The Expert's Mindset Part 2

In my last post, we began to explore some things to consider when starting to pursue the CCIE R&S certification. In summary, Part 1 discussed the large volume of exam curriculum topics and the associated challenges to effectively prepare for them at the required performance level – the expert-level – while taking into account the exam-centric rules.


Here in Part 2, I will share some thoughts about the mindset of successful candidates when preparing for the exam. The intent of this article is to discuss high-level recommendations that could apply to any candidate – rather than provide a list of specific preparation advice. I'd suggest that that kind of specific advice be discussed in the forums. Please share your feedback in the comments below.



Know what you don't know!

In my Cisco Live presentations, I’d usually repeat this short quote throughout the eight-hour technical seminar session, “Know what you don’t know”. The reason I did is simply: it greatly helped drive my own CCIE studies back in 2006 – 2008! I don’t know where it came from, but surely not originally from me.


If you’re pursuing any CCIE, you likely have some technical background and already understand some topics inside and out, requiring very little study. Referring to the chart below, on day 1 (when starting to study), the “what you know” green bucket already represents a small portion of the overall exam curriculum. There will also be some topics that you've heard of and you will have a rough idea how much you will need to study. This is represented with the red “What you know that you don’t know” bucket. And finally, there will likely be other topics that you have never heard of and have no idea of how much study will be required. This is the “what you don’t know you don’t know” blue bucket and covers the remainder of the curriculum.




Of course, the objective of studying and preparing for any exam is to maximize the green portion and to minimize the blue and red ones as much as possible. Should you target knowing 100% of the curriculum and see it all green on the D-day? Well yes of course, you should be willing to learn as much as possible and read all you can from as many different sources as possible on any topic that might appear on the exam! But is this realistic to expect of a minimally qualified candidate? To acquire 100% knowledge of all exam topics? Most likely not! Besides, do you really expect an expert to know all bits and bytes of all protocols by heart, off the top of his/her head? Obviously not! In order to pass, you must achieve an overall passing score – so it is not necessary to ace it with 100% on all topics.


As was discussed in Part 1, an expert is not expected to know everything, but instead be able to efficiently implement solutions and quickly resolve issues using available resources. So it is perfectly fine to still see some blue and red portions in the above chart for a minimally qualified candidate on the exam’s D-day.


This is an important consideration when building your study plan and trying to quantify your study effort. You will first need to evaluate your current knowledge and try to identify these three buckets. This can usually be accomplished by simply flagging or placing each topic into one of the three buckets described above.


When studying, keep your attention on the topics that were marked for the red bucket (those topics that “you know you don’t know”). Your first learning objective should be to turn them into green as soon as possible, into the ‘what you know’ bucket. And as you move forward in your studies, topics that you had knew nothing about will naturally emerge and they will gradually move up in the other two buckets.


This self-assessment exercise, if done honestly and regularly, identifies areas of strengths and weaknesses and should evolve over time. Keeping it up to date will help you visualize the progress and see the results of your outstanding efforts.


Meet your new best friend: Cisco documentation!

While the CCIE R&S Exam Topics list is now more detailed and more structured than ever, it is not meant to be an exhaustive list and some topics not explicitly listed may still appear on the exam.


Furthermore, while working out your study plan, you will likely discover that there are countless protocol features, details or options that can be studied in greater detail as compared to what is covered in any training courseware.


Given all that, how deeply should you study each topic?


One critical thing to know when answering this question is this: Cisco documentation is available during the test as a source of ready information! Candidates can – and even should – rely on public documentation during the exam, though it is restricted to Cisco documentation. Candidates should not rely on it for all exam tasks because time is limited. But for tasks that require some unusual option or configuration alternative, candidates should know where to quickly find the information in a reliable document.


Studying and preparing using the documentation that is available to you during the exam is certainly one of the secrets to a successful exam. In this way you will build confidence for being able to find supporting documents quickly and feel ready to navigate the unknown, both during the exam and in your daily job.


Below are some links to Cisco documentation that is available from the candidate’s workstation during the lab exam:


Study plan? What’s that?

While building your study plan, you may want to add and track the following two metrics in order to maintain a structured study approach.


The first one is an indicator that prioritizes each topic on a scale of relative importance. While the new weighting factors for the exam topics list are helpful at the domain level, you will still need to make a plan for the sub-domain and task levels using your best judgment as they are not publicly disclosed.


The second metric describes the knowledge “depth” (or “cognitive level”) that you plan to reach when studying each topic. The action verb in the task level of the exam topics list is something that might help you here. For example, “describe” is likely a lower cognitive level as compared to “troubleshoot”. But again, you will have to make the decision on the depth level for each task.


Once you have a prioritized list of topics, you may want to decide whether to study items horizontally or vertically, i.e. learn multiple topics in a sub-domain at the same knowledge depth before going deeper - or learn each topic independently to the expected depth.


In either case, you might start by learning topics in a passive way by listening to or watching instructors. But rest assured that for most topics, you will need to actively learn by reading, researching, investigating, correlating multiple sources of documentation and have the objective of being able to implement, argue, question and verify any component of any topic (relying on Cisco documentation!).


Working with others throughout the process is also a good idea as it is a great way to efficiently do your self-assessment and figure out what you are doing correctly, incorrectly or just differently. In the process of helping and being helped, you’ll get the added benefit of learning from other peoples' experiences.


Practice, practice, practice!

