I stumbled across a great Reddit thread this week: Is the CCIE as impossible as it seems? There are a lot of great replies on that thread about people passing and the “good old days” of Banyan Vines, Appletalk, and more. It’s also a fascinating look into how the rest of the networking industry sees exams like the CCIE and JNCIE. Because those of us that have the numbers seem to be magicians to some.
Sleight of CLI Hand
Have you ever seen the cups and balls magic trick? Here’s an excellent example of it from the recently departed Ricky Jay:
Impressive, right? It’s amazing to behold a master craftsman at work. Every time I watch that video I’m amazed. I know he’s doing sleight of hand. But I can’t catch it. Now, watch this same video but with annotations turned on. SPOILER ALERT – The annotations will tell you EXACTLY where the tricks are done:
Is it more impressive now that you know how the tricks are done? Check out this demonstration from Penn and Teller that shows you exactly how they do the tricks as well:
Okay, so it’s a little less mystifying now that you’ve seen how all the sleight of hand happens. But it’s still impressive because, as a professional, you can appreciate how the execute their tradecraft. Knowing that it’s not magic doesn’t mean it’s not an impressive feat. It must means you appreciate something different about the performance.
Let’s apply that to the CCIE. When you’re just starting out in networking, every piece of knowledge is new. Everything you learn is something you didn’t know before. Subnet masks, routing tables, and even just addressing an interface are new skills that you acquire and try to understand. It’s like learning how to take a coin from someone’s ear. It’s simple but it provides the building blocks for future tricks.
When you reach the level of studying for the CCIE lab, it does look like a daunting task. If you’ve followed Cisco’s guidelines you probably have your CCNP or equivalent knowledge. However, there is still a lot you don’t know. If you don’t believe that, go pick up Jeff Doyle’s Routing TCP/IP Volume 1 book. That book taught me I still had a lot to learn about networking.
But, as I slogged through the CCIE, I realized that I was acquiring skills. Just like the magicians that practice the cups and balls every day to get it right, I was picking up the ability to address interfaces quickly and see potential routing loops before I made them like I did in my first lab attempt. Each thing I learned and practiced not only made me a better engineer but also made the CCIE seem less like a mountain and more like a hill that could be climbed.
And I truly realized this when I was thumbing through a copy of the CCIE Official Exam guide. Someone had given me a copy to take a look at and I was happy with the depth of knowledge that I found. I wanted to pass it along to another junior engineer because, as I said to myself, “If only I had this book when I started! I could have skipped over all those other books!”
Practice, Practice, Practice!
That’s where I went wrong. Because I jumped right to the end goal instead of realizing the process. Magicians don’t start out making the Statue of Liberty disappear. They start out pulling coins from your ear and finding your card in a deck. They build their basic skills and then move on to harder things. But they most grand tricks in the magician’s top hat all still use the basic skills: sleight of hand, misdirection, and preparation. To neglect those is to court folly on stage.
CCIEs are no different. Every person that asks me about the test asks “How hard is it to pass?” I usually respond with something like “Not hard if you study.” Some of the people I talk to pick up on the “not hard” part and get crushed by the lab their first time out. They even end up with a $1,500 soda for their efforts. The other people, the ones that focus on “study” in my answer, they are the people who pass on the first attempt or the ones that get it right pretty quickly thereafter.
The CCIE isn’t a test. It’s a course in studying. It’s the culmination of teaching yourself the minutia of protocols and how they interact. The exam itself is almost perfunctory. It tests specific combinations of things you might see in the real world. And if you ask any CCIE, the real world is often ten time stranger than the lab. But the lab makes you think about the things you’ve already learned in new ways and apply that knowledge to find ways to solve problems. The lab isn’t hard because it’s easy. The lab becomes easier when you practice enough to not think the knowledge is hard any longer. I think Bruce Lee said it best:
I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.
Most people would agree that Bruce Lee was one of the best martial artists of all times. And even he practiced until his fingers bled and he body was exhausted. Because he knew that being the best wasn’t about passing an exam for a belt or about showing off for people. It was about knowing what you needed to know and practicing it until it was second nature.
The CCIE has a certain magical aura for sure. But it’s not magical in and of itself. It’s a test designed to ensure that the people that pass know their skills at a deep level. It’s a test designed to make you look deeper at a problem and exhaust all your options before throwing in the towel. The CCIE isn’t impossible any more than sawing someone in half is impossible. It’s all about how your practice and prepare for the show that makes the trick seem impressive.