A few days ago a friend of mine who had read my previous blog on CCIE (To CCIE or not to CCIE?) asked me to explain how it all looked like 21 years ago when I passed my lab exam. Well...
First about the motivation. At the time (1995) my main "motivation" was a requirement for our company to achieve the Cisco Gold Partner status and I was the missing (4th) CCIE. Apart from that - CCIEs enjoyed a really high status. But due to a lot of enthusiasm in the days more than 20 years ago the status was not necessary reflected in financial benefits, however, the CCIE title was highly respected, we were all proud of it - and there were not many of us. The number I received after having passed the exam successfully was 1556, which meant I was the 532nd CCIE in the world (Cisco started counting at 1024, guess why? - ok, think digitally!)
Secondly. The format of the lab exam was two days with live equipment in the class and the proctor supervising the entire environment. So, there was no automated grading, there was no internet connection, only some documentation (printed and on CDs) was lying on the desk somewhere in the back of the room. No one had time to consult the documentation. The exam consisted of cabling, configuration - and in the afternoon of the second day a troubleshooting session, the most feared one, was the culmination of the exam - and the last act of it. By the way, the lunch on the second day was left untouched (you can feel our nervousness) and I remember some Cisco employees peeking through the door to grab the remains of the food. Well, they got plenty of it and some people even knew the guy who had the biggest appetite - on every exam.
Now to the exam itself. At the start we all attacked a big carton box full of cables. In that era the Ethernet was on twisted pair (UTP, Cat5) and serial connections mainly on EIA/TIA-232 and V.35. When picking the serial cables you had to be very careful for proper DTE/DCE pairs. The devices were mainly Cisco IGS, MGS, AGS, 3000 and 4000 routers as well as some Stratacom ATM/FR switches. Apart from multiprotocol environment (remember, Cisco was marketing its routers as the first and best multiprotocol routers in the world) consisting of IP, Novel IPX, DECnet, OSI and similar protocols the WAN part was serial (HDLC and PPP) connections as well as FR and ATM (the Stratacom acquisition) and ISDN as a backup. The only security mechanisms were PPP authentication and access lists. No firewalls yet.
For the first hour we cabled the devices on our desk (pod), then started configuring devices for the next day and a half. What I learned was that in cabling the most important thing was - just grab some (more) cables and then return back to the box and leave there what you do not need or find what is still missing. At the end there was enough cables, at least in my case. Still, some cables were damaged - but, anyway, I managed to find all I needed. The strategy in configuration was simple: think and "design" the idea - sketch on paper - and then quickly implement the solution. I see that a very important skill (apart from superior technical knowledge) was fast typing, especially for verifications and potential troubleshooting.
Now let`s move to the most tricky part. The troubleshooting! A two hour "ordeal" on the second day. The last part of the exam, very often the decisive one. During the lunch our pods were switched (so we found ourselves in "unknown" environment) and the configuration was apparently broken. I started quite well. I thought I was progressing well, I found several misconfigurations and - yet - nothing was working. The proctor typically checked end-to-end connectivity first, then digging into details. It had been about 10 minutes to go when the proctor was nearing my pod. I was sweating. Pinging. Debugging. Tracerouting. No way, nothing passed through one of my FR links with the router acting as a FR switch. What to do? You know the answer. Reload. The magic command.
In the very moment when my router came back again (it lasted a few minutes) everything was up and running. The proctor just came to check - and was all happy. So I was. Very happy! (For your information, I was working on Cisco IOS 10.3 and it seems there were some problems with deleted FR PVCs then - or with my approach).
So, that was it. A really memorable experience of the exam under enormous pressure for two days. I brought the Cisco Gold Partner status to the company and also achieved something big for myself. I just demonstrated to myself I was able to do it.
When I returned home my wife and my daughter surprised me with a big chocolate cake with CCIE inscribed on it. The good old days!