The CCIE Routing And Switching Written Exam Needs To Be Fixed


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I’m having a great time at Cisco Live this year talking to networking professionals about the state of things. Most are optimistic about where their jobs are going to fit in with networking and software and the new way of doing things. But there is an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with one of the most fundamental pieces of network training in the world. The discontent is palpable. From what I’ve heard around Las Vegas this week, it’s time to fix the CCIE Written Exam.

Whadda Ya Know?!?

The CCIE written is the bellwether of network training. It’s a chance for network engineers that use Cisco gear to prove they have what it takes to complete a difficult regimen of training to connect networks of impressive size. It’s also a rite of passage to show others that you know how to study, prep, and complete a difficult practical examination without losing your cool. But all that hard work starts with a written test.

The CCIE written has always been a tough test. It’s the only barrier to entry to the CCIE lab. Because the CCIE has never had prerequisites and likely never will due to long standing tradition, the only thing standing in the way of you ability to sit the grueling lab test is a 100 question multiple choice exam that gauges your ability to understand networking at a deep technical level.

But within the last year or so, the latest version of the CCIE written exam has begun to get very bad reviews from all takers of the test. There are quite a few people that have talked about how bad the test is for candidates. Unlike a lot of “sour grapes” cases of people railing against a test they failed, the feedback for the CCIE written is entirely different. It tends to fall into a couple of categories:

The Test Is Poorly Written

The most resounding critique of the exam is that it is a poorly constructed and executed test. The question quality is subpar. There are spelling mistakes throughout and test questions that have poor answer selections. Having spent a large amount of time helping construct the CCNA exam years ago, I can tell you that you will spend the bulk of your time creating wrong answers as distractors to the right ones. Guidelines say that a candidate should have no better than a 25% chance to guess the correct answer from all the choices. If you’ve ever taken a math test that has four multiple choice answers with three being correct for various mistakes in working the problem, you know just how insidious proper distractors can be (and math teachers too).

The CCIE written is riddled with bad distractors according to reports. It also has questions that don’t have a true proper answer or a set of answers that are all technically correct with no way to select them all. That frustrates test takers and makes it very difficult to study for the exam. The editing and test mechanics errors must be rectified quickly in order to restore confidence to the people taking the test.

The Test Doesn’t Cover The Material

Once people stop telling me how bad the test is constructed, they start telling me that the questions are bad on a conceptual level as well. No NDAs are violated during these discussions to protect everyone involved, but the general opinion is that the test has skewed in the wrong direction. Cisco seems to be creating a test that focuses more on the Cisco and less on the Internetworking part of the CCIE.

The test has never been confused for being a vendor-neutral exam. Any look at the blueprint will tell you that there a plenty of proprietary protocols and implementation methods there. But the older versions of the exam did do a good job of teaching you how to build a network that could behave itself with other non-Cisco sections. Redistributing EIGRP and OSPF is a prime example. But the focus of the new exam seems to be skewed toward very specific Cisco proprietary protocols and the minutia around how they operate. I’ve always thought that knowing the hello and dead timers of OSPF NBMA areas is a huge time sink and really only justified for test takers, but I also see why knowing that would be important in multi-vendor operations. But knowing the same thing for an EIGRP DMVPN seems a bit pointless.

The other problem is that, by the admission of most test takers, the current CCIE Written Exam study guide doesn’t cover the areas of the blueprint that are potentially on the test. I feel very sorry for my friend Narbik Kocharians here. He worked very hard to create a study guide that would help test takers pass the exam with the knowledge necessary to do well on the lab. And having a test over a completely different area than his guide makes him look bad in the eyes of testers without good cause. It’s like a college class when the professor tells you to study the book but gives you a test over his or her lectures. It’s not fair because you studied what you were told and failed because they tested something else.

CCIEs Feel There Are Better Recert Options

This is the most damaging problem in my mind. About half the test takers for the CCIE written are candidates looking to qualify for the lab. That requires them to take the written exam for their specific track. But the other half of the test takers are CCIEs that have passed the lab and are looking to recertify. For these professionals, any CCIE written exam is valid for recertification.

