What's Your Story: Shaun Williams

    “Hard work always pays off.”

    Shaun Williams, CCIE #54495, has demonstrated this principle throughout his career and journey towards a Cisco CCIE Wireless certification. Through dedication, determination, sacrifice, and a commitment to learning, he has shown that it is possible to pass the CCIE Wireless exams upon first attempt.

     

     

     

     


     

     

    Beginning

    Technology has always been part of my life, from playing Nintendo, to tuning the TV for my parents at age 6, and to opening the old VHS machine to remove the transformer and make a “shock machine” as a past time. This fascination with technology spurred me on to ask constantly, “How does this work,” “Why does this do that,” and “Could this be done differently?” As a teenager growing up, I helped all my friends and family with IT-related issues. This was anything from getting dial-up modems to work all the way to building custom PCs and home networks. This came naturally and was something that I really enjoyed, so after high school I was quite clear I wanted to pursue a career in technology. After school, my family didn’t have the means to send me to university to further my studies, and even though I had a couple of years’ experience in IT, I was unable to get a job without certifications. Nevertheless, I was determined to study information technology. I took a full time job in retail in order to fund my self-studies in the evenings and utilized hand-me-down study materials and books. After 2 years of self-study, I achieved various hardware-, software-, and server-related certifications. This finally landed me my first job in IT in 2008. During the next 4 years, I worked in various roles ranging from call center to desktop and server support. These jobs became monotonous and were no longer stimulating, so I needed a new challenge. In 2012, I got a position as a junior network engineer for a small company. This exposed me to the world of wired and wireless networking and opened up a whole new path for my career. I continued my self-studies in the evenings with a focus on networking and security. Two years later, I had completed my Cisco CCNA Routing and Switching, CCNP Routing and Switching, and CCNA Wireless certifications. I was then given the opportunity to join Dimension Data, which is one of the leading global Gold partners for Cisco, as a level 2 network engineer focusing on wireless. This required me to relocate to Cape Town, leaving friends and family behind. The new role exposed me to global-, corporate-, and enterprise-level customers, and I gained experience with some of South Africa’s biggest enterprise wired and wireless networks. This is where I learned the most throughout my career in the shortest period of time. Working alongside many experienced engineers and a long-time best friend, Shannon Cranko, who holds CCIE Wireless himself and mentored me through my entire journey.

     

    CCNP and CCIE written

    Because I was encountering so many different clients’ setups and environments and constantly learning on the job, I began watching some online training videos in the mornings before work and in the evenings. Fitting in a couple hours of study each week wherever I could, I was able to pass 3 of the 4 exams required for CCNP Wireless. In February 2016, I went for the last one, which was Wireless Security, and I FAILED. I was very disappointed. At the time it seemed like I had prepared enough, but thinking about it, I probably had started to rush through everything just to finish and complete the track. At the time, it felt like it was taking too long; however, it was then that I realized this is not a race and there is no benefit to me in not fully committing myself to learning. I took a few weeks’ break to clear my mind, and then I got myself into a steady study pace and made sure not to rush. I eventually passed the last CCNP Wireless exam and completed the CCNP track in April 2016. From there, I moved straight into my CCIE Wireless written exam studies. I felt my CCNP studies had given me a solid foundation for at least 70% of the CCIE Written exam, so I studied the same material to gain even more in-depth understanding, and I read a lot more documentation to fill in the gaps between CCNP and CCIE. I followed this routine for a few months, and after 6 months of studies, I decided I was ready and went for the CCIE Wireless written exam and PASSED. I was extremely happy, but I knew the real work was still to come.

     

