My CCIE story

"You are Number 19080"

"I am not a number..."

This autumn I went through the CCIE recert process again for the fourth time. In the interests of posterity it has prompted me to write down my own path to CCIE and how I feel about it all, eight years down the line and how I started in Networking with no formal education in Computer Science. This post is essentially an extended ‘About’.

Back in 2001 I was working as a trainer for a retail bank at the time, teaching bank staff how to open business accounts, when a friend offered me a job with him manning the phones. The difference in pay scales meant that even being the glorified tea boy for an IT start-up I received a good enough pay rise to pack it in with the bank after three years there.
At first I had absolutely no idea what anyone was talking about, I was actually logging fault calls and booking engineers to site for break/fix support contracts, primarily on old Nortel and Cisco kit. There were a few CCIEs in the company and their suggested route to getting on in the industry was, not surprisingly, Cisco certs.

Say Goodbye to your social life

Cue countless hours of studying in my spare time as I moved from CCNA in January 2002, through CCNP & CCIP then finally passing CCIE on my first attempt in October 2007. During that time I took long breaks between passing exams but I recall that the summer of 2007 was a pretty intense time for studying. I was doing mock labs all weekend and putting in at least two hours a night after work.
In the run up to my CCIE slot I was pretty confident, even moving the lab three weeks forward because I felt I was ready. I took it in Brussels and I remember that I didn’t take any study notes with me, the night before I just watched a bit of TV. On lab day I started out badly, I remember not really understanding the first few questions, so I just concentrated on others that I felt stronger on. I finished with about an hour to spare and headed to the airport. My CCIE number was waiting for me when I arrived home in the UK later the evening.
Writing about it makes it all sound pretty painless but, rest assured, the preparation was tough going, I certainly put in the hours and in the end the exam itself was no worse than a tough day at work (by the time I took it I was working as an Ops engineer for a particularly complex MPLS network.). I had known others that failed due to running out of time, and I put down my success to skipping those few early questions rather than wasting time to them.

CCIE today

Admittedly it feels like CCIE has lost its shine since 2007, even then people talked about it not being what it used to be. But for me I think the most important aspect of my journey was adhering to a path that allowed me to take a structured, layered approach to learning. I started out at zero, I knew very little about computers and nothing about the IT industry, I’m a History graduate. All of the books and various collateral around the cert process was invaluable to me at the time.
Sure all the multiple choice questions about proprietary Cisco TLVs was (and still is) a complete drag, so is the expensive exam every two years, but overall I think the CCIE programme was extremely rewarding for me. It made me really concentrate on the details of Networking. I found it amazing just how little I understood, say BGP, as an engineer with a CCNP, before I made the step up to CCIE study. All the preparation and examples, and just the sheer amount of time on the devices means that I look back at 2007 as a real change in my understanding of IP and my career.
However, the world has moved on, with so many new developments within Networking it is hard to wholeheartedly recommend anyone pursues plain old R&S CCIE as I would five years ago. There are probably far greater rewards today from building a skillset around coding and Networking, then ploughing time into open source projects.

RTFM or Why we need good documentation

Certs might be your Dad’s way of learning IT but I sincerely hope that we do not lose sight of how important quality, measured and structured learning is for those in, and especially those starting out in, this industry. Trawling through forum after forum for the answer to some basic Linux problem cannot good for anyone. Documentation and empathy with the novice is key (looking at you every open source project ever).
Part of this industry seems hell-bent on racing from shiny new thing to shiny new thing without producing anything that, you know, actually works, and heaven forbid there should be any documentation around it. Which might help explain why we as an industry seem so confused all the time about direction and detail e.g. all the ‘what is SDN?’ musings and nonsense about the Openflow revolution, which has, thankfully, died down.
In some ways I wanted to start this blog for these very reasons, passing on some small amount of knowledge that I had to piece together and, yes, I’m hoping to get together much more content for 2016. Hopefully content that is actually useful to others out there wondering what the hell all this marketing is about.

TL;DR

  • Working towards, and passing CCIER&S, was a great way for me to progress in the Networking industry so overall my feeling towards it are still positive.
  • Today other fields might be more worthy of your time, such as build a coding skillset along with IP Networking knowledge.
  • But we need all these shiny new projects to generate readable, useful documentation, not just forums and marketing.

For those taking the CCIE lab:

  • Time on CLI is key, if you’re not giving up your evenings and weekends in the final months, you’re doing it wrong.
  • On the day, keep calm, clear your head, DON’T PANIC!
  • Do not waste too much time on a single question, do not be afraid to skip it. The aim here is to not get stressed out, just keep progressing through the exam.
  • Prepare for failure, work out when you can take the exam again before sitting it. This will help you avoid that ‘all or nothing’ feeling in the exam which will increase stress.
  • Good luck!

Be seeing you.


Title Photo
Panoramic view of central piazza, Portmeirion Village By Chris Jones CC BY 2.5

My CCIE story
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