Jeff Shapiro: Getting something out of a humiliating CCIE experience

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If you’ve seen my previous stories, you know that my goal was to go from Cisco Systems Inc. newbie to Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) in 24 months. I can now report with confidence that achieving this lofty goal is almost impossible for us mere mortals.

The first part of the journey was straightforward, and I made it to Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) and then Certified Cisco Network Professional (CCNP) right on time.

The next step was to pass the CCIE Qualification Exam, the gateway to the final Lab Exam. I knew that preparing for this would be a huge undertaking, especially in my compressed time frame. I took the recommended Cisco ATM and Cisco voice over IP classes at Global Knowledge, where they added a lot of valuable information beyond the Cisco syllabus. I studied hard, reviewed all the materials I had gathered, and used Boson Software Inc.’s practice tests.

Feeling ready by early October, I went online to sign up for the exam. The first shock was the US$300 fee, three times the cost of the other exams. On Nov. 1, Cisco raised the price for the CCNA and CCNP exams to US$125 (except for the CCNP Foundations exam, which costs US$250). But everything is relative, and US$300 is a bargain when you compare it with the US$1,250 cost of the Lab Exam. Remember too that most people don’t pass on the first attempt, so you’re looking at a major chunk of cash.

Taking the test was a nightmare. I can’t share specific details because of the confidentiality agreement I signed, but anyone taking the CCIE qualification exam should absolutely spend time on Cisco’s Web site studying the exam format, topics covered and sample test questions.

You get two hours to complete the 100-question exam. There’s one huge change from lower-level exams, in which the questions have a single answer or a known number of correct answers, such as “pick the three best answers.” This exam simply states “More than one answer” so you should really know your stuff.

I did well on the fundamentals, but got nailed on too many switch and router commands that I had never seen before. To get something out of the humiliating experience, I memorized two of the questions I had no clue about and looked them up when I got home. That’s when I discovered the reason I did so poorly, and the root of a serious problem with achieving my goals.

One of the questions I remembered had two obviously wrong answers and two commands I didn’t know. I looked them up and found one wasn’t a real command, while the other was the correct answer. However, that command had never appeared when I practiced with my Cisco 2501 router. After a little research the problem became clear.

Cisco’s IOS operating system only displays commands that are relevant to your configuration. For example, if you don’t have Open Shortest Path First enabled, most of the OSPF commands disappear. You can’t practice with them because you have no idea that they exist. This is also true for interfaces that aren’t present. You’ll never see token-ring commands on an Ethernet router until you add a token-ring interface to it.

The only way you’re going to know everything needed to pass the CCIE Qualification Exam is to spend months going through every conceivable configuration and exploring every possible command. Cisco router documentation contains command trees listing every published command and variation. To properly prepare, I should have memorized every command on every device covered on the exam. I think I knew about 80 per cent of them, but of course the rogue 20 per cent were prominently featured on the test.

Bottom line: I failed. Badly. I’m going to try again, but right now I’ve proved that what I set out to do a year and a half ago isn’t possible for an ordinary person in this industry. If you can study full-time and have a photographic memory, you can do it. If you’re like the rest of us, it’s probably going to take from three to four years to achieve CCIE certification.

I’m going to get there by being patient, determined and structured. And I will tackle that monster again. The next logical time to do it is at the Networkers Conference June 24-28, 2002 in San Diego, where anyone who signs up for a time slot early enough can take any Cisco exam for free. If you’re not early enough for the freebie, there are still a limited number of spots for half-price exams. It also helps that I used to live in San Diego, can stay with family and won’t be distracted by the environment.

My pace going forward will be a lot slower, so it’s likely that I won’t have more news until July 2002.

If I don’t see you then, thanks for coming along for the ride. It’s been a blast.

Shapiro is an IT management consultant and writer in Kingsport, Tenn. He can be reached at [email protected].

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