In my first article in the “Ten Years a CCIE” series, I discuss the mystique of the CCIE certification which made me want to attempt the test.

Learning about the CCIE

My first vague awareness of the CCIE certification came in 1999 while I was a Master’s student in Telecommunications Management at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. A family friend was staying at my father’s house, an instructor in the PhD program in telecommunications at the University of Idaho. I was excited to meet him because I was thinking of pursuing further graduate studies, but I was a bit surprised when I told him of my ambitions to be a network engineer, and of my coursework at GGU. He told me not to waste my time in a graduate program if I wanted to be a network engineer. “You should get a Cisco certification instead,” he said, “they’re gold.” A disappointing comment, seeing that I was in my second year of the Masters program, but I kept it in mind and completed my degree.

When I graduated with my Master of Science degree it was the height of the dotcom boom, and I was looking forward to easy employment with my brand-new advanced degree. However, when I posted my resume on dice.com (this was long before LinkedIn), I didn’t get any calls. It seemed that nobody was interested in hiring a network engineer based solely on an academic diploma. The one job offer I received was doing desktop support-exactly the same job I had before I got my advanced degree. This was not looking good.

At that point, I remembered the advice of my PhD friend: “Get a Cisco certification.” I didn’t realize that the certification he was referring to was the CCIE, which I hadn’t even heard of. Opening Global Knowledge’s catalog, I found the section on Cisco certifications and enrolled myself in the lowest level course that I could find, a five-day boot camp for the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) certification.

I showed up at the CCNA boot camp knowing almost nothing about Cisco routers. My Masters program had been largely theoretical and I had never configured a Cisco router hands-on. I had done some work with the Ascend and Farallon routers but this was in my personal business and not in school. However, I was eager to learn and I worked very hard during my boot camp. Boot camp consisted of four days of in class training and labs followed by a review on the morning of the fifth day and then the test. I managed to pass the test with a score of 997 out of 1000.

netopia

A circa 1990’s Farallon Netopia Router

A class was going on next door that fascinated me. Unlike our class, which had a lot of PowerPoint slides, the students worked in nearly complete silence. I asked our instructor what was going on. He told me that they were enrolled in Global Knowledge’s NetGun class, a boot camp to prepare students for the CCIE exam. I was intrigued. No PowerPoints. Working alone instead of in pairs like we were. Intense concentration. What type of exam were they preparing for?

Well, I updated my resume on dice.com with my new CCNA certification and almost immediately my phone began ringing off the hook. In those days I had an answering machine, and I was receiving so many calls that when one recruiter was leaving a message on my answering machine, I could hear the call-waiting tone of another recruiter trying to call in. I should have been happy, but I was dismayed. I couldn’t believe that a four-day class would be considered so much more valuable than a two-year Masters program. I felt like an idiot for having spent my time and money in school.

A telco guy explains the mystique

I interviewed for a number of jobs, and ended up accepting a position as the senior network engineer for the San Francisco Chronicle. At that time, the Chronicle was a major metropolitan newspaper and had just undergone a significant merger with the San Francisco Examiner. I really had no network experience other than desktop support, so I was a bit nervous about taking a high-level position as a network engineer in such a critical business. Back then the printed paper was still widely read, and a communications error between headquarters and the printing plants, or with the circulation system, could easily prevent the paper from being printed or distributed. However, it was a great opportunity and at the height of the dotcom boom I sensed a crash coming–a large newspaper seemed like a good place to weather the storm. (It was, but I had underestimated the impact the crash and the rise of the Internet would have on print media.)

The Chronicle’s computer systems were an interesting mix of new technology and very old systems. Most of the network equipment was made by Foundry, a decent enough vendor, but at that time bleeding-edge. So bleeding-edge that it was unstable, and we ended up ripping out most of the Foundry, and replacing it with Cisco gear. The Chronicle was very heavily mainframe-based, and one of the most important pieces of network equipment was a Cisco 7507. This router had a special card called a Channel Interface Processor, or CIP, which was used to connect the mainframe to the network through a special cable called a “bus and tag“.

busntag

Bus and Tag cable

This CIP card was a major source of problems for us. The router itself was managed by our telecom company at the time, SBC Communications. I remember at one point when we were having big problems with the mainframe, we called our SBC tier 2 technician for support. Not knowing anything about the CIP card, our technician decided to escalate to his tier 3 support, a CCIE. By that time I had heard of the reputation of CCIE’s. I had heard that the CCIE could make a Cisco router do anything; that their test was so difficult that almost no one to pass it; that it was a grueling two-day experience in which the proctors cooked up all kinds of wicked scenarios guaranteed to make all but the smartest fail. Our tier 2 tech told us that his CCIE was next to a genius. “He was locked up in the lab for an entire year,” he said, “and nobody even saw him.”

I was disappointed when I was told that we wouldn’t actually get to meet this mysterious CCIE face-to-face, but I was still excited when we dialed him into the phone bridge. We had been having troubles with the CIP card for quite some time and I expected that simply by describing the problem his CCIE would immediately come up with a solution. All of my fellow network engineers had similar expectations. We dialed him in on the phone; the room was hushed. We described our situation to him. And he had absolutely nothing insightful to say.

This was my first indication that perhaps there was a little bit of hype surrounding the CCIE certification. After all, I almost thought that CCIE’s could all but make a Cisco router stand up and sing show tunes. Here was a CCIE, faced with a difficult problem, exactly the sort of thing that they are supposed to be able to solve on-the-fly, and not only did he not know what to do, but he had absolutely no idea where to even begin. All he ended up doing was opening up a TAC case with Cisco.

What I didn’t know at the time is that there were precisely two people in the world who actually know how a CIP card works, and those two people were in Cisco TAC. I later ended up learning this when I worked at TAC myself. I also didn’t know that while the CCIE test is hard, it only covers certain specific equipment, and certain specific subjects. CCIE’s do not know everything there is to know about Cisco products, even at a time when there were so much fewer of them.

I remember a nighttime maintenance window we did on a Catalyst 5500 with that same tier 2 technician. As we waiting for the switch to boot, he regaled us with horror stories of the CCIE exam. This tier 2 technician was a sort of person who speaks all sorts of nonsense, but does it in a very self-confident manner, such that people who don’t know better end up believing all he says. (I have found this type to be very successful in corporate America.) He told us that one of his CCIE friends had such a difficult experience on his lab that he ended up routing all of his BGP through his console ports. We were all duly impressed even though this didn’t make any sense. He told me that when his friend came up with this solution, the proctor handed him his number right then and there on a piece of paper. (Believe me, it doesn’t happen this way).

The source of the mystique

The point of these stories is that, at least in the early days, CCIE’s held a certain mystique. Partly it was these nonsense stories that were spread about the exam. But partly it was the fact that you met so few of them. The simple reason why you met so few was that there weren’t very many in those days. The CCIE exam was two days long, and required either an employer who provided a lab for practice, or a lot of personal money to invest in one. There was no GNS3 in those days. If your employer didn’t provide you a lab, you bought one. Between the investment of money and the investment of time not many people could afford to take the test. This mystique naturally made some of us want to take the test even more, even after we had learned that the mystique was inflated. I personally set my sights on it because of this mystique, and I determined that the best path to CCIE was to first acquire the CCNP certification, even though it wasn’t required. I spent 2001 studying for and taking the four exams that were required at that time for the CCNP: routing, switching, remote access, and troubleshooting. I passed all of the exams on the first attempt. Although it was a paper certification, I had built up a small lab of 2500 series routers, and I made sure to practice the subjects I was studying in the lab. Consequently, I consider studying for my CCNP to be the beginnings of my CCIE studies.

The next article in the series, “Routing and Switching:  An exam in flux“, will discuss the R/S exam at that time and the major changes in the program that took place in the early 2000’s.