Steven Allspach, CCIE #46810


*** Back Story ***

My journey started nearly 18 months ago when I had a talk with my wife and we agreed that I would start the quest for a CCIE in Routing and Switching. One never really knows what they are in for when starting down this road to CCIEville. I thought I knew, after all, I had read the book ?Your CCIE Lab Success: The Non-Technical Guide book? as well as various blogs and success stories here on IEOC. I knew what I was getting into?right? You never really know until you experience it.

18 months ago I approached my manager at work and told him I was interested in pursuing my CCIE in RS. Working for a Cisco Gold Partner, it was definitely something that would be beneficial to the company and to me. My manager was on board but said that in order to get the financial buy in (to help pay for Lab training material) I would have to show them that I was serious by first passing my written.

That?s where it all started. At this time, the CCIE was still on version 4 and there were ?rumors? of moving to version 5 but no dates had been announced. I didn?t want to wait for a new version and decided to jump in with both feet to at least get the CCIE written under my belt. After all, how hard could the written be? I had taken and passed all the previous written tests (CCENT, CCNA, CCNP). There is nothing like the CCIE written.

I grabbed a copy of Wendell Odom?s OCG from the Cisco Learning Network and read it cover to cover multiple times. I would search out blogs or free YouTube videos to help supplement my learning. I purchased a few other books as well like the TCP/IP RS volumes 1 and 2 by Jeff Doyle and read the majority of those books. By December of 2013 I thought I was ready.

I can still remember the day clearly. I had my written exam scheduled at the nearest testing center which was 2 hours away. The week before my exam, the town the testing center was in got hit with some really bad ice and the whole place shut down. My exam was cancelled. I didn?t want to wait until after the holidays to take my exam so I scrambled to find a seat at the next closest testing center, which was over 3 hours away. I had my exam rescheduled and I was ready.

The night before, I packed the car for the 3-hour journey. My wife and I typically share vehicles but since I was driving 3 hours one way, we decided to trade. She was working in a town 45 minutes away and when she left in the morning (in the vehicle I normally drive) I forgot to get the keys for her vehicle. I didn?t think anything about it until I was about ready to leave the house and realized I wasn?t going to be able to go anywhere. I frantically called her up and she sped home to give me the keys. I drove like a maniac for 3 hours just barely making my scheduled exam time.

In the end, everything worked out and I was able to pass the written. It was definitely the most challenging written test I had taken up to that point. I remember there seemed to be several ?trivia? style questions that I was not sure I would have ever encountered. I still don?t know if I got those questions right. I must have made some good educated guesses ?

Now that the written was behind me, I got the buy in from my company to help purchase some training material. Of course, who did I look to for CCIE training material? The best in the business of course, INE. My work paid for the CCIE RS bundle that included all the workbooks, videos and rack rental tokens. However, at the time, all that was available was the version 4.5 videos and practice labs.

I think it was early January that Cisco announced CCIE RS v5 would be released in June/July and v4 would be deprecated. I knew there was no way I could become lab ready in just 4 or 5 months not to mention v4 Lab seats filled up almost instantly after the announcement. I was kind of in Limbo. I wasn?t sure how to study or what to focus on.

I knew I didn?t just want to sit around waiting for material, so I closely followed Brian?s Blogs about release dates of their new material. I started straight away watching v4.5 videos taking notes, reviewing notes, all that stuff you do when you are just trying to get a solid foundation of knowledge to build upon. I knew I was in for the long haul and I didn?t want to take any shortcuts. The v4.5 videos were FANTASTIC and I found myself re-watching several of them many times. I would even queue them up on my Laptop so that I could hear Brian?s magical voice while I was driving to and from work. (I only listened to videos I had previously watched while driving. I would not recommend trying to ?watch? videos while driving, but it is amazing how much more you can pick up from the videos by just listening and trying to imagine what Brian is drawing or configuring. It brings a whole new perspective to studying and really maximizes your time!)

My subscription to INE allowed me to attend some of the live recordings for the new v5 material. I tried to catch as many live sessions as possible. My approach was usually to have my INE Lab topology up and running so I could follow along with Brian as he was going through each video. This really helped me stay focused during the videos and didn?t give my mind a chance to wander. I think my retention level of the material was much higher studying in this fashion.

