Congratulations go out to Keith Humphreys who recently passed his CCIE Service Provider Lab Exam on his first attempt! Keith was a student in a recent CCIE SPv3 Bootcamp that I taught in London, and posted a very inspirational story about his road to CCIE success on INE's Online Commmunity. It's a long one, but is definitely worth the read.

Congrats Keith!

Finally after years of preparation I have passed my 1st CCIE on my 1st attempt in Diegem, which is the party centre of the universe, isn't it!? Below I will go through my preparation, what I did, when I did it and it's probably all repetition of other peoples experiences but you only pass the CCIE for the 1st time once so I'm going to babble on cos this is my moment :D

First, a bit of background. I work for a service provider and have 10 years operational experience and 2 years in design. I had decided I would be a CCIE when I was sent on the ICND course in 2001, my 1st taste of Cisco. I got my CCNA in 2006 (yeah big gap, blame the pub). I started out certifying hardcore in 06/07 when I completed CCDA, CCDP, CCNP and CCIP along with a bit of the CCSP. I was doing 1 exam a month as I had no partner or kids I had nothing else to do. So I finally got around to the IE in 2007. I spent 6 months working on the RS written exam, which I passed. By then I had a lady friend and she was pregnant, study ended abruptly and I don't think I slept properly for the next 4 years. During that time I made several false starts at getting back in to the RS but I just didn't have the motivation, the passion was there in my head but my body was unwilling to put up with the stresses and just needed more snooze. I had purchased products from not-INE and I wasn't happy with the quality, I probably put some of the blame on to that instead of myself and my lack of drive. Anyway I had doubts about sticking with the RS and when the SP 3.0 blueprint came out I wanted to change, the problem was I had invested heavily in the RS track. Luckily INE have a great set of SP products and the Brians helped me get sorted on the SP track. I convinced my then manager I needed to have these so she coughed up the moolah.

My wife and I discussed the impact going for this at full steam would mean to the family and she agreed it was something I needed to do for myself and for the familys future. So once new year came around this year I started out hardcore. My boss got me a GSR on the grey market with all the cards INE had in their lab, which I upgraded to IOS-XR, really not something you want to do over a remote connection!! I learned alot about the architecture of the 12k during that time, it was awkward to say the least. I got the AAP, workbooks and a place on an SP bootcamp along with lots of tokens/credit, never remember what they are called.

I started off by watching Brian McGahan's ATC videos, which were awesome, really helpful in the SP side of things. I had generally worked on Ciscos as a CE and another vendor as the PE so the videos really helped me translate from the other vendors implementations of TE for example and map that over to Ciscos way of doing it. I did have to do mental translation for the first while, IOS can be a little bit all over the place in its lack of hierarchy, putting the process under the interface instead of the interface under the process like in IOS-XR, Junos, SROS etc. I spent a few weeks going through the videos, watching them a couple of times. I'm not one for taking notes, never have been any good at that through school and college, or even in work at meetings. It's just not how I work but it's something I need to work on getting going for future certs. I did buy Ruhanns SP book which did all the note taking for me :)

After I finished the videos and finished building my lab, a replica of the workbooks, I started doing the fun stuff. I went through the 'volume 1' stuff, the technology specific labs. Man I REALLY enjoyed these, I had only configured TE once on a Cisco prior to this, I had ony implemented ISIS for CLNS, not for IP. I did 3-4 hours monday - thursday and 6 hours on saturdays. While doing this I used my Safari subscription to read, and read, and read. I didnt really read books cover to cover but select chapters. I also have about 40 cisco press books at home which I read when I could. I also bought the kindle version of Beau Williamsons Mulitcast book, a perfect example of reading select chapters,

Once I went through the volume 1 labs I moved on to the mock labs. Well I ate plenty of humble pie here. If memory serves me I did lab 1 and 2 over maybe a day each and kinda struggled a bit, but I was really enjoying it so I tried lab 3. I had to give up half way through as I decided I didn't know enough so I revisited the volume 1 labs again to solidify my understanding, reading through the doccd and reading RFCs. This is probably the turning point for me, I was finally living this stuff. I had booked my place on BMcGs London bootcamp for August so I really focused hard on getting up to speed to get the maximum out of the BC that I could. I also booked my lab at this point. We had a holiday planned and I didn't want to be fretting over the lab on holidays if I was to do it after the holidays and making everyone miserable, so I booked it for the week before. If I passed I would have a great break after, if I failed at least I was going on holidays.

