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CCIE: Talk about a stress test

Feb 20, 20069 mins
Cisco SystemsNetworking

CCIE lab exam brings even the best to their knees.

Anthony Sequeira knows a little about stress. The 35-year-old network instructor from Tampa, Fla., once purposely stalled a single-engine plane and sent it into a tailspin five times in a row as part of his efforts to earn his pilot’s license. He’s also a world-class poker player. But nothing in his thrill-seeking exploits prepared him for the pressure of taking the CCIE lab exam.

Anthony Sequeira knows a little about stress. The 35-year-old network instructor from Tampa, Fla., once purposely stalled a single-engine plane and sent it into a tailspin five times in a row as part of his efforts to earn his pilot’s license. He’s also a world-class poker player. But nothing in his thrill-seeking exploits prepared him for the pressure of taking the Cisco Certified Internetworking Expert (CCIE) lab exam. The CCIE exam is “absolutely more stressful than doing loop-de-loops in a plane,” Sequeira says.

“With piloting, you conquer fear by eliminating the unknowns. The fear of the unknown is what you consistently face in the CCIE. They could throw a topic at you that you have no experience with. They did it to me all five times that I took the exam.” Sequeira passed the lab exam in January, joining the ranks of 12,967 network engineers who have aced the grueling hands-on test.

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For most, passing the CCIE lab exam requires studying as many as 1,000 hours and maintaining a laser-like focus that leaves spouses, children and hobbies by the wayside. The lab exam also costs big bucks, with the purchase of workbooks, preparatory courses, racks of Cisco equipment, exam fees and travel reaching as high as $20,000.

The lab exam is so difficult that it has taken on mythic proportions in the network industry. CCIEs talk about how physically taxing the process is and list it among their greatest accomplishments.

“The CCIE was infinitely more difficult for me than anything else I’ve ever done,” says Sequeira, a senior technical instructor for Thomson NETg in Scottsdale, Ariz., who holds CCIE No. 15626.

“Everything I had ever done, I had excelled at. If you had told me that I would fail the CCIE four times before I passed it, I would have said that was not possible,” he says. Rus Healy was speechless when he found out in August 2005 that he had passed the CCIE lab exam on his fourth try. Healy, who holds CCIE No. 15025, is program manager for technical training and certifications at Microwave Data Systems in Rochester, N.Y. “I got an e-mail from my proctor saying congratulations while I was at the airport waiting for my flight home from the exam,” Healy says. “I called my wife, and I was crying. . . . I have never felt anything like it. It was such an incredible feeling of achievement.”

The CCIE has been considered the most difficult certification in the IT industry since its launch in 1993. It has two parts: a written exam and a practical lab test. The CCIE is offered in five tracks: routing and switching; security; service provider; storage networking; and voice. The most popular track is routing and switching. “Over the life of the program, the overall pass rate has usually been 26%,” says Mike Reid, senior manager of CCIE programs for Cisco, which won’t reveal the pass rate for last year. “We target the material at an expert level. The pass rate is secondary.”

The written exam, which includes multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank questions, is relatively easy, and people usually pass it on the first or second try. Each year around 12,000 people take the CCIE written exam, which is available at testing facilities run by Pearson VUE or Prometric.

“The written exam is easier because it’s in a more traditional format,” Reid says. “It’s a theory exam. People generally try to study for it by sitting down with a book and reading it. You can’t do that with the lab exam because you need hands-on practice.” Network engineers must pass the written exam before they are eligible to take the lab exam, which is available at 10 Cisco facilities worldwide. Around 8,000 people take the CCIE lab exam each year. One person has taken it 19 times and still hasn’t passed.

The lab exam is difficult because it tests practical, problem-solving skills. Test takers have eight hours in the lab to properly configure and troubleshoot Cisco network gear. They need to get 80% of the possible points to pass.

Passing the lab exam requires hands-on experience, speed and the ability to remain calm in the face of extreme pressure.

“On my third and fourth attempts, I had the knowledge but I simply didn’t have the speed, the task analysis and the troubleshooting skills,” Sequeira says. “When you have a problem in your rack, you can’t take 15 minutes to find it. You literally should be able to find and fix that problem within minutes.”

