Conquering the Intimidation of Pursuing a CCIE

Rus Healy (CCIE 15025 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.

When I talk to most CCIE candidates, especially those who have not yet taken the lab exam for the first time, I hear a lot of trepidation in their voices. It's understandable, really, if you consider that most candidates take more than one attempt to pass the qualification exam, then study hard for a long time before beginning what usually amounts to a string of three or four failures at the lab exam before finally passing. This makes even cheerful people grumpy. The reasons for this trepidation are many, and valid, but an individual CCIE candidate can get a grip on at least one of them and turn it into an advantage.

As I wrote in Monday's post, Cisco provides a road map to each of its certifications--in the form of the exam blueprints--that you can follow to get through each exam. This is also true for the CCIE qualification exams (which most people call "written" exams, but I resist the term because it's not "written" but rather a computer-based exam) and the lab exams. But the truth is that each topic in the CCIE blueprints is potentially so wide and so deep that the blueprints aren't as useful as they are in preparing for the Professional, Associate, and CQS exams. However, they are helpful for performing a gap analysis--and this is one of the things that differentiates CCIE preparation from all other certifications: You must learn to be brutally honest with yourself when it comes to evaluating your knowledge.

Let me give you an example from my own journey to CCIE. When I first began seriously considering pursuing a CCIE in routing and switching (R&S), I read on the blueprints that ISDN was a part of both exams. Since this topic has been gone from the blueprint for some 2-1/2 years, I can go into a little bit more detail about what I discovered. Not having any personal experience with ISDN other than the popular expansions of the acronym, "It Still Does Nothing" and "I Still Don't Know," and perhaps the nature of BRI's 2B+D, I did some reading on ISDN and felt that I had a good command of the topic. When I took the qualification exam for the first time, I learned that there was a lot more to know about it than I had learned. And then there was the entirely different and much larger challenge of being able to quickly configure routers for any combination of a zillion different features in a short time--all for a couple of points on the exam--but that's a story for a different day.

The bottom line was that I had not fully absorbed how much was implied in the blueprint about this topic (and others). I learned at that point that I had to dig much deeper into the topic to figure out what I didn't know, as opposed to what I thought I would need to know to pass the exam.

This is an example of the key topic for today--which is the importance of being honest with yourself about performing a gap analysis on your own knowledge compared with what the blueprint tells you is on the exam. If you visit www.cisco.com/go/ccie and review the blueprint for the qualification exam, you'll also see links to a recommended reading list for exam preparation. Take this list seriously. Go and look at the detailed tables of contents for these books (and the web links--do not discount those--voice of painful experience speaking) and see how much detail they go into on blueprint topics. You can usually get detailed tables of contents using the Look Inside This Book feature on amazon.com, and from Safari on-line. (Hint: There's a good book from Cisco Press based on the current qualification exam blueprint that you might want to include in your book list--but I'm a little biased because Wendell Odom and I worked together on it.)

Once you've had a detailed look at the TOCs, you should be able to identify not just major gaps in your knowledge, which you'll immeditately recognize, but also smaller holes. For example, you may know a lot about OSPF because you've worked with it in a production environment. But as Han Solo said to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, "Great job, kid. Don't get cocky!" If you don't know the details of the three different methods of OSPF authentication, and how to apply them in any number of circumstances (interface, subinterface, area, mixed and authentication types to name a few), then mark that topic for a detailed review. If you're early in your preparation, you'll find that there are literally dozens of areas that require your careful focus.

I recommend the "detailed blueprint and gap analysis" approach because it works. However, one of the common flaws I see of people who practice this approach is that they never feel ready to take the exam. At some point, if you want to get the certification, you'll have to take the exam--so I recommend that you set a hard date on your calendar and go schedule the exam. I've found in many aspects of my life that nothing would ever get done without hard deadlines--so set one for yourself and drive toward it. If you fail that exam, you'll have another powerful tool to help you prepare for your next attempt: a combination of the experience taking the exam and the detailed score report that you'll receive afterward. Use this information to make detailed notes about the questions that surprised you and the areas where you can make up the most points. You may find that you're closer than you think to passing the exam. Next, immediately schedule the retake. Drive toward that date. Chances are good you'll prevail if you follow this approach.

Please feel free to share your strategies for CCIE preparation as well. The methods people have used to approach CCIE prep are numerous; chances are something you've done (or not done!) will help someone else along the journey.

Next time we'll talk about ways to approach lab exam preparation.

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