In this post in the Ten Years a CCIE series, I go over my preparations for the CCIE Routing and Switching exam, and what I did to pass in one attempt.

The first months…

I passed my CCIE Routing and Switching Lab in one attempt, so I think my approach can be considered effective. At least, it was for the exam at the time. I decided to spend my first several months of study diving deep into each of the exam topics on the blueprint. I was determined to focus on core technologies such as BGP and OSPF and to minimize the amount of time spent on ancillary topics such as DLSw. Because you have access to the documentation CD in the lab, you don’t need to know absolutely everything. However, you do not want to spend a long time trying to figure out how to configure core tasks which you should be able to do automatically.

I didn’t work from a particular manual or outline these first few months. Instead I would pick a topic, say BGP. I would go through all of the examples I could find in the books that I had, Jeff Doyle’s books being the most helpful. I would set up the examples from the books in my lab to see if they work as described. Then I performed free-form experimentation. I tried different things; I indulged my curiosity; I came up with new ways to test the protocols and tried to break them. I introduced loops where there weren’t loops in the examples I had. I saw what happened if I ran the protocol over ISDN instead of Frame Relay. And I made very sure that everything I learned I recorded in my notes. For every subject I kept two note files. The first file contained general, conceptual notes. The second file was a list of commands that I thought were important and I needed to remember. These files grew over time, and I studied them thoroughly before attempting the lab.

I had also acquired practice labs from three different sources. I had IP Expert’s lab book; I also had Internetwork Experts’ lab book; and finally, I had the Cisco press official lab book, which was written by a CCIE proctor. I found that this last book’s labs most closely resembled the real thing in terms of how the labs were written and how the diagrams were drawn. Still, as I studied I quickly came to favor the Internetwork Expert book for its thoroughness and accuracy. At that time, they were still relatively new, but the quality of their material was the best.

Closing in on test day…

In the last couple of months before the exam, I shifted my strategy. Instead of focusing on individual topics I spent my time working the practice labs in the IE book. At first I worked them slowly and methodically. I didn’t do them on a timer, and I didn’t rush through them. If it took me 24 hours to work through lab then it took me 24 hours. My main interest was in covering the material, understanding it thoroughly, and in documenting my learnings. I knew so many people who started giving themselves timed exams when they weren’t ready for them. Yes, it’s important to have a strategy and to understand clock management, but it’s far more important to understand the material thoroughly. The best time management strategy is knowing the material so well you can configure most of it on auto-pilot.

Every time I completed the lab I graded myself using IE’s answer key. I used to say that I was my own worst enemy. I never gave myself a pass on the slightest discrepancy between my solution and IE solution. Every single mistake that I wrote I listed out in a document, and in the last few weeks before the exam I reread that document several times every day. Constantly reviewing the mistakes I had made reinforced my own errors in my mind.  I also found that in my note documents that I was highlighting certain important points or gotchas with the capital words “BE SURE”. I created another document that I called my “BE SURE” list. I also reviewed this list several times a day in the last few weeks before the exam. Reviewing both my mistakes as well as my “BE SURE” list so frequently was quite effective in helping me remember my mistakes and important notes.

A snippet of my BE SURE list

A snippet of my BE SURE list

When I was studying for my CCIE exam Cisco press had just released two handy books. These books covered all of the commands in IOS at that time for BGP and OSPF. Not only did they describe the commands but they had examples of their use as well. In the last few days before the exam I would review the table of contents of these books which listed all the commands by name. I did this every night in bed. If I was able to accurately describe the command, I would cross it off.  Some commands that I couldn’t remember I saw night after night, until they were so familiar I had no problem using them.  Doing this every night helped me to commit fully to memory all of the different BGP and OSPF commands that make up the core of the CCIE lab exam.

I also took the CCIE Lab Boot Camp from Internetwork Expert just a few weeks before I took the actual lab exam. This was a wonderful experience. I was able to take the course from home, using IE’s Java-based virtual environment. Because most of the work and the class consisted of full, eight-hour timed labs, there was no need to travel to a classroom. And, because the eight hour exams were administered on Internetwork Expert’s own racks of equipment, there was no problem with not having a full CCIE lab at home. We had a small amount of lecture each day, followed by the eight hour lab, which was then graded each night. In the morning we were given our results. I was told that people scoring over 80% generally passed the CCIE lab exam, and I was scoring higher with no problem. The Brians gave me some great advice and particularly fixed some problems that I had in configuring multicast.

At the end of the boot camp Brian Dennis, the grumpier of the Brians, gave what I would charitably call a pep talk. He told us that a test is just a test, that we should get some of the classic books on networking and study them thoroughly, and that we should know our subject, not simply pass the test.  “You meet some CCIEs and wonder, how did this guy pass the test?” Brian said.

In November 2004 the time came to take the test. I had no idea if I was ready. A good friend of mine who passed shortly before spent four hours with me in a sushi restaurant grilling me on every possible subject that could be on the exam. They closed the restaurant on us.  For my final preparation, I studied all of the new features in IOS which they were now using in the CCIE lab. I also studied the documentation CD thoroughly so that I would have no trouble navigating it in the lab.

Passing the test

If you’re working on the CCIE exam, why should you care what someone did to prepare for it ten years ago?  Well, as I’ve said, it is a different test now.  My advice on learning ISDN dial maps isn’t going to help you.  However, there are some general principles here that you should pay attention to.

  1. Figure out the core topics and learn them well.  Cold.  On every expert exam, there are some core topics and some ancillary topics.  You cannot know everything.  Figure out the core topics and drill them over, and over, and over again.  You need to be able to configure them without thinking.
  2. Make things harder than they have to be.  As I said, break things intentionally.  Introduce problems.  Ask questions.  Don’t just run the scenarios you bought with your labs.
  3. Be your own worst enemy.  Remember, the CCIE exam is not just about doing what they tell you, but doing exactly what they tell you.  When you grade yourself, read and re-read the tasks.  Make absolutely sure that you have accurately and completely fulfilled the requirements.
  4. Document your mistakes.  Review things you have done wrong, and keep reviewing them.

In the next post in the series,  Room of Horrors, I describe the CCIE lab experience.  I talk about what it was like to enter the infamous lab in Cisco Building C, and take the challenging exam.