Preparation Strategies for the CCIE R&S Lab Exam

Rus Healy is subbing for Wendell this week. Rus works for Annese & Associates, Cisco's largest Upstate New York Silver partner. He has experience in technical training and certification, routing and switching, and Cisco unified communications. He worked with Wendell to revise the Cisco Press CCIE R/S Written Exam Certification Guide, which published a few weeks ago.

[From Rus]

In the last two posts, I've talked about the benefits of certification and building a roadmap to passing the qualification exam for the CCIE R&S (or for any track, really). In this post I'll focus more on preparing for the lab exam. But first, let me differentiate studying for the qualification exam compared to the lab exam.

The qualification exams for CCIE and the lab exams, although they share a lot in terms of topic coverage, are really very different exams. One will be familiar to those who have earned any other certification--you prep for an pass a computer-based exam. You have a set number of questions and a set timeframe--and although two hours is relatively long for a computer-based exam, it's not a grueling, 8-hour ordeal.

The lab exam is not so familiar. On its face, it tests a lot of the same knowledge as the qualification exam. For example, you can be expected to be required to configure any OSPF feature on the lab exam that you might be asked about on the qualification exam. However, that's where the similarity ends. To pass the lab exam, you need a number of things:

1) A complete understanding of not just individual silos of networking knowledge, but how the features of routing protocols, security features, WAN topologies, and so forth, interact with each other in a real environment. You need to grasp the high-level impact on an entire network of the way you implement a particular feature, as well as the low-level details. Unintended consequences are around nearly every bend, so you have to understand as many variations as possible of configuring each feature, and how the choices you make will impact other aspects of the network.

2) A lot of experience configuring Cisco routers and switches. You need to be able to configure features quickly and accurately. Without that skill, you can't finish the lab exam in the allotted 8-hour timeframe. Usually, "seat time" in production environments is nowhere near enough experience, either. You may be a wizard in EIGRP, but can you combine that with everything else that the lab exam requires you to perform--at the same competency level? The only way to get there is to practice with that in mind.

3) A lot of dedicated preparation time. Successful candidates usually require many hundreds of hours dedicated to lab exam preparation. It can take a year or more, but you should plan on spending (at least) many months of weekends and early mornings, late nights, or both, depending on how your brain works best. Speaking of which, learn to understand and work to your strengths. For example, if your brain works best late at night, it makes no sense to try to get up early to do exam prep.

4) Solid understanding of the exam environment, time-management skills, and a finely tuned analytical approach to the exam. You must be able to sit down with the lab requirements document, quickly glean what each question is asking you to do and not do, and analyze each question for possible interaction with other questions. The only ways to develop this skill are (1) to take the exam an inordinate number of times and learn by trial and error, or (2) work through as many realistic, full-featured lab scenarios that you can find before your first attempt.

5) Dedication and perseverance. You may fail several times before passing. I sometimes joke with CCIEs and candidates that I earned one letter (C-C-I-E) on each of my four exam attempts; that's how it tends to go. The process of earning a CCIE is a long one, and it will test you at many levels. Be prepared for disappointments, delays, and expense. By the time you fail the lab exam for the first time, which most candidates do, you will find yourself in a position of reflection. You've already spent a great deal of time and effort preparing--don't let it go to waste by giving up! Remember that you control your path--take advantage of that empowering knowledge.

6) A supportive employer, family, and good karma. I believe that you make your own luck. By the same token, you need to pursue a CCIE with a level of commitment that requires the active assistance of your family and employer. You need to help them understand the time requirement on your part, and the value of the certification in your career. It's your job to actively communicate those things to the people around you so that they understand how much it means to you to meet that goal.

Next time, I'll cover some strategies for getting the hands-on experience you need, and other preparation resources. In the meantime, please feel free to chime in on the qualities you've found necessary in CCIE exam preparation.

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