    CCIE Prep and LAB

    Before I went full force into my preparation for the CCIE Wireless lab exam, I was warned by many other CCIE’s at the office and from blogs I read online about how intense this next phase would be. I spoke to my girlfriend and explained this to her as well as what was needed for me to achieve CCIE. Having a full-time job and studying for a CCIE would be no easy task. We discussed in detail a one-year plan and the requirements from a commitment and time perspective. It turned out that 24 hours in a day never felt like quite enough. Maintaining a full-time job, relationship, family time, gym, sports, social life, sleep, and studies – it was not possible to juggle everything at the same time.  I needed to make some changes and sacrifices to make more time. I started in the evenings after work watching more online training videos. I had almost 250 various training videos to get through, many of them discussing features and technologies I’d already seen and understood from my CCNP studies, but these videos went into a little more detail. Spending about three hours a day, I read plenty of deployment guides and TAC notes from Cisco’s website as well as forums and posts done by other CCIEs and those studying towards CCIE. Mentoring colleagues at the office and assisting others online also helped me retain information and test my knowledge. Seven months into my studies, I nervously decided to book my lab date – it was all becoming so real. I booked the mobile lab in Johannesburg. I started spending late nights at the office testing, fiddling, and playing with configurations on equipment. I was never at home anymore. At that point, it was crucial I made a plan to take equipment home to practice some of the concepts. I started out very small: a controller, a switch, and one access point. Converged wireless was something I hadn’t really played around with nor setup for any clients and was an area I needed to start working on more. My home lab was slowly growing, and I was able to test and configure almost all I needed to. I ended up borrowing equipment from our other branches, from maintenance stock, from clients, and from my own equipment.

     

     

    The last four months of my studies were the hardest. I worked on equipment every night and continued watching videos, reading documentation, practicing labs, and chatting with CCIE’s online. I discussed my progress with Shannon every day at the office and ran things by him – his advice was an invaluable “tool.” However, I wanted to avoid tunnel vision, so chatting with other engineers and having different people’s ideas, thoughts, and inputs helped me with this. I was spending on average five to six hours a day studying, and even more on weekends. After dinner, I would normally carry on studying till about 3am. Every night, when I went to bed my girlfriend would wake up and ask, “How did it go?” I would respond with, “Went well,” or, “Not so good.” We ended up getting into a full-on conversation at 3am, with her wondering why I carried on during the nights I was struggling. I explained to her that I would never get any rest if I went to bed with an unresolved issue, shortly followed with, “Shhhh, it’s 3am; let’s sleep.” I was beginning to lose a bit of weight, becoming a robot and getting little-to-no sleep with many sleepless nights. I was half-dreaming, half-awake, thinking about wireless and coming up with ideas or solutions when I should be sleeping. My Lab day was coming soon when I received a message from the landlord asking, “Are you doing anything differently? The power usage seems a lot higher than normal.” I laughed and told my girlfriend. She also laughed, as she had to sleep behind two doors every night because our apartment sounded like a data center from all the Cisco kits I was running every night. She called it “the spaceship.” At the last minute, I decided to change my lab location to Brussels to get the full experience traveling overseas and experiencing it how others had described. This change would also give me the opportunity to make use of the mobile lab in Johannesburg should I fail, as there were 30 days’ difference between each possible attempt. But before I went any further, I needed a bit of a break. At that point, I felt really drained, and I couldn’t study anymore. Bringing the lab date closer reduced the amount of study hours I had left, and in any case, I felt I had put in enough already. With days to go, I started my trip. It took 24 hours to get there. I was very confused how the bus system worked, and I struggled a little with the language barrier and had to laugh at myself. It was also funny that I had landed in Brussels during wintertime, and I was wearing shorts and a shirt and couldn’t open my bag till I got to the hotel. It made perfect sense why everyone seemed to be wearing so much clothing. The day of the lab came, and I was so nervous yet so excited. This was everything I had worked for. With all the time and effort I had put in, I felt ready. The lab began. 8 hours is a long time to maintain concentration on any lab or exam and be in top form. The weird thing is the time flew by. Before I knew it, we were done. After having completed the lab, the proctor told us 99% of the time you will get your results within 2 hours. The time limit and pressure of the lab can make it very difficult to focus. On my walk back to the hotel, with no pressure of being in the lab, I started to remember things that were blanks in my lab. I must have looked like a crazy person on the side of the road shaking my head, lifting my arms, and talking to myself. I sat in my hotel room alone refreshing the results page every 5 minutes. I calmed down slightly, watched some TV, and transitioned to refreshing the page every 30 minutes. Two hours had passed long ago, and I eventually left it alone. Finally, after eight hours of waiting, the email arrived. I was too scared to open the link in the message. When I finally clicked the link and the page loaded, my eyes rushed over every word on the entire page for a few seconds, and I couldn’t make out where I should be looking. Eventually I saw it. I had officially PASSED on my first attempt of the CCIE Wireless Lab exam. I didn’t believe it. I refreshed the page many times making sure it didn’t change. The next morning, I took a 24-hour trip back home with a BIG smile on my face the whole way. Weeks after the lab, I was still coming home and going to the room to start studying; I was in such a routine. It took my mind and body sometime to realize everything was over and I could relax again.

