Oct 30, 2011

So, You Want To Be a CCIE?, Part 1

So, You Want To Be a CCIE?, Part 1
Get on the right path to Cisco's highest-level cert in this two-part primer by the columnist of TCP Q&A.

by Scott Morris

Whereas desire alone can sometimes get you a certification, wanting to be a CCIE requires ambition and determination to endure a long and arduous trek across difficult technical terrain. After all, it’s one of the most sought-after certifications in the industry. As a matter of fact, more people want to be a CCIE than want to be the president of the United States, according to some surveys (obscure as they are). In my own poll, four out of five said they would rather be a CCIE than president!

So, what is it about the CCIE that makes it so special? Well, other than the fact that it ranks on top of CertCities’ 10 Hottest Certifications list year after year, it represents the pinnacle of technical achievement in many ways. In all of my travels around the world teaching CCIE boot camps, the students I’ve met had a variety of reasons for pursuing the CCIE certification. However, the most common raison d’etre seems to be that it’s a personal goal, a mark of achievement.

As has been the case for over 10 years now, the CCIE is not a simple thing to attain! Some say they make it harder year after year. Though Cisco says this is not true, I think it just seems that way due to the growing number of technologies you have to learn about. The program has grown significantly over the years, but many things are still the same.

When you set out on the path towards CCIE, you need to realize a few things:

  1. The written exam is about theory and technical tidbits; the lab exam is about making it happen and configuring the devices.
  2. It is not a reality-based exam.
  3. It requires that you have no social life during your studies.
  4. It will test everything you thought you knew about technologies and then some.

What does it really take to attain the CCIE? A good understanding of things, a mind crammed full of networking trivia, and a little bit of luck! Above all, you can’t have a fear of failure. The pass rate of the CCIE lab on the first attempt is said to be less than 10 percent. On average, it takes people three to four attempts to pass the lab. So, even though the odds are against you passing it in one go, approach it with a positive mindset—think of each attempt as a practice run.

CCIE Tracks
There are several paths to the CCIE, depending on the area you want to specialize in:

  • Routing and Switching
  • Security
  • Service Provider
  • Voice
  • Storage Networking

Which CCIE Track is Best?
The $64,000 question. Or, at least the $1,250+ question! Do you remember your parents and teachers asking you what you wanted to be when you grow up? Well, things haven’t changed. Ask yourself what you would like to do.

Don’t tell me whichever track nets you the most money. Money is all relative anyway. The expected compensation for any of these CCIE tracks will vary based on where you’re located, what type of organization you’re working for, what your experience level is (you know, real-world stuff) and many other factors. So, consider all the tracks to be roughly equal in pay.

Whatever you choose to do with your life, I’ve always believed in two golden rules: Have fun. Make money. (Not necessarily in that order.) As long as you’re on track to accomplish both, then life is good. In this high-end technical arena you really need to enjoy whatever it is that you’re going to do. Otherwise, it’s too much like a mundane task and much, much harder to motivate yourself towards achieving it. So ask yourself, where do you want to be next year? Or, what about in five years? What do you want to do?

Once you figure that out, you can narrow down the market possibilities and target yourself more appropriately. But make sure you’ll enjoy whatever your choice is going to be! Once you’ve decided which mountain you want to climb first, we’ll get around to which path to take.

Multiple CCIEs - Why?

Technology is addicting. Once you get started, it’s hard to stop! Some people simply use that as their reason to pursue multiple CCIE certifications. The question is, however, what do multiple CCIEs bring? Why do it?

Having four CCIEs myself and working on my fifth, I’ve often been asked that question. It really isn’t about money. Whether working for a company or as an independent consultant, the market is the market. If a CCIE can bill at $150 an hour in the marketplace, having four CCIEs doesn’t mean I can bill at $600 an hour. (Though, that would be nice!)

However, having multiple CCIE certifications does have its benefits. It allows you to work in more areas, which can provide some variety from week to week. Multiple CCIEs also increases your chances of finding a contract or job because you have two or three times as many things you can do compared to other candidates.

It’s a way to set yourself apart from others. As I’m sure you’ve all noticed, this is a tough job market—for both contracts and full-time employment. What makes you different from all of the other people bidding on a project or applying for a job? What can you bring to the table?

