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Doctor, lawyer? Non-techies don’t appreciate Cisco networking exam

Feb 20, 20065 mins
Cisco SystemsNetworking

The CCIE is the hardest certification to achieve in the IT industry, but it is little known to the general population.

The CCIE is the hardest certification to achieve in the IT industry, but it is little known or understood in the general population. Network engineers who have passed the exam agree that it’s the Rodney Dangerfield of professional exams: It gets no respect outside of IT circles.

Passing the Cisco Certified Internetworking Expert (CCIE) lab exam will bring you instant credibility at work, but your mother won’t be bragging about it to her friends, CCIE holders say. Listing your CCIE number on your business card will give you God-like status among your peers, but it won’t work as a pickup line at a bar.

“My parents are immigrants. Although their English is pretty good, they didn’t realize what it means to have a CCIE,” says Robert Yee, manager of network engineering with J2 Global Communications in Los Angeles. Yee passed the CCIE lab exam in May 2003 and holds CCIE #11716. “Even my sister who is an engineer, but not in the IT world, didn’t understand.”

Graphic called Where CCIEs work

It seems unfair because the CCIE exam is harder to pass than the State Bar of California or the Certified Public Accounting exam, both of which garner instant respect from all levels of society in the United States.

Cisco says the average pass rate of the CCIE exam over the life of the program is 26%.

In contrast, the California Bar Exam pass rate was 48.2% in 2004, with a passing rate of 62.8% for first-time applicants. The State Bar of California typically has the lowest pass rates of any state bar exam for law school graduates.

With the CPA exam, 40% of candidates passed nationally in April/May 2004. In Illinois, pass rates for the four parts of the exam ranged from 56% to 63% in the same time frame.

Although the CCIE exam is among the hardest professional exams to pass, the enormity of the feat is not well known.

“The networking world is smaller than the accounting or legal fields. There are really a minuscule amount of people who have attained this certification when compared to the number of lawyers or accountants,” says Brett Bartow, executive editor for certification self-study books at Cisco Press.

“Your grandmother is never going to need someone to set up a router for her, but she will need someone to do her taxes or write up her will,” Bartow adds.

The CCIE is especially hard, because you can’t go to school to prepare for it. Boot-camp-style courses exist to prepare for the CCIE, but most people study on their own.

“The thing about the CCIE is that there is no one there but yourself who is really motivating you to do it,” Yee says. “When you sit for the bar exam, you had to go to law school to prepare. With the CCIE, there’s no outside force pushing you to do it.”

Anthony Sequeira’s wife thought he was crazy during the year he spent studying for and taking the CCIE exam. He took the lab exam five times from January 2005 until January 2006, when he finally passed the exam with flying colors.

“My wife is not in IT. She’s a stay-at-home mother and a former hairdresser,” says Sequeira, who works as a senior technical instructor for Thomson NETg. “She’s always been kind of puzzled by why I like networking so much. She looks at the content and says it’s as dry as can be.”

By the fifth try, Sequira was studying 40 to 50 hours per week in addition to his full-time job. He stopped all of his hobbies – flying planes, playing tennis and playing poker – to concentrate on passing the lab exam.

“My wife recommended that I stop all of these other activities and focus 100% on the CCIE exam,” says Sequeira, who holds CCIE #15626. “Even my 4-year-old daughter understood how big of a deal this was for me.”

Rus Healy spent a year studying for the CCIE lab exam using a rack of Cisco routers and switches that he bought and installed in his home. He put in hundreds of hours of studying, getting up two hours early every morning and logging in 16 hours on each weekend day.

“My wife was really good about it, but she was suffering along with me,” Healy says. “My kids are 8 and 5, and they are at a good age for being able to entertain themselves. It helped that I set up my lab equipment at home, and I could access it remotely or from anywhere in the house. So I wasn’t just locked up down in the basement for a year.”

Healy, who works as a program manager for technical training and certifications at Microwave Data Systems in Rochester, N.Y., passed the exam last August on his fourth try. He holds CCIE #15025.

Healy’s dad was the only one in his family who truly understood how big of an accomplishment passing the CCIE exam. That’s because his dad is in the IT industry, too.

“My dad is [a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer.] He does get it,” Healy says. “He helped me set up my lab rack at home. He had a pretty good handle on what I was dealing with and the level of the challenge. He was so happy for me. He had been bragging to his friends that I was even trying to pass the exam.”

CCIE exam at a glance:
Number of people with current CCIE certifications:12,967 (as of 2/1/2006)
Number of CCIEs in the United States:4,249 (as of 2/1/2006)
Pass rate:26% over the 13-year life of the program
Average number of times it takes to pass the lab exam2.5
Number of people who take the written exam each year:12,000
Number of people who take the lab exam each year:8,000
Number of CCIE books sold by Cisco Press:100,000
Average salary of a CCIE:



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