Thursday, May 21, 2015

CCIE R/Sv5 Failed - And Not Going Back

My post about starting the CCIEv5 journey is here.

Since I passed the CCIE Route/Switch written exam eight months ago, I've been studying at least two hours six days a week. On the weekends I've tried to set aside more time, sometimes a lot more - around six to eight hours of studying. I also work as a network engineer for my day job for a services provider company, so I spend lots and lots of time thinking about and actually applying my networking skills.

The more I work with networks, the more comfortable I've become with the subject, and after passing the written exam and putting in study time, I decided to book the grueling 8.5-hour lab exam for May 15 in San Jose, California.

As soon as I booked the exam I amped up my studying. No more lunches out - I'd rather stay at my desk, eat this dry sandwich and run GNS3 simulations on my personal laptop. Sorry I can't stay out very long, I've got to get back to my studying at home.

I set up complex labs from INE in GNS3, sometimes hooking them up to physical switches to run the switch-only features - only ASICs, hardware, and VTP configurations that aren't yet possible in a GNS3 virtual environment. The INE materials are fantastic - the troubleshooting sections are devilishly difficult, and the configuration sections remarkably resembled the lab exam.

Studying at this level is more than a commitment or a part-time job - it's a relationship. One which can be significantly rewarding, but also one of deep stress and anxiety as the date for this difficult exam approaches.

Traveling to San Jose, aka Labs on a Plane

I decided to take my wonderfully supportive wife Lindsey along with me to San Jose, the site of my CCIE exam. I thought that no matter my pass or (probable) failure, Lindsey and I could enjoy a great weekend with friends and exploring around California.

Fourteen months after passing the written exam, Lindsey and I boarded a plane. We flew down Wednesday night late, two days before the test on Friday. I ran through INE labs. All day Thursday I set aside for relaxing and not thinking about studying. I managed to stay away from studying with Lindsey's help for all but an hour, during which I read configurations and sweated. We visited the Cisco site and found the exam center.

I fell into a kind of anxious zen. I knew that the test was just around the corner, but I forced myself to think about the 3,000+ hours I've spent studying this material and breathe.

Test Day (Don't Freak Out)

On Friday morning Lindsey drove me in and dropped me off about 20 minutes early. The traffic was light and the weather was cloudy. I felt excited, anxious, and curious for the upcoming exam. After all, I've been thinking about this exam for 14 months!

The exam was, for the most part, incredibly fun. I'm unable to discuss exam specifics due to Cisco's NDA, but I can say the simulations and questions were, for the most part, exactly what the INE and Cisco Press materials had prepared me for. Routing protocols overlapped; complicated, nuanced questions were asked. I enjoyed the test.

Typical question sets have six objectives per segment. Five of these objectives are highly specific, but tasks that most CCIE-level engineers will be able to answer with careful planning. The sixth is typically a highly nuanced and exacting request about the topic in question. Because of the all-or-nothing style of CCIE exams, each section must be passed in full or not at all, so if you're unable to answer this obscure request, you have not only missed out on all points, but you have wasted very valuable time. Planning is of utmost importance here.

The actual environment was similar to what I imagine a white-collar prison is like. One person is able to use the bathroom at a time. All candidates are treated with suspicion and sometimes hostility if they break a rule. For lunch, the proctor clapped at us to stop our configuration and paraded us out of the computer area and locked the door behind us so we could enjoy 20 minutes of some type of pasta.

I kept on-pace as well as I could, and was able to complete most tasks with careful thought and quick typing. At each section, these nuanced, exacting questions were a challenge, and I was able to complete only some of them.

When the time finished up, I walked out, emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausted. I knew there was a very slim chance that I passed, but I allowed myself some hope. I sat on a bench outside the Cisco campus and called my wife to come pick me up.

Aftermath

I spent the rest of the weekend relaxing with my wife and enjoying our time with friends. For the first time in a very long time, I was present with my wife. I wasn't doing any subnetting or route distribution in my head. I saw a bit more clearly the woman I fell in love with, who I'd been more or less ignoring for the past few months as my studying had kicked into high gear.

In the end, I failed. I passed the first section (Troubleshooting), but failed the Diagnostic and Configuration section of the exam. My configuration sections came back as mostly 0%s - I must have broken a lab rule at some point to get all my work zeroed out. Due to Cisco's confidentiality around the exam, they did not inform me which, if any, rule was broken.

To this point I thought I'd take a few days of relaxing at home and then go back. I'm still confident that I could eventually pass the CCIE - I'm guessing on the third attempt. That attempt would be something like 6 months from now, with constant studying (4-5 hours per day on weekdays, maybe 10-12 on weekends), and about $5,000 MORE dollars. Not to mention the 6 more months of ignoring my wife and my other passions due to this behemoth of a goal.

I Choose Me

In the end, I'd rather have my wife, time, and happiness back. I am still passionate about network engineering, but not to the exclusion of the other parts of my ambition and life! I am passionate about computer security, travel, and enjoying the limited time we all have here.

So goodbye, CCIE number ~#50,000. I have learned an incredible amount, and reaped enormous benefits in my career as I've progressed. I appreciate you for all that you've given me, but you ask too much.

Thanks for the good times, Cisco CCIE. I won't be back.
If you are planning to take the CCIE exam, good luck to you! Next for me is the CompTIA Security+, Certified Ethical Hacker, and then CISSP.
kyler