A Marathon, Not a Sprint
I started as a network engineer in the United Kingdom back in 2007 after a few years’ experience within the IT industry and obtained my CCNP Routing and Switching certification. I initially studied for my CCIE Routing and Switching certification from 2011 to 2013, and passed the written qualifier exam. However, after one lab attempt, I didn’t continue, as my area of focus had changed. The experience made me realise the dedication and sacrifices needed to pass any CCIE exam.
Shortly afterwards, I came across the CCNA Wireless course, which kick-started my passion on something that I thoroughly enjoyed learning. I knew this was the route for me and would be a long-term career commitment. After major consideration, I decided to pursue my passion for learning wireless as a sole focus.
Certifications and Training
I already had seven years of experience and a very good understanding of routing and switching from my initial CCIE studies and, even before that, from obtaining my CCNP in Routing and Switching.
In 2014, I decided to begin the CWNP track, thinking this would be a good start on fundamental wireless knowledge. I studied for about nine months for the CWNA certification and found the official study guide an enjoyable read. To this day, I still reference it from time to time! After I passed the CWNA exam in July 2015, I purchased the CWDP book and spent around seven months studying for this exam, passing it in June 2016.
I purchased materials from a training vendor at around the beginning of 2016 and had to refer solely to their v3.0 blueprint videos until their v3.0 workbook was published and racks updated. The first workbook was available in March 2016, and then five days later I remember studying and doing my daily check on Twitter and I saw that the training vendor had exited the business. I lost a great deal of money from this, but I had to find a new way forward.
Even though it meant further investment of funds on my part, I knew I would have to commit to another training provider. I spoke to my wife about this, and made the decision to purchase the new provider’s training material. I was feeling excited but knew it would take some time for all the material to be provided to the members; therefore, while waiting for the videos to be released, I referred back to the original training vendor’s v3.0 videos and used my lab to test with.
During 2016 and early 2017, I concentrated on attempting to pass the CCIE Wireless written qualification exam, using various types of CCIE Wireless training material, such as videos, practice labs, and mentor sessions. Though I failed on my first attempt, I was close; within the next month, I focused on the weak areas and booked another attempt. That did the trick! I had managed to pass the CCIE Wireless written exam—a good foundation to becoming lab-ready.
Shortly after this, I obtained a new job with CAE Technology Services; happily, my role focused on wireless technologies. My employer supported my training, provided me with study time, and paid for at least two attempts at the CCIE Wireless exam. I was grateful, as this really took the pressure off myself and my family.
As I was home-based, it made sense to build up a home environment to work from when needed. My employer provided me with a Cisco 3750 PoE Switch, Cisco 1142i, Cisco 3502i, Cisco 3702i, and a Cisco 1852i (used for Cisco Mobility Express testing).
I personally invested in a server adequate for POC testing and VMs used in the CCIE Wireless training. I built my lab to match, as much as possible, the workbook topology and core lab technologies, while any other specific testing could be performed on remote rack rentals.
CCIE Wireless v3.1 Announced—Time to Focus
In June 2017, the CCIE program announced an update to CCIE Wireless v3.1, removing converged access altogether. I had not yet gotten to this stage of my studies, since I was still focusing on network infrastructure, and autonomous and centralised technologies. I kept with my initial study plan and focused on everything apart from converged access. I also rebuilt my lab to match the versions for Cisco Identity Services Engine (ISE), Cisco Wireless LAN Controller (WLC), Cisco Prime, and Cisco Autonomous APs, and created new VMs for Cisco Connected Mobile Experiences (CMX) Location and Presence to give me a head start.
I found mentor sessions with the training vendor to be an excellent resource, focusing on new features and technologies. I focused on v3.0 and v3.1 study materials, making sure that I labbed and read the configuration guides in detail about the features covered in the v3.1 blueprint.
From this point on, I put everything into my studies, with the support of my wife and family, since I knew it would be a challenging time spent studying.
My Study Plan
I found that by using Microsoft OneNote and keeping configurations and notes on each main technology area, I could refer to helpful information quickly when under massive time pressure. I also synced the information to my phone for learning and further commitment to memory when out and about. My new strategy was to retest my knowledge on key areas a day after I learnt it, then a few days later, and then a week later, as it kept things in my head.
However, during the six months before my lab date, I tried to push myself too hard, and I experienced serious sleep deprivation. I soon realised this was doing more harm than good, so I changed to studying about three hours every night and made sure I had at least six to seven hours of sleep. But wireless was in my head when I woke up, and continued all day until I fell asleep. The financial investment was already significant; however, I knew I had to push forward for my wife and daughter so that we could get back to normality and be a family again.
