A New Life

On September 21st, in Sydney, I took the CCIE R&S lab for the second time. The first time I wasn’t fast enough, nor did I have a sufficient depth of knowledge at my fingertips. This time, through a combination of hundreds of hours of practice, revised study techniques, and a little luck, I proved to be good enough to pass the lab. The average number of attempts is around 2.7, and right back at the start I said I’d be happy to pass it in two attempts. Well guess what? I am happy about it.

There’s a reason you haven’t heard much from me in the last couple of months, and that’s because I’ve had to become very narrowly focused, eliminating all distractions. I couldn’t afford to take a month off work, so instead I needed to use all of the available time I had outside work for study. That meant I have done very little other than work and study for the last couple of months, since I got back from LA. Most nights and usually both days at the weekend I could be found stuck in the office. Time on the bus wasn’t wasted – I would be reading flashcards on my phone, or maybe flipping through Ruhann’s Routing-Bits handbook. When I was doing a long drive, I’d put on the INE audio bootcamp, to listen to Scott Morris talking about MPLS, BGP and PfR. Not surprisingly, this tended to be only on those trips when I was alone in the car.

All this work started to take it’s toll. I now have a handful of grey hairs I didn’t have when I started. I started getting RSI from all the time spent at the keyboard. I put on a little bit of weight from the reduced activity levels. It placed a bit of stress on my marriage, as Anna only had me around for limited times, and I was always studying. But she did everything within her power to help me succeed. She looked after me, gave me support, and gave me space when I needed it. Without her love and support I would not have been able to do this. I have no idea how people who have young children manage to get through it.

Last year, I didn’t feel like I was all that far off passing. I passed the Troubleshooting section, and only two questions were (I felt) unanswerable. I’d gone in with a strategy of “know the basics well, and know where to look in the documentation for the remaining sections if you get stuck.” That wasn’t good enough. The CCIE lab exam has moved from being a logic test to more of a speed test. You need to be able to rattle off a wide range of configurations. You just don’t have time to go looking for things in the documentation. As far as I can tell, they also seem to deliberately slow down access to the docs too, making it a painful process searching for content. Or maybe it’s just that they use an old version of Internet Explorer? Regardless, I needed to improve on my speed.

So this year I took a different approach. Rather than working on multi-protocol labs, where a range of technologies were configured to interact, I instead focused on individual areas. Work through all the options for a technology, then move on to something else. I also signed up for Narbik’s bootcamp in LA. This gave me access to new materials, and a new way of looking at things.

The other big change to my study techniques was the the move to using flash cards. These have come a long way from when people would write out hundreds of cards, and carry them around. Now we can use tools like Mental Case. You still need to type out your cards, but now you can synchronise them with your phone. It can also track them, remembering which ones you got right and wrong, and using “spaced learning” techniques to decide which cards you should study, when. As I worked through different technologies, I would add to my set. I particularly focused on small snippets of configuration. Each day, I aimed to flip through 30-50 cards. You get sick of them after a while, but I think this really helped, especially with the “non-core” technologies, where you don’t configure them as frequently.

In the last few weeks, I took a couple of practice exams, and scored reasonably well. Every evening, Saturday and Sunday, and all the last week, I booked time on labs of real equipment. I took the last week off work, and used that time to really drill into the topics I didn’t want to see on the lab. After a while, I would have been quite happy to see them on the lab, as I felt I had a good understanding. Cisco seemed to know that though, and so they didn’t ask many questions on those areas!

I flew over to Sydney the day before the exam. I used up one of my free upgrades to get bumped up to Business class. A little bit of a waste for a short-haul (3 hour) flight, but I had to use it up soon anyway. That gave me more space, lounge access, etc. Worth it. Only did a little bit of study the day before though. I wanted to be a bit more relaxed.

On the day of the lab itself, it took me about 10 minutes to get into the rhythm of it. At first you’re a bit stressed, but then you start answering questions, and things fall into place. Around the middle of the day I thought to myself “You’ve got a damn good chance of passing today, if you don’t mess it up.” But there was still a lot of work ahead of me. All I could do was keep plugging away at it, and not get bogged down with anything. With around 45 mins to go, I went back and checked over my work. Found a couple of stupid mistakes, which would have cost me at least 10%. I believed I’d answered everything, but I couldn’t be certain I hadn’t missed any key details. I also could have broken some restrictions (some of the wording was a little unclear). Not much I could do about it though.

Just tried to relax for the evening, have a couple of beers, watch some TV. I had been hoping for results before I went to sleep, but it wasn’t until early the next morning they came through. They don’t just email you the results, they send you an email telling you to login to check your results. Quickly try and login, try and make sense of their 1990s-style website, and there’s the result: PASS. I didn’t jump up and down (It was 6am and I was still in bed), but I was pretty happy. I’d put so much more effort into it this time around, and I knew I was so close, so it would have been extremely disappointing if I had missed out. First thing to do was to let Anna know. She was probably more nervous waiting than I was.

On the way home, I had lounge access at Sydney airport, so could have had free beer and wine. But it was only 9am, and I was just too drained to bother. When I got home, Anna and I had a rather expensive bottle of champagne. No great celebrations though – we were both tired, and quiet night on the couch was just what we needed.

I haven’t worked out exactly how much I’ve spent over the last 18 months. Probably somewhere between $15 and $20,000NZD. God knows what the time cost. All going well, it will be repaid over the course of my career. Having a CCIE doesn’t quite guarantee you a job like it once did, but it gives you opportunities. It doesn’t mean that I will move jobs, but it does mean that if/when I do want to move, there’s more doors open to me.

I haven’t decided exactly what I’ll do next. For the next few weeks I’m just going to take it easy. Even now, over a week after the exam, I’m not quite back to normal. I was tired for days afterwards, having been under so much stress. For now, I’ll just do jobs around the house and relax. But in future…Narbik thinks I should take on another CCIE. He says I’m young, why WOULDN’T I do it? I’m also tempted to do HP’s Master ASE certification (much easier cross-over now I have CCIE), and maybe CCDE. Will have to have some negotiations with Anna first. Right now it’s my turn to look after her, and help her get through her exams this year. She deserves some payback for all she’s done for me.

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