There are 12,004 active CCIEs in the world (plus 1,361 inactive ones). So, once you pass an exam, you’ve become one of those 12,000 jobseekers. On the other hand, if you were to get a second CCIE you would be one out of 541 special people to hold two CCIE titles.

If you were to pass a third CCIE, you would be one of only 81 people in the entire world who have three or more CCIE certifications. Only 12 people have four or more CCIEs. Only three people have five or more. You see how it works? In a tough economic climate, it’s all about making yourself stand out from the crowd.

In my case, going for more certifications prevents me from becoming bored more than anything. I like variety! And I just love this stuff too much. There should probably be some kind of networkers anonymous group for tech addicts like me. But like I said before, it’s all about being different. How different are you?

Lab Equipment
To study for the CCIE lab, it’s best if you have access to some equipment. Now, unless you’ve been around a while or just have more money than you know what to do with, chances are you won’t have a lab setup equal to the real lab. That’s ok. Start out with one switch and three routers. This will give you a starting point where you can make most of the basic configurations. Remember, you have to be able to walk before you run! (And don’t run with scissors.)

Here are some of the bigger Web sites where you can rent equipment racks for your CCIE studies:

CCIE Study Habits
First, you should print out the Exam Blueprint of your chosen CCIE track and get some folders and notebooks. Now, start playing. No, really, I mean it. Play around with the equipment, trying out different configurations and conditions.

Reference books and study guides on the CCIE lab go through, in detail, various protocols and network links and everything else you’ll need to know. They often have sample labs or mini-scenarios for each topic.

Need more? How about free stuff? It’s called the Documentation CD and it’s from Cisco themselves. Look at the IOS configuration guides, or the Catalyst 3550 configuration guides, for example. These provide some configuration explanations of each of the things that IOS has to offer.

That’ll keep you up-to-date on all the CCIE-related Cisco technologies; but take it all one step at a time. As I’ve said before, walk before you run. As you build up your experience, you’ll gradually start adding things together.

Practice Lab Vendors

Start with the basics, then look at what you’ve built and ask yourself, “How can I make this more complicated?” And always remember to redo things—you’ll learn things quicker with repetition and practice. Though they might’ve looked simple and easy enough in your books, real life is tough and things might not work out as they do on paper.

This can be a good thing. Besides strengthening your basic understanding of Cisco technologies, you need to learn what to do when things go badly. Believe me, they will go badly. If you’re in the middle of your eight-hour lab exam and things go badly, you’ll need the experience—and patience—to conquer these obstacles.

Know your show commands and your debug commands. Your routers will have this obnoxious habit of doing what you tell them to do, which may not necessarily be what you want them to do. But on the other hand, with the proper show/debug commands, the router will also tell you exactly what is happening. It’s then up to you to interpret and react to that. Troubleshooting will become invaluable not only for the lab but for real life as well.

So, how well do you need to know your stuff? Remember when I said this wasn’t a reality-based exam? I wasn’t lying. In real life, we run our networks, but they aren’t inherently difficult to maintain. Typically, we’ll run frame-relay links as point-to-point subinterfaces. Why? Because, that’s the easy way. Things just work! On the CCIE lab, life isn’t that simple. Why? Because the proctors are evil? No, not really. But what does it mean for Cisco to put their stamp of approval on you as an “expert” in the field? I hope it means you can do more than regurgitate configurations using point-to-point subinterfaces on frame-relay links! Though it works, knowing those simple configurations doesn’t demonstrate you know anything about how the underlying technology works.

However, if you ever run into a network in real life that’s designed like a CCIE lab, hunt down the person who designed it and duct-tape that person to his/her chair! Bad lab rat! Bad!

What's Up, Doc?

The Documentation CD is your friend. It’s the only reference you’ll have available during the lab, so you had best know it well!

Let me share with you a little anecdote. Back in 1999, when I was studying for the Routing and Switching lab, I went through all of these steps. I played with everything, I studied and labbed it all up! My goal was to practice on labs more bizarre than the actual test lab would be so that I could know everything possible and be one of the few who passed on the first try.

