Summary: By preparing a plan and strategy for the CCIE lab, the chance of passing will be a lot higher.
Over the years I have written about the CCIE multiple times and also mentored people on how to prepare for the lab. This post will summarize my experience of how to prepare for the CCIE lab. This post assumes that the CCIE written has already been successfully passed.
The first thing to do if you haven’t done it already is to make sure you have the support from your family before starting to prepare for the lab. Explain to them the time that you will need to put in to prepare and also explain why you want to do it and what the benefits of doing it will be. Preparing for the lab can take 1000-2000h which is a big commitment. Don’t bypass this step as it may seriously affect your family situation if you do.
Once you have commited it is time to grade yourself. Go through the blueprint for the track you are preparing for at the Cisco Learning Network. Grade yourself on each topic from 1-5 on where you believe you are today. Make a realistic assessment, it’s not likely that you are a 4 or 5 on many topics unless you are a very experienced engineer. This is an expert level exam, it’s vastly different from any associate or professional level exam.
After grading yourself, make a schedule with how many hours you plan to study each week. It’s better to make a realistic schedule that you can keep up with than making a schedule were you put 40h in each week and you can’t keep up with it. If the pace is too slow you can always put more hours in the schedule. This schedule should also be commited with the family and don’t forget to leave some family time in there! This is a general schedule where you divide the total number of hours you think you need to prepare with the number of weeks studying. If you plan to study 1000 hours and put in 20h per week, you will need 50 weeks to prepare. Some weeks you won’t be able to study and that’s OK. Don’t study on your vacation. You will need time to recover as well. What you don’t want to do though is to study in bursts and then take time off. It’s better to keep a slower and steady pace than doing insane bursts of study.
You should also make a detailed schedule where you write down each topic you are going to study and how much time you expect to put in on each topic. You can also map each topic to lab workbooks and if you need to do reading in books or blogs etc. As you go through each topic, check it as finished in your schedule. You should go back and regrade yourself after studying each topic. Your knowledge of each topic should have increased but once again, be honest. If you are still not at the level you think you need to be, you need to go back and study the topic again.
Most people studying for the CCIE will use a lab workbook of some form. It can be Cisco 360, INE, IPExpert, Narbik or whatever suits your needs. It’s also perfectly fine studying without a workbook but it will require more from you to prepare your own labs.
One of the main issues when studying for the CCIE is how to retain information. If you study OSPF week 1 it may be 20 weeks before you come back to OSPF again which by that time you may have forgotten a lot of the content. There are various methods how to deal with this. One way is to do flash cards to trigger your memory for long time preservation. Another method is to throw in some protocols even when studying for another protocol. If you are studying BGP, you will likely need reachability for BGP which means it makes perfect sense to configure OSPF as well.
The CCIE is a grind, it’s a marathon. It’s not possible to sprint through it. If you feel that you are close to getting burnt out, decrease your pace for a while. If you hit that wall and many candidates have, then you will be much worse than if you had just slowed down for a while.
While preparing for the lab, it’s essential that you learn how to verify your configuration. Don’t rely on your configuration to be correct unless you have verified it. Learn all the show commands you need to verify each protocol/feature. Many candidates have gone to the lab and configured everything perfectly, or so they believed, only to get a detrimental score in the lab report. It’s all about verification. If you don’t have time to configure AND verify in the lab, you aren’t at the expert level required to pass the lab yet. Just keep practicing until you get there!
What kind of lab should you use to prepare for the lab? Anything that works for you is good enough. If you do want to prepare with the thing that is the closest to the lab, try the CCIE Lab Builder at the Cisco Learning Network by following this link to the CCIE Lab Builder. Disclaimer: I do get a percentage of sales if you purchase something through that link. I will never recommend something just for sales though. The reason I think you should try the CCIE Lab Builder is because the real CCIE lab uses the same backend. It’s nice to have a feeling for the lab, what the interfaces look like, what commands are supported or not. The entire CCIE RS lab is virtualized these days using IOS On Linux (IOL). It’s definitely good to try the virtual switches if you haven’t already. You don’t have to use the CCIE Lab Builder for all your studies but give it a try just to get a feeling for the lab.
It’s important to feel comfortable in the lab. The more you know about the lab the less stress you will feel about going to the lab. I will write down what I remember from the lab here to give you a picture of it. These are my thoughts and I can’t guarantee they are accurate for every lab location.
When you enter the Cisco office you will need to sign in at the reception. You will then go to a waiting area and wait for the proctor to arrive. The proctor will take you to the lab location and see if all candidates are there. He will give you instructions on what is allowed and what is not. You will get a seat assigned to you and you will leave personal belongings in a locker. Normally you are allowed to bring some snacks if you want to but you can’t bring anything else to your seat except your ID. You must have your ID with you. If you want to wear ear plugs, that should be OK as well. All lab documentation is delivered on screen, there are no papers except for the rules of the lab which are printed, or at least they were when I took the lab.
What about the lab environment? When I took the lab we used a Logitech K120 keyboard with US layout. You should be comfortable with using the US layout. You can save a few minutes where knowing where all the keys are. My sources tell me that there should be dual monitors now which should help, there was only one monitor available when I took the lab. You will have access to some documentation but generally searching will not be available but you should be able to do ctrl-f on the web page. You should be able to copy text from the lab instructions if you want to such as VLAN names but I can’t gurantee this. You will have access to notepad and the calculator. I recommend that you get very comfortable with writing configurations in Notepad.
If you want to get a feeling for the lab delivery you could try the Cisco 360 labs which are very close to the real lab experience in the delivery that is used. They will also produce very nice lab reports if you take a mock lab there.
I recommend that you read through the entire lab before typing any configuration. There may be some feature that is dependant on another feature. If you do them in the wrong order or if configure something that won’t work with the next topic you may be in trouble and will have to redo a lot of the configuration.
It’s all about getting enough points and verify, verify, verify. If you can’t verify, you don’t know if you have the points or not. After you have done a round of verification, you should come back and verify again. You should only count your points as “safe” if you have verified them twice. Make sure you don’t make any easy mistakes such as as using the wrong name or number for a feature. The feature may still work but you may not get the points.
Hopefully you exit the lab and a few hours later get your CCIE number! Don’t give up if you don’t though. It takes most of us a few attempts to get past the beast. Good luck in your studies!