internetwork expert

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Note:  This article was originally posted in 2016.  Since that time, the CCIE program has changed the process for earning a CCIE, and the separate written exam is no longer used.  This means that the problem of people claiming to be a “CCIE” when they have only passed the written exam is no longer the case.  I’m leaving the article as is for now, but will modify it in the future when I have time, to reflect the new circumstances.  Regardless, you should never claim you have a certification when you have only passed a part of the requirements.  (ccie14023, Feb 2020)

In this article in the “Ten Years a CCIE” series, I look at the question of cheating.  Is it possible to cheat on the CCIE exam?  And what does cheating do to the value of the certification?

Yes, you can cheat on the CCIE

Shortly after I passed my Security exam I spoke with the first CCIE to pass the Voice exam. He took a beta version while he worked at Cisco. I commented that I valued my CCIE so much because it was simply impossible to cheat at the exam. It wasn’t a written exam; you couldn’t just walk in knowing the answers; you had to think on your feet. He laughed at me and explained my ignorance.

A lot of people cheat on the CCIE lab exam, he said. Either they work in groups and share the contents of the exams  they’ve seen, or else they get copies of the exam from unscrupulous vendors on the Internet. Then, having seen the actual exam, and having researched the difficult problems, and configured it several times in their lab, they can pass with ease.

I was quite shocked to hear this. I had always studied alone, and when I started down the CCIE road, I didn’t just want to pass the exams, I wanted to beat them. I didn’t just want the CCIE, I wanted the CCIE mystique. I was flabbergasted that people would want the certification without the work. Of course there is a great appeal to gaining something so valuable with minimal effort, but how are you going to make it through a job interview?

The stupidity of cheating

I had encountered rampant cheating in graduate school. This was at the dawn of the Internet, and I saw that many of my fellow students ripped off entire papers from the Internet. We used to send our papers to each other via email, and occasionally I would paste a snippet into AltaVista (Google not being available yet), and often I would hit upon the original work that they’d stolen. Leaving aside the ethical issues of stealing someone else’s work, or ripping off the questions and answers for an exam, there is a practical downside to cheating. You are claiming a credential that you haven’t earned. I remember conducting a job interview of a girl with a Masters degree from the same program as myself. I asked her the subject of one of her papers, and it had to do with routing protocols. She couldn’t answer even the most basic questions about the content of her paper. It was obvious that she cheated her way through the program. And she looked like a complete fool claiming to be a “master” of a subject about which she knew nothing.

Sometimes engineers I know roll their eyes when they hear I have a CCIE. They have encountered one of my fellow “experts” only to find that he seemed hardly an expert at all. Since I know that it’s possible to cheat on this exam, I’m convinced that many of these so-called CCIE’s cheated on their exams. They look like fools as did the girl with her Masters degree.

I’ll talk more about the value of the certification and later post, but one thing to keep in mind is that there’s great value in the study process. There’s great value in learning. And if you study for the test as you are supposed to study for it, you’re guaranteed to learn a lot.

A blurry ethical line?

I, like almost everybody these days, passed my exams using material from legitimate vendors, primarily Internetwork Expert and IPExpert.  (The latter has closed their doors.)  These vendors provide quite a lot of material, but their signature product is a book of sample exams designed to prepare you for the real thing.  This brings up a question.  Presumably some of the scenarios covered by the “legitimate” vendors are scenarios that might come up on the real lab.  After all, how many ways are there to configure BGP?

Interestingly enough, any exam has to provide a certain amount of information to test-takers beforehand.  The CCIE exams have detailed blueprints which guide candidates in their studies.  It would be impossible to take and pass an exam without such advance information.  With merely a blueprint in hand, it would be possible to construct some kind of sample exam, but do vendors simply build them off the blueprint?  Or do they get information from candidates and use them to build their tests?

The ethical lines can be blurry, but one thing is for certain:  studying for a CCIE exam using an actual copy of a real test is blatant cheating and disgraceful behavior.

Cheating on the written exam

Cheating is also rampant on the written exam. This is even the case among CCIE’s who are recertifying, perhaps especially the case. As I mentioned in my recertification post, taking an exam every two years, especially a hard one, is a big hassle. Many CCIE’s get lazy about the process. There are vendors who will sell verbatim copies of the tests. There is still, of course, some work involved. Someone with a copy of the test has to actually memorize all the answers. But it is far easier than going into a test blind.