Before I went on the BC I upped my hours each day, including fridays and sundays breaking my agreement with my wife, but she was ok with it, she has her Sims! I revisited lab 3 and was able to do it in about 8-10 hours, I don't really remember how long it took. I was really happy with that cos I knew I was making good progress. I tried lab 4 and was humbled again, that lab is HARDCORE, I remember staring at debug mpls packet for about 4 hours trying to figure out why my packets were failing. Good old set mpls-label, I'm sure that gets everyone, and you certainly don't forget it after that!

Next up I went on the bootcamp in London, in the very fancy Charring Cross hotel, complete with free tea and cookies :D. There were 9 of us I think, including one guy who worked in the building beside me at home. How weird. Same company, different building, never spoke to him before but now I was sitting beside him. The BC was 5 days and was a mix of some lectures and mostly hands on. We started at 9am and did lectures on the major topic areas before doing lab 5 as I call it, the BC lab. After lunch we had more lectures before going on with the labs for the rest of the day, usually up until 6pm but you could leave earlier. I liked to hang around, Brian was available to ask questions throughout the week even after hours and I think that's the main benefit of going on one of these. I had written some questions I wanted to ask Brian prior to going. The dude is a genius and he made me feel very well prepared for the lab. I usually went back to my hotel at 6pm and did the workbooks labs up until maybe midnight. Should everyone go on a bootcamp? If you can afford it or work will pay for it yes. It's not a prereq but its certainly worth it. If nothing else I felt confident leaving that I could pass the lab. Given my lab was mid October I had 7 weeks to get ready.

Once I got back my focus was lab, lab, lab. I woke up, I thought lab. I worked, I thought lab, I went to sleep, I thought about the BC cookies then lab, I sometimes dreamt of networking. Pretty much 100% of my waking time was thinking about lab technologies, or strategy. You need to be at this stage I think, you need to be that committed, and its not something you say to yourself 'ok now I'm going to be committed', you just know it, it's just the way it is. I booked 3 weeks annual leave prior to the exam off. I stayed at home during these 3 weeks doing INE labs, doing my own labs, using GOLD labs. I also rented dual SP racks from INE, which were great because that gives you 24 routers (4 x XR) and 4 switches to play with, I booked them for 10 days, 8 hours a day during the weekdays. I made some pretty big topologies and I focused on what I felt were the key point winners for the lab, making sure I could get my IGP, MPLS and BGP up and running as fast as possible from scratch. I practiced various inter AS topologies and of course the killer, CSC. I really focused on order of operations so I could knock them out in minutes, well not minutes but you get the point, It's a bit crazy how CSC once seemed insanely complicated to me, now it's just a couple of commands and I can get it up and running in no time with multiple AS. I was comfortable with all the major topics at this point. I was improving on multicast but I didnt spend huge amounts of time on it, enough for what I felt would get me through based on the INE lab experience. I also did some RS labs on BGP, MPLS and multicast which helped with my understanding on mcast but also refining some specifics of BGP, confederations, that type of thing.

You still reading? nearly done! So it was time to catch that flight. I thought about what I had done and honestly it didn't feel like work. Sure it was really, really hard, but it wasnt laborious. I enjoyed every minute of my prep. I arrived at the NH hotel around 5 pm, checked in and set out my stuff for the morning, glasses wipes, ear plugs, packets of tissues/neurofen (I had sinus problems and a head cold, great!) etc. I wasn't nervous at this point. I kept telling myself I have been through a child being born which is crazy intense and nerve wracking, this is just a test. And tests can be passed. I walked up to the Cisco building, 6 minutes from my room to the bridge outside the office. I had seen a video walkthrough of going up to Cisco from the hotel so it was reassuring to see nothing has really changed there. I went back to the hotel and had some dinner and went to sleep at 830. I did wake at 1am but was back asleep within 30 minutes. My alarm went off at 6, breakfast at 630 then final psych workout. I had brought my lappy and US keyboard in case I felt the urge to practice, I didnt. I did however do some warm ups just on the keyboard so my nerves wouldnt impact on my typing. Maybe thats stupid but it helped me chill.