In October 2017, my lab payment went through, and there was no turning back. I stayed focussed on my weaker areas and labbed as much as possible, making sure that general configurations like AAA, RADIUS and TACACS on autonomous APs, WLCs, and switches were memorized to the point that I could literally repeat all the configurations to myself line by line.
I was happy with my Cisco Prime knowledge, as I had already carried out multiple installations as part of my work and felt strong in this area. I made sure, for example, that for any tasks in the WLC GUI, I could memorise exactly where things were to help correlate it with the CLI, keeping a task list in my head on how to set up certain technologies. This not only helped me configure the feature correctly but also with troubleshooting technologies for the Diagnostic section and the main Configuration/Troubleshooting section of the lab. I spent a lot of time on Cisco ISE and also invested in the Cisco Press book “Cisco ISE for BYOD and Secure Unified Access—Second Edition.”
Thoughts on Heading into CCIE Wireless v3.1 First Attempt
Time had flown, and my lab date of January 24, 2018, was almost upon me. I had a few concerns in the back of my mind, as I knew from experience how hard these exams are to pass. I made sure that I covered everything in the blueprint and could rattle off any configurations that I needed to do. My weakest area was IPv6, and I tried my best with this leading up to the lab so that it was fresh in my head. I was also nervous about the Diagnostic section as I had not taken anything like this before, and a part of me doubted my ability to troubleshoot quickly. Most of all, I wanted to pass for my family’s sake so that I could show them the love and time that had been missing recently.
Nevertheless, I was realistic that the chances of my passing the new 3.1 version of the CCIE Wireless lab on my first attempt were not high—firstly because I had not tested on this CCIE lab technology before. Also, I had no idea of the layout of the exam, having never seen or experienced it before either.
CCIE Wireless v3.1 First Attempt, Lab Day
Feeling very nervous, I walked to Cisco headquarters from the Hotel NH Brussels Airport and arrived at 7:45 a.m. At 8:15 a.m., the lab started.
The Diagnostic section was first. I had one hour to complete multiple troubleshooting tickets, with multiple questions attached to each one. It was a lot to digest; I had to filter through these, troubleshoot, and find the key information to answer the questions. But by the end of this section, I felt that I had passed, which gave me a good feeling before starting the main Configuration/Troubleshooting section.
The Configuration/Troubleshooting section took me a while to get used to, what with accessing the information and displaying it across the two monitors. When you sit for the lab, time waits for no one, and it is amazing how quickly time goes by. Lunch was at noon, and I used this time to successfully resolve earlier issues. Though I got to the end of the lab, I had to sacrifice verification. I initially sensed that I had failed. I called my wife, and we nursed a glimmer of hope for a pass, but I would not find out for at least three hours.
On my way back to the Brussels Midi train station, I spent my time recollecting everything that I could. I noticed key mistakes (drop-down boxes or tick boxes missed) that would cost me a whole ticket. Not being able to verify my configurations and making silly mistakes under pressure were other concerns. When the email came through on my phone, I logged on and, disappointingly, it read “Failed.”
I reviewed my scores, knowing that I had lost a lot of points due to silly mistakes and not being able to verify. The positive note was that I passed the Diagnostic section. I called my wife, my family, and a good friend and broke the bad news. They were all supportive and told me to keep at it.
CCIE Wireless v3.1 Second Attempt
I rebooked my next attempt on March 2, 2018, focusing on time management strategy so that I could give myself at least one hour to verify on my next attempt. I also concentrated on mistakes I had made so I wouldn’t make them again.
Though I had the flu, I managed to get a train to Brussels a day before the lab and spent most of my time in bed at the hotel studying as much as I could. I woke up the next morning worse for wear, but I had a good breakfast to fuel me for the tough day ahead.
My strategy was to consolidate some tasks and to use Notepad to assist in configurations across multiple devices to save time. The Diagnostic section went well in my opinion, and I was again happy with my attempt with this. Before the main section of the lab, I set myself a target on where I wanted to be by lunchtime. I kept a clear tally of my scores across all questions and used the drawing pad provided to write down things that I needed to refer back to or remove later in the lab.
