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CCIE – the king of IT exams
CCIE is said to be honest the hardest exam in IT, with a theory and lab test, lasting more than eight hours together. We asked two graduates what really happens behind the scenes and how they succeeded.
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Where and when did you take the exam?
Bernhard Albler: I took the written exam in 2006 and attempted the lab exam twice in 2008. I finally passed it in June 2008. Both attempts took place in Brussels.

Frantisek Marousek: I failed my first attempt in Brussels as well, in November 2013, and then succeeded in Tokyo in November 2014.

How much does the exam cost? What expenses did you have in addition?
F.M.: I paid 350 euros for the written exam, then 1500 euros +VAT for each lab attempt. Flights to Brussels and to Tokyo cost me respectively 400 euros and 600 euros, and I spent about 100 euros in accommodation. Altogether, preparation materials cost me 2950 euros.

B.A.: If I remember correctly, the lab cost me around 1500 euros at the time. Regarding additional expenses, I used preparation material from IPExpert that in total cost me around 3000 euros. This also included lab vouchers for remote labs.

How and how long did you prepare for the exam?
F.M.: I learned theory for about a year, and did half a year of extensive practical preparation for the lab. I studied only at after work hours and during weekends and holidays. I studied CCNA Voice though self-learning and by teaching of these courses as a lecturer, which was good way to gain lots of knowledge. I also learned from the complete set of INE preparation materials for CCIE Voice, as well as by reading CCIE voice blogs and discussions.

B.A.: I have worked for around three years with Cisco Voice - and it was really just voice and contact centre at this time, none of this fancy UC and cloud stuff you young kids have! I include all the countless working hours I spent on the job preparation time for the exam. I really prepared on the lab exam for around three months, during which I spend a significant amount of time on preparation, mostly mock labs. I still have the voucher codes from the remote lab and according to them I have spent around 150 hours of preparation. I would think I spend around another 100 hours in reading up things for the lab.

On the day of the exam I was so nervous that I couldn’t eat breakfast, so I got hungry during the exam, then nervous, and eventually I panicked. I didn’t even remember for the last 2 hours of the lab in Tokyo, because of my jetlag and lack of sleep.

That sounds straining. How was environment around the exam?
B.A.: Well, the environment was fairly standard I guess. I took the lab in Brussels, so it was a short flight for me. If I remember correctly, I flew in the day before, took the exam and flew back the next day, so it was uneventful. However, I do remember eating a stupidly expensive sandwich at the local Holiday Inn on the first try because I could find no other restaurant still open. For the lab itself I don’t remember a lot of interaction with the other participants, mostly because I think everybody wanted to be left alone in his misery during the lab exam.

F.M.: The exams took place in the outskirts of Brussels and in the centre of Tokyo the second time. In addition to the proctor, there were six people in the room, from Belgium, Netherlands, Germany and some Arabic country the first time. On my second attempt, the people were from Japan, China, and South Korea if I recall correctly. The proctor isn’t allowed to help you with the task, except when you have got technical problem with devices. Speaking among participants is of course forbidden and you are not allowed to reveal anything about the lab exam afterwards. During my first attempt, I was so nervous that I didn’t manage to sleep or to eat before the exam. While on my second attempt, I had time for sleeping, but I didn’t get any rest for three days because of the time difference between Europe and Asia.

What was the structure of the exam procedure?
B.A.: As Frantisek just mentioned, we can’t reveal much about the exam because we signed a non-disclosure agreement.

How did you feel after the exam and what did you do after you finished?
B.A.: When I failed my first attempt, I remember being somewhat upset with myself for not making the right choices during the exam. The second time I was 100% sure to have passed, so I was feeling rather euphoric.

F.M.: I felt exhausted on my way to the airport in Brussels. In Tokyo, I wanted to fall asleep but I simply couldn’t. I took a few days off and after that I continued with preparation, just in case I’d have failed the lab.

When and how did you find out about the results? How did you celebrate?
B.A.: If I remember correctly, I found out one or two days after the exam. Since I was really sure the second time, it was not a big surprise but it was a big relief to actually have the results in hand.

F.M.: For the Brussels exam, I got the results online after coming back to Czech Republic. The second time I got them during the night when trying to fall asleep In Tokyo. I celebrated with my family later on.

How does the certificate influence your career and personal way of working?
F.M.: Thanks to CCIE, I got a dream job abroad, so it had a great impact for my career. On a personal level, I became more experienced because I had to study technologies I had never worked with before.