My last re-certification was quite painful, and yet I refuse to use any sort of brain dump.  Instead, I built an Anki database of questions.  It wasn’t perfect, and it took a couple of failures for me to build a database that had sufficient coverage.

False CCIEs

Another way to “cheat” is simply to falsely claim CCIE status.  Anyone with a CCO account can verify if somebody actually has a CCIE, and whether they are active, but oftentimes employers just don’t bother to check.  When I was at Cisco HTTS, we were very close to hiring someone for a CCIE-requiring position, when I ran his name through the tool.  His CCIE had been revoked because he hadn’t recertified.  He was clearly embarrassed, and had simply been too busy to recertify.  While I can empathize with that, the fact was that he did not have a CCIE and would need to take both written and lab to get it back.  We didn’t hire him, but it amazed me that nobody had bothered to check early in the hiring process.

There is also a large group of imposters who have passed the written, and somehow think this qualifies them to put “CCIE” on their resume.  I recently saw a poster on a LinkedIn group who gave herself a CCIE (Wrt) title.  I also remember one candidate who put “CCIE Routing/Switching” in huge, bold letters on his resume, with “written” in a tiny font right next to it.  Well, I have news for you.  There is no CCIE written certification.  You either have a CCIE or you don’t.  Pass the lab before you put CCIE anything on your resume.  If you are looking at an employer that is willing to sponsor you for the lab, then by all means, tell them you passed the written.  But don’t claim CCIE status without a number.

What is the value?

We all know that there are a number of CCIE’s out there who should not have the certification.  It reflects poorly on the CCIE community.  There is no question that whatever value the CCIE has is diminished by those who obtained their credential through fraud.  If you are frustrated with the exam and thinking of hunting for a brain dump, remember this:  if you can’t pass the exam, you have no right to call yourself a CCIE.

In my next and final article in the series, The Value of a CCIE, I will take a look at the value of the credential.  Ten years later, do I think it was worth it?  Would I recommend someone take the CCIE exam now?  What do I think the future is for network experts in the world of SDN and automation?

In this post in the Ten Years a CCIE series, I go over my preparations for the CCIE Routing and Switching exam, and what I did to pass in one attempt.

The first months…

I passed my CCIE Routing and Switching Lab in one attempt, so I think my approach can be considered effective. At least, it was for the exam at the time. I decided to spend my first several months of study diving deep into each of the exam topics on the blueprint. I was determined to focus on core technologies such as BGP and OSPF and to minimize the amount of time spent on ancillary topics such as DLSw. Because you have access to the documentation CD in the lab, you don’t need to know absolutely everything. However, you do not want to spend a long time trying to figure out how to configure core tasks which you should be able to do automatically.

I didn’t work from a particular manual or outline these first few months. Instead I would pick a topic, say BGP. I would go through all of the examples I could find in the books that I had, Jeff Doyle’s books being the most helpful. I would set up the examples from the books in my lab to see if they work as described. Then I performed free-form experimentation. I tried different things; I indulged my curiosity; I came up with new ways to test the protocols and tried to break them. I introduced loops where there weren’t loops in the examples I had. I saw what happened if I ran the protocol over ISDN instead of Frame Relay. And I made very sure that everything I learned I recorded in my notes. For every subject I kept two note files. The first file contained general, conceptual notes. The second file was a list of commands that I thought were important and I needed to remember. These files grew over time, and I studied them thoroughly before attempting the lab.

I had also acquired practice labs from three different sources. I had IP Expert’s lab book; I also had Internetwork Experts’ lab book; and finally, I had the Cisco press official lab book, which was written by a CCIE proctor. I found that this last book’s labs most closely resembled the real thing in terms of how the labs were written and how the diagrams were drawn. Still, as I studied I quickly came to favor the Internetwork Expert book for its thoroughness and accuracy. At that time, they were still relatively new, but the quality of their material was the best.