Many CCIE candidates look to broaden their horizons by moving to different track to keep their CCIE current while they study for service provider, data center, or even collaboration as a topic area of study. For them, the CCIE is a stepping stone to keep the learning process going. But many CCIEs I’ve spoken to in the past few months are starting to take other exams not because they want to learn new things, but because the CCIE Routing and Switch written exam is such a terrible test.

Quite a few CCIEs are using the CCDE written to recertify. They feel it is a better overall test even though it doesn’t test the material to the level that the CCIE R&S written exam does. They would even be willing to take the chance of getting a question on an area of technology that they know nothing about to avoid having to deal with poor questions in their areas of study. Still more CCIEs are choosing to become Emeritus and “retire” so as to avoid the pain of the written exam. While this has implications for partner status and a host of other challenges for practicing engineers, you have to wonder how bad things must be to make retirement of your CCIE number look like a better option.

Tom’s Take

I took the CCIE R&S written last year at Cisco Live. I was so disgusted with the exam that I immediately switched to the CCDE written and recertified my number while simultaneously vowing never to take the R&S written again. From what I’ve heard this year, the test quality is still slipping with no relief in sight. It’s a sad state of affairs when you realize that the flagship test for Cisco engineers is so horribly broken that those same engineers believe it can’t be fixed. They feel that all the comments and feedback in the world are ignored and their expertise in taking exams is pushed aside for higher cut scores and a more exclusive number of candidates. The dark side of it all is the hope that there isn’t an agenda to push official training materials or other kinds of shortcuts that would help candidates while charging them more and/or locking out third party training providers that work hard to help people study for the lab.

Cisco needs to fix this problem now. They need to listen to feedback and get their written problems under control. If they don’t, they may soon find the only people taking the R&S written test are the same kinds of dumpers and cheaters they think they are trying to keep out with a poorly constructed test.

NOTE: I have published an update to this post here: Fixing The CCIE Written – A Follow Up

29 thoughts on “The CCIE Routing And Switching Written Exam Needs To Be Fixed

  1. Totally agree Tom. I’ve been shouting this somewhat via Twitter and in my local engineer community for some time now. I’ve now taken and failed 400-101 twice after considerable study time and effort using both official Cisco study matetials and those from INE etc. A number of my peers have also failed it multiple times without fair reason. The test questions are just full of errors (typological, grammatical, technical inaccuracies), there are often too many correct answers to both single and multi-choice questions (so how the hell do we know which right answer is actually right??!), and the breadth of content is just unbelievable, with many questions I received not even remotely covered on the blueprint.
    Cisco should be embarrassed. Frankly I’m becoming embarrassed to be a “Cisco engineer”. I’ve been a loyal Ciscoite for 14 years and have spent a small fortune on their training and certifications in that time, however I’m at the end of my tether now given my experiences with 400-101. Although I don’t have my IE number yet (one day, maybe… I haven’t even attempted the lab to date. Young family changed my priorities) I have taken previous versions of the R&S written (i.e. 350-101) to successfully recert my various A and P certs etc. In my mind, this as well as my considerable experience and success in this industry tells me I am more than good enough to pass 400-101, however I won’t be wasting any more money on this exam. Frankly I’m in a quandary as to if I should continue to throw any more money or loyalty at Cisco in general. I really hope that there will be sufficient talk of this topic during CLUS this week to heighten awareness of the issue with the appropriate powers at Cisco. I can only hope. The least they could do is put their hands up, admit their failing (and fix it!), and offer an exam voucher as some minor compensation for the unfair loss of our time, sanity and money. Looking forward to hearing what others have to say.

  2. I have recertified my CCIE with various R&S written versions over the years. Usually I take it once completely cold, but am still within 2-3 questions of passing — because I keep up reasonably well. To pass, I study up on my weak areas. I lab. I practice. I take the exam again. I pass. I’m recertified.

