In this article in the “Ten Years a CCIE” series, I look at the question of cheating.  Is it possible to cheat on the CCIE exam?  And what does cheating do to the value of the certification?

Yes, you can cheat on the CCIE

Shortly after I passed my Security exam I spoke with the first CCIE to pass the Voice exam. He took a beta version while he worked at Cisco. I commented that I valued my CCIE so much because it was simply impossible to cheat at the exam. It wasn’t a written exam; you couldn’t just walk in knowing the answers; you had to think on your feet. He laughed at me and explained my ignorance.

A lot of people cheat on the CCIE lab exam, he said. Either they work in groups and share the contents of the exams  they’ve seen, or else they get copies of the exam from unscrupulous vendors on the Internet. Then, having seen the actual exam, and having researched the difficult problems, and configured it several times in their lab, they can pass with ease.

I was quite shocked to hear this. I had always studied alone, and when I started down the CCIE road, I didn’t just want to pass the exams, I wanted to beat them. I didn’t just want the CCIE, I wanted the CCIE mystique. I was flabbergasted that people would want the certification without the work. Of course there is a great appeal to gaining something so valuable with minimal effort, but how are you going to make it through a job interview?

The stupidity of cheating

I had encountered rampant cheating in graduate school. This was at the dawn of the Internet, and I saw that many of my fellow students ripped off entire papers from the Internet. We used to send our papers to each other via email, and occasionally I would paste a snippet into AltaVista (Google not being available yet), and often I would hit upon the original work that they’d stolen. Leaving aside the ethical issues of stealing someone else’s work, or ripping off the questions and answers for an exam, there is a practical downside to cheating. You are claiming a credential that you haven’t earned. I remember conducting a job interview of a girl with a Masters degree from the same program as myself. I asked her the subject of one of her papers, and it had to do with routing protocols. She couldn’t answer even the most basic questions about the content of her paper. It was obvious that she cheated her way through the program. And she looked like a complete fool claiming to be a “master” of a subject about which she knew nothing.

Sometimes engineers I know roll their eyes when they hear I have a CCIE. They have encountered one of my fellow “experts” only to find that he seemed hardly an expert at all. Since I know that it’s possible to cheat on this exam, I’m convinced that many of these so-called CCIE’s cheated on their exams. They look like fools as did the girl with her Masters degree.

I’ll talk more about the value of the certification and later post, but one thing to keep in mind is that there’s great value in the study process. There’s great value in learning. And if you study for the test as you are supposed to study for it, you’re guaranteed to learn a lot.

A blurry ethical line?

I, like almost everybody these days, passed my exams using material from legitimate vendors, primarily Internetwork Expert and IPExpert.  (The latter has closed their doors.)  These vendors provide quite a lot of material, but their signature product is a book of sample exams designed to prepare you for the real thing.  This brings up a question.  Presumably some of the scenarios covered by the “legitimate” vendors are scenarios that might come up on the real lab.  After all, how many ways are there to configure BGP?

Interestingly enough, any exam has to provide a certain amount of information to test-takers beforehand.  The CCIE exams have detailed blueprints which guide candidates in their studies.  It would be impossible to take and pass an exam without such advance information.  With merely a blueprint in hand, it would be possible to construct some kind of sample exam, but do vendors simply build them off the blueprint?  Or do they get information from candidates and use them to build their tests?

The ethical lines can be blurry, but one thing is for certain:  studying for a CCIE exam using an actual copy of a real test is blatant cheating and disgraceful behavior.

Cheating on the written exam

Cheating is also rampant on the written exam. This is even the case among CCIE’s who are recertifying, perhaps especially the case. As I mentioned in my recertification post, taking an exam every two years, especially a hard one, is a big hassle. Many CCIE’s get lazy about the process. There are vendors who will sell verbatim copies of the tests. There is still, of course, some work involved. Someone with a copy of the test has to actually memorize all the answers. But it is far easier than going into a test blind.

My last re-certification was quite painful, and yet I refuse to use any sort of brain dump.  Instead, I built an Anki database of questions.  It wasn’t perfect, and it took a couple of failures for me to build a database that had sufficient coverage.

False CCIEs

Another way to “cheat” is simply to falsely claim CCIE status.  Anyone with a CCO account can verify if somebody actually has a CCIE, and whether they are active, but oftentimes employers just don’t bother to check.  When I was at Cisco HTTS, we were very close to hiring someone for a CCIE-requiring position, when I ran his name through the tool.  His CCIE had been revoked because he hadn’t recertified.  He was clearly embarrassed, and had simply been too busy to recertify.  While I can empathize with that, the fact was that he did not have a CCIE and would need to take both written and lab to get it back.  We didn’t hire him, but it amazed me that nobody had bothered to check early in the hiring process.

There is also a large group of imposters who have passed the written, and somehow think this qualifies them to put “CCIE” on their resume.  I recently saw a poster on a LinkedIn group who gave herself a CCIE (Wrt) title.  I also remember one candidate who put “CCIE Routing/Switching” in huge, bold letters on his resume, with “written” in a tiny font right next to it.  Well, I have news for you.  There is no CCIE written certification.  You either have a CCIE or you don’t.  Pass the lab before you put CCIE anything on your resume.  If you are looking at an employer that is willing to sponsor you for the lab, then by all means, tell them you passed the written.  But don’t claim CCIE status without a number.

What is the value?

We all know that there are a number of CCIE’s out there who should not have the certification.  It reflects poorly on the CCIE community.  There is no question that whatever value the CCIE has is diminished by those who obtained their credential through fraud.  If you are frustrated with the exam and thinking of hunting for a brain dump, remember this:  if you can’t pass the exam, you have no right to call yourself a CCIE.

In my next and final article in the series, The Value of a CCIE, I will take a look at the value of the credential.  Ten years later, do I think it was worth it?  Would I recommend someone take the CCIE exam now?  What do I think the future is for network experts in the world of SDN and automation?