Network engineers who pass the CCIE exam get a designated number to use on business cards and e-mail signatures. They also receive a plaque from Cisco and are eligible to purchase CCIE office items and apparel. Cisco sponsors online forums for CCIEs and automatically routes them to more experienced technical support staff.

CCIEs need to renew their certifications every two years by taking a written exam. But they never have to take the dreaded lab exam again.

It’s rare to pass the CCIE lab exam on the first try. But that’s what happened to Wendell Odom, who holds CCIE No. 1624. He passed the exam in 1995 after studying for one day.

“I had the perfect job to prepare you to pass the exam,” says Odom, who works as a senior instructor for Skyline Advanced Technology Services in Campbell, Calif. “I taught all of the classes that Cisco recommended at the time you take for the CCIE. I also did consulting work for enterprises.”

Odom says he was lucky to get an exam that focused on IBM protocols, which he knew well. The test was so easy for him that he finished the build portion of the exam an hour and a half early. “I could have shown up on the next day and gotten an exam that focused on DEC or Apple protocols, and I wouldn’t have passed,” Odom says.

Most CCIEs have to work harder than Odom did to pass the lab exam.

Robert Yee studied five or six hours each night and 16 hours per day on the weekends in the months leading up to taking the lab exam. He bought a rack of Cisco equipment and set it up in his house. He took a week off of work and attended a CCIE boot camp. He passed the lab exam in May 2003 on his second try. “The last month, my studying was very intensive,” says Yee, who now is the manager of network engineering for J2 Global Communications in Los Angeles. Yee had nine years of IT experience, including four years of operating Cisco routers, switches and firewalls, before he decided to take the exam. Yee is CCIE No. 11716. Yee says his wife Sara, an insurance agent, was supportive during the months he was studying for the exams. “She knew this was a big test, and if I could pass this it would be a big deal,” he says.

Yee estimates he spent $16,000 on the CCIE exam, including Cisco equipment, the boot camp class, books and exam fees. His employer at the time didn’t reimburse employees for CCIE-related expenses or give bonuses for passing the test.

“It’s a big investment, but I knew it was an investment in myself and my family,” Yee says.

Test takers receive e-mail notice within 48 hours that they have passed or failed the exam. People respond to passing the test in different ways. Many burst into tears. Others get drunk. Most celebrate with their loved ones.

“My favorite experience as a proctor in the CCIE exam lab is one guy who before he took the exam showed me that he had an engagement ring in his pocket,” says Kathe Saccenti, product manager for CCIE programs at Cisco. “He said that when he passed the exam his next step was engagement.”

Maurilio Gorito, a customer support engineer with Cisco’s CCIE program, took a 20-day vacation in his native Brazil with his family after passing the lab exam. Gorito spent eight months studying as much as 40 hours per week to pass the written and lab exams. He took the written exam five times and passed it in December 1997. He took the CCIE lab exam twice and passed it in June 1998.

“After I passed, my wife got a little sick from all the effort she did while I studied,” says Gorito, who holds CCIE No. 3807. “I had put my sons, who were 7 and 8 at the time, aside. We needed to take some time together and relax as a family.”

Passing the exam means prestige and money for most network engineers. Cisco says that 80% of the network engineers who pass report increased status on the job, while 75% get cash rewards, according to a survey taken in 2004.

Odom raised his consulting rates by 25% after passing the CCIE exam. He also became one of the best-selling authors for Cisco Press, writing books that help others pass the CCIE exams. “No one ever gave me pushback on my rates,” Odom says. The exam “translated into real dollars for me.”

Network engineers who have passed the exam say it is worth the time, money and personal sacrifice.

Gorito, who was among the first 15 CCIEs in Brazil, immediately started getting job offers after passing the exam. He joined NCR and worked in New York supporting Merrill Lynch. From there he joined Cisco. He wrote a book for Cisco Press about preparing for the CCIE routing and switching lab exam.

“For me, the career impact was big,” Gorito says. “When you finish the process, you have learned so much that you’re at a different level of knowledge and skills. This is the big win of the CCIE.”