The Expert's Mindset Part 1

So you’re getting ready to jump in the CCIE R&S v5.0 journey?

If you’re starting the journey to earn your CCIE number, there’s a good chance that you might feel a bit intimidated just by looking at the size of the current list of exam topics (previously known as exam blueprints), right? And even more if you do not currently use most of these technologies in your daily job.

The recent changes to CCIE R&S v5.0 exam topics may appear to have considerably increased the size of the list. And, on top of that, add bigger network topologies and a whole new third module to the lab exam! I can understand that overall, this new R&S v5.0 exam might seem more difficult to new candidates as compared to previous versions with apparently fewer topics, fewer devices per topology and fewer exam modules. Well, of course trying to define “difficulty” is a whole discussion in itself – maybe for another post?


In this article, let’s focus on the early steps of starting the journey to earn your CCIE number. If you have a few years of work experience with networking gear and technology (hopefully, with routers and switches), and have recently decided that adding a CCIE number to your resume could help differentiate you from others in the marketplace and eventually advance your career, then this post (and the second part) might help you validate your expectations and initial strategies. What exactly are you stepping into? Why do you want to do it? How should you get started?


And, if you are already well advanced in your studies, this article might reinforce some important considerations.

There is a good chance that you are already familiar with the Cisco Career Certifications program (CCNA, CCNP, CCIE, etc.) and some quick online searches for CCIE training products will quickly uncover countless sources of technical training content from many vendors. This huge offer of learning products comes in any format, including book-based, web-based, self-paced, instructor-led, including rack rental, graded assessment lab, etc. Keep in mind that the Cisco Expert-Level Training for CCIE Routing and Switching is the only authorized training program to develop the Expert-level networking skills that are required for Cisco CCIE certification. This blended learning program combines live instruction, self-paced training modules, hands-on practice, and peer interaction to develop network experts.

So let’s do something original and take a closer look at some nontechnical aspects that are most likely of great interest to any candidate who is actively studying for the CCIE R&S v5.0 exams.


Just like when starting to prepare for a driver’s license, you will want to know what exactly is being validated, how it is being tested and how to prepare for it – and, most likely, you’ll want to know this before making your decision whether to pursue the license.


How to eat an elephant?

Candidates will likely have to explain to their husbands and wives what’s ahead. About why they’re going to pretty much disappear from the landscape during weeks and spend some serious dollars on exam fees and collateral!

Are you really fully aware of the requirements, implications and consequences of stepping into the CCIE journey? Are you ready to commit to the work ahead?

Regardless of your current work experience or certifications’ credentials, passing any Expert-level lab exam is certainly a challenging goal.

Himawan Nugroho, three-time CCIE (as well as CCDE) certification holder, legendary entrepreneur, and blogger (, has been one of my co-speakers at Cisco Live and usually covers the exam preparation section of the presentation, in addition to other items. Of course, with three CCIE certifications and a CCDE certification, you can imagine that he has quite a bit of experience in taking Expert-Level lab exams. He shares his approach to preparing and studying for the lab exams with this short yet powerful metaphor: “How to eat an elephant?”

With all respect to elephants… the “level of effort” to accomplish the task is huge!   Looking at the size of the exam topics list, you will realize how many topics you will need to study in depth. If you were ready for CCIE R&S v4.0 lab exam, you might just need to adjust to a few new topics and forget some older topics and consider the new non-technical exam-centric rules.


Are you up for it? Let’s set some expectations.

Do you remember taking your driver’s license exam? It probably had two separate tests – first a written exam (theoretical, multiple-choice) and then a practical driving test. If your driving test was very different, then let’s imagine something like that. When starting the test, did you need to know the exam rules? Were you excited and stressed at the same time? Even before passing the practical test, did you feel that confidence that you already knew how to drive well?

It probably goes without saying that feeling confident with both the technical content of the exam and with the exam-centric rules is crucial when taking the exam. You can’t pass a driving test without having any driving skills. At a bare minimum, a successful test taker – a minimally qualified candidate – is able to perform a set of tasks as described by the test’s design and requirement documents.

Stepping into the CCIE journey means to pursue an accreditation or certification that has a similar test structure as the driver’s license test, but with very different stakes, formats and requirements. The sheer volume and depth of technical knowledge certainly requires a very substantial study for most candidates. In the vast majority of cases, preparing for the exam is not a choice, it’s a requirement. Even the very few candidates who don’t need to prepare that much in terms of the technical content will still need to understand the exam’s rules and should plan a corresponding strategy, hopefully consciously…


Studying? Yeah, I’m not afraid of the work!

Just like for any project, it is valuable to spend some time planning the activities and evaluating resources, costs and risks. Unfortunately, there are no magic rules about how long it takes to prepare for the CCIE exams. It all depends on background, skills, training, test conditions, etc. And remember, there’s more to being a successful test taker than technical knowledge! There are a number of nontechnical exam-centric design attributes that a candidate should take into account when planning its test strategy and formulating study plans. Examples of these attributes include the intended use of the test scores, the overall scoring and timing rules; the visibility of test items when starting the test and the item’s point value or the test guidelines, constraints and validation tests.

The bottom line: some candidates with very deep technical knowledge still fail the exam. In many cases, it’s either due to poor time management or lack of attention to the details, or both. This is unfortunate, but again, being a performance test, the lab exam includes performance metrics such as quantity of work (amount of tasks), time (duration required to complete the work), and resources (level of effort) in the assessment logic, in addition to the technical content. Keeping these nontechnical aspects in mind from the very beginning of your studies will greatly help down the road. So, expect to learn and practice many technical topics, but also practice to reach the performance level of the exam.

Expert-level, what does it mean?

While studying, you’ll soon ask yourself how deeply you should learn each topic. And that raises the question of what exactly is an “expert”? Is it someone who knows all the bits and bytes of every technology and all the packet types of each protocol? It certainly is someone who “knows their stuff” and can “do things better than someone else.” But what exactly is the differentiator between experts and non-experts?


There are many ways to answer the question, and a popular one is claiming that an expert will find a solution to pretty much any problem – especially when not readily knowing the answer. And an expert will either find it using troubleshooting techniques, using the documentation, or talking to someone who can help. Of course, in order to resolve issues, an expert must “know how it works when it’s not broken.” An expert knows multiple ways to achieve the same goal and performs faster and more accurately as compared to a non-expert. As discussed in my previous blog post, the differentiator in our CCIE context is the troubleshooting skills (including diagnostic skills). But this is not saying that the configuration module of the CCIE lab exam is not assessing Expert-Level skills as well! All three modules assess a different set of skills expected of Expert-level network engineers.


My next blog post, “The Expert’s Mindset – Part 2,” will discuss how to spring into action. You can subscribe to this blog in the right under Actions once you are logged in: “Receive email notifications.”

Until next time …