In this article in my “10 Years a CCIE” series, I take you inside the infamous CCIE lab, where countless candidates have sweated out the devious challenges concocted by the CCIE exam authors.

Planning travel

I was fortunate at the time I took the lab exam in that I lived in San Francisco, very close to the San Jose test site. However, knowing the unpredictability of Bay Area traffic, and also knowing that the exam was very early in the morning (I am not a morning person) I decided it would be best to book a hotel room close to the test site. I even went so far as the book 2 nights in a hotel room, figuring that on the morning of the exam I wouldn’t want to deal with checking out of the hotel. This was perhaps excessive, but it made me relax and even for the well-prepared candidate your mental state is important.

The hotel on Great America Parkway where I stayed

The hotel on Great America parkway where I stayed

I often see test advice which says to get a good rest, to eat well, to not drink alcohol, etc., before your exam. Frankly, I always feel insulted when I see this advice. Of course I’m not going to get drunk the night before the exam. I don’t think anybody needs someone to tell them this. However, I do recommend planning your travel arrangements carefully to reduce stress on the day of the exam. I even drove the straight shot down Tasman the night before to check out the building where the exam was, just so that I would know my way.

The lab room

On the morning of the exam I drove to the test site and checked in. Having taken a few CCIE exams now, the awkward morning in the waiting room is very familiar. One of my fellow candidates seemed far too well dressed to be taking an exam. Another of them was arrogantly boasting that he was absolutely positive he would pass the exam. This was his second attempt. Eventually, the proctor showed up and brought us into the lab room.

I don’t know quite what I was expecting, but I did feel a certain thrill walking into that infamous room. It is large, and there are cubicles around the periphery in which the proctors sit. In the center of the room are the candidate desks. Two candidates sit at a desk separated by a short barrier. I was disappointed to be seated at the same desk as the arrogant guy. Next to each desk is the rack of equipment that the candidates configure. This was the beginning of the one-day era, and candidates no longer physically accessed this rack, except for those candidates who had Voice over IP on their exam.  There were phones on the rack for them to test their configuration. (I remember vividly the guy in front of me trying, apparently unsuccessfully, to make a call between his dial peers.)  In one corner of the room there was a big pile of token ring equipment. Token ring had just been removed from the test and I guess they hadn’t gotten around to throwing out the gear.

On the left wall as you come in the door there is a long whiteboard, and the proctor gathered us around this to explain the ground rules. I’ve had this talk four times now, and I can’t really remember what they say. I think they tell you what time the lunch break is and what to do if your routers crash. More on that in the security article.

Panic sets in

You sit down at your desk and there’s a binder on it. The first thing you do, or should do, is to read through the entire exam. This had a really good effect on me. I had heard that the actual CCIE lab exam was far easier than the Internetwork Expert practice exams I was using. But reading through the entire exam and seeing how difficult it was induced a panic reaction. I was mortified. I didn’t think I could do it. After the panic subsided I was calm. Since I figured, before even typing a keystroke, that I already failed, I might as well just enjoy it. After all, I’m a network engineer and I like to configure.

With my panic over, I sat down and begin the test. As a CCIE, of course I am sworn to secrecy as to the contents of the exam, even now. I can tell you this much – I was very lucky to get the test that I got. I had a few weak spots, and those weak spots didn’t appear on my test. Nevertheless, I will say that the routing protocols configuration was challenging, very challenging.

There were two proctors in the room at that time: Ted and Manuel. (Note: I have changed the names of the proctors to protect them from criticism.) The first time I had a question I went to Ted. His answer was classic CCIE proctor. He told me exactly what I needed to know in order to clear up the question but without giving away the answer at all. He was very helpful. For my next two questions I went to Manuel. He was very nice, smiled, and told me absolutely nothing helpful. I swore if I was ever in the lab room again, that I would only ask questions of Ted if he was there. This will become somewhat funny when I discuss the Security exam.

For lunch we went over to the Cisco cafeteria in Building J.  Before we headed over, myself and the guy with the phone problems had to use the men’s room.  “Should my OSPF be working?”  He asked me.  “Uh, yeah, I imagine so,” was my response.  “Well, can you tell me why I can’t get routes from area 1…” and so forth.  He was asking me to help him with the test!  All I said was, “you know, sometimes things you do a thousand times are much harder on the real exam.”  When we opened the door to the bathroom the proctor was standing right there, listening.  I’m quite happy I answered the way that I did.

I finished nearly 2 hours early. I was sure I had done something wrong to have finished so early. So I spent the next hour and 45 minutes rereading the test, pinging every address I could ping, and verifying everything was exactly the way it should’ve been. Remember, succeeding on the CCIE exam is not simply a question of making it work but of doing it exactly the way they ask you. I’ve known many people who failed this exam even though they had things working, because they didn’t do it exactly as asked in the test.

Results

I left the exam room and drove back to the hotel. When I got the hotel room, I opened my laptop and checked my email. Keep in mind it took me less than 15 minutes to exit the exam room and get to my hotel room. Thus, imagine my surprise when I saw that there was an email already awaiting me from the CCIE exam program with my test results! I figured there was no way it could happen so fast unless I had failed. The email itself didn’t have my score, but it had a link to the CCIE webpage. I clicked the link and to my surprise in order to login I has provided my CCIE written date and score. I knew my score, but I had no idea what day I had taken the test. I knew the month, so I sat there and started randomly picking days until I finally hit it. It was a very stressful few minutes. Here I was, with the answer at my fingertips.  All of my months of hard work, the answer right there, and I couldn’t get to it!  I almost left the hotel room and drove back home just to find my scoresheet.

I expected, if I had passed, to see the word “PASS” in giant capital letters across the top of the screen. But it wasn’t anywhere to be seen. Then I noticed, in very small print, at the top of the screen, a five digit number: 14023. At that point I knew I had passed. I called my good friend and study partner, the one who prepared me at sushi restaurant a few weeks before. Amazingly I think he was happier than I was.

A snippet of the 2004 results email... Elusive!

A snippet of the 2004 results email… Elusive!

I later found out that Cisco uses a script to grade the exams, and that proctors only review marginal cases. When I left the room they ran a script which immediately passed me, and this explains receiving a score report so quickly.  Being a pessimist, I figured I must have failed badly to have gotten a grade so fast, but the nice thing about being a pessimist is that you are often pleasantly surprised.

Taking the test

If you take the CCIE Lab exam in San Jose, you won’t be in the same room as I was.  They have moved it down the road to building L.  I haven’t seen the new lab, but some history died when they moved it.  Many well known CCIE’s (and lesser-known ones like myself) remember that old lab very well.

Passing in one attempt is certainly an accomplishment I am proud of, but I have no illusions about it either.  It was the result of a lot of hard work, but also a little luck.  As I mentioned, the test I got lacked some of my weaker subjects, and I just as easily could have failed.  As it was, I would have to wait to experience the crushing disappointment of studying so hard only to fail, and have to go right back to the studying.

In the next article, A CCIE Goes Home to Cisco, I consider what it was like to get hired by Cisco as a newly minted CCIE, with some further shattering of the “mystique” I talked about in article #1.