Regardless of your training’s courseware and approach, once you feel comfortable with each topic individually, you will need to become very familiar with implementing and troubleshooting relevant solutions that combine multiple interdependent topics together in a single network topology.

At this point, the objective should be to improve your speed and accuracy when implementing and troubleshooting any topic. The only way to speed these up is to practice, practice and practice again! This is somehow similar to learning how to play a musical instrument. First learn the notes and chords individually, then mix it all up and practice, practice, practice and practice again until it flows as naturally as if it were an innate skillset!


Try and compare multiple configuration options, be aware of and understand best practices, experience common mistakes and symptoms and be proficient with the troubleshooting tools and techniques that are available within Cisco IOS Software or within your workstation. Do not limit your exploration to what the training courseware has prepared for you. Ask yourself “what if?” What if the spanning-tree mode was different? What if the IGP was OSPF or EIGRP? What if the PE-CE protocol was OSPF or BGP? What if this remote site had two redundant Internet links with one or two gateways? What if I tune the BGP MED instead of prepending AS? What if an administrative rule prohibited certain optimal traffic paths? What if both PE’s had the same router-id? And so on!


Try exploring design and best practices documents and deviate from them in order to observe common issues and then apply the recommended solution. And especially watch out for making small mistakes like typos or missing a copy-and-paste step. If possible, use some sort of scripting or reliable verification method that can automatically catch these minor issues. Remember that “attention to the details” and “time management” are the two most vicious, implicit metrics of the lab exam!


Which study material?

As discussed in Part 1 of this blog post, there are many options in the market for CCIE-level training. Most vendors are very experienced and offer great products for different learning preferences. Whether you like actively reading and doing things at your own pace or passively watching and listening to an instructor’s lectures, there are many options from which to choose. Maybe, using a combination of multiple sources and styles is the safest investment, but likely not the cheapest. Do keep in mind that there are many free options as well, such as public free websites (IETF, Wikipedia, etc), videos, tutorials, cheat sheets, blogs, forums, podcasts, and so on.


And you will definitely need to practice on some Cisco gear – routers and switches. So be sure to sort out the “logistics” around the practice lab equipment that you will use: i.e. personal or rented, local or remote, hardware or virtual.


Although I’m sure that you can figure out the best solution for you, I’d recommend taking a look at the Cisco Learning Labs, as they feature the exact same delivery infrastructure, engine and web-interface that is used in the actual lab exam. Though currently, their courseware is geared towards CCNA and CCNP, nothing prevents you from deviating from it and doing something completely different with the virtual devices.


Though not available today, a new product called “CCIE Lab Builder” will soon supplement the Cisco Learning Labs by allowing users to build their own network topologies from scratch, using up to twenty IOS devices (virtual routers and/or switches, running latest Cisco IOS Software releases), fire up the virtual devices on Cisco cloud, access their console via telnet and import/export topologies. All logistics around the devices and topologies maintenance is taken care of for you and all you’ll need to do is to focus on your studies!


I’m very excited about this new product, though the pricing and timelines are not yet known. As I see it, it’s like the Holy Grail for CCIE R&S students because it is a very flexible, powerful, official and supported tool that enables anyone to spin almost any network topologies and play with them instantly, without having to touch anything related to the wiring or logistics around the hardware. Last but not least, this tool features the exact same infrastructure (virtual devices, IOL and L2-IOL) and web-interface as the ones used in the actual lab exam, which is certainly a benefit. That being said, this “CCIE Lab Builder” is in no way a requirement to effectively prepare for the exam. Using hardware gear is certainly appropriate as well. If you have previously invested in a set of hardware equipment to prepare for the CCIE R&S v4.0 lab exam, then all that equipment is still relevant. The minimal upgrade would be to include a few additional devices that are capable of running Cisco IOS Software Release 15.0(1)SE or 15.3M&T.


Do you still want to do it? Are you sure?

By now, you should have some reasonable expectations of what it really takes to start preparing for an Expert-level lab exam. There will be months where you’ll spend all your free time building and playing with network topologies and configuring thousands of lines in terminals. Your fingers will know the Cisco IOS parser by heart, and you will play on the keyboard as if it were a piano. You will be able to rapidly anticipate any potential problem and find appropriate solutions or recommend next steps.


The CCIE R&S v5.0 certification is certainly not aligned to all networking professional roles. It is, of course, in your interest to make an informed decision at the start as to whether you should pursue it or not.


And there is a good chance that some very legitimate troublemaker will show up along the way and force you to defer or pause your studies. As three-time CCIE (as well as CCDE) certification holder Himawan Nugroho has indicated in presentations at Cisco Live, "The only thing that will keep you going in these difficult times is the personal and honest answer to the question: Why do I want to pursue CCIE?” There are no good or bad reasons, only true or false answers to oneself. Only the true answers are powerful enough engines to last long enough to pass the exam.


Though passing is certainly an outcome of an important personal and professional project, earning your CCIE number is by no means the end. It’s only a step in a larger, life-long learning journey. The more effort and energy you invest in legitimate and valid preparation, the more value and recognition you will get from it throughout your career!


In the next article, we’ll take a closer look into these exam-centric rules and related strategies to approach the lab exam.


Again, please do not hesitate to share your feedback in the comments below.

Thanks for your time!



For your reference, here is a list of some valuable Cisco resources that can be helpful when preparing and studying for CCIE R&S certification:



Other resources on

Cisco forums and wiki:

Cisco Tools: