this helps you to get beyond just memorizing what commands to enter. Instead, you begin having to learn much more about the underlying technologies and how they operate – and understanding what you’re actually trying to accomplish. Then it’s just a matter of researching whatever syntax that specific vendor uses to implement that function. 

Having that good base of knowledge and experience helped me burn through the practice labs fairly quickly. A lot of content felt very familiar, with maybe a few new variations of commands – or maybe a new option that I hadn’t previously used. Even some of the pieces that I hadn’t used much of before, like DMVPN or multicast, still seemed easy enough to grasp how it worked and learn the necessary syntax. 

That being said – In a lot of ways it also gave me a false sense of security. Feeling like maybe I knew more than I realized and therefore maybe I was better prepared. Yet at the same time, knowing how difficult the lab is supposed to be – and constantly wondering what I could be missing.

Keep going for the rest of my story:

Part 1: Getting Started

Part 2: Written Exam & Lab Prep

Part 3: Lab Day

Part 4: Lab Strategy & What’s Next