That was the goal anyway! And, I studied a lot to get there. Well, needless to say, they came up with something on the lab that I hadn’t thought about. Right then and there, that messed up my game a bit. Also, I’m one of those people who’ll beat something to death in troubleshooting until I figure it out. A great habit in real life, not so good under the time pressure of the lab!

They threw the kitchen sink at me, but I figured it out. However, I ate up a lot of time in the process, and I was unable to finish the whole exam because my bad management of time. Not cool.

Between my first and second attempts, I didn’t touch a router. The only thing I did was become more familiar with the Doc CD. By the time my second attempt came around, there were some things on the test I hadn’t thought about (they’re good at that!). But instead of blindly stabbing away at it, I took a more methodical approach with the Documentation CD and found answers faster. On this second attempt, I even finished the exam early—so early, in fact, it scared me! Fortunately, this time, I was successful.

So, remember, you have to have a strategy about how you’ll handle things and stick to it. Time management is a critical: Every minute you spend idling away or typing uselessly is 1/480 of your test, and it’ll go by fast!

Realizing this will also help you with answering, “How much of everything do I need to know? How can I memorize that much?” The answer is don’t memorize. Learn it. Once you know the basics, you can look up the details. If you know the basics, and you are familiar with the Doc CD, you’ll have plenty of time to fill in the blanks. Personally, I try not to memorize things, because commands may change from version to version of IOS. But conceptually, I know what I’m looking for so the details can be found in the Doc CD. In the very unfortunate case you don’t have a clue about something on the test, you can find out about it on the Doc CD: It covers everything on the test. Just be careful how much time you spend on it!

CCIE Social Life
No, no. You don’t get to have one. Along the same lines that drinking and driving don’t mix, neither does studying for the CCIE and having a social life. Otherwise, it’ll be like college all over again on an eight-year plan! Set your expectations, accordingly, for both yourself and your family/significant other/friends. You will need to reintroduce yourself when all is done!

The time you spend studying will greatly depend on your previous experience and study habits. I always cringe when people ask me how long I studied for any of the labs that I’ve taken. It’s a floating measuring stick. For my Routing and Switching lab (my first), I clocked in a good 2,000+ hours over the course of 13 months, and that’s just for studying. To put that in perspective, there are 2,080 hours in a full-time work year (assuming 40 hours per week for 52 weeks). That was starting from ground zero and playing around with my equipment—a lot!

On the other hand, when I took my Service Provider exam, I only studied for a day and a half before taking the lab. I had been teaching and consulting on many of those technologies for a couple of years prior to the lab. And I had passed three other CCIE labs before then, so the psychological aspect of preparing for the exam didn’t phase me any more. Experience—whether it’s your first exam or fourth—will definitely improve your chances of beating the CCIE lab.

Networking with Other CCIE Candidates
There are various e-mail lists and Internet bulletin boards that CCIE candidates frequent, which can give you access to people who are in the same boat as you, as well as people who’ve completed the journey already! There are tons of messages that circulate on these boards, though, so be prepared with your Microsoft Outlook Inbox rules so you can automagically file messages away!

GroupStudy is one of the most well-known and established of these lists. You can search their archives or sign up for their mailing list. The “ccielab” list is the one you’ll want! www.onlinestudylist.com is another good place for e-mail groups. www.routerie.com is a vendor forum, but they have many good discussions going on that might interest you, as a CCIE-in-training. All in all, it’s such a tight and smallish community that after a while, you’ll begin to recognize names and reputations.

As with any group discussion online, there’s always the chance you might get flamed! To avoid becoming the victim of random flaming, just make sure when you pose a question to the group that you’ve already made some effort to find an answer first! Though people are generally there to help, you’ll find that sometimes folks’ patience gets a little frayed when you haven’t done a simple search of past forum posts.

The lists and bulletin boards are great communities and a great way to learn. Other folks who either are doing or have done the same thing you’re doing makes for an excellent source of support along your quest for the CCIE.

Break Time!
Now that we’ve finished discussing the basic things you need to prepare for your CCIE studies, next we’ll talk about the written and lab exams themselves, bootcamps, game day and life after the exams. So, take a breather, look over what we’ve talked about, and look out next month for the second installment of this two-part series on becoming a CCIE!

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