As I approached lunch, I was exactly where I wanted to be within the lab, and I used my lunch break to strategize on the rest of the configuration. During the second half of the lab, I focused on the main WLAN section within the lab and completed the last few sections with an hour to spare. Within that hour I tried to tackle one ticket that I could not complete. But after 20 minutes, I decided to drop these points and focus on verification. I fixed some key issues and also made sure that I calculated my points, saved configurations, and removed any additional configurations across the devices that may have broken restrictions.
After the lab had ended, I was feeling very positive but not 100 percent sure. I knew that if I got the tickets correct that I was unsure about, I would have a good chance to pass.
I was feeling terrible on my way home due to the flu, and the lab taking up all my energy. Again, at around 8:00 p.m., Brussels time, on my train journey home, the email from Cisco arrived that stated my score sheet was ready. I logged into the portal and it read “PASS!” I called my wife in tears and could hardly speak, so relieved that this journey had come to an end at last, and the weight was finally off my shoulders.
Present and Future Plans
Now that passing the CCIE Wireless has ended, I will carry on with continuous learning; I’m also keen on working on large projects and completing the CWNP track to one day become CWNE certified.
Here is some advice for candidates willing to take the step to becoming CCIE Wireless certified, based upon my own experience:
First of all, try to gain support from family and friends, as this is a long-term investment calling for sacrifices to be made. Your employer should also be made aware, and they may be able to help you alleviate some pressure.
Networking fundamentals are a must, so make sure you are well-versed with your routing and switching skills before attempting this track.
Ideally, working with Cisco wireless and routing and switching is important in your day-to-day job, as experience will accelerate your learning.
Don’t rush: this is a marathon, not a sprint. Learning takes time, so figure out what works best for you. It’s vital to enjoy learning and have a passion for the track you wish to pursue.
Take the CCIE written exam when you are ready. Some like to study for the written part first and then focus solely on the lab afterwards. My recommendation is to take a hybrid approach and study the written topics, as well as labbing them along the way. This will help solidify your knowledge for both taking the written exam and later becoming lab-ready.
I would normally plan for at least two to three lab attempts, so make sure that you can fund this without leaving huge gaps between lab attempts.
Have a study plan and take notes. This helped me refer back to configurations and other information quickly and was something I could use whilst I had spare time to challenge myself on certain scenarios in the blueprint. Do not leave large gaps in studying, as you need to be consistent and frequent with your learning.
I invested in a training provider, as this gave me the resources that I needed for becoming lab-ready, plus offered the ability to ask questions.
I would recommend that you spend time with the following:
Cisco configuration guides
Cisco white papers
Cisco Live session videos and presentations
Cisco Support Community forums
Twitter is also a good resource to engage with the community.
If possible, try to utilise a lab at home or a remote rack rental scheme. You need to be able to spend a lot of time labbing on specific scenarios, breaking and fixing things, running debugs, and making sure that you constantly do this so that it becomes second nature to you.
Remember to sleep. I cannot emphasise this enough. Sleep deprivation will only harm your health and absorption of the information you are trying to learn. Leading up to the lab will require longer sessions, but every day does not need to consist of five to six hours of studying when and if your time is needed elsewhere.
Stay positive, persevere, and never give up. Earning a CCIE certification was never meant to be quick and easy. Obviously, we each have various hurdles such as obtaining a lot of knowledge and accessing it quickly, time management, and nerves, but how you overcome this is unique to each individual.
If you fail at your first or second attempt, learn from these experiences and use the score percentages to gauge where you may have gone wrong or any weak areas. Sometimes we have to fail to succeed, and there is no shame in that.
I was not alone in this journey and I have to say thanks to the following who shared it with me along the way:
- Thanks to God for everything! For without, nothing is possible.
- To my dearest supporting wife and my best friend Georgina and my beautiful daughter Fleur, thank you for your love, support, and patience throughout this journey. I could not have done it without you and I love you both so much.
- Thank you to my mother Fariba and sister Tanya for all your love and support throughout.
- Thank you to my employer CAE Technology Services, in particular Simon Moyes and Quyen Williams, who provided me with so much support on trying to reach my personal goal.
- I also had the support of Will Wetherman (CCIE #25788), who has been a good friend and colleague for 11 years, and is always someone I can lean on for advice or someone to talk techie stuff with. I would like to say a personal thanks to Will for giving up his later evenings and early mornings talking to me/quizzing me about Cisco Wireless blueprint technologies for hours on end. I am forever grateful for his kind friendship and support.
- Thank you to all for the kind messages from the Wireless Community on Twitter.
My last word is good luck to anyone reading this who is dreaming of becoming a CCIE Wireless certification holder. With time, hard work, and perseverance, your dreams can also come true.