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Taking The CCIE Lab Exam – The RTP Experience

2,947 Words. Plan about 20 minute(s) to read this.

Allow me to offer a heartfelt “thank you” for your congratulatory blog comments and unicasts over the last several hours. I have received dozens of messages from readers around the globe. To hear accolades from fellow candidates and titleholders is especially sweet. We have a unique bond, having shared in the sacrifice of time and sanity that is required in the quest for the digits.

Before I relate my lab experience, I must thank my wife from the bottom of my heart for her support throughout the last 16 months. My wife is my best friend, closest companion, and understands me like no other. To say that I love her is thoroughly true, but somehow an inadequate expression of how strongly I feel about her. From the beginning, she fully supported my effort, and not out of ignorance. She was there with me through all of my previous certifications, and knew they were a walk in the park when compared to the CCIE. My wife, an award-winning textile artist who competes all over America, put some of her own aspirations on hold to allow me to focus on my own quest.

During the week before my lab exam, my wife was scheduled to go to Kentucky for a show, where she had entered a garment of her own design and construction. As the kids were on school vacation, I was to have them Thursday, Friday, and Saturday while she was out of town. She surprised me by announcing that she had decided to drive down to Kentucky from New Hampshire with the kids instead of fly by herself. She wanted me to have the time to study and focus. She spent 4 days in a vehicle plus had 2 kids in tow while she attended the show (where she took first in her division), just to give me the time I needed to bring this quest to an end. Gentlemen, if you can find someone even half as devoted, you’ve found someone very special. Treat her like the gold that she is.

COMMENTS ABOUT THE LAB FACILITY

  • The Cisco facility at RTP is easy to find based on the directions on the web site. I flew in to the Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina airport (RDU) the day before my exam. I drove right from the airport to the Cisco campus, just to make sure I could find the building without trouble. There was no issue – the campus is clearly signed, and there is ample parking. One caveat – the Cisco site tells you to drive into the campus via the main entrance, as distinguished by the flagpoles. Well, there were no flagpoles, at least not on my visit; they were laying on the ground nearby, I discovered later. The main campus entrance is the first one on your left. You turn right off of Davis Drive onto Kit Creek Road, and then turn left almost immediately onto the Cisco campus. But if you miss that first entrance, there are at least 2 other left-turn entrances to the campus further on down Kit Creek Road. Once you’re on the campus (no matter which entrance you used), you can follow the signs to building 3.
  • I did not bring anything to the lab with me, other than my wallet (containing the required photo ID), car keys, and ear plugs. I left my cell phone in the car. I did not bring pencils, pens, or paper. The proctor made us leave car keys (and cell phones for those who brought them) on a bookcase at one end of the lab room. At my desk, paper and a whole little basket full of a rainbow’s worth of colored pencils (and one regular pencil) were provided.
  • Be on time. Better yet, be early. The official RTP start time is 7:15am, but you want to be there more like 7:00am. The proctor will come out sometime before 7:15am to introduce himself, photo ID everyone, give everyone visitor tags, tell everyone their rack numbers, and recite the facility ground rules. Everything moves quickly once the proctor shows up in the lobby. The lab proctor did not wait past 7:15am to tell us what was up, usher us from the lobby to the lab room, note the time, and tell us to go for it.
  • The lab exam room is nothing special. It’s just a room. There’s several racks of equipment in front and back, and islands of low-walled cubicles in the middle. The rush of air flowing through equipment fills the place – the exam room sounds like any computer room or data center you’ve ever been in. Or your basement, as the case may be. The room was well-lit. I was comfortable in a t-shirt, but I had brought a sweatshirt just in case. As you might expect, the room was well air-conditioned.
  • In addition to the “computer room” sound, there were other audible distractions. Someone’s mobile kept going off, I think a proctor’s, although I never looked up long enough to check. There was also some minor foot traffic in the room, as various candidates would pop up to ask questions of the proctors, and as various Cisco employees would come in to work on equipment racks. I wore earplugs, and for me that was very important. If you’re good at tuning out noise, great, but I focus better without noise. I cleared them with the proctor first, just so that he was aware I had them.
  • You’ll be sitting in a island of 4 cubicles, but the walls are very low. Your head is clearly visible from your cube. You can’t see your neighbor’s screen or work material, but you can see him/her and everything else in the room.
  • You get a three ring binder with your exam in it. You can take the exam out of the binder if you like, although you’ll be required to re-assemble the binder at the end of the exam. The exam sheets are all in protected sleeves. You are not allowed to write on the exam sheets. You can write on the provided paper, and you can request more paper from the proctor if you like. I had only 2 sheets, which for me was enough. I filled three sides with diagrams, and the fourth side with my to-do/completed/point tracker lists.
  • Aside from your exam binder, paper, and pencils, you have a full English keyboard, mouse, and monitor on your desk. I had a CRT, not a flat-panel. The monitor was probably a 17″ running 1280×1024 – I’m not certain. It was adequate to the task, but nothing exciting. The mouse was an optical with scroll wheel. The keyboard had a “clicky” feel to it. There was not a ton of room to work at the desk, but there was enough to comfortably open the binder on the one side of the keyboard, and still have horizontal room to move the mouse on the other side. The desk was also deep enough so that you could put papers behind the binder and not be crammed up against the back cubicle wall. So while you couldn’t exactly “spread out”, there was enough room so as not to be a frustration while working.
  • The desktop OS was Windows 2000, but completely locked down by security software. On the desktop, you have shortcuts to launch direct terminal sessions to individual pieces of equipment. You have a web browser that automatically opens to the Doc CD when you launch it. That’s it.
  • I was able to use the Doc CD without a problem. There were no PDFs available (as I’d heard was a possibility a while ago). However, everything I needed on the Doc CD was available to me via the web browser as I clicked through. All of the redirects to the “new and improved” Cisco documentation worked without a hitch.
  • My rack wasn’t in the room. I have no idea where it was, and it didn’t matter.
  • Lunch was a half-hour, and unremarkable. We sat in a conference room attached to the lab and ate some sort of spaghetti with meatball dish. It wasn’t great. I ate a small amount of that, and a piece of dessert. Basically, I was looking for a quick calorie hit, but not a heavy meal. There was a nice salad too, although I didn’t have any of it.
  • You can get up and use the restroom anytime you like. Clipped to a bookcase near the door entrance, there’s security badge you use to get back into the lab room attached with nylon zip ties to (of all things) an old soda bottle.

