Today I Passed the CCIE R&S v5.1 Written Exam

This is a big step for me, and has been a long time coming. I know I haven’t “won” anything yet (I’m not going to be one of those people who put “CCIE written” on my resumé), but at the same time, passing this exam is a major milestone for me. The topic scope for the CCIE written exam is quite vast. There are 100 questions on the exam, which means the single exam cannot cover all of the topics. Until you take the exam, you have no real idea of how deep the topic coverage is, which very much clouded my initial study preparations as I tried to shoot for the moon. I learned over time that that was the wrong approach.

The CCIE R&S written exam has been criticized as being merely a trivia exam. Additionally, the 5.0 version was highly criticized for various reasons, including spelling and grammar/clarity issues. Tom Hollingsworth later followed up and mentioned opportunities for improvement. Those articles were written a little over a year ago, and I am happy to report that I feel like things have definitely changed.

This is the first CCIE-level exam I’ve ever attempted, so I can’t directly say how this version compares to previous versions, but last year I did take the SWITCH exam to renew my CCNP, and I felt a lot of the same frustrations expressed about previous versions of the CCIE R&S exam. I was happy after reading Tom’s article to know that Cisco really does look at the comments left on exam questions. I left lots of comments when I took the SWITCH exam about many of the issues, such as poorly-worded questions and answers.

By comparison, of the 100 questions in the current CCIE RS v5.1 exam, I did not feel the need to leave a comment on a single one (and I was ready!). I honestly felt that all of the questions were fair, decently-worded, and I saw no spelling or grammatical errors. Also of the 100 questions, I encountered perhaps five where the wording was kind of tricky and I would have missed the question had I not read it more carefully. That is much better than I was expecting. There were perhaps two questions covering things I had never even heard of, and I wasn’t sure what category they would fit into.

I also felt like the topic distribution did not align with what is stated in the blueprint, however that could simply have just been with my specific delivery of the exam, and not with the overall question pool. There’s no way for me to know. It could also very well be that those questions simply stuck out to me more than the others in hindsight. The most generic non-breaking-of- the-NDA way I can put it is that I felt like they tested some topics at a deeper level than I expected, and other topics were tested more shallow than I thought they would be. I’m sure everyone who has ever attempted any version of the exam has felt the same way, though.

In one sense, I have been studying for the CCIE for over four years, since passing the CCNP in 2013. On the other hand, it has only been this year that I finally began to take the goal of passing the exam much more seriously and assign some sort of timeline to it. I’ve written about 500 times now how creating flash cards has been one of the keys to reaching this success. I’ve read many of the classic books you’re supposed to read when studying for the CCIE over the past several years. That’s all good background knowledge to have. This year, my primary sources of learning were the official cert guides (this year was my second pass of them, I read them once before when they were first published), Narbik’s [new v5.1 book][narkbik], the official Cisco documentation, and the Evolving Technologies guide and selected topics from the CCIE Service Provider Version 4 Written and Lab Comprehensive Guide, both by Nicholas Russo. I bought Nick’s book because I am also very interested in service provider topics, but it is incredibly valuable for the R&S certification, too.

I can also say without a doubt that another key element to me passing today was purchasing the Boson CCIE practice exams. I’ve used Boson’s exams in the past and felt they were decent, but not especially great. That was not the case here. I can honestly say there were a few questions on the real exam that I was able to answer because the Boson practice questions introduced me to the specific topic. That is, despite all of my other sources of studying, there were some Boson questions that either covered something I didn’t think would actually be on the real exam, or they made me think differently about a topic I had already studied, which led to a deeper understanding overall.

However, the version of the product as I write this is not without flaws. There are a few questions that cover topics that have been removed from the current version of the CCIE, and there were several questions that referenced older Cisco documentation that is either no longer relevant, or to where things are configured slightly different in the IOS 15.x code as opposed to 12.x. Overall though, I really believe had I not purchased the Boson practice exam, I would not have passed the real exam today.

The CCIE R&S written exam really is very far above and beyond the CCNP level. This is what made studying for it difficult at first (the “shoot for the moon” aspect I felt at first). The CCNP breaks the topics up into three exams (it used to be four), whereas the CCIE not only covers all of the CCNP topics in a single exam, it covers a very wide range of things not even mentioned at the current CCNP level, such as QoS and multicast. Additionally, topics introduced at the CCNP level are covered at a much greater depth at the CCIE level (like BGP, for example).

I think one of the early mistakes I made when I first started studying right after my CCNP four years ago was to think that now I was basically starting all over again. That was definitely the incorrect approach, as real knowledge builds upon itself, and that’s how the Cisco certification program is designed as well. The CCIE is deeper than the CCNP which is deeper than the CCNA. But there are topics that are universal between all of them. You are asked subnetting questions at the CCNA level, but you still need to know how to do it at the CCIE level. The difference is that hopefully at the CCIE level, you can just do it quickly in your head.

The other mistake I made early on was straying too far from the blueprint. I was under the assumption that the expert level must mean that a person knows absolutely everything inside and out about every facet of every protocol mentioned on the blueprint, so I started out by covering some of the topics at an insane depth. This is most certainly the wrong approach. Nobody knows everything, and you do not become an expert simply by passing an exam with that word in its title.

As it stands now, I believe the CCIE R&S written exam is about half good practical knowledge, and half pure trivia. I enjoy trivia questions, and I feel good when I get them right, but a lot of that knowledge is not useful in the day-to-day design and operation of a real-world network. Additionally, it takes a process such as constant review of flash cards to maintain that trivia knowledge.

Some people recommend to not take the written exam until you are close to being ready to take the lab exam. I can understand and appreciate that approach. However, taking and passing the written exam is also an important “feel-good” milestone and provides some self-validation about my current level of networking knowledge. But, that is the difference between the written exam and the lab exam. The written exam represents the knowledge itself. The lab exam represents the knowledge plus experience.

As they say, now the real work begins.