Around 725 I went down to check out. I was up at Cisco at 740, there was no one at reception and a sign on the door saying doors open at 8, I knew this would be the case but I would rather wait outside focusing then rushing up. No one else turned up until 755 and I started to think I was in the wrong place, but thats cool, I wasnt going to panic. Finally the door opened and I signed in. There were 9 candidates, mostly RS there. No one talked, I didn't strike up conversation, people don't need to hear me babbling at them when they are trying to stay in the zone. The proctor turned up around 810 (is this designed to put you off?) and brought us up to the lab room. He went through the ground rules and gave us our pod numbers. There is only 1 SP seat in Brussels I believe but I sat at the DC pod, same number as the SP one. UK keyboard, wtf? luckily I copped I was at the wrong desk and told the proctor, he pointed me to the right one, right in the corner. There is an SPO seat there, that must get lonely. There were 2 voice guys, a wireless, at least one security and the rest RS. The voice guys didnt cause any distraction with their phones. I had my ear plugs, lots of noise from the racks in adjacent rooms. The room itself was very clean, well ventilated and well lit. The monitor was a large one, 24 inch I believe people have said, I cant tell these things. The keyboard was US for my pod (I had opened a ticket with Cisco to confirm this months before). The interface was excellent, really fast access to routers. At one point I had all routers opened cascaded and it was easy to navigate around although its fine to close them and reopen with a single click, this is exactly how exam environments should be. The questions interface is really smooth, very clean environment. You can change putty settings but I didnt bother. I was going to be closing and reopening routers all the time so I would have to redo settings all the time. My approach in practice was to delete and reinstall putty on my machine at home so that all the defaults would be there, I'm sure there is a set to default button but whatever :) . I also used my laptop screen so I would be used to a small screen and the 24in would be a blessing. This worked for me, may not be everyones cup of tea. If you train your brain to look at the default putty settings you dont need to waste time changing it to majenta or whatever your penchant is for.

I started by drawing the topology out, physical and logical. Pens were rubbish, only a couple worked, I used a couple of highlighters for AS boundaries. I also had the good ol tick sheet to mark off what I had completed, 1st pass verification, 2nd pass etc. And a RT/RD table too. I filled this in at the beginning. I forgot to read the lab through initially. I got straight in to the first couple of tasks but then I remembered and read through it all. Its really hard to do and I had to force myself to focus, very easy to glance through it. I dont think I read it word for word before arriving on the section itself.The questions were all perfectly fair.

I thought I had about 50-60 points by lunch, I hit a slight snag just before but I used my lunch to figure that out and had a solution to start straight back in on my return. I actually used bits of food to draw out a portion of the network on my plate. Lunch was fine, chicken chips and coke. No one talked really. That was fine with me. I would have but again I didnt want to distract anyone.

After lunch we went back up and I fixed my issue straight away. As I felt I was over half way through I decided to aim to finish within the next 2 hours. I didn't,, I started getting distracted and less focused, the curse of the perception of time being on your side. Maybe 3 hours later I was done with all but 2 tasks. I couldnt get them working, consulted the doccd for the 1st and only time (not problems accessing it, speed etc). I confirmed my config was good but the thing wouldnt come up. Quick wr reload, the IOU boxes are really fast to boot back up but that didnt resolve the issue. I gave up on it for now, I felt I had enough points in the bag to pass. I decided to do my 2nd verification and come back to these issues if I had time. I started to get complacent and took my time with things, not the best thing I've ever done. I was also starting to get tired so I grabbed a hot chocolate from the machine outside the door (coffees, hot choc but no tea,sigh), toilets are just outside too.

