Avoiding Proctor Proctology

Other than perhaps professional sports referees, I can think of no more maligned group of individuals than the proctors in the CCIE labs.  The myths about them are legend.  They screw up your rack at lunch.  They do everything they can to make you fail.  They act obtuse when you ask questions because they don’t like passing new CCIEs.  For the most part, all the mystery and nastiness that surrounds the proctors is just a bunch of hokum.  They are people just like you and I.  They do their jobs just like you and I.  It just so happens that their job is closely identified with something that most people study for hundreds of hours to achieve, and when those people fail, they look to cast blame on others.

I’ve been to the lab once or twice.  I’ve met several proctors both there and at Cisco events.  People who only need to be known by first names.  People like Howard and Tom and Stefan.  And each time I encountered them outside the lab setting, they impressed me with their poise and charm and sense of humor.  Just like any position of authority, the CCIE lab proctor has a role to play once they step inside the walls of the lab.  They must project an  aura of authority and calm.  They must provide guidance where confusion reigns.  And above all, they must protect the integrity of the program.  When most people deal with them in this setting, they come off cold and uncaring.  Just like a judge or a police officer, it’s important to remember that the position of proctor is a role that must be played.  Keeping some things in mind before you step through the badged door will go a long way to making your proctor experience a smooth one.

1.  Be nice. Yes, it sounds silly, but it’s a very important thing to keep in mind.  People are amped up when the walk into the lab.  They are stressed and wired and strung out.  Some people retreat into a shell when stressed.  Some people lash out and are irritable.  What’s important to keep in mind is that when dealing with the proctor, you should keep a calm and even demeanor.  People tend to respond in kind with the emotions they are presented.  If you walk over to ask a question and are short and snippy, expect a short answer in return.  However, if you are nice and pleasant, it can go a long way toward getting a favorable answer quickly.  When you go to lunch, don’t be afraid to engage the proctor in some light conversation.  Talk about the weather or the food or a sports team.  Anything but the lab.  Engaging them outside the walls will give you a feel for how they react to things and can help you judge if they will be helpful when it comes time to utilize them.  Besides, it never hurts to be friendly.

2.  Ask ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions. The most popular complaint I hear about proctors is that they never answer the question that you ask them.  Before you stand up to go ask for clarification, carefully word your question so that it can be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’.  For instance, rather than asking “How should I configure this frame relay connection?”, instead ask “There are two ways two configure this frame relay connection, point-to-point and point-to-multipoint.  The question isn’t clear about which I should use.  I’m leaning toward configuring it as a point-to-point.  Would I be correct in this assumption?”  The proctor may still choose not to answer your question, but you’re more likely to get a binary yes/no response out of them.  By showing you understand the technology and you aren’t just trolling for an answer, you’ll appeal to their interpretive skills.  Remember that the proctor won’t give you an answer, no matter what.  They have too much riding on their job, reputation, and the CCIE program to ‘bend’ the rules for one candidate.

3.  Don’t assume a problem is something you can’t fix. Want to piss off a proctor really fast?  Walk up and say, “I can’t get OSPF to come up.  My rack must have a cabling problem.”  I promise that after the eye roll and gruff answer, you’ll fail the lab.  Candidates who are weak in troubleshooting skills tend to blame the physical layers first because it’s the one layer they can’t touch in the lab.  In the old 2-day lab, cabling could be an issue to resolve.  But in the 1-day lab, with cabling extracted from the candidate’s control, there is a 1-in-1,000 chance that the cabling is at fault.  Think about it like this: the lab equipment supports 3-5 candidates 5 days a week for 50 weeks a year.  Cabling issues will be caught and dealt with quickly.  Simple things like bad ports or bad cables will be caught when the lab racks are booted first thing in the morning.  You going to the proctor and claiming that OSPF is broken because your routers are wired backwards will only serve to irritate the proctor.  What will happen next is that the proctor will ask you to wait by his/her desk or make you wait in the RTP conference room.  They will go to your rack and start troubleshooting OSPF.  They’ll find out you misconfigured a network statement or forgot to enable authentication.  They’ll check to make absolutely sure it’s not a layer 1 problem, all while you are isolated away from your terminal.  Then, after 15-30 minutes, they’ll come get you and tell you, “It’s not a physical problem.”  That’s it.  No other information.  You won’t get to see what they did to find your problem.  You won’t get any hints about how to fix the issue.  And you won’t get those 15-30 minutes back.  Period.  On the other hand, if you go to the proctor with a long list of reasons why it has to be a layer 1 problem, like BERT or TDR output or a down/down physical interface that won’t come up at all, they’ll be more receptive due to your troubleshooting efforts.  And if they find a layer 1 fault during their troubleshooting, you’ll probably get the time back from their efforts and the time it takes to replace the faulty unit.

4.  Don’t cheat. Well, duh.  You’d think that should be a given.  But people still try to pull stupid things all the time.  And not just the braindumping.  Writing things down and then trying to sneak them out on the scratch paper, of which every scrap must be accounted for.  Trying to use a cell phone to discreetly look up answers.  Looking at other screens (for all the good it’ll do you).  Just don’t cheat, or even give the appearance you’re cheating.  That should keep the proctors from getting quite nasty with you.

In the end, just remember that these guys and gals are doing their jobs as defined by the CCIE program.  They work hard and do everything within their guidelines to help you pass.  They aren’t out to screw you, and if you keep your head about you and use some common sense and manners, they’ll be the best resource you’ll find in the lab.

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