After many weeks/Months of doing INE?s ATC labs I started to realize that I was forgetting little details about technologies that I has previously learned. I would go back to redo an ATC lab and it was almost like doing it all over again. How in the heck was I going to pass this test if I couldn?t remember half the stuff I was studying? That?s when I turned to INE again. I found a wonderful blog on INE by Petr Lapuknov: and this is where my studying really took off. I followed the suggestions in that blog and developed a study plan around the ?Active Reading? with ?Supermemo? techniques. I would recommend reading the blog, but in a nutshell, Supermemo is just a specific reviewing technique spaced at exact intervals for permanently committing knowledge to memory. After 2 months of this I realized I was retaining technologies in my head and could recite them like my ABCs. This was fantastic. I even created my own spreadsheet that would randomly generate a list of INE ATC labs that I would complete every day before starting any new technology.

At this point, I was really gaining momentum on the CCIE Train headed straight to CCIEville. However, I was still finding that I was having difficulties with some of the more in-depth and advanced technologies. I would post on the forms and get help here and there. One day when I was posting on IEOC, I noticed another post asking if anyone would be interested in a small online study group via Google Hangouts. I quickly messaged Chad and went through a little trail to make sure I was committed and active and got in the group. Looking back, joining a study group was probably one of the single most important things I did in preparation for my studies.

The few of us that were in the group didn?t want it to grow too big and become one of those groups where nobody knew anyone. We talked CCIE stuff all day long. We kept each other motivated. If someone was struggling in a technology, we would fire up a WebEx and work through it together. We learned how to teach each other and became more familiar with all the technologies. We were all on a slightly different pace but it gave us a place where we could ?nerd-out? on CCIE stuff no matter what time of day. Half of the time, we were on our mobile phones chatting here and there while at work or wherever. The group kept me on pace and hearing about 3 of the guys getting their CCIE since joining really motivated me to continue. You have probably seen their success stories here on INE. I?m talking about Michael Zsiga, Chad Stambaugh, and Kyle Barnes. Great guys who know their stuff!

I spent nearly every free minute studying CCIE and before I knew it, I was eating CCIE, drinking CCIE, and dreaming CCIE. I was really living it. That?s how I knew I was getting close. I moved on from ATC labs to foundation labs and I was doing pretty well so I decided to hit a Full Scale lab. I was in for a surprise.

Holy Smokes. Those INE full-scale troubleshooting labs were BRUTAL. I was crushed. I was almost thinking I was a failure. I could only solve about 3 tickets in those troubleshooting labs. I began to question myself and how I was preparing. I eventually went to the solution guide and started digging into tickets that I was unable to solve. In do so, I was gaining an even a deeper understanding of the technologies. My advice here is - don?t give up if you get crushed by INE mock TSHOOT labs. Those things are seriously tough and will make you an expert. If you can do those, then the real lab will be a cakewalk - no doubt.

Around November, I was starting to feel pretty confident so I actually locked in my official Lab date for Feb 23. I put my nose to the grindstone and studied as much as a husband with a 2-year-old daughter and a job with a Cisco partner could study. I studied every night from 8pm (after my daughter went to bed) until 12 or 1 am. I would wake up the next day and immediately be thinking about technologies that I had labbed the previous night. It was about this time that I went into full blow Lab prep mode.

I worked out a schedule where I would do a full troubleshooting with review each night Monday through Friday and a Full Scale config (sometimes 2 if I could fit them in) every weekend. I think this is a critical part for any CCIE candidate. You need to practice with a timer and know how long you can afford to spend on a particular topic in Tshoot and in Config. It will be crucial to develop a process that becomes second nature and stick to it.

This is when I started seeing the BIG picture of the mock labs. I started seeing how things worked together and I was able to start doing my config labs in chunks grouping multiple sections together. I didn?t realize it, but this was how I was gaining speed in completing the labs faster and faster. I have always heard ?when you know the technology, then you can focus on speed?. I always thought that meant you would be able to type faster but it doesn?t. It comes from being able to see the BIG picture and group things together like your IGP, MPLS, and BGP and seeing where the potential issues could happen and how this works with that. It just all starts making sense. I can?t really explain it?all I know is that you will know the feeling when you get to that point.

