My CCIE R&S Journey

Welcome back Ziglets!!

Today’s Zigbit is going to showcase my Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) Routing and Switching  Journey.  Lets get started!

Background:

This journey of mine started in June 2012 when my wife, Julie, and I moved to New England to start a family.  With our move to the bitter cold of the New England Winter, I had my very first Networking focused position in my Career.

Historically up until this point in my career, I’ve been in positions that required me to be a well-rounded engineer with full knowledge of all facets within the IT field.  Servers, networks, virtual environments, security, storage fabrics, programming, and even web design.  While during this time I was probably naive to think that I could be an expert at everything, I did a very good job I might add, this was unrealistic in today’s IT world.  There is just so much to know, so much to learn, and no way to keep up with it all.  I’ve been very good at Servers, Networking, and Virtual Environments for years but now I had a chance to specialize at something…to truly be an expert in the IT industry with a very particular set of skills, skills that I’ve been able to sharpened and perfected over the years. 😉

Setting a Goal:

As with everything and anything in my life, I want to be among the best of the best.  This was why I had wanted and desired to go in the United States Marine Corps over all of the other branches.  I’m always trying to strive to be better than what I am currently.  On top of this I am a perfectionist by nature which does bring in some other conflicting drama at times.

I set my goal the first week at my new job in Boston; I would focus all of my efforts towards the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) in Routing and Switching (R&S).

Before this goal and this move to New England, I had taken the Cisco Certified Network Administrator (CCNA) and the Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) before.  I had passed the CCNA and failed it.  When attempting to renew the CCNA by taking one of the CCNP exams, I had failed which made my CCNA lapse.  My initial thought process at this time was just to go straight for the CCIE R&S written exam and not to bother with CCNA and CCNP.

One Year Later…

I had started this journey around June of 2012 and it was nearing the end of 2013.  I had been loosely studying the CCIE R&S v4 blueprint.  I had been fortunate enough to have access to Internetwork Expert (INE)’s self-study material through work and had built a CCIE R&S v4 lab with GNS3 and 4 physical switches.  I had the study material, I had the hardware / lab environment, but I just wasn’t getting anywhere with this goal of mine.  I honestly hadn’t made any real progress towards the CCIE R&S Written exam in the last year.

Going into the holiday break, I knew I needed to reflect on my lack of progress.  I eventually came up with these bullets that I would need to address if I wanted to be successful at this goal, this journey of mine:

  • Had issues really accomplishing anything for 1 year:
  • No tracking or accountability
  • No plan
  • No strategy
  • No dedication
  • No commitment
  • No idea of how much time and effort was needed to accomplish this goal
  • No Technical support system

New plan…The Basics!

I needed some motivation and some structure around what I was trying to accomplish with this goal of mine.  So I decided to stop going directly after the CCIE R&S written exam and started back at the bottom, with the basics.  In addition, at this same time I put some real structure around when I would study and Lab, versus when I would work, have family time, and / or sleep.  It was time to Write Erase…reload; too start all over with a new plan and a real strategy.

The 2014 New Year hit and so did my new plan.  I set specific times to study each day and made sure I was sticking to it.  I made sure I was accountable to myself for what I wanted to accomplish.  I started studying at the very beginning, nothing was beneath me as I didn’t want to miss something that I may have assumed over the years, or forgotten how it actually works.  With that said, some of the CCNA topics were putting me to sleep, but I did actually learn some of the technologies again, or I even learned them the right way this time around. I did have a benefit that I had a full CCIE R&S Lab that I could test all of these CCNA and CCNP theory topics out, and I did.  In hindsight, I probably did this too much and went way to far, sometimes going as far as the CCIE level on a topic.  I know how I learn.  I think it’s important that each person needs to determine how they learn the best.  I can learn just by reading a book or by doing an activity.  I can learn both ways but I learn better by doing than just reading. For me, the act of doing something is the best way to learn.  Find what works best for you and monopolize on it.

CCNA and CCNP:

I had scheduled my next CCNA exam in Jan 2014, and passed it.  I was once again a CCNA.   This gave me some motivation and was a level of evidence that my strategy was working.  I quickly jumped into the CCNP track.  My strategy for the CCNP exams, since there were three of them, ROUTE, SWITCH, and TSHOOT, I planned on taking one every 4 weeks.  For this entire process, from start to finish, I followed each blueprint, marking off each topic that I had reviewed.  Every day I learned something a different way that I had previously learned incorrectly.  Over the course of time from January 2014 through April 2014, I had successfully passed the CCNA exam and the 3 CCNP exams to become a CCNP.   I was making great progress!  I had passed four Cisco exams in four months.  I was on a role and I was further motivated.

Cisco Live 2014 – San Francisco

May 2014 was rapidly approaching and with it was Cisco Live 2014.  Cisco Live was in San Francisco that year and I was fortunate enough to go through work, with a few other co-workers of mine.  I had no idea what to expect as this was my first Cisco Live, but I was amazed!  What a great event to be a part of.

Before going to Cisco Live, I had set my goal for the trip to take the CCIE R&S Written exam and pass it.  This was my original goal from June 2012 that I hadn’t made any progress on and here I was going to take it at Cisco Live.  Once I had scheduled the free written exam through Cisco Live and Pearsonvue, I focused every moment awake on this exam.  The CCIE R&S written exam at this time was still version 4, I believe some might have even called it version 4.5, as the version 5 Lab update had already been announced.  I spent the entire Cisco Live trip focused on the CCIE R&S version 5 Lab and of course studying for the written exam that I had schedule for Thursday.

I signed up for the following extra sessions at Cisco Live this year and they were all extremely helpful in my journey.

  • TECCCIE-3000 – CCIE Routing and Switching Techtorial (2014 San Francisco) – 9 Hours
  • LTRCCIE-3001 – CCIE Routing and Switching Lab – Lab Technical Seminar (2014 San Francisco) – 4 Hours
  • LTRCCIE-3900 – Cisco 360 Virtualisation – New CCIE Routing & Switching Configuration and Troubleshooting Labs (2014 San Francisco) – 4 Hours

For me one of the best takeaways was a statement that Bruno van de Werve made during the TECCCIE-3000 session: “Know what you don’t know”.  For me this turned into “Know what you don’t know and where to find it”.

I prioritized studying for the written exam over doing any of the extra “stuff” that goes on at Cisco Live.  I didn’t go to the Customer Appreciation Event (CAE) or most of the after parties.  I did allow myself a few hours at the INE Re-wired party but quickly went back to my hotel room to continue studying. I was focused on my goal, maybe a little too focused, but I personally needed that level of commitment.

Thursday came around, and of course I didn’t sleep well the night before.  I ended up going to the exam center early because I had studied all that I could at this point.  The exam center was not as busy as it had been all week, so I was able to start my exam earlier than my scheduled time.  I took the entire time because of my perfectionist nature and second guessing each question / answer.  When the “End Exam” button came on screen and I clicked it, I was sure I had failed as it felt like a very hard exam.  To my surprise I had passed!  As I’m sure others can recall their same level of excitement after passing such a hard exam, I was thrilled, relieved, and overly exhausted.  I had been going full throttle with very little sleep all week.  I went out for some much needed food and drinks with a few co-workers to celebrate and eventually ended up asleep in my hotel room before 9pm.  It might have even been before 8pm.

CCIE R&S v5 Lab Exam:

After getting back home from Cisco Live and spending a good week determining how I wanted, or more appropriately needed, to tackle the CCIE R&S v5 Lab Exam, I had scheduled my first Lab Exam for Sept 22nd, 2014.  I was very motivated at this time and didn’t want to lose the momentum I had, so I wasn’t waiting.  Having the Exam scheduled was another motivator for me to really commit and focus on the next portion of my study plan.  The exam was booked, the hotel was booked, and the airfare was booked.  I had four months to make myself ready!

My study plan included going line by line through the new CCIE R&S v5 Lab blueprint.  If I didn’t know something off the top of my head then I needed to re-learn it and lab it out.  I used a punch list type of system for these items and at the end of every week I would clean out my punch list.  My goal for the first month was to get through the entire blueprint so I would have plenty of time doing full scale labs.  As for study resources at this time, I heavily used INE’s content.  There were some other content that I found as time went on, but my primary resource was INE.

The Study group:

I said INE was my primary resource which it was from a technical and labbing perspective but there was another resource that was more important…My CCIE R&S Study group.  Finding the Study group happened randomly one day, while reading the INE forums.  I replied to someone looking to create an active CCIE R&S Study group, and before I knew it we had 4 – 6 like minded engineers on the same journey together.  I can’t emphasize the use of a study group enough.  You have to be active with the study group you are in, and can’t just sit back in the shadows.  You will only get out of it what you put into it.  There were members of the study group that were at different stages of their CCIE journey.  I happened to be the first one taking the CCIE Lab Exam as the study group was focused on 2015 Q1 CCIEs and my Lab exam was scheduled for Sept 22nd, 2014.  I still had been invited to the group and most of us still talk every day.  The study group was a support system during our studies.  If we were trying to learn something or implement technology but it wasn’t working, we could ping the group, paste the configuration or in most cases start a Webex to help each other out.  I remember my hate for Multicast, which has changed to a love hate relationship over the years, but the group built a Multicast lab for me to troubleshoot.  For me this was hard, being on a Webex in front of a number of other engineers trying to troubleshoot an issue that I should know very well.  I can’t explain how useful this was for me, to learn how to handle the stress level of this situation.

During this phase, each technology was learned and labbed independently of any other technology, which is critical for us to understand how a technology actually works, bringing a level of clarity and context to the theory of that technology.  This was what I did for an entire month, with some small deviations when my mind had questions on something.  I was feeling pretty good with each technology, being able to lab it up quickly without using the “tab” or “?” to help me out.

Time…am I crazy or just insane?

From a time perspective, at this stage in my studies, I had been studying on average 6 hours a day for a month.  This was great but a lot of this time was found throughout the day.  If I had 15 minutes free I would lab something or read something.  This wasn’t necessarily structured time.  Coming to the end of the first month I realized that this process wouldn’t work for full scale labs.  I was going to need to have a dedicated 10 – 12 hours to start doing full scale labs but I also worked full time and had a family.  I blocked out a full day to do the first full scale lab I’ve ever done, and I couldn’t finish it.  I was still working on it after 14 hours.  I was going to need some real lab time with all of the technologies together to fully understand what dependencies each technology has on the other.  Understanding this, and knowing I needed to dedicate a good amount of time to this, I came up with the following two schedules.

The first schedule was the original one, and the second schedule was modified because I had been getting through the full scale labs a lot faster than in Months 2/3.

Throughout these months there are a few things that I focused on and you should too.  Possibly the more obvious one is to focus on the inter-dependencies.  Understanding that making a change in one technology will have an effect on another technology and vice versa.  This understanding is paramount to be able to discover these implementation issues before they happen. The second item to focus on is your strategy.  In my opinion, your strategy is more important than the technology.  Your strategy is something that you can control and rely on during the exam.  It’s something that should be second nature to you because you’ve practiced it over and over again in each Full Scale Lab you’ve done.  If you determine that you need to make a change to your strategy then you will need to practice with that change.  I do not recommend making a change to your strategy two weeks before your Lab Exam, unless you have prioritized it for some reason.

Some of the items I would include in your strategy:

  • How are you going to track each task
  • How are you going to track time
  • How are you going to track which tasks have been validated
  • How are you going to track your points per minute
  • How are you going to track which tasks you need to come back too.
  • What tasks are you going to focus on first? Low point ones or high
  • Are you going to read through the entire exam first or are you going to take each task on its own
  • Are you going to configure all layer 2 across the entire lab at once or are you going to configure all technologies (layer 2, layer 3, services, etc…) on each router you come too.
  • How are you going to use the Cisco Documentation
  • Are you going to rely on the “tab” and “?” help options or are you going to create predefined aliases
  • Are you going to put configurations in notepad or are you going to configure each router directly

I wouldn’t limit yourself to the above list, if you think you need to include something in your strategy then include it.  You’re the one that dictates if something is helpful or not, just make sure you practice heavily with that new addition.

Game Day!

With roughly 3 months of Full scale labs and very little sleep, I was rounding the corner to my CCIE R&S Lab date.  My strategy kicked in 5 days before my attempt.  At this point I stopped all studying and all full scale labs.  I focused on getting around 8 hours of sleep for 5 nights and drinking plenty of fluids.  During this time I flew down to RTP a couple of days early so I could “recon” the area.  I did some light speed / finger drills the day before the exam which I would also highly recommend.  One of my favorites is building out a full MPLS configuration as fast as I can on a set number of routers. No workbooks or stored configurations, just my mind, a clean notepad, and my keyboard.  My usual goal was 5 – 10 minutes which I would hit 99% if the time.  I had a good dinner the night of the exam and had a high carb intake for breakfast in the morning.

I got to the exam building pretty early, because that’s just my personality, and no one else was there.  I waited for some time and others started to join me waiting.  We had a big group of candidates with a good mixture of the Labs we were all taking.  The proctor was later than usually, so we all had a later start to the exams.  Everyone had very high nerves and we all attempted to hide them by making small talk with one another.

Once the Exam started I quickly fell right into my strategy.  It was second nature and muscle memory after all.  At the beginning of the exam I felt like I was just doing another Practice Full Scale lab at home.

I made great time in the Troubshooting section, finishing a little after 90 minutes.  I made an executive decision to re-validate each TS question.  There was one TS question I wasn’t sure on, but when I did the math on the points I believed I had so far I was pretty sure I had already had 80% in TS.  Because of this I determined I needed to move on to the next section because I wanted as much time in the Configuration section as possible.  Before moving into the Diagnostic section, I took a bathroom break because I didn’t want my Diagnostic section timer to start.

The Diagnostic Section was really unknown at the time and there wasn’t much that anyone could study for it so I wanted all of the 30 minutes to focus on it.  Once again, I leaned on my strategy, keeping an eye on the timer and my point’s total I believed I had so far.  I made the best decisions I believed I could at that time.  I did use all of the 30 minutes as I don’t believe you could end the Diagnostic Section early.

Once into the configuration section, I felt like I had been hit by a truck.  It was like information overload.  I took a minute to relax and then read through all of the tasks, making notes for each task like I had planned to from the beginning.  Relying once again on my strategy here, I was quickly seeing what was needed where and what issues I would have with the different technologies and protocols.  Over the course of about 5 hours, I had done very well or at least my verification’s on each task were correct.  I did have a few tasks that I just wasn’t sure about, but my overall point percent in this section was around 85%.  I spent the remaining 30 minutes or so trying to finish up a few 4 point tasks.  I worked up until the proctor said time, so for me I used every minute possible on this exam attempt.  Now it was time to wait and attempt to relax.

After the Exam:

I had a good dinner with a few drinks to relax my mind.  I briefly talked to my wife, my mentors, and members of my Study group but I was exhausted and quickly fell asleep.  The next 46 hours was rough for me, waiting for my results.  I would imagine only those that have gone through this before can understand the nerve racking feeling of waiting this long.  I constantly checked the CCIE Portal to see if the results had been posted yet.  I checked so often and from so many different locations, I actually got locked out of the CCIE Portal because I had connected from so many IP addresses.  Because it had taken so long to get my results, I was sure I had failed.  I finally received an email from Cisco around 46 hours after ending the exam, but I still couldn’t open it yet.  I had promised my wife that we would open it together.  I rushed home, which took 2 hours because of bad traffic and my wife was the first to see that I had Passed!  She started crying and I hadn’t seen the results yet so I immediately thought I had failed.  She showed me and I was ecstatic!! I contacted everyone that helped me throughout this journey.  I quickly memorized my CCIE #, 44883, and like everyone else that accomplishes this journey I will never forget it.

 

Resources used:

Here is a list and brief description of the resources used during my CCIE R&S Journey.

  • Family
    • Family support throughout this journey is something that you need to have.  You should be upfront and honest with your family on how much time you will need to commit too be successfuly with this goal.  I recommend weekly or bi-weekly family meetings to discuss the current status and state of this goal.
  • CCIE Study group
    • Probably the most important resource.  Finding a group of like minded people that are going through the same journey as you.  Like I mentioned above, you need to be active with your study group and not just a fly on the wall.  Be present and be active!
  • INE CCIE v4 and v5
    • INE has great content for most every CCIE track there is to date. Brian McGahan and the rest of the team at INE have done a fantastic job over the years.  I highly recommend using them if you are planning on starting our own CCIE journey.
  • GNS3 Vault
    • A great resource for more labs. René Molenaar, CCIE #41726, has done a fantastic job of creating content that has been very useful over the years in my studies.
  • CCIE 360 Labs
    • I used a few free practice Labs here.  They were pretty good.  If these had been available at the beginning of my journey I may have used them more than I did but I had already purchased INE’s all access pass by this point in time.
  • A ton of Redbull and Monsters.
    • Yes, I probably was the reason that Redbull and Monster had a few great years on the market.  Just to give everyone an idea, I would drink on average 100 ounces of Redbull or Monsters a day.  Pretty Insane, I know.  In case you are worried, I no longer drink them. 😉

Alright, until next time Ziglets keep it nerdy, and I promise the next Zigbit is coming soon!

Michael "Zig" Zsiga II, CCDE™ 2016::32, CCIE™ #44883 has been in the networking industry a little over 15 years. He is currently a Lead Technical Architect at ePlus in the New England region of the United States. Zig holds an active CCDE and two CCIE certifications, one in Routing and Switching and the second in Service Provider. Zig also holds a Bachelor's of Science in Computer Science from Park University. Zig is a father, a husband, a United States Marine, a gamer, a nerd, a geek and a big soccer fan. Zig loves all technology and can usually be found in the lab learning and teaching others. Zig is a co-organizer of The Boston Network Operators Group (www.bosnog.org), runs multiple CCIE Study groups, and is a newly published author. Zig lives in New Hampshire, USA with his wife, Julie and their son Gunnar.