B.A.: Having a CCIE has been a big door opener for me. With this certification, lots of customers will be willing to give you the benefit of doubt with regard to whether you know your stuff or not. So I think it has influenced my career a lot. I also have to say that I gained a lot professionally from the exam. I had this tendency of doing stuff only at 80% and leaving out the final parts. Doing the CCIE forced me to actually put in a lot of effort to reach 100%, which changed my way of working.
Now that was a serious commitment. And how long did the exams take?
B.A.: I don’t remember how long the written exam took me. I did it the first time around 2006 and was a bit surprised to pass. For the lab exam, the first attempt took me eight hours. I completed the successful one within only four or five hours, I did everything by lunch time.

F.M.: The written exam took me one hour. The lab session took eight hours, in addition to the introduction and lunch break. In Brussels, the introduction was quite quick, while in Tokyo it took about one hour and a half. I also remember that in Tokyo, we foreign candidates were provided forks and knives for the Japanese meal that they served us.

How would you describe the atmosphere at the Lab? On a scale from 1-10, how nervous were you?
F.M.: In the lab were one proctor, two people for doing the voice track and four people for additional tracks. Built-in troubleshooting was included in most of the tasks, which makes everything more difficult, so everyone was nervous, trying to concentrate in silence. I remember that I panicked after several hours, while dealing with a small number of working task. I’d say my nervousness was at 9 on my first attempt, then at 6 on the second one because I knew better what to expect.

B.A.: For the first attempt I, again, really do not remember a lot. The second time, I was pretty relaxed during lunch already, so I was more able to observe the others that time: you could already tell who was doing well and who was not. Lunch was also really strange because we were not allowed to talk about the exam, so there has been lots of staring at 20-euros sandwiches going on there. Personally, on a nervousness scale, the first time I was at 6, at the second attempt I was around 8 or 9 I think. But since it has been seven years, it is really hard for me to say.

CCIE has the reputation to be the most intense and difficult exams in the world. What’s your opinion?

B.A.: It certainly was among the hardest exams, if not THE hardest, that I ever took and definitely the one I spent the most time studying for in my life. To me, the fact that it covers a very broad and complex subject and that you are under time pressure makes it particularly difficult: not only you need to be knowledgeable about the subject, but you need also to be quick and very sure about what you are doing. There is little room for error during the exam because of the time constraints. Because everybody is so psyched about the lab, at some point you start believing the hype. And you get nervous. And you get unsure. This in turn makes people fail the exam. So the circle continues.

F.M.: I agree, for me too it was much more difficult and intense than any other exams that I ever took at university. It was difficult in terms of the technologies used but also very difficult in terms of mental condition: you always had to think about it and be concentrated, and spending all your weekends and holidays at work was challenging, especially with small children.
"Lunch was really strange because we were not allowed to talk about the exam, so there has been lots of staring at 20-euros sandwiches going on there. "
What's your No.1 advice for someone who will take the exam?
B.A.: Relax, really. I think if you prepare it well, this exam is actually doable. My second piece of advice would be to consider the learning time for the exam as a chance to REALLY learn something in depth.

F.M.: Contrary to what legends say, this exam is not that hard. However, you have to spend a lot of time for preparation, in my case 800 hours, and you have to make preparation your No. 1 priority in life. On a practical aspect, I’d advise you to eat only a light meal during the exam, because you’ll need the energy to make your brain work, not in your stomach to process the lunch.
On a side note, brace yourselves: the CCIE certification is valid for two years only, before specific updates are required. If you want to work on interesting projects while you refresh your knowledge, let us know!
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Editorial Team: Bernhard Albler, František Maroušek, Manon Pierre
Fortunately for those who enjoy skyrocketing stress levels, late night cramming and racing against the clock to digest a plethora of technologies, daunting exams don’t end at university. Expert-level IT certifications put you through the same thrill all over again, bearing the promises of high salaries and gold-platted job titles, if you’re willing to put your life on hold for a little while. Spending thousands of euros, too many sleepless nights and numerous months studying their brains out, Frantisek Marousek and Bernhard Albler got the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) certification - a highly coveted badge of honour among network geeks. They recall their experience with this legendary IT certification and its terrifying lab exam for us.
"On my second attempt [in Tokio], I had time for sleeping, but I didn’t get any rest for three days because of the time difference between Europe and Asia."