    During my current recertification cycle, I went back to Narbik’s bootcamp as a refresher. I took excellent, detailed notes from his lectures. I did some lab work. I reviewed at home after the bootcamp. I took the current R&S exam. I failed miserably — not close to passing. My impression was that for an R&S exam, there wasn’t much R&S on it. All sorts of tangential topics no doubt referenced in the blueprint. But the heart of the certification — what was covered in Narbik’s excellent bootcamp — was largely absent.

    I left that exam attempt with no idea how to prepare for it. While I’m sure it’s possible to pass it — people must, as Cisco tracks the pass/fail rate and adjusts accordingly — I’m genuinely not certain how to create a study plan to succeed with this specific iteration of the test.

    Like others you’ve spoken to, Tom, I am going the CCDE written route to recertify. I’m not sure I’ll get it done in time, as I’m months behind at this point having wasted lots of effort on R&S study. I’m living in the CCIE “suspended” penalty box as a result. But I think CCDE is likely my best shot.

    After that, I hope to go emeritus, assuming Cisco keeps that plan alive. There’s too much pain and distraction to maintain the cert for what is, at this point, little personal benefit.

    • Passed R&S recert only this week with my third attempt this summer. Earlier recerts in 2012 and 2014 went with the first attempt. Unless the CCIE community signals significant change in the R&S written exam quality and style, I’ll switch to CCDE written next year.

  3. Tom, I completely agree 100% with this article. I just took the CCIE RSv5 written to recertify at CLUS this year and it was just brutal because of all the reasons you have mentioned. I BARELY passed. need to score 804, and I scored 804. I had to guess on so many questions because I couldn’t even understand what the question was trying to ask. It is very poorly written. In addition, the majority of the questions seemed to be based on “Trivia” type questions that require very specific memorization of a very specific detail that provides ZERO value in the real world.

    This will be the last time I take the RS written. Like everyone else I have talked to I will move onto the CCDE or CCIE DC written.

  4. Guys, the CCIE program is not one of the best, it is the BEST certification in the market today. Cisco has made every effort to ensure the integrity of the exam whether it’s for the written or the lab portion of the cert.
    In the past many students, or should I say, many CCIEs, resorted to the brain dumps to recertify their number. As we all know that many people these days have failed the written as a result, and thank God that most of these brain dumpsites are no longer there.
    Tom and Ethan you guys are VERY honest and I know that because you were my students. In order to pass the written exam you have to read and totally understand the books that are recommended on Cisco’s website for this certification. Reading one book is not going to be enough to pass this test or any Cisco test.
    You need to go to Cisco’s website and read ALL the recommended books.
    If you read one book and pass any Cisco test, you know that the book was covering the actual exam questions which means that you were cheating and you have not learned anything. The idea of recertification is to keep up to date with technology, specifically Cisco’s implementation of that technology.
    Let me tell you a secret, I study EVERY DAY OF THE WEEK, whether I am teaching or not. I constantly lab and read almost every book that hits the market for R&S.

    We are going to have a written boot camp and it will focus on the written test, which is the sum of all the books that Cisco has mentioned on their website. The class you took was for the lab portion of the certification and not the written.

    • Great Nabrik but most of us have jobs to do that do not leave time for studying and labing every day let alone reading every book that comes out. I have been a CCIE for 20 years and v5 is definitely the worst version of the exam with the most trivia and the most ambiguous questions and answer choices. There have always been some weird questions in the exam (I seem to remember one OSPF question that survived several revisions that definitely had no correct answer) but this version is full of them.

    • I beg to differ.

      The CCIE lab exam is awesome.

      Passing the lab ultimately is, what makes you a CCIE.

      The written is a $400 memorization and “let me guess what this guy is trying to get from me” type of exercise that should have been retired a long, long time ago.

      It adds nothing, honestly, except unnecessary memorization burden and wasting of time.

      The questions are so poorly elaborated that, as many have mentioned here, lead to several correct answers or no correct answers at all.

      Notice that nobody is complaining about the written for being difficult.

      The written is just something that seems to be so sloppily done that I really can’t condemn anyone for going after braindumps to pass it (not saying that’s the right thing to do, though).

      The lab is difficult but it’s the type of challenge that fuels you. The questions are fair and well put. I’m halfway through the 360 program and every time I do something wrong on a lab, I go to the answer key and I can clearly see what I didn’t get it right.

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  6. Pat, I work and have a job as well, but this is the nature of our business. I have been actively in this industry for the past 39 years. My first job was to implement mainframes and operate them for different customers. Even those days technology kept on changing and with every change you had to maintain your knowledge or else you would find yourself out of job.
    I have not taken the written for V5, so I have to agree with you guys. May be they have to redo some of the questions.

  7. So I want to comment on this blog because I can tell you I agree, but I am in the special position to inform you that change is coming. I have been voicing my opinion for years. I am now on the CCIE advisory committee, which has been a lot of work, but has given me the chance to make sure I represent your concerns with the right audience.
    With that being said, please look for the tests to change within the coming months with more recert options on the way. Continuing ED being one substitute. Also, look for mor questions relevant to practical experience. We discussed this with Chuck Robbins during the netvet luncheon and he is 100% behind the changes.
    The committee is full of guys who agreed with most of your opinion 100 percent which is why I can wholeheartedly tell you I’m psyc’d. Downside is it’s going to change the way you prepare but the blueprint for the tests will be current. Or more current with today’s technology. Same for the labs.
    I am more than happy to keep you updated, because like you, I hate the idea of failing a test due to the fact that I’m trying to weed out the wrong answer instead of knowing the right answer.

    Your CCIE Brother ~Derek

    • Derek, one big complain that I get from almost all my students is the “Diagnostic” section of the lab, please move this to the written. That’s where it belongs. I spoke to few people form Cisco about this, and they all seem to think that it should stay where it is, but almost everyone that I talk to is upset about this section of the lab. They call it the glorified version of open ended Questions.


  8. As a CCIE candidate who sits the Written exam in 8 days, I’m finding the “Written only” topics particularly painful to study. If I pass the exam, these topics will be forgotten long before I attempt the lab, what will this have gained? Perhaps they should have separate exams for the Written and recertification process, where the Written blueprint mirrors the lab exactly and the recertification process throws in a few extra topics to keep things current. I’m really not looking forward to struggling with ambiguous questions and if I have to recite any RFC numbers I’m going to cry.

  9. To all participants in this discussion, please accept my apologies. I have quoted some of you together with the above article on CLN. The thread was edited and I was informed that that was not OK with some of you and quoting the article was not OK. I would have preferred to hear it from you if that was not OK but instead I received a note from the CLN forum admins.
    I remember tweeting to Ethan and to the author but i received no replies to that …no news was considered good news. Sorry for that.

  10. I’d love to hear more about the continuing ed concept!! I had to let my CCIE lapse suspended while I was competing an undergraduate degree…in Computer Networking! Thinking that should count for something.

    Does anyone know if going temporarily suspended counts against the Emeritus requirement of “10 years active?”

    @Narbik: You really need to personally sit v5 before even thinking about trying to pull off a written bootcamp. You will not believe what you experience.

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  13. I totally concur with the comments regarding the out of tracks kind of questions listed out on the ccie written exams. I wrote my ccie written some months back and believe me guys I felt so beaten like the bullied kids in school. Even though I was so close to passing the exams. Right now I feel so weakened and discouraged after spending over 8months preparing and paying that huge some of money. More so, to you Narbik, why I’m so bitterred is because I used both your study guide and Bootcamp lab materials to prepare for this so glorified Cisco cert. And I must tell you this, most of the questions are not designed as a stepping stone to having a better analytical understanding and skills of the lab session. To better feel our agitations, Narbik, I would need you to take the written exam first before proceeding to the written Bootcamp you are making plans for. However, I look forward to the newly tailored versions being agreed upon as stated by Derek, as I prepare to have a rewrite. Waiting for the update on this platform Derek. Thanks