I went through each task as much as I could, verified everything I could. Then with maybe 20 minutes left I noticed a tcl script hadnt got all the IPs in it I needed. I altered it and ran it again. OH GOOD **** I didnt have full reachability. I found the problem pretty quick and it was a case of missing something out as opposed to it being a problem. I had 15 minutes to sort it out and luckily I did because Im sure I would have failed if I didnt catch this. I dont think I have ever typed so loud and fast in my life.

BTW each time I ran a tcl script my heart was in my mouth PLEEEEEASE WORK PLEEEEEEASE. I have been disappointed so many times by tcl output in my preparation.

So the proctor said 5 minutes, save your configs so I did. I also disabled logging as was suggested by someone here recently. I must have written configs 3 times per device in the last few minutes and und all everywhere over and over :) I had 3 notepads open, one for tcls, one for configs which I didnt use as much as I thought and one called END GAME which included final checks, disabling logging etc

Finally it was over. I was confident of passing with an hour to go, but having seen the problem and fixing it I thought have I done enough? I logged off and left the room with a few other candidates, one guy knew he failed TS in the RS but hung around as there was no pressure, he could just learn from the experience, great attitude. I walked with a guy down to the hotel, he had done security, like me it was his 1st attempt. We both agreed it was a great experience. I said I hoped not to be back for this track again though.

Once I got to the airport I refreshed my email every 15 minutes knowing full well I wouldnt know for a few hours at least but sure what else can you think of at that time. I finally got on myplane after 4 hours waiting. Once I arrived in Dublin I connected to wifi as soon as I was in reach, just after getting in to the terminal. I logged in to my mail on my iphone, small screen, there was a mail but who was it from?I was shaking. I zoomed in and it was from Cisco. I clicked it and if I was shaking before I dont know what I was doing now. I was convinced I had failed but I only had eyes for a pass, I knew I had prepared enough to deserve to pass. The page opened VERY slowly. As it's my 1st one I didnt know what I was looking for, the page opened and again it was too small to see, there was a bit of green. What did that mean? I zoomed in as a particularly crescendo-y point was happening in a tune i was listening to. PASS. Certified. 40869. I couldnt believe it, I started crying, ye know those manly tears when your team wins the european cup for the 5th time type of tears, not those toe stubbing tears :D I was so effing happy, I rang my wife straight away, she screamed down the phone. Finally I had done it. I had to recheck, and recheck this morning. the number is still there. I downloaded my logo, its real.

I know people who have passed will know this feeling, you work so hard and so long for something, so, so, so hard and you get that final reward. Its an amazing feeling. I'm already working on what my next one will be.

I just wanted to say thanks to a few people, my wife for putting up with my constant absence and supporting me when things get hard, and they certainly do, the thoughts of giving up when you hit a wall, the thoughts of doubt that I will never be good enough to do this. Next plucena24, dude you have been awesome over the last few months, your support has been amazing so I thank you Pablo, I know you will get the further exclusivity of being dual CCIE when you sit your lab. @kpjungle, not sure if he frequents here but he has given me so much support over the last while too and likewise will own the lab to get his dual CCIE status too. Last but not least Brian McGahan, the guy is just a genius and a nice guy to boot, I know he's not 5 x CCIE but 4 x CCIE and CCDE is ok in my books ;) . Thanks to everyone on IEOC and at INE for making this journey so fun for me and ultimately successful.

Next up Im going to do the Alcatel SRA, CCIE equivalent and similar to the SP but I would think easier. The CCDE is also on the radar so will start reading for that now. Not going to do the RS for now, maybe when 5.0 comes out I'll change my mind.

For everyone still pursing this don't give up, whatever track you are on, if its your first or 7th CCIE keep at it. It's just an exam, admittedly really hard but it can be beaten. Focus and you will succeed. Thanks for reading!

Brian McGahan, CCIE #8593, CCDE #2013::13
About Brian McGahan, CCIE #8593, CCDE #2013::13

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