Experiencing Cisco's notorious CCIE lab

It's the dream of nearly every network administrator: Pass the famous CCIE lab and achieve the most coveted certification in the IT industry. However, the CCIE lab can be a nightmare. Check out one admin's experience as he pursued the CCIE.

The hope of six-figure salaries, companies lining up to recruit you, and outstanding job security has enticed many an IT professional to pursue the most renowned IT certification: the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE). However, pursuing the CCIE is a grueling process that can include a long wait to take the extremely difficult lab exam, which is quite expensive and which few candidates pass on the first try.

Climbing the CCIE mountain
CCIE certifications offer three tracks. The most popular track is Routing and Switching, but there are also the Communications and Services track and the newly introduced Security track.

The CCIE exam itself is made up of two parts. The first is the written/computer-based test, which you can take at a local Prometric testing center. The second part of the certification is the famous CCIE lab exam. In the continental United States, there are only two locations where you can take the lab exam: San Jose, CA, and Raleigh, NC. The cost to take the lab exam is $1,250.

The CCIE lab exam is known for being extremely grueling. It's estimated that the average candidate needs 2.6 attempts to pass it. Rarely does anyone pass the test on the first attempt, and most don’t pass on the second attempt.

A revamped exam
The CCIE lab exam was introduced in 1993 as a two-day test. In recent years, due to the overwhelming demand for the test, the wait to take the exam grew to more than six months. Because multiple attempts were typically required, this made the test even more difficult. If you didn’t pass the test on one attempt, you might have to wait six months or more to try again.

So in October 2001, to reduce the scheduling wait, Cisco restructured the exam to fit into one day instead of two. In the process, Cisco had to be careful to maintain the difficulty and integrity of the test. It accomplished this by removing the areas that candidates typically excelled in: physical cabling of the rack, diagramming, IP addressing, and troubleshooting.

Candidates now have nine hours to complete the exam, including a short lunch. Halving the time to take the test doubles the number of slots available to potential test takers, so it has reduced the wait—but only by two or three months. This is the normal time frame if you take the next available test slot. But with Cisco’s new online test scheduling system, if you frequently check the schedule, you can often get an earlier date.

The CCIE lab experience
I have taken both the two-day and one-day CCIE exam formats. In August 2001, I attempted the two-day CCIE Routing and Switching lab exam in Sao Paolo, Brazil. I chose Brazil because, at the time, there was a six- to seven-month wait to take the test in the United States. The wait to take the exam in Sao Paolo was only one to two months.

It was an excellent learning experience, but I didn't earn a passing score. One of the many things I learned was that this test was not like other certification tests I had passed (CCNA, CCDA, CCNP, SCSA, and MCSE+I). All those tests were based on reading something, memorizing/understanding the concepts, processes, or terminology, and answering questions based on the subject.

The CCIE written test has a similar format, but the CCIE lab exam is a completely different animal. The lab exam is based on doing, not memorizing or understanding. Many people don’t realize that in the CCIE lab, there are no questions to answer; there are only tasks to be accomplished. It doesn’t matter if you can recite the Internetworking dictionary and explain every part of a TCP/IP packet on a whiteboard. Book smarts won’t help you much in the CCIE lab exam.

In addition, there is no partial credit in the CCIE lab. Either you complete the task 100 percent correctly or you receive no points—just like in the real world. What makes it more difficult is that tasks can build on each other. For example, say you were asked to set up an ISDN connection between two routers but couldn’t get it working. Later, you might be asked to run a routing protocol across that same ISDN connection. Since you couldn’t make the ISDN connection work in the first place, you would lose the point values for both tasks. You must score 80 of 100 points to pass. This leaves little room for error.

In January 2002, I made my second attempt at the lab exam in Raleigh, NC. This time, I was faced with the new one-day format. I felt much more prepared and confident. I took the test on a Sunday. (Yes, they run lab exams seven days a week.) I reported at 7:30 A.M., as requested.

Four other candidates were attempting the test with me. Two of them were taking the test for the second time. One was taking it for the first time, and one was taking it for the third time. The test proctor, who was a double CCIE (having passed the exam on two different tracks), was friendly and helpful. As with other certification tests, CCIE candidates are under strict nondisclosure agreements, so I can't provide any exam specifics. But in my opinion, the test is fairly straightforward and can definitely be passed.

I worked the entire lab without too many problems. Running out of time was my greatest fear. When I had to go to the restroom, I ran there and ran back. Lunch lasted less than 30 minutes, since everyone wanted to get back to the test. We all had to agree to go back at the same time. The ending test time was calculated so that no matter how long lunch was, all CCIE candidates would get the same amount of time. After furiously typing for about seven hours, I finished an hour before time was up. I checked my work. I felt confident that I had done well, but there were still a few things that either I couldn’t figure out or was unsure if I had configured correctly.

Although you have access to the Cisco documentation CD during the lab, it's about as helpful as an automobile repair manual would be if you were asked to work on a racecar. If you don’t already know what you are doing, it won’t help you very much. And you don’t have time to sit and read it all day, as you are under serious time constraints. When the test ended, I felt reasonably sure that I had either passed or come close to passing.

The lab score report
Under the new one-day format, you receive an e-mail within 24 hours notifying you that your lab report is available on the Cisco Web site. Not really knowing when the e-mail would come, I sat up most of the night waiting for it. It came the next morning. Inside the e-mail was a link to the Cisco Web site.

After clicking on the link and logging in, I waited what seemed like an eternity for the page to open. Much to my disappointment, the word FAIL was next to the box with the icon pointing to the lab score report. I opened the report and discovered that, contrary to its name, the report does not tell you your score. However, it does tell you “success rates for major topic areas on the exam.” These success rates cannot be used to calculate your score but can give you some idea of what to work harder on.

While slightly discouraged, I felt that it was a solid attempt, especially compared to my first one. I tried to console myself by remembering the passing statistics and reminding myself that I do not have the recommended years of hands-on, real-network experience with complex Cisco-specific internetworks. It was also comforting to think of the intelligent Cisco systems engineers I've met who didn't pass until their third, fourth, or even fifth attempts. My next attempt is scheduled in late April.

Tips for the CCIE lab
Tons of companies are out there trying to sell you classes, books, or material to assist you in your CCIE pursuit, but the most valuable resource I have found is a discussion group. After passing the CCIE written/computer-based exam, you can subscribe to the GroupStudy CCIE discussion forum. This is a very active forum for serious CCIE candidates only.

The forum has generous members who help with questions and share their experiences. By far the single most important factor in passing the test is getting hours and hours of real practice on a rack of real routers. There is no substitute; there is no shortcut.

Cisco CCIE certification is the most challenging and coveted technology industry certification available today. The new one-day lab exam format does nothing to change that fact.

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