Monday, April 4, 2011

Cisco CCIE Lab Exam Preparation

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I recently completed the CCIE certification program by passing the CCIE Wireless lab exam. Having been on this journey for the better part of a year and a half and achieving success, I thought that I would share some of my experiences and tips. Ultimately, everyone's journey to acquiring their digits will be different. But some of the same underlying themes and methods are applicable for everyone.

Here are some of my recommendations for those interested in pursuing CCIE certification:

10. Love the Track You Select
I think this is a fairly obvious one. You have to love the technology and have a passion for it. You will be devoting a large amount of time into studying and if you don't love the subject, then you won't stick with it. If  you want the CCIE certification solely to enhance your resume, get a better job, or get better pay, chances are you won't succeed. Granted, some might, but most won't. Every CCIE that I meet has a genuine passion for the technology; the resume, job, and pay benefits are icing on the cake.

9. Join a Community
Attempting to study alone is possible, but definitely much harder. Try to find a community of others studying for the same track as you. This will allow you to benefit from the various strengths of individual study group members. Each person will have different backgrounds, experience, and perspective. By learning from other's strengths, you strengthen your understanding of the topics you may be weak in. Additionally, a study group will shorten the amount of time you spend researching topics and allow you to focus on absorbing the knowledge, not hunting for answers. These communities exist is many different forms, from local Cisco User Groups to bootcamp classmates and online discussion boards (such as Twitter). Get involved, and do it early on in your studies!

8. Know Your Learning Style
Take the time to understand how you learn best. What is the most effective method for you, individually, to understand and commit knowledge to memory? Often times you can recognize your learning style by recollecting your "AHA!" moments. What made the light bulb go off and allowed you to truly grasp a topic?

Perhaps your a aural learner and like webinars or electronic training material. Instead, you could be a visual learner and classroom training or a bootcamp would be more beneficial. Or maybe you learn best when reading printed material and pouring over design guides, whitepapers, and tech notes should be your focus. And let's not forget the most important method for a CCIE candidate, tactile learning. The lab exam is 100% hands-on, in the equipment, building working networks.

Whichever method is your focus, understand that you will likely need to combine all the methods in some fashion during your studies. There is no one single source for all the information you will need to pass the CCIE lab exam. A single week-long bootcamp will not magically make you and "expert", there is simply too much material to cover for it to be all-encompassing.

7. Essential Study Preparation
Take the time up-front to understand where the information you need resides. Build a list of sources and keep the list updated as you progress through your studies. The first and most important source is the lab exam blueprint. This should form the outline for your studies, and serve to shape and focus your attention on the topics relevant to the exam. The CCIE lab is notoriously broad, in all tracks. There are already a ton of topics, features, and nuances to know to pass the exam; don't make it even harder by studying topics outside of the scope of the blueprint. The one exception to this is fundamental concepts that must be understood for more advanced in-scope topics.

I would suggest that candidates document their research and findings thoroughly by taking notes as they study. As a first step, consider creating the document outline directly from the lab exam blueprint. By taking notes you will absorb and retain the information more thoroughly. Additionally, summarizing information into a condensed format is essential for reviewing topics again in the future. Make no mistake, you will be re-visiting every topic on the blueprint multiple times. The last thing you want to happen is to research the answer to a question, only to come across the same question again and waste time re-discovering the answer.

6. Invest in Your Future
Often one of the biggest hurdles for CCIE candidates to overcome is the financial outlay required not only to sit for the lab exam, but also to acquire the required study materials. There is no easy way to avoid spending money up front to prepare for a CCIE exam. Candidates will require books, training, and equipment at a minimum. Some candidates may be fortunate to work in a large Cisco environment and have access to these resources readily at hand; others may not and have to purchase materials on their own.

Whatever the situation, understand that the money spent is not wasted, it's an investment in your future. The amount of risk involved in that investment is entirely up to you and your dedication to the goal. This psychological hurdle, if not overcome, can devastate your chances of passing the exam. Don't hadicap yourself by worrying about the money. If you truly have the willpower to follow through and succeed, your investment will pay for itself exponentially.

5. Study One Task at a Time
Many candidates get anxious about the volume of material included in the lab. While that is certainly true, don't get caught up in the enormity of the exam. If you follow #7 above, then you have a collection of small and manageable learning tasks and an outline to follow. Without an outline to focus you on specific tasks, it's easy to wander between topics and get distracted. Focus on individual tasks, take notes, and complete each task before moving onto the next one. Take it day by day, task by task, and before you know it you will have filled in the entire outline you created.

The one item that I suggest you depart from this advice is regarding lab date scheduling. Be sure to schedule your lab exam well in advance for a few reasons. First, setting a definitive date will help you focus and drive for the finish line in your studies. Second, book a lab date that fits into your schedule. Some tracks are notoriously harder to get a date than other (especially Wireless). Booking it well in advance may be the only option you have, and it sucks to be ready only to find out you will have to wait 4-6 months and stay prepared the entire time. Trust me, it happened to me.

4. Check Your Ego
Put simply, don't assume you know everything. Even if you have worked with the technology for the last decade, review everything in the blueprint and your outline again. Often times I hear of candidates who proclaim they are XYZ experts, only to find out that the way they have always understood or implemented the technology is only one of several valid methods, or worse that they were wrong.

Take the time to review the fundamentals, even if they are not directly on the lab blueprint. Fundamental theory often guides practical implementations, even if differences exist. Knowing the fundamentals will help you synthesize and retain the material more effectively, as well as be better prepared to respond to ambiguous or scenario-based questions (such as the OEQs).

3. Be Willing to Sacrifice
You have to put in the effort and the hours to succeed. Those digits are not given away, they are earned the old-fashioned way - through hard work and commitment. This will mean spending many long nights in the study lab, missing dinners, skipping out on movie nights, and making the exam your top priority. Candidates with spouses, children, or other family responsibilities will find this especially difficult. For these individuals, striking an appropriate balance will be crucial. You will need the support of your family throughout this endeavor, so make sure everyone is on-board with your new schedule. It's likely that exam preparation will consume a year or more of your life.

2. Confidence
You will know more about the track you are studying than almost anyone else. As of today, there have only been 28,000 or so CCIEs, ever! You will be in rare company if you pass. Take that attitude into the exam, after all the act of passing the exam only confirms the knowledge that you have already acquired. The exam does not magically make you an expert, your studies have accomplished that. All that is left is to prove what you already know.

It's my firm belief that most people never even attempt the lab exam because of the psychology involved. Self-impressions and confidence can go a long way to achieving the success you have envisioned for yourself. Act the part and be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

1. Endure Disappointment
Three simple words: Never Give Up! Chances are good that you will NOT pass on your first attempt. Heck, chances are for many people that they won't pass on their second attempt either. Don't get discouraged. Everyone must run the lab gauntlet. There is so much more to the lab exam than just configuring equipment.

Once in the room, the candidate must deal with the anxiety of the exam that has built up over the last year, digest a completely foreign lab topology, correctly analyze and interpret questions and scenarios presented in the workbook, and be fast as lightning configuring the equipment. Oh, and there is the devious little bugger of time management. Even if you know the technology cold, just taking the lab exam for the very first time will kick your butt and you will fail. The candidate will have to deal with mis-direction, ambiguity, and repetitive or out of order tasks. If you're not prepared to deal with each of these, you will fail.

Obviously everyone wants to pass on their first attempt, and that is a great goal to have. But don't let your success or failure on your first attempt dictate the outcome. Be resilient and fill in the gaps exposed if you fail.

Andrew's Take
Overall, if there is one piece of advice that I can give prospective candidates, it would be this:
Prepare mentally and the rest will follow!

Andrew vonNagy
CCIE #28298 (Wireless)

This material is not sponsored or endorsed by Cisco Systems, Inc. Cisco, Cisco Systems, CCIE and the CCIE Logo are trademarks of Cisco Systems, Inc. and its affiliates. The symbol ™ is included in the Logo artwork provided to you and should never be deleted from this artwork.


  1. Excellent writeup. I will personally have to work especially on points 10, 5 and 4. Been trying to love all the sections in R&S but often have different interests scattered here and there in the other tracks as well. Thanks again for the writeup. It's going to be a reminder to me everyday on why I spent over 20k from my own pocket for my ultimate Cisco goal :-)

  2. Great points here, you can tell how much comes from actual experience, which I like. The Invest in your future is such a great point, we get discussions all the time on whether or not one should even get certs anymore, and that is my number one answer: it is an investment! If you would like to support another blogger like yourself, I would love a visit at Keep up the great work, I enjoy your tweets as well!

  3. Good read, thanks.

  4. I've just found this article, great post. Some people don't believe in the community, but this in number 1 source of EVERYTHING for all CCIE candidates.
    I'm Mirek. I write about IT Certifications.