  14. The poor quality is NOT limited to the CCIE R&S. I have been working on the CCNP Wireless. Those exams are riddled with errors, questions with all/no correct answers, grammatical errors galore. I even had one question that had me “refer to the diagram”, only there was no diagram displayed. I also had one question asked twice (the same exact question/answers) during the same session. I have been calling these out during the exam sessions through teh “comments” function. I’m getting to the point I’m pretty sure no one ever even reads those.

    This was painful for me, because as an ex-Cisco employee, I once spent a whole month primarily working on questions and answers for the original CCNP Wireless exams. They sure have gone downhill quickly.

  15. Reading through the post and following comments I couldn’t agree more. I’ve sat the R&S written six times over the last 12 years – once before the lab and then five times after to recertify my CCIE. I’ve never had a problem with the previous versions of the exam. Each time I passed first time and appreciated the knowledge I gained (or reinforced). The exam topics were relevant to R&S and there wasn’t too much focus on excruciating minutiae.

    Six months ago I sat the version 5 exam for the first time and failed. During the exam I honestly thought I must have accidently booked the exam for a different stream. There was very little R&S in it. I’m not going to break NDA and say exactly what kinds of questions I received, but let’s just say I’m a working enterprise senior network engineer and the version 5 exam was almost completly irrelevant to what I do day to day.

    I’m more than happy to invest time and effort into keeping my knowledge up to date. I’ve been recertifying for almost a decade. I’m not sure I’ll bother to do it again.

  16. Unfortunately some of these problems are not unique to the CCIE tests. I recently was going through the process of re-certifying my Cisco certs (CCNA/CCNA Sec.) and I opted to go the CCDA route. Boy was that a mistake.

    Due to when I scheduled the exam I had to take the new exam material, which I figured at the time of scheduling and beginning my studies wouldn’t be that much different than the old exam based on what I saw on the blueprint. While I was fairly close on that assumption, there were still a plethora of questions that I couldn’t have even began to answer as they were all very specific to exact models of hardware for example, or the “Cisco flavored” way of implementing something. Sadly, despite the new exam being out there wouldn’t be new written material on that exam for about 6 months at that point, so I was kind of SOL that way.

    To make matters even more infuriating, after failing the first attempt at the exam by I think about 15 points, I went to go take the exam again and received the EXACT same exam. Literally word for word/question for question, it was the exact same exam and guess what? Failed that one too! Despite having reviewed the topics from the questions I thought I struggled with, I still couldn’t pass it, although I somehow managed to achieve a few points better.

    Moving on to attempt number 3 and I received the exact same test again!! I have never experienced this before in my Cisco cert testing. I passed my CCNA on my first attempt, CCNA Sec. on the second attempt (just missed the first attempt). I have had other friends that have had to attempt their various tests multiple times as well and they haven’t experienced this before.

    Needless to say time ran out and I basically just said “Eff this”. To this point having those 4 letters has really done little for me, and I was only really maintaining them for myself as we use very little Cisco gear at my current job, so I’ve decided to take a break from any certs at all and re-evaluate what ones I will be attempting next (likely Juniper or Aruba).

  17. Well nothing has changed so far. I did the written exam today and boy…. some topics are not even remotely related to routing and switching anymore.
    This is my 8th year since i got my R&S lab and the written test is getting more ridiculous every year.

  18. Its why I went Emeritus when it came apparent that 3 attempts at a recert at 400US now (or is it more) was a waste of time and money. I’ll spend my energy learning things customers are looking for, not memorizing RFC or how much bandwidth a codec I have never heard of requires in certain situations maybe. Some continuing education credit/testing is valuable rather than these memorization exercises. And I had these issues with Collab written, not just R/S.
    Jason CCIE 8808

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