COMMENTS ABOUT THE LAB EXAM

  • Obviously, I can’t write up a list of what I got on the lab exam. Was it easy? No. Was it hard? Well, the lab was about the level of difficulty I was anticipating, after working with NetMasterClass.com and InternetworkExpert.com practice labs. In my opinion, the difficulty ratings put together by NMC and IE are accurate. In IE-land, a “7” is considered to be as difficult as an actual lab. In NMC-land, a DOiT rated “moderate” would be comparable.
  • I spent about 30 minutes reading through the lab, before touching the keyboard. I didn’t read every little nuance, or try to figure out how I was going to accomplish certain tasks. I just wanted to get a feel for where the lab was going, and correlate tasks to the provided diagrams.
  • I know some people like to do their own complete topology diagram before starting the lab. I didn’t. I found the diagrams provided by Cisco to be easily comprehensible, and an adequate reference. I used 2 of Cisco’s provided diagrams constantly throughout the exam. I made several small diagrams of my own along the way (BGP, redistribution, switching domain, multicast, WAN), but I never did a complete topology diagram.
  • I checked the IP addressing of every device, which was a proctor request. You need to sanity check your rack to make sure it matches what’s in your lab binder. At lunch, one of the guys told me he had rack problems in a previous attempt. Cisco had to work on the rack to resolve them, so he ended up staying late so that he’d get his full 8 hours on the rack. It’d be easy to assume that if you travel all that way and spend all that money to take the lab exam, everything would be perfect. But again, the proctors themselves told us all to check our equipment before getting into any configuration. So – it’s not safe to assume that your rack will be perfect.
  • I adjusted my workstation’s task bar so that I could fit 2 rows of icons down there. Then I kept individual windows open to all my devices, all day long, just clicking in the task bar to bring up the device I needed, when I needed it. I know that approach might make some people nuts, but it’s how I practiced, and it worked for me.
  • I tracked all of my tasks by number and point value. When I completed AND DOUBLE-VERIFIED my tasks, I wrote the task down, and the point value beside it on the right side of a piece of paper. If I was unsure of how to complete a task, I put it on the left side of the paper, so that I would not forget to go back to it. I kept a running total of the points that I believed I had earned.
  • I needed to reference the Doc CD for six tasks only. A seventh task I figured out without the Doc CD, but since I’d never seen it before I went to the Doc CD to verify it anyway.
  • I was able to complete every task on the exam with about an hour to spare. I spent the last hour going right back to the very beginning, verifying one task at a time, making no assumptions, and taking nothing for granted. I only found one error, but that was 2 easy points I would have otherwise lost. I don’t know if I passed with an 80 or a 98, so finding that error might have been the 2 points that put me over the top. You never know.
  • Although everybody told me to ask the proctors questions, I did not ask the proctors any questions. Not that I was against it, it just didn’t work out that way. Yes, some of the tasks were vague. However, I found that if I re-read a task, taking in each and every word, the desired configuration for some of the vague tasks became clear. How well you understand a technology will go a long way towards interpreting those sorts of vague tasks correctly. On the other hand, some of the tasks just weren’t explicit. You were to accomplish “x”, but how you accomplished “x” wasn’t stipulated. To me, if I knew of 3 ways to accomplish “x”, I picked the way with the least amount of code (or the least error-prone) that was compatible with other lab tasks, verified that my choice of solution was working, and then moved on.
  • I did not read into the overall lab requirements or task requirements. If the lab said to make sure these specific routes are reachable from everywhere, then that’s exactly what I did. I didn’t worry about the rest of the routes. Now that said, some required configuration was implied. In other words, while the lab might not have explicitly stated to do “x”, you might have had to do “x” for everything to work right. I had to make a few judgment calls along the way like that.
  • Don’t make the mistake of thinking “this is too weird to show up on the lab so I’m not going to study it.” I got some stuff that I think was pretty weird, and highly unlikely to be used in production networks of today – and yet, every single one of those “weird” features is covered in the lab blueprint, however sparingly. I did not get anything that I felt was unfair or out-of-scope. I got one thing I don’t recall seeing before, but I found it in the Doc CD, configured it, and verified it in minutes. My point is that you should understand the weird technologies, do some lab work with them, take a few notes, and move on. Yes, take the time to understand the weird stuff and go through it, but don’t let it overwhelm you. If you know your core technologies well enough, the weird stuff will be easy to figure out. The weird stuff is usually so specific, that once you take a look at the Doc CD, you’ll probably have a canned IOS config right there on the screen in front of you to adapt to the lab requirements.