Closing in on test day…

In the last couple of months before the exam, I shifted my strategy. Instead of focusing on individual topics I spent my time working the practice labs in the IE book. At first I worked them slowly and methodically. I didn’t do them on a timer, and I didn’t rush through them. If it took me 24 hours to work through lab then it took me 24 hours. My main interest was in covering the material, understanding it thoroughly, and in documenting my learnings. I knew so many people who started giving themselves timed exams when they weren’t ready for them. Yes, it’s important to have a strategy and to understand clock management, but it’s far more important to understand the material thoroughly. The best time management strategy is knowing the material so well you can configure most of it on auto-pilot.

Every time I completed the lab I graded myself using IE’s answer key. I used to say that I was my own worst enemy. I never gave myself a pass on the slightest discrepancy between my solution and IE solution. Every single mistake that I wrote I listed out in a document, and in the last few weeks before the exam I reread that document several times every day. Constantly reviewing the mistakes I had made reinforced my own errors in my mind.  I also found that in my note documents that I was highlighting certain important points or gotchas with the capital words “BE SURE”. I created another document that I called my “BE SURE” list. I also reviewed this list several times a day in the last few weeks before the exam. Reviewing both my mistakes as well as my “BE SURE” list so frequently was quite effective in helping me remember my mistakes and important notes.

A snippet of my BE SURE list

A snippet of my BE SURE list

When I was studying for my CCIE exam Cisco press had just released two handy books. These books covered all of the commands in IOS at that time for BGP and OSPF. Not only did they describe the commands but they had examples of their use as well. In the last few days before the exam I would review the table of contents of these books which listed all the commands by name. I did this every night in bed. If I was able to accurately describe the command, I would cross it off.  Some commands that I couldn’t remember I saw night after night, until they were so familiar I had no problem using them.  Doing this every night helped me to commit fully to memory all of the different BGP and OSPF commands that make up the core of the CCIE lab exam.

I also took the CCIE Lab Boot Camp from Internetwork Expert just a few weeks before I took the actual lab exam. This was a wonderful experience. I was able to take the course from home, using IE’s Java-based virtual environment. Because most of the work and the class consisted of full, eight-hour timed labs, there was no need to travel to a classroom. And, because the eight hour exams were administered on Internetwork Expert’s own racks of equipment, there was no problem with not having a full CCIE lab at home. We had a small amount of lecture each day, followed by the eight hour lab, which was then graded each night. In the morning we were given our results. I was told that people scoring over 80% generally passed the CCIE lab exam, and I was scoring higher with no problem. The Brians gave me some great advice and particularly fixed some problems that I had in configuring multicast.

At the end of the boot camp Brian Dennis, the grumpier of the Brians, gave what I would charitably call a pep talk. He told us that a test is just a test, that we should get some of the classic books on networking and study them thoroughly, and that we should know our subject, not simply pass the test.  “You meet some CCIEs and wonder, how did this guy pass the test?” Brian said.

In November 2004 the time came to take the test. I had no idea if I was ready. A good friend of mine who passed shortly before spent four hours with me in a sushi restaurant grilling me on every possible subject that could be on the exam. They closed the restaurant on us.  For my final preparation, I studied all of the new features in IOS which they were now using in the CCIE lab. I also studied the documentation CD thoroughly so that I would have no trouble navigating it in the lab.

Passing the test

If you’re working on the CCIE exam, why should you care what someone did to prepare for it ten years ago?  Well, as I’ve said, it is a different test now.  My advice on learning ISDN dial maps isn’t going to help you.  However, there are some general principles here that you should pay attention to.

  1. Figure out the core topics and learn them well.  Cold.  On every expert exam, there are some core topics and some ancillary topics.  You cannot know everything.  Figure out the core topics and drill them over, and over, and over again.  You need to be able to configure them without thinking.
  2. Make things harder than they have to be.  As I said, break things intentionally.  Introduce problems.  Ask questions.  Don’t just run the scenarios you bought with your labs.
  3. Be your own worst enemy.  Remember, the CCIE exam is not just about doing what they tell you, but doing exactly what they tell you.  When you grade yourself, read and re-read the tasks.  Make absolutely sure that you have accurately and completely fulfilled the requirements.
  4. Document your mistakes.  Review things you have done wrong, and keep reviewing them.

In the next post in the series,  Room of Horrors, I describe the CCIE lab experience.  I talk about what it was like to enter the infamous lab in Cisco Building C, and take the challenging exam.