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How long does it take to earn a CCIE?

Most folks who pursue a CCNA certification find that it's a time-consuming process. If you do it completely via self-study, a CCNA can take you months to achieve. The Professional-level Cisco certifications, and some of the specializations (CQS certifications), take longer because more exams are involved and the general level of difficulty is higher. Of course, earning certifications can take you a lot less time from start to finish if you can take courses or a boot camp. But for most folks who are chasing an Expert-level certification, such courses are of only limited help in the get-me-there-faster sense. There's simply so much you need to know and master to pass the CCIE exams (and the forthcoming CCDE exams) that you're in for a haul either way. Cisco has long stated that the average number of lab exam attempts to reach a CCIE is between 2 and 3, but my experience by talking with many candidates over a long period of time is that the average is more like four attempts. A joke that gives me a good chuckle is that most candidates get one letter per attempt. Some of the tracks--Security and Voice in particular--usually require more than four attempts. But how long does it take, start to finish, to earn a CCIE? I think that's worth a look, especially for candidates near the beginning of the path, because it's valuable to help you set expectations for yourself. Most folks who are highly motivated--and let's keep it at that level, since if you're not highly motivated, you probably will never achieve a CCIE--will measure their CCIE journey in years. That is, once you can set the CCIE as a goal, with enough foundational understanding of what's required to have a grasp on what it will take you to get there, you can count on quite a long journey. To that point, goal-setting becomes a key part of the CCIE pursuit. So does project management; any large project needs to be broken into smaller segments, put in order with well-defined goals and timelines at each stage, and tracked to completion. Without both of these skills in your bag, your journey is likely to be longer and harder than it should be. Let's take a look at the phases of CCIE study (just for a first CCIE certification, to keep the discussion more well-defined).

  • Phase 1: Determine what's involved and consider options. Time required: Months to years; everyone has a different path to get to this point.
  • Phase 2: Make the commitment. (This is really the culmination of phase 1.)
  • Phase 3: Prepare for, take, and pass the written exam. Time required: 6 to 18 months.
  • Phase 4: Prepare for the first lab exam. Time required: 9 to 15 months.
  • Phase 5: Take the lab exam. Time required: 30 days minimum for scheduling.
  • Phases 6 and on: Repeat step 5, usually more than once. Time required: 3 to 6 months, on average, per attempt.

As I worked through this list, it became clear to me that very little in the way of CCIE preparation timelines can be placed within well-defined mile-posts in time. In my case, from when I set the goal (just after completing my CCNP and CCDP) until I completed the CCIE R&S certification three years ago, the elapsed time was 18 months. I also averaged about 6 weeks between lab exam attempts. Based on talking with a lot of other CCIEs, I think that both of these are shorter than average, but I know quite a few folks who have done it in a lot less and some who have taken a lot longer. For example, there's talk of a gentleman who has taken the CCIE lab exam more than 20 times. I have it on good authority that this is not an urban legend. I have to give this guy a lot of credit for determination--a key element in the path to CCIE--but at some point, I would think, you'd have to look at yourself in the mirror and decide that you've spent enough time and energy and money on it! Next time I'll post a few poll questions about preparation phases and timelines so we can collect additional real-world experiences on how long it takes candidates to make the CCIE journey. In the meantime, please feel free to post your feedback on the phases I've laid out above. Is it trimmable? Did you find a way to optimize it? How does it differ for dual- or multiple-CCIE holders? What effects did training (or a lack of training) have on your timeline?

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