FINDING OUT MY SCORE

The proctors jokingly told us before we started that if we configure the equipment correctly, it’s a whole lot easier for them to grade. Uh-huh. They didn’t make any promises about when we’d get the score, and didn’t even promise who would be doing the scoring. It could have been any proctor from around the world, if I understood the process correctly.

My score rolled in about 9:00pm, a little over 5 hours after the lab exam was completed. Now, all I brought with me was my BlackBerry. My Berry is tied to 4 of my e-mail accounts and my Facebook account, so I can stay in touch with everyone. I didn’t bring my laptop with me on the trip, because I wanted to travel as light as possible. Besides, my laptop does not have built-in wireless, and my company runs security software that disables the USB ports (so no external wireless adapter, either). There just wasn’t any point in hauling the brick down with me.

So about 9pm, as I’m coming back up the stairs to my hotel room having killed a few hours at the Southpoint Mall nearby, I check the Berry to see I’ve got a message from “ccie@cisco.com” stating that my score report was available. My heart was racing, just POUNDING in my chest. I popped open the e-mail, expecting to know the deal. Nope. The e-mail doesn’t tell you. You just get a link to go online to the CCIE site and check. Grr.

I texted my wife to see if she was still up – and she was. She called me, and I got her through the process of logging in to see my results. There I am, lying on the hotel bed, staring at the ceiling, Berry to my ear, listening to my wife click-click-click. And then she said…

“You passed.”

“I passed?!?”

“You passed.”

“What’s my number?” I wasn’t sure I believed it yet, because I was thinking she might have been looking at my written exam from last July.

“Your number is 20655.”

At which point, I lost my mind. I cried. I’d spent the last 5 hours second-guessing myself, rolling certain exam tasks over and over again in my mind, wondering if I’d handled them right, wondering if maybe I should have asked the proctors some questions, wondering what I was going to do if I didn’t pass, checking my Berry again and again and again to see if my exam had been graded, even knowing it was far too early for it to have been graded.

To finally hear that I’d passed, that I had (and have) nothing left to prove to myself…was overwhelming. I could barely, and can still barely, believe it.

So what comes next? I have some plans, but nothing I’m going to add to this lengthy post. Perhaps more tomorrow.