A Lot Of People Take The Lab Seven Times…

A couple people have asked about some highlights in my lab experiences while going for my CCIE. Here are a few of the more humorous points.

My first lab attempt was in December of 2008. This was back before Open-Ended Questions (OEQs) or the Troubleshooting section. I got my teeth kicked in by this first lab. By lunchtime, I was pretty much shell shocked. I didn’t talk to anyone and spent a lot of time staring at my lab binder. At 2:00 p.m., I was wrestling with a BGP problem that I refused to let go of until I solved it, even if it cost me the rest of my lab. I got up and decided to get a drink from the break room. In RTP, the breakroom and bathroom are down the hall from the lab. As I worked out the possible solutions to my issues in my head, I woke up from my mental fog and found myself in the bathroom wondering where the Coke machine was. That’s when I knew my goose was cooked on that attempt.

Number two was the first with the OEQs.  I switched lab locations from RTP to San Jose.  Firstly, because the lab started an hour later and I love my sleep.  Secondly because I had the time change going from Central to Pacific working for me instead of going from Central to Eastern and always being behind.  I nailed the trivia section at the beginning but got hammered on the configuration section.  I realized that I was good at the theory, but I needed to concentrate on the application.  Number three was my last shot at the version 3 lab. I got enough points to pass the configuration section, but I missed too many trivia questions. I was livid. It’s like meeting someone for the first date and calling them by the wrong name 5 minutes after you meet. The rest of the night is a wash no matter what, so why bother putting yourself through it?

Number four was my first version 4 lab attempt. I refused to take the new lab so long as the OEQs were still there. Two things kicked me out of my self-imposed funk. First was the announcement of the elimination of the OEQs. Secondly was some words of encouragement from my friend Narbik Kocharians. At Cisco Live 2010, he told me that I just needed to keep it up until I got my number. So I took him up on his advice. Attempt four hurt a lot. The TS section wasnt kidding around, and I got stomped by the lab. I felt almost the same as I did after attempt number one. The sole bright spot was my ever-increasing subscore. While I didn’t get enough points to pass either section, I was getting close to the top.  I just needed to find the drive to put myself over the summit.

Attempts five and six were my “near misses”. On five, I passed the TS but failed the configuration.  I was upset after that one.  I thought I had done a damn good job, only to get my score report back less than an hour after I left the lab building.  I retraced all my steps in my mind to find where I could have screwed up.  All the anger in the world wouldn’t get me past my failing mark, though.  IPExpert instructor Marko Milivojevic put it a little differently to me.  He told me there was no sense complaining about it. Get ready for the next one and get it done. On six, I failed TS and passed config. So, if you averaged those two, I passed. 😉 Attempt six really bolstered my confidence. I knew I had failed the TS section after the first two hours. But rather than leave and enjoy the California sunshine, I stuck around and finished. In return, I was able to pass the config section for the first time.  It was a bright spot that led me to have a little hope that passing this thing was possible.

I didn’t say much about attempt number seven because I was anxious. I felt a little embarrassed that I was up that high.  I was worried that I’d disappoint everyone that had been keeping up with my battle with the dreaded lab. I decided to take the Navy SEAL approach. Get in, do the job, then talk about it after success. I was relaxed as I strolled into the lab Thursday morning.  There were a couple of first timers there, and I could tell they were nervous.  It reminded me of my first attempt.  I’m pretty sure Tom Eggers and Tong Ma recognized me from my last attempt.  I could have given the pre-lab briefing for the proctors.  For every previous attempt, I’d been seated at the same workstation. This time, I was beside my usual spot. Maybe a change of location would be a good thing.

I started the TS section and told myself not to get caught up on any questions. If I couldn’t get it in 10 minutes, move on to the next one. I started to panic a little by the third question, but after I made a change that fixed a bunch of things all at once, I was elated and plowed right through, finishing about 20 minutes early. Once I was sure all the conditions were satisfied and my configs were correct and saved, I jumped into the lab. Normally, I get up after reading over the lab and go to the bathroom and get a drink. This time, however, I was in the zone and I didn’t stop to think. I just kept going. Before I realized it, Tong was handing out the lunch vouchers.

