Is it possible to study a PhD, CCIE Data Center with a full time job? Absolutely YES, I have been there and done that. I also went on 5 work related overseas trips and 2-3 weeks on holiday, driven around the country town in Australia.
If someone tells you that they saw a ghost and an alien (at the same time) in midday with 3D glasses while eating their favorite MAC hand burger filled with popcorns, would you believe? This sounds like a fantasy, isn’t it?
You probably have heard many similar tell tails, which is hard to believe. This sounds a little bit unreal that how could anyone do full time work, PhD, study and all these things together, unless had bunch of CPU fitted and have connection with neural networks. Well, in short, I’ll walk you through about my experience and how I managed to do all these things together. I will also be briefing a few tips for CCIE DC candidates.
Those who mistakenly hit this page and are not in IT field, this may be not an interesting post for you.
Be warned this is a long post, grab a cuppa and enjoy the reading. Please feel free to send your feedback or any question that you might have in mind. The purpose of this post is to inspire those who are still in their CCIE DC pursuit as well as those who are thinking of doing it but due to family commitments they unable to manage time.
1. BACKGROUND AND INSPIRATIONS:
I have always loved playing with Linux servers while I worked in an ISP environment. We used to have all Linux servers running qmail/postfix an all other ISP hosting open source software.Quite often I’d automate tasks with cron and bash/python scripts as that time I had so much free time. I consider myself pretty good with Linux/Unix servers. I have never been a fan of windows, even I started my career with MCSE Windows NT 3.5. I just thought windows wasn’t for me and switched to the Linux (since kernel 1x). Anyhow, since I started working with Cisco stuff, then server guys always thought that I was a network guy. Inspired by this feeling that people still thinking that I am not a server guy, my thoughts went about doing Cisco CCIE DC lab exam. Then I thought I will also be seen as a server guy. You know what I am trying to say, most server guys either lack with networking or security skil. I have at least not found anyone with strong server background as well as strong route/switch background. May be they exist for sure!
Way back in 2008-2009, when Cisco first released UCS products and block first came into the market, I was the first in APAC who got a chance to get my hands dirty to build V-Block based first Teleco grade platform in Australia for second largest Teleco. Being the lead engineer on this cloud project I ended up with doing everything. