Talk about a stress test

Anthony Sequeira knows a little about stress. The 35-year-old network instructor from Tampa, Fla., once purposely stalled a single-engine plane and sent it into a tailspin five times in a row as part of his efforts to earn his pilot’s licence. But nothing in his thrill-seeking exploits prepared him for the pressure of taking the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) lab exam.

The CCIE exam is “absolutely more stressful than doing loop-de-loops in a plane,’’ Sequeira says.

“With piloting, you conquer fear by eliminating the unknowns. The fear of the unknown is what you consistently face in the CCIE. They could throw a topic at you that you have no experience with. They did it to me all five times that I took the exam.’’

Sequeira passed the lab exam in January, joining the ranks of 12,967 network engineers who have aced the gruelling hands-on test.

For most, passing the CCIE lab exam requires studying as many as 1,000 hours and maintaining a laser-like focus that leaves spouses, children and hobbies by the wayside. The lab exam also costs big bucks, with the purchase of workbooks, preparatory courses, exam fees, travel and racks of Cisco equipment.

The lab exam is so difficult that it has taken on mythic proportions in the network industry. CCIEs talk about how physically taxing the process is and list it among their greatest accomplishments.

“The CCIE was infinitely more difficult for me than anything else I’ve ever done,’’ says Sequeira, a senior technical instructor for Thomson NETg in Scottsdale, Ariz., who holds CCIE No. 15626. (Certificates started with No. 1024.)

“Everything I had ever done, I had excelled at. If you had told me that I would fail the CCIE four times before I passed it, I would have said that was not possible,” he says.

Rus Healy was speechless when he found out in August 2005 that he had passed the CCIE lab exam on his fourth try. Healy, who holds CCIE No. 15025, is program manager for technical training and certifications at Microwave Data Systems in Rochester, N.Y.

“I got an e-mail from my proctor saying congratulations while I was at the airport waiting for my flight home from the exam,’’ Healy says. “I called my wife, and I was crying. I have never felt anything like it. It was such an incredible feeling of achievement.’’

The CCIE has been considered the most difficult certification in the IT industry since its launch in 1993. It has two parts: a written exam and a practical lab test. The CCIE is offered in five tracks: routing and switching; security; service provider; storage networking; and voice. The most popular track is routing and switching.

“Over the life of the program, the overall pass rate has usually been 26 per cent,’’ says Mike Reid, senior manager of CCIE programs for Cisco. “We target the material at an expert level. The pass rate is secondary.’’

The lab exam is difficult because it tests practical problem-solving skills. Passing the lab exam requires hands-on experience, speed and the ability to remain calm in the face of extreme pressure. One person has taken it 19 times and still hasn’t passed.

“On my third and fourth attempts, I had the knowledge but I simply didn’t have the speed, the task analysis and the trouble

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