     

    After

    I’ve always believed that when ordinary people rise above expectations and seize the opportunity, milestones truly are reached, and this is what my journey has done for me. It goes to show that hard work always pays off. This was the longest, most daunting, and most difficult journey I have ever been on. I said to myself that I would NEVER do this again, but a few days after I passed I thought it wasn’t that bad. The success of achieving CCIE was worth all the time and effort. What I appreciate the most about all this was the way in which I am now able to approach situations and troubleshooting. It has really helped me understand end-to-end problem solving within the wired and wireless space and made things a lot easier. Shortly after achieving CCIE, I was given a promotion, and I am now a senior network engineer still with Dimension Data. This new role has come with more responsibilities and new challenges. I am enjoying my position, having become a valued, respected, and trusted advisor and consultant for all of our customers. It is still hands-on and meant to assist with design and presales. This has been a major career advancement and personal gain for me.

     

    Thanks

    Special thanks to my girlfriend, Lena Schuth, for helping me wherever she could and for being so patient. Thanks to Shannon Cranko for always being there for me, day and night, and assisting me throughout my entire journey. He is a great friend and brilliant mentor.

     

    Advice

    If it was easy, everyone would do it. My advice is meant not to scare people off but to give a realistic idea of what is required. It is possible, but it requires hard work. The hardest part, in a way, is knowing when and if you are ready.

    • Plan financial costs. You will want to factor in study materials, whether it’s online training, videos tutorials, books, or boot camps. There may also be costs for acquiring lab kits, or you can make use of rack rentals. Lab practice is the most important part to achieving CCIE. Additionally, you should plan for two to three lab attempts.
    • Plan your days and weeks to commit towards your studies. Create a study plan and routine. Time is very important. You should not try to “find” time, but rather “make” time.
    • I believe in starting with CCNA, then doing CCNP, and then CCIE. For me, this built my skills over time, as each one builds on top of the other.
    • Maintain a realistic study pace that fits your lifestyle – this should include time off. Don’t commit to the impossible, or you will burn out. Also, try not to take very big gaps between your studies. Otherwise, you will need to re-visit topics you already covered.
    • Communicate with friends, family, and your company so they are all aware of your plans. This also helps with added support from them. You will need to make sacrifices, but it’s not forever, only temporary. The sacrifices are worth the success.
    • Working with the technology and hands-on experience are extremely important. If possible, position yourself in a role that exposes you to these environments. The lab is more than book knowledge; it requires plenty of home and office lab practice and repetition of troubleshooting and configuration.
    • Where you can, work with others with the same goal in mind. Whether it’s a study group, people online, or someone in the office. Think of the old saying, “Two heads are better than one.”
    • If it seems there’s too much and you don’t know where to start to cover all topics, a good place to start is with the CCIE Wireless exam topics on Cisco’s website. Print out each section listing all the topics, check off what you know, and work on topics you are not familiar with.
    • Find something interesting to do for a couple of minutes every day. There are many features on AP’s, controllers, switches, Prime, or ISE that we overlook or never use. Pick one feature a day that you have never used or are not sure what it does, and Google what it is.
    • When going for the lab, don’t spend too much time stuck on something you cannot do. Go after questions you can answer, and if you have time afterwards, go back and troubleshoot issues. Sometimes you cannot move forward as one question relies on the other. In these cases, get it working at a basic level. For example, let’s say a link won’t come up for authentication issues and you cannot get it working. Remove the authentication and make it open. That way you can bring up the link. If it’s not correct, you will lose points but at least you can carry on. Cisco only awards points for working solutions. So instead of losing points in both questions or sections, you can at least earn some points on other questions.
    • Lastly, don’t add configurations or remove configurations if you weren’t asked to, whether it is best practice or not. In my opinion, this is not a lab to test best practices; but rather, it provides a question with a requirement and tests whether or not you can solve it.

     


     

     

    Learn more about the Cisco CCIE Wireless certification.

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    Explore some Cisco CCIE Wireless training videos.