January quickly came and I was sitting right at a month out from my Lab exam. It was actually getting a little harder to study because I was sick of configuring some of the same technologies for the 1000th time. It is fun to configure OSPF the first 100 times with all its nice little nerd knobs here and there, but after a 1000 I thought I was going to throw up if I had to configure it one more time ? I labbed until my fingers bled and then I labbed some more.

Towards the end of January, my company landed a big project with a customer and my manager wanted me to lead it. It was some a large migration from 6500 to Nexus 7Ks . I was excited until he said, ??oh and the only time the customer can do this, is the weekend of 2/20-22?. It just so happened to be the weekend I was supposed to be flying out for my CCIE RS Lab in RTP. My only option was to move my lab date. I didn?t want to move it any farther out so my manager worked with me and gave me the next couple weeks off as I prepared for a Lab on Friday 2/6.

I prepared like a mad man over those last two weeks. I was labbing nearly 12 to 16 hours a day. I was labbing anything I could get my hands on. Luckily, I had my own server that I could fire up 40 + CSR1000v routers on and I just went to town doing all kinds of different stuff.

*** LAB DAY ***

So here we are. If you are still with me, this is where things get really good!

I flew out to RTP on Thursday 2/5 and stayed at the Holiday Inn as recommended on Cisco RTP Lab site. As you can imagine, I was pretty nervous. I didn?t sleep very good Wednesday night before my flight and all day Thursday I felt like I was in a fog or some kind of daze. Even now, writing this 2 days later, I can barely remember Thursday - the day before my lab. It almost seems like it didn?t happen. I can remember getting to the hotel and checking in, taking a little nap and eating at Cracker Barrel. I tried to take a hot shower to relax and I think that helped a little but my mind was going a hundred miles an hour wondering what Friday was going to be like. I scheduled a shuttle for 6:30am from the hotel to the Lab testing center for Friday and then tried to go to bed.

It was a pretty awful night as I think is the experience for most first time candidates. I finally fell asleep around 10:30pm but I kept waking up about every hour either in a panic thinking I had over slept or thinking about some weird corner case technology that I may not know how to configure. I even remember having a couple CCIE related dreams about going to the lab with people who knew my friends who had already passed. It was a very difficult time and I?m not sure how much sleep I actually got but I felt decent when I woke up at 5:30am when my alarm went off and I received my ?wakeup call?.

I actually brought my own breakfast (cup of oatmeal) because I didn?t want to rely on what the hotel was serving. I sat at a table and quietly ate my oatmeal and drank a couple glasses of water. I didn?t really feel like eating but I knew I would need the energy later so I managed to get it down. I also ended up having a banana. I stayed away from coffee because I didn?t want to have ?one of those? moments early on in my lab especially with time constraints on TSHOOT and DIAG.

I rode the shuttle with another CCIE candidate (SP TRACK) in silence all the way to the famous Cisco Building 3. When we got there, it was about 6:45 and freezing. Luckily, there was another candidate already there inside and he let us in. We sat in the little lobby. When I get nervous, I like to start talking so I started some basic conversation with the two other gentlemen there with me. They were receptive and we had a good talk for about 15 minutes. One guy flew all the way from Switzerland to get one of the last SP seats available. He said he failed in December, and because this was the only available seat, he had to pass this time or retake it when it switches versions later this year.

Other candidates started rolling in and before we knew it there were 10 of us in the lobby. Most were somewhat talkative asking what track each of us was there for and if it was our fist time. I was starting to get calm and confident. In my head I was getting focused. Talking was helping calm the nerves. I think if you can, talking is a great way to really shake the nerves off.

OK - now is when it really, really starts to get good if you are still here!

At 7:15 - out popped a lady. She informed us that the normal proctor, David, was on vacation in Puerto Rico and that she would be our proctor for the day. She asked us to get our Drivers License out and she would call our names to come up and get signed in.

I waited patiently as the first person was called and he did his thing, then the next, then the next, and the next, and then there was just me and one other person. She called his name and he went to check in. Then the Proctor said ?OK everyone, follow me and we will get started?. That?s when I started to freak-out. I blurted out ??but you haven?t called my name!? The proctor asked me my name and then said ?You are not on the list, are you sure you are supposed to be here today??

