The Long Road to Becoming a CCIE

This blog is a personal account by John Allis, Client Support Engineer at ClearPointe.

Years ago, when I started my network career, I heard people speak of “the guy who knows a guy that once met a CCIE”. They’d speak of these CCIEs as almost mythical creatures; like unicorns that everyone talks about, but nobody seems to have ever met. I never thought – even for a moment – that I’d actually become one.

My Cisco journey started in 2013. I managed to gather the inspiration to pass the CCENT and CCNA tests. It took months of studying and seemed impossible at the time. I was fine with the CCNA for a few years until I got a bug to try for my CCNP. I passed it in the fall of 2015, and again, I was content with the CCNP for about a year or so until I started asking myself “could I possibly get my CCIE?”

Once the decision was made, and I had the backing and support of ClearPointe, I was ready to go for it! The first few months, I binge-watched the INE videos. It took me about 3 months, but I watched every single CCIE video INE had to offer. I had the idea at the time (probably from studying for the CCNA and CCNP) that a series of well-designed videos would be enough for me to at least pass the written test. I scheduled the written test.

I felt pretty good about the test until I opened it. It asked me things about topics that I’d never even heard of. Five questions into that test and I knew it was going to end ugly. I failed it – miserably. I went home that day completely defeated. I had studied every spare moment for 3 solid months, and I bombed the written test.

After a significant amount of thought, I determined my attitude was all wrong. I couldn’t knock this out like I had the CCNA and CCNP. This would require a serious, almost stupid amount of time. I emailed one of my coworkers, Chris, who was also preparing to take the test, and we decided to form a study group and committed to meet twice a week.

At the first meeting, we decided to abandon our individual study tracks and focus on INE’s lab blueprint together. After a month or so, I started noticing I had learned more in the last few months than ever before. In hindsight, being part of a study group was probably the single most important decision I made. Chris and I hammered out labs for over a year, meeting every Tuesday and Saturday night to discuss what we learned. On top of that, I read both study guides and Routing TCP/IP Volume 2.

At the end of 2016, I decided to take the written test again. I went in this time thinking I had at least a decent chance of passing. This time when I opened the test I wasn’t taken back by topics I had never seen before. I got through the test, clicked “finish” and failed. But this time, I failed by 35 points – this actually encouraged me.

When I got home, I wrote down every topic I could remember from the test that I wasn’t sure I had passed. This gave me an excellent outline to focus on. In January 2017, I went back, took the test and passed! Passing the written test was a load off my shoulders. I no longer had to focus on the “written-only” topics. Now it’s just the meat and potatoes of the CCIE, and I was good with that.

Chris and I decided we could use some help. We signed up for the CCIE boot camp offered by Micronics, taught by Narbik Kocharians himself. If you’ve never heard of Narbik, he co-wrote the CCIE Official Cert Guide. His boot camp is affectionately known by his students as “Narbik’s House of Pain”.

We got to the boot camp not really knowing what to expect. Narbik comes in and opens with an eight-hour full-scale lab. Holy cow. I did well on it, but I felt I could do better. We spent the next several days learning all things routing and switching – more than we ever wanted to know. I learned more during that week than I had learned all month. It was amazing.

After the boot camp, I decided I should go for the lab while the iron was hot. I scheduled the lab for May 2017. The test was a lot different than I had expected. I opened the first part of the test – troubleshooting. It took me the full 2.5 hours to complete, and I was mentally exhausted afterward. Seriously, done. I got through diagnostics and went on to the configuration section. I got through Layer 2, went to lunch, and came back for Layer 3. My mind was shutting down by this point.

After the test, I went back to the hotel knowing I had failed it. I fell asleep as soon as I got back to the hotel. A few hours later, I woke up and checked my email – fail. I passed Troubleshooting and Diagnostics, and failed Configuration.

I went home somewhat encouraged. I mean, I didn’t bomb it, and it didn’t ask me to do anything that I didn’t know how to do. I just needed to up my game. I reconfigured my lab topology and started labbing everything I could think of; and I scheduled another lab test for July.

I woke up that morning in a daze. Something wasn’t right, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.  I went to the testing center, opened the Troubleshooting section and couldn’t focus. I bounced around the section completing what I could, but I got sideways between two tasks. When I fixed one of them, it broke the other. I eventually ran out of time. On to Diagnostics, and then to Configuration. This time, I was exponentially more confident. I finished the section with about two hours to spare, giving myself plenty of time to find silly mistakes I made. I went back to the hotel pretty hopeful that I had passed.

About this time, the rotation of the Earth slowed down significantly. I know this, because that night while I was waiting for my score report, at least one month passed. It had to have. By 9 p.m., I gave up waiting for my score report and went to the hotel bar. At 6 a.m. I finally got it. Fail. I passed Diagnostics, passed Configuration, and failed Troubleshooting. Dammit!

I was angry. Like really angry. Who fails the Troubleshooting section?! The fact I passed the Configuration section made it hurt that much worse. I flew back home in a rage. If that wasn’t bad enough, I was now at the top of the budget that ClearPointe and I had worked out.

I called our CEO and told him I had now failed twice and was out of money. I’ll never forget his response: “Don’t you worry about that. Go back and pass the test!! If you fail it a 3rd time, we’ll talk”. This was amazing and exactly what I needed to hear. I nearly cried. I thanked him profusely, hung up, and scheduled the next test for August 17.

I determined that the reason I wasn’t right on the morning of the previous attempt was because I hadn’t eaten. I typically don’t eat breakfast, but this isn’t a typical day and I needed to fuel. I woke up that morning, went down to the hotel lobby and stuffed myself full of bacon and eggs. By the time I got to the testing center, I was seriously full. I opened the Troubleshooting section and attacked it like never before. I finished in about two hours giving myself more time for Configuration. Once I was done with Diagnostics, I opened the Configuration section and started reading the tasks. I was seriously taken back – this test was significantly harder than the previous ones. I got up, went outside and started praying. Seriously.

I got through the Configuration section as best I could, but I was running out of time. I decided to switch gears and start going for as many low-point questions as I could. I left about 4 questions on the table with varying point values. Time ran out.

I went to the airport knowing I had failed the Configuration section. I got home that night, kissed my kids, and sat down on the couch with my wife to talk. Around 12:15 a.m., I got the email with my score report. I opened the link, logged in and nearly lost consciousness. Pass!!! I started screaming. My wife started screaming. The cat freaked out. I hit my knees right there in my living room and tearfully thanked Jesus. I looked at my wife and said “Honey, I’m a CCIE!!”

I texted all my coworkers and emailed my CEO. This was one of the best nights of my life. It wasn’t just that I had passed – it was that it was finally over.

The best advice I could give anyone looking to earn their CCIE is patience. It’s going to suck, and you have to make peace with that. I’ve put thousands of hours into reading and labs. I’ve failed four CCIE tests along the way. You will fail, and you will want to quit. Don’t let it discourage you.

John Allis
CCIE #57081