Dismantling the mythology

Mauro Lollo remembers his Cisco lab exams like they were strange trips to an ethereal other-world. Ten years on, the chief technology officer is helping his company’s candidates to keep the daunting eight-hour test real.

Lollo had been working in the networking industry for almost a decade before he tried the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) exam.

His dreamscape casts a lone figure inside an intensely white room, who must unravel a series of riddles against a humming undertow.

Lollo vividly recalls the incessant drone that permeated the lab room in Halifax. It’s just you and the racks, he says, and the humming.

“You walk into this room and it looks like a very sterile place. These racks form the subject of your focus for the next eight hours. And all you hear is the humming of equipment.”

Lollo says he’d had a couple of acquaintances who had gone and didn’t make it through. “And they went a few more times and didn’t make it through. They had mentioned to me it was just out of this world.” It’s the aura around it, the environment and just months’ worth of pressure all focused at that point in time, he says.

Candidates who had taken the test would return the next day to hear whether they’d passed or failed.

“People sit there on a couch, lined up like birds on a wire, and they’re all basically staring at their feet,” says Lollo. “I called it the Couch of Sorrows.”

“That, in addition to the Quietest Lunch Room in the World, just made for a little bit of a surreal experience. You’re sitting there and you’re all staring at each other fairly blank. You’ve got to find humour in all this or the stress will just tear you apart.”

Lollo didn’t make it on his first attempt, but he went back to study more and after a second sitting now holds CCIE No. 3557. He’s also vice-president and CTO for Unis Lumin Inc., a systems integrator based in Oakville, Ont.

Since 1987, Lollo has picked up a number of certifications from other manufacturers like Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) and 3Com.

He thought his 10 years’ experience in the field, working with Cisco technology, would be enough to see him through the CCIE exam.

“The challenge for me was that I wasn’t exposed to all the technologies they’d throw into the exam,” says Lollo.

“We had really grown up with the local area networking space, things like TCP-IP, AppleTalk and DECnet, but I’d had little exposure to IBM.”

When he didn’t make it, Lollo suddenly realized his shortcomings. “I felt a little dejected because here I am practising in the industry and I was caught short. I actually studied the second time.”

In the end, Lollo is convinced the CCIE is worth every ounce of sacrifice. The CCIE is one of the standards Unis Lumin asks its technical staff to meet and Lollo ensures candidates have all the support they need.

Unis Lumin has a complete lab that the company uses to mock up customer configurations for testing and troubleshooting, and CCIE candidates have full access to the lab.

They can configure a range of equipment and do their lab studying either onsite or remotely from home, says Lollo.

“Because that lab has a wide range of technology, everything from routing and switching to IP telephony, we have a perfect environment to prepare for the CCIE lab test.”

Lollo also grants the company’s candidates a certain amount of time, during regular business hours, for them to study. “We have to have some leeway with that because we understand how difficult it can be.”

Candidates need support from their companies, or they need a pocketful of cash, he says, adding that hard and soft costs can easily add up to $100,000.

“We have six CCIEs at the company, and I’m proud to say most of them have passed the lab test first time around. That’s the degree of the preparation they go through here.”

It’s Lollo’s way of changing the exam from an ordeal into something that’s more achievable. He’s helping to turn the dream into reality.

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