I was shaking and my stomach was in knots. Had I really scheduled the lab for the wrong day in my rush to reschedule for work? Had I booked the wrong travel dates? What had I done?! I panicked and I couldn?t think. The proctor asked me when I scheduled my lab for and I (incorrectly) blurted out ?February 9th?. Everyone in the room almost in unison said, ?Today is February 6th?. I was so freaked out I couldn?t even remember the right date.

I said, ?No. I know I booked the lab for today no matter what the date is?. They asked me if I had received a confirmation e-mail and I said ?yes?, but I was shaking so bad that I could not find the e-mail on my phone. I couldn?t remember if it came to my work e-mail or my personal e-mail or if it got deleted?I just could not find it. Finally, she asked me to check my CCIE portal. There I was, barely able to hold my phone because my hands were shaking so badly. I couldn?t even type on the small iPhone 5 screen. It took me about 5 tries to log in to the Cisco website. All kinds of crazy thoughts were going through my head like ?what have I done?, ?what if I messed up?, and ?what was I going to do?. It is without a doubt the most frazzled and nervous I have ever been.

Finally, I was able to pull up the CCIE portal. However, it was at this time the proctor said for everyone to follow her and that she had to get them started. I first opened my CCIE portal on the right hand side and I saw where it said my Lab exam expired. That freaked me out even more because now I thought I had scheduled it for an earlier date and I completely missed it. I frantically zoomed in and there on the lab date was Feb 6th, 2015, which was that day. So why wasn?t I on the list and what was going on?! It was a very long 15 minutes as I had to wait in the little proctors office and watch all other 9 candidates go in, take their seats, get logged in and start their exams.

The lady came back and they took my ID and called someone at Cisco to figure out what was going on with my lab. Finally, they put the guy on the speakerphone and I could hear him ask for my name. He couldn?t pronounce it right so the guy on the phone asked them to send it to him in Jabber. My heart was pounding in my chest, my stomach wanted to hurl up that oatmeal, my head was filled with crazy thoughts while the guy on the phone look me up in the system.

Finally, I hear the guy say, ?Yeah, he is right here in the system. He is supposed to take his lab today. I don?t know why he isn?t on your list. Let?s get him signed and ready to go?. Oh I was so relieved. Still a nervous wreck, but at least I was going to be able to take my lab. Come to find out later, the normal proctor printed out all the lists of candidates for each day before he left for vacation and I must have re-scheduled my exam AFTER he printed the lists to give the stand-in proctors and so my name wasn?t on that list even though I was supposed to be there. It took about another 15 minutes for them to get all of my paper ready, blank sheets, find a seat, power on the PC, get me logged in, etc.

That was the most agonizing 30 minutes of my life, but finally, I was at a PC and I was ready to begin my lab. The proctor said they would give me 30 minutes extra to make up for all the time I lost getting set up. I was still so nervous with all that had happened I had no idea how I was even going to do the troubleshooting section. I took a few deep breaths, stretched my arms for a minute and just tried to gather myself. I had to tell myself that it was no big deal and to just do what I had been practicing the previous 3 months. I had a plan and all I needed to do was stick to my plan. ?Stick to the plan? is all I kept saying in my head as I clicked the green button that read ?Begin Lab?.

I had a plan that I would read the entire tshoot lab ticket by ticket marking the points of each one on my point tracker piece of paper and make any notes about the first thing that popped in my head about each tickets problem area. I was going to spend no more than 10 minutes reading through the lab and making notes. Then I was going to pick 2 or 3 tickets that appeared to be ?easy? and start with those spending no more than 10 minutes per ticket before moving on whether it was solved or not.

This is where I think the turning point happened. It was at this moment that the lab could have gone one or two ways; really good or really bad. The first ticket I picked to solve ended up being a very quick fix. The issue appeared to be exactly what I thought it was with my first guess. I quickly made a configuration change and executed the ping on the required host and BOOM it completed successfully just like the output of the ticket wanted. SWEET! I solved the first one in less than 2 minutes. I took another deep breath and quickly moved on to the 2nd ?easy one? I had singled out. Again, right where I thought the issue might be. I quickly realized what was wrong, fixed it and verified and had 2 tickets down in about 5 minutes. Now I was starting to calm down a little. Then I got a 3rd ticket in just a few more minutes. That?s when I realized that I could do this. JUST.STAY.FOCUSED.

