Journey to Numberland

I passed my CCIE lab and received my number less than a week ago (on 21 Feb, 2013), so a lot of things are still sinking in. Just after I announced the news, a past co-worker of mine asked me for some details on my journey. The following is a recap of the timeline and milestones in my CCIE journey that I provided him in response to his query. I hope to expand on some of the topics mentioned but I thought I’d share this timeline as it may be of interest to those who are considering the great journey from competent network engineer to insane, fire-breathing network maniac.

Briefly, my timeline went like this:

Oct 2010 – Began studying in earnest for the CCIE written. I was due to renew my CCNP and CCDP certs the following March and after talking it over with my wife and boss, we decided it was time for me to take on the IE. Early study consisted mostly of reading the official Cisco guides and the Catalyst 3560 switch configuration guides, along with a few other books such as “MPLS and VPN Architectures” by the brilliant Ivan Pepelnjak. I was studying for a few hours maybe 3 nights a week and the occasional weekend, perhaps 1 or 2 Saturdays per month.

February 2011 – Passed the CCIE written on my first try. I spent quite a while preparing for the exam, but I had gotten a bit rusty on some of the more arcane features/topics in the 8 years since I’d passed my CCNP. I don’t see much advanced multi-area OSPF routing in my day-to-day, for example, so I had to study up on the details of OSPF design and theory for some time and that sort of thing. There were also topics that I’d had no prior exposure to such as MPLS/L3VPN and features like EEM. These required a lot of absorption time and lab experimentation.

Feb-April 2011 – Took a little time off before setting off on lab study. It was at this point I tried to evaluate training partners and some up with some sort of attack plan for the lab. It was also where I tried to really prepare my wife and family for what lay ahead. In retrospect, even I had no idea how thoroughly I would be consumed by the pursuit.

May 2011 – Began lab study. This went in waves depending on home and work life, sometimes just a few evenings a week, and sometimes much more. I was mostly going through the IPExpert volume 1 material, and in October 2011 switched to Narbik Kocharian’s workbooks from Micronics. During the previous couple of months I became frustrated trying to schedule and use IPExpert’s ProctorLabs and ended up building my own rack in my basement which I have used throughout the process.

June 2012 – I had scheduled my first lab for 7/27/2012 and felt that I had a huge distance to go to be ready. I just didn’t have enough time in the day for work and a home life with 2 kids, along with the hours and hours of study I needed. I worked out a deal with my boss to drop back to half-time for the 2 months prior to the exam so I had 20 extra hours per week to study. At this point I was studying/labbing probably 30-40 hours a week.

July 2012 – In the last two weeks before the exam I started banging out IPExpert’s volume 3 labs (the full mock scenarios), doing one per day. Those last two weeks I was off from work completely, just labbing. I went to my lab at RTP (Raleigh, NC) on the 27th. I had a good experience, and I passed the troubleshooting module but failed the configuration module by a good margin. Despite having seen and even used the lab interface before, I felt disoriented and spent far too long on the foundational portions of my lab (L2, basic L3, etc.). I ran out of time before I could complete the lab and was unable to do any verification at all. From this attempt, I realized that I wasn’t too far off from a knowledge standpoint but I needed to hone my speed, my accuracy, and my ability to interpret exam tasks quickly and determine the right approach. It was an encouraging attempt.

August-Sept 2012 – I took a little time off for family vacations, both my kids’ birthdays, etc. Just catching up on the life I’d been missing since about May when I’d really kicked it into high gear.

Oct 2012 – Resumed lab prep, mainly going back through IPExpert’s materials for some of the “Volume 1” topics I’d skipped from IPExpert in favor of Narbik. In October and November I was doing 3-4 evenings most weeks, with alternating weekends. When I say “evenings” I mean studying from maybe 8:30 PM until about 2 or 3AM.

December 2012 – I had to kick it up again. Back to 4-5 weeknights and most weekends. I took a few days off from work around the holidays, but spent the whole time labbing. I was trying to make sure I’d touched as many features and topics as I could.

January 2013 – Second week of January I resumed the half-time schedule and just starting labbing non-stop. Here I started using Internetwork Expert (INE) materials. I felt that I needed to work on some very specific skills and the INE workbooks had them. Since at this point I’ve used three of the “big four” training vendors, I’ll do some sort of comparison in a future post.

February 2013 – The past three weeks have been an absolute whirlwind. I spent much of the time at my mom’s house, locked in her basement labbing so I wouldn’t even need to do anything with the kids. My wife has been incredibly supportive through the process and this is what we knew I had to do. I was labbing 8 or 9 AM until 3AM or later most days, exercising every feature and digging into everything I didn’t have a good grasp on.

Last Sunday (2/17/2013) I came home to spend a couple hours with my kids, then Monday (2/18/2013) I did one more full practice lab which went very well. It gave me a good confidence boost right before heading back to Raleigh. I flew down on Tuesday, stayed with some friends who live in Cary, did some light review and labbing on Wednesday (meaning only about 8 or 10 hours….) and Thursday morning headed to the lab. I wouldn’t call it an incredibly smooth and perfect day, but by the time I came out I was cautiously optimistic that if my own point tally was correct, I had it. I got the score report at 7:45 that night, and I was awarded CCIE #38296.

My CCIE journey took me about 28 months elapsed, probably 24 if you ignore the breaks I took. I won’t lie, it was really, really, really hard. I’ve been a network engineer for my entire career, almost 12 years now. And this thing was hard. That said, I think it’s a worthy goal and it forces you to develop a lot of skills in the process. But be ready for a marathon, not a sprint. You need support from your family and employer, I just don’t see how it’s possible without.
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4 thoughts on “Journey to Numberland

  1. A long, arduous journey with a big reward at the end. I would say the most difficult part is getting the wife and kids to hop on board with the journey as well. Great job!

  2. Mike says:

    Congrats on the CCIE!

    I’m looking forward to your review of the different training materials, when you have the time 🙂

    I’m curious about your lab. Did you build a full lab? What was in your lab?

    Did you augment/supplement with GNS3 at all? If so, could you have done it, solely, with GNS3?

    Cheers!

    • bobmccouch says:

      Thanks Mike! I’ve got a “Q&A” post coming up very soon based on a number of questions I got from other CCIE candidates that provide some answers to your questions. I am also hoping to fully document and post about my lab setup (a hybrid Dynamips/real switch setup).

      Thanks for reading!

  3. […] celebrity engineers, top-tier trainers, and networking Twitterati. Early this year, I passed my CCIE lab and started this blog. I was graciously offered the opportunity to be a guest on that same podcast […]

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