Monday, April 13, 2015

Passing the CCIE (R/S) - A non-technical post

This is going to be me rambling. Fair warning.

I wanted to write down my experience with CCIE lab, now that I'm finally done. Not what technologies I saw, or who's workbooks helped the most (though I'm happy to answer those questions, so long as they don't violate NDA). This post is about the mental side of the CCIE, and I'll probably write a little bit about life ~two weeks after passing and getting my number.

A brief back story.

So I started my CCIE journey, unofficially sometime in 2011 (summer I think?). I passed my written on December 14th 2011 (version 4), and had my first attempt at the lab October 2012. My first attempt was such a rush, it was so great to be there in RTP... in the lab, I almost didn't care that I failed. I did pass troubleshooting, so I had that on my side, but the configuration section was brutal. I made some additional attempts in 2013, and was never met with success. I even went to a 5-day lab focused boot camp before one attempt. Still, no love. I remember riding home on the train (yes, the train) after failing the v4 lab, for what would be my last attempt at v4 thinking "Maybe I'm just not meant to pass this thing." I credit my wife with telling me that I needed to try one more time before she'd support me giving it.

2014 - too much happening

Towards the end of 2013 my wife and I decided to full-fill our dream of leaving Florida, and moving to North Carolina. With changing jobs (a couple times) and a second move to be closer to RTP, 2014 came and went. Very little studying and no attempts.

2015 - Let's make this happen.

In January I took a v5 mock lab and scored 95% overall. This got me excited about the technologies, and got me off my butt and back into labbing. I spent the next couple months dedicating ~10hrs a week to studying. Sometimes a little more, sometimes  a little less. Keep in mind, back in my previous attempts I dedicated 15-25hrs a week to studying. So I had a solid foundation, and felt that I needed to really work on strategy and lab changes.

I ran a number of mock labs, and made my way through workbooks fine tuning my own personal strategy. This turned out to be a BIG change for me, instead of approaching the lab the way others had told me to with a cookie cutter approach, I decided to read through each lab and develop a custom strategy for each. This resulted in, generally, very good scores and faster times. When I was about two weeks away from my lab, I decided that I would run (1) more graded mock lab and no matter the results I wouldn't run any more. Just focus on workbooks. Reason being is while I wanted to make sure I was on top of my game, I also didn't want to be burned out.

One week before the lab

So at this point, I've run my last graded mock lab, and luckily for me I scored a nice 85%. Not amazing, but hey it's passing. At this point I'm doing very little lab work, maybe spending an hour here and there working my way through a given workbook lab. Then 2 days before the lab, cutoff time. I had decided not to do anything, but maybe watch some video lectures at this point. Again, my thinking was "I want to be sharp, but I don't want to be completely burned out."

Night before the lab

I went to the store, picked up some things:

- Red bull (4 pack of 8oz cans - sugar free, don't want the sugar crash)
- Water, staying hydrated helps you stay alert and jitter free
- Trail mix, don't trust the lab food. The cake is a lie.

You should know that, yes they do feed you... but you shouldn't eat very heavy at the lab. Reason being, and this is a theory, they're counting on you going after the cookies and cake, eating a heavy lunch...ANNNDDDD crashing 2hrs before the lab ends. So I aim to eat a little protein, some fruit and salad. Anyway, back to the night before. For weeks I had been so cool, so confident. Then all the stress of passing the lab hit me like a ton of bricks, I slept absolutely terrible.

Lab Day. April 1, 2015 (April Fools Day)

I'm up at 5:30 am to get dressed, have breakfast, and make the drive to RTP to arrive at 6:45-ish. First things first, I slam some orange juice, vitamins, and drink a protein shake with some fiber added in. I should note at this point, I'm not a super fit person, but lab day is like running a freaking marathon, failure to treat it as such will leave you disappointed. So no caffeine yet, which is hard because I normally drink coffee before doing literally anything else. However, experience tells me I don't want to be jittering in my seat at the lab. So Red bull is on standby at this point. With some minor traffic on I-40, I still make it to building 3 around 6:50. This turned out to be completely fine as the proctor didn't arrive until 7:25 on this particular day.

Now you have to go through some pre-lab rules with the proctor. He (or she) is going to tell you some basic do's and don'ts. For example, no electronic devices in the lab, and only one person out of the lab to the restroom at a time, etc etc. This takes about 10 minutes or so. If you're in RTP, the proctor (Dave), will crack a few jokes to try and ease everyone's tension. Welcome the laugh, you'll need it you nervous wreck you!

Troubleshooting Section (120 minutes + up to 30 minutes borrowed from Configuration)

Crack open a Red bull, and go time!! I used one sheet of paper as a TPS so I could track what tickets I had completed, and how many points each task was worth. This was the most difficult troubleshooting section I ever had. I kept going through phases like
"I got this ticket"
"wait... no I don't"
"Oh God, I'm going to fail the lab again!!"
"Ok calm down, focus, try the next one and circle back to this one later."

Plan here was fairly cookie cutter, contrary to previous statements. Spend roughly 6-8 minutes on each ticket, if I couldn't figure it out I'd make a couple notes on my TPS about it and move on. When I reach the last ticket, circle back to beginning, rinse and repeat until all tasks were completed (or I had enough points to pass). I did have to borrow 15 minutes from configuration, but it was well worth it.

Diagnostic Section (fixed 30 minutes)

Guys and Gals... this section is weird. If any of you did the CCNP TSHOOT exam, it will feel sort of familiar. You'll be given a few scenarios, call it 2-4 different ones, where they outline a problem description (usually from the point of view of another network person). You'll also be given any relevant syslog, running configurations, network diagrams, and the original help desk ticket. With the help desk ticket they're giving you the problem from an end user's perspective.

With all that information at your disposal, you'll get some multiple choice questions. Before you have a sigh of relief about it being multiple choice, these are normally 2-part questions. I.e. for one question you have to select which device is causing the issue and which commands should be run to further diagnose the problem.

Configuration Section ( 5hrs 30 minutes + leftover time from troubleshooting)

So my configuration section was actually 5 hrs and 15 minutes, since I had to borrow time in TShoot. Now, here's a truth that all candidates need to accept about the configuration section (and really the lab as a whole). You are not going to get every point. If you hope to pass, you'll learn to pick your battles and make smart sacrifices. If you see a 4 point task that you're unsure about... but has the potential to break other tasks if configured wrong, well that's one you should eat the points on. I did that with (1) task in particular. I was 80% positive I could figure it out, but after spending 10 minutes on it and making no progress I realized "I'm wasting time, and furthermore if I misconfigure this I could break certain parts of my routing and cost myself 12 points... all for only a potential 4 points? Nope, pass."

It was such an insane day. I always thought that when I finally passed the lab, I would know it all day long. That is, during the lab I thought I'd never doubt myself and I'd finish 2 hours early. That's not what happened. I was panicking almost the entire day. I would force myself to stop and breath. Get up to go to the restroom. Just for a few minutes to calm down, and refocus. I honestly didn't think I had a chance until the last hour or so. Then I caught myself thinking "I might pass this thing today." I used every single minute, up until the last 5 minutes on the clock. However, I walked out the front door knowing I passed. I'd never felt so confident, and I'm so happy it was just.

About two weeks later

So I passed the lab!! CCIE 47884!! I was showered with rose petals, and I was given a 20k dollar raise! Oh and a new Macbook Pro retina!!!

Ha. Nope. Honestly, aside from me running around my house at 6 am the next morning when I finally got my results, it was pretty anti-climatic. A few congratulations at work, and recognition from colleagues. Which I'm totally OK with. This has been such an awesome experience and I wouldn't trade it for the world. My advice to other hopefuls out there? Don't quit. Getting your number is hard, and its meant to be hard. But never give up.


Jon Major, CCIE# 47884 (yes, that number goes on everything I sign)

Thursday, April 2, 2015

CCIE# 47884

Can't. Stop. Shaking. I just got my results in and after nearly four long years, I'm a CCIE. More to come later. I do want to write up my general feelings on the exam, and what v5 candidates should expect.