It?s amazing what just picking and solving a few ?easier? tickets did to help calm my nerves and get me in the mode. I strongly suggest this method. Get some confidence and bank those extra minutes. You are gonna need them. I kept working through tickets and there were 4 that I didn?t solve on my first pass. I picked up a couple more on my second pass and had a 2 pointer and a 4 pointer left. I knew I needed to get at least one of them and the 4 pointer was in one of my stronger areas so I went for that one. I ended up finding a solution to get the required output but worried that it may not have been the answer that Cisco was looking for. I had about 10 minutes left in my original 2 hours to work on the last ticket. I wasn?t able to solve it and I decided to do a quick verification on the ones I think I had solved. After that I was right at the 2:10 minute mark so I clicked end session and headed into Diag.

Diag was well, Diag. Not much I can explain here except be prepared for a lot of reading. Two questions were pretty straightforward when you read all the material and I had a pretty good idea of what to choose as answers. The third ticket was OMG crazy. I am not sure if I got it right or wrong, I just ended up making a best guess.

I went right into CONFIG with about 90 minutes until lunch. I had a goal that I wanted to get through my L2 tasks and into my IGPs before lunch. I opened the lab and just like I did in TSHOOT, I made a point checklist with all the sections, point values, completed check box, and notes making sure to read the entire lab. I then briefly opened each network diagram (They have one for L2, IGP, BGP, VPN, IPV6) trying to get the BIG picture in my head of how the lab was set up and what it was trying to accomplish.

After reading through the lab I looked at my notes and quickly saw areas of tasks that I could group together. I opened notepad and started writing out my config. I was able to finish my L2 tasks in around 30 minutes and I was on to my first section of IGP. Managed to get IGP, BGP, and MPLS up by right as the proctor came in and announced we had 10 minutes until lunch. I did a quick verification of what I had configured and prepped notepad for the next sections I would tackle after lunch.

For lunch they crammed all 10 of us into a little office type room, and fed us something that resembled fried fish filets, tator tots, and coleslaw. None of it tasted all that good and I didn?t have much of an appetite anyway. We all know you don?t go to the lab for the food any way! The proctor tried to help ease the tension by asking who traveled the farthest to come to the exam. The guy from Switzerland won but there were several people there from Canada as well. Lunch was only 20 minutes but it felt like 5. We were back in the lab before I realized it.

Once back in the lab I picked up right were I left off getting basic IGP and BGP connectivity up for each section. That went pretty well but I found myself making silly notepad mistakes over and over that I had not done before in my practice labs. I would copy a section of BGP from one router to use for a different router and would forget to change the router-id or the remote-as or something. Most of the time I caught it right away as the router would start barking. I think the pressure and the time constraints got me out of my element a little bit causing self inflicted errors.

With about 2 hrs left I had pretty much all the core topics complete and everything appeared to have reachability where it needed to be. Was starting to feel pretty good and I caught myself thinking that I just might actually pull this off. However those thoughts made me more nervous cause at the same time I didn?t want to screw it up. My hands started shaking more with each task that I completed.

It was during these last 2 hours that I hit my first real snag. I had a task to configure a technology that should have been very simple and straight forward but I could not get it to work. I wasted over 30 minutes troubleshooting, removing config, replacing the same config, starting services and restarting services. I could not get the desired results and I could not figure out why. Finally I told my self 10 more minutes then I am moving on. The entire task was only worth 3 points and there were not any other tasks dependent on this one. So I finally moved on. In hindsight I should have only spent a total of 10 minutes trying to fix it because it was such a low point value.

With about 30 minutes left I had all but two tasks solved, one was a 3 point task and one was a 1 point task. I decided to use the last 30 minutes for re-verification. In my opinion this was the difference between passing and failing. As I was going back re-verifying tasks and matching output to the Lab workbook I started to find several little mistakes that I had made that would have cost me the points for that task. I had a couple traceroutes that were working but upon closer inspection they didn?t match exactly what was in the lab traceroute. I found the places that needed modifications and made the correct changes. I verified again and all looked good.

I had around 10 minutes left and I was doing verification on DMVPN and it all looked good, Hub was talking to spokes, spokes were talking to spokes, everything had reachability. I decided to just take a peek at the tunnel interfaces and as I was going line by line I realized I had created all the tunnels with the wrong nhrp authentication key. The lab asked for a specific key and I had left one character off. I started to panic. Opened notepad, copy and pasted config, made changes to fix my errors. As I went to paste it back in I accidently pasted the wrong config on the wrong router causing even more problems. This DMVPN was a very critical piece as several other tasks depended on the connectivity. I took a quick second to calm myself, made a few more changes and then finally pasted everything back in. I watched on the hub and tunnels came up, IGPs came up and neighbors formed. Everything looked good. I had enough time for a couple quick pings and a save of the co
nfigs before the Proctor said I had to stop.

So there I was, it was 3:40pm and the lab was over and I was handing the proctor my sheets of scratch paper to be shredded. My head was filled with thoughts, did I do enough to pass, were there more silly mistakes that I didn?t catch that would cost me too many points. I felt good in a way, but was still very scared that I had committed too many silly mistakes that I didn?t get a chance to correct. My mind was racing about things that I could have done differently or what if Cisco wanted it this way or what if I broke some rules I didn?t notice were in place.

Now all that was left to do was wait for the official results. Upon leaving Building 3, the Proctor said we may not get our results until Monday because our proctor was on vacation. I think waiting for the results is more agonizing than waiting to start the lab.

It was a pleasant ride back to hotel on the shuttle as I chatted with the guy from Switzerland. We both were pretty much in the same boat. We both thought we were close but not sure if we were all the way to CCIEville. Since we were both staying at the same hotel we decided to go have dinner and a beer thinking it would be quite a while before we received our results.

I had been told my a couple of friends that took the lab exam recently that they had to wait until at least 2am the next day for their results. I had also heard that if you got your results back very quickly it was more than likely a fail due to it not making it past the grading script.

So I went back to the hotel to relax for a couple hours before going to dinner. I called my wife to let her know I was finished and to give here a little bit of info on how I did. Still didn?t know if I had got enough points to pass. Then had to call my manager and let him know how things went. Then I figured I would just lay on the bed and relax a little and rest a tired and fried brain. I can remember laying there and my iphone dings with the ?new email? sound. My iphone only dings for my work e-mails so I thought I had better check it. It was 5:25pm at this point. I opened up my e-mail and there was an e-mail saying my CCIE score report was ready and to view my results I had to log into the CCIE portal.

My hands started shaking so bad. I thought I had failed. The results came back so fast. It was less than 2 hours since I had ended the exam and I already had my results?!?!?!?! I was sure I failed now, the script must have detected too many mistakes and kicked my lab back with a fail.

I opened my laptop, signed into the CCIE portal with trembling hands, waited as the portal loaded, and then there it was, my results. I didn?t know where to look, I couldn?t see the results. Then finally I saw in the bottom corner, a ?PASS?, but where was my number? Had I really done it? As my eyes are flying all over the page I spot the small lines at the top ?Your CCIE status is Certified (CCIE# 46810)?.

I let out a small scream of Joy. I was trembling all over, my mind was going crazy. ?I did it, I did it, I did it? I kept repeating. I immediately called my wife to give here the good news and to thank her for all that she had done, all that she had sacrificed so that I could study, all the support she had given me during the last 18 months. WE DID IT, TOGETHER WE DID IT. This was OUR CCIE, not mine. I started getting emotional and allowing myself to have a few little ?man tears?. I was so far beyond happy. Besides my daughter being born this was one of the greatest feelings I have ever experienced in my Life.

Even today, its still hard for me to believe this part of the journey is over and I have my digits. I finally made it. I know that the learning does not stop here and that this is just the beginning of a new chapter, but I am so thankful to have finally arrived in CCIEville where my friends Kyle Barnes, Chad Stambaugh, and Michael Zsiga are living. I plan on staying here for a very very long time. We will be here rooting on the rest of the members form our online study group!

Thanks to INE, Brian McGahan, for all of the videos and training material. This journey would not have been possible without all the very detailed videos and through labs. INE really are ?Experts and making you an Expert?!

- Steven Allspach, CCIE #46810 (CCIE Routing & Switching)

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