On May 25, 2002, in Raleigh, NC, I made my third attempt at Cisco’s CCIE Routing & Switching Lab exam—and finally passed. Earning the CCIE was a grueling journey that took more than two years, which was much longer than I expected. Since so many IT professionals are interested in what it takes to prepare for and obtain this widely coveted certification, I’m going to provide a look at my CCIE odyssey and offer some tips to would-be CCIE candidates.

CCIE certification overview

For those who are unfamiliar with the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) certification, here’s a little background. The CCIE is made up of two parts. The first is the written/computer-based test and the second is a full day “lab exam” which is notoriously difficult. I have heard that on average, 2.6 attempts are needed to pass the exam. Rarely does anyone pass the test on the first attempt and most don’t pass on the second attempt either. For more on the CCIE, read my previous articles:
“Are you up for the CCIE challenge?”
“Cisco makes key changes to CCIE lab exam”
“Experiencing Cisco’s notorious CCIE lab”

The journey begins
Initially, I thought that obtaining a CCIE would be a lot like obtaining my MCSE+I, CCNA, CCNP, and SCSA certifications. I was wrong. I had never heard of the CCIE prior to May 2000 when I was investigating Cisco products and ran across an old friend who worked for Cisco and was a CCIE. I thought, “Hmm, I should get this CCIE thing too.” I was slightly surprised when he told me that it took him two tries to pass and that it was extremely difficult. I thought that was strange, considering that he was employed by Cisco and had been working as a systems engineer for it and some other companies for a number of years.

I had been working with 3Com LAN/WAN products for about six years prior to obtaining my CCNA in June 2000. I obtained my CCNP and CCDA in January 2001, and then I passed the CCIE written exam in April 2001. After that, I made my first attempt at the CCIE lab in August 2001 in Sao Paolo, Brazil. (I went international, since there was such a long wait for the lab exam in the United States.)

The first attempt at the lab exam showed me that I simply didn’t comprehend the magnitude or complexity of the exam at all. However, it was a good learning experience, since back then, it was a two-day lab and the exam proctor sat down with me and went over the items I had done incorrectly during the first day. Soon thereafter, I found out that the CCIE lab was going to change to a one-day format in October 2001.

After the first failure, I did many practice labs and read a great deal. In January 2002, I made my second attempt, in Research Triangle Park, NC. I left feeling quite confident that I had passed. I was disappointed again to find that I had not and that my percentages weren’t even worth asking for a regrading of the test. Yet another wake-up call that this exam is much more difficult than any other test I had ever tried. The bar was much higher than I thought.

Things get serious
Over the next three to four months I did even more labs and intensified my studying. I scheduled my third attempt for a Saturday in May. When the day before the exam arrived, I felt that I needed more time, but there is no option for a last-minute reschedule. I decided to just go watch Star Wars with my family the night before the exam, rather than do some last-minute cramming.

After breakfast at the Waffle House the next morning, I arrived at the test site at 7:00 A.M. There were seven other candidates. From listening to the others talk, it appeared that all of them except one were returning for a repeat attempt at the lab exam.

The lab exam itself was brutal but fair. My strategy was to take my time reading the entire lab and then make notes on how I was going to do the tasks and how many points each task was worth. I also drew a diagram that I used during the lab. I had to ask the proctor for more paper in the first 30 minutes. He said, “Already, you need more paper?” The proctor was very helpful throughout the exam. He answered what he could and was polite when he couldn’t.

In the last 45 minutes of the lab, I had too many tasks left and not as much time as I had wanted. I was in a panic, and I had a technical issue that was out of my control. The proctor told me that the issue didn’t affect whether I could complete the lab. He suggested that I pretend that I did not have this issue and continue the test. This made me feel uneasy, but I completed the test as best I could.

Since it was Memorial Day weekend, I had to get through Sunday and Monday without receiving any grade. Over that time, my head spun with thoughts of “did I forget this… or that?” I also kept calculating the points I probably missed and wondered if they would cause me to fail. I know I drove my family crazy with sudden outbursts of, “Oh my gosh, I think I forgot to configure the XYZ on the flapdoodle. Great. Now I’m surely doomed!” I didn’t get my report until Tuesday morning, but when I did I was amazed to see that I had passed and was now CCIE #9369.

Final word
The CCIE articles listed above provide lots of details on the methods of preparation I used. Another great resource was the Groupstudy CCIE discussion forum. One particularly helpful message was from Gonzalo, CCIE #8726, who said, “The trick to passing is precision on the test, focusing only on the lab, enjoying the test, knowing everything, making a commitment, and seeing a movie the night before.” Another inspiring message was from Scott, CCIE #9340, who pointed out, “The CCIE lab is a marathon, not a sprint, and should be considered as such.”

I tried to keep these tips in mind and the advice seems to have paid off.