After a nice lunch, I came back and dove right back in. A couple of silly mistakes right off the bat made me refocus on doing things right.  I cursed myself for such simple errors, knowing that the difference between typing the right command and the wrong one was razor thin inside Building C.  I shut out distractions and kept going. In fact, I didn’t even notice the guy beside me on his first attempt get up and leave just after lunch. Guess my old pod got him too. By the time I finished my first run through, it was 2:00. I looked up and thought to myself that this was very doable from this point on. I had 3 hours to make sure I was right this time. After rearming with a Mountain Dew, my first that day, I went back over my configs with a fine tooth comb. Not a cursory inspection, but a real Navy SEAL dressing down. I forced myself to reverify every command, no stone left unturned. It’s a good thing I did, too. I found mistakes that would have cost me 7 points had I not corrected them. Those little lapses of attention very likely would have had me coming back for attempt number eight.

Once I double checked everything, literally in this case as each task had two check marks next to it on my paper, I reverified a few things I wasn’t sure about. After I satisfied myself with the answers, I turned in my scratch paper. It was 3:30, an hour and a half before the end of time. When I walked out of Building C, I knew I had done my absolute best. I was confident that this would finally be the one. After catching up on Twitter and email, I celebrated with my usual trip to In-N-Out Burger. Back at the hotel, the minutes started ticking away. After reading about the last few passing attempts from my friends online, I knew the longer it took for your score report to come back, the better it would be for my chances. No report after an hour was good. After 3 hours, I was giddy. I’m sure the hotel bar had nothing at all to do with that. By 11:00, I was equally concerned and hopeful. Had the grading script messed up? Were the proctors going over my configs to shake out any flaws? I had given up the idea that I’d get my results before bed. After hopping in the shower, I walked over to shut off my computer before bed. It was then that Outlook delivered the dreaded email.

CCIE Score Report

I clicked on the link and logged into the site. I scanned to the bottom of the list and saw FAIL. My heart sank. How could I have failed?!? Then I realized I was reading the results of my first attempt in RTP. The newest score was at the top of the list. My eyes flitted over the four most wonderful numbers I’d ever seen. P-A-S-S, quickly followed by a glance at the five most amazing numbers ever, 2-9-2-1-3. The whoop I let out surely had to wake the whole hotel. I called my lovely wife at 2:00 her local time and told her the good news. She informed me she was very happy. And also going back to bed. I, however, was wired. It was like the feeling of winning the big game a thousand times over. No more doubt, no more anticipation. No more second guessing myself and wondering if it would all ever be worth it. I emailed my boss and my Cisco account team. I chatted on Twitter with the poor souls awake at that hour. I made lists of who I needed to talk to. I tried to calm down. I finally fell asleep an hour later, but I didn’t really rest. The elation at my accomplishment kept me on high for a while. But at least I wasn’t dreaming about Indiana Jones and the Lost Prefix (that has happened before).  The next morning was filled with phone calls before my flight.  My boss answered on his speaker phone but quickly switched to his handset when I told him I was going to give him my lab results.  After informing him I passed, he laughed and said, “I could have left you on speaker for that good news.”  I boarded the plane home with a spring in my step for the first time in a long while.  Nothing could chisel the smile from my face.

Tom’s Take

What is best in life?  To crush the lab, see it driven before you, and hear the lamentations of the proctors.  Okay, maybe a little cheesy, but it kind of sums things up.  My father asked me how many questions I got wrong and still passed.  I told him “Since they don’t give you a breakdown, I’ll always think I got them all right.”  I can’t give the best advice about lab strategy.  As you can see, there were lots of dumb mistakes and missed chances.  I underestimated some sections and they paid me back in full.  But if nothing else, know that perseverance is the key to the lab.  Not giving up, not backing down, not letting yourself think for an instant that it isn’t possible.  Doubt is one of the biggest enemies of the CCIE hopeful.  Don’t let it cost you your chance at a number.

9 thoughts on “A Lot Of People Take The Lab Seven Times…

  1. I think you got to the heart of passing expert level exams – “Not giving up, not backing down, not letting yourself think for an instant that it isn’t possible.” Perseverance is the key to life. It is what separates those who want it from those who will never get it. I think your blog entries are reminding us all what it was like to struggle to get our number. We are all better engineers for having gone through it.

    The funny thing is passing your next expert exam seems easier. Maybe we’re just more confident now. Maybe it is all in our mind. Anyway, Congrats again.

  2. Congrats!! Started reading the other day and saw that you had attempted 6 times, came back to day and saw your numbers. I must have missed it on Twitter. Congrats again!

  3. I was thrilled to hear you passed and reading your experience reminded me how sweet that victory is. Congrats again man, you earned it!!


  4. Pingback: 2011 in Review, 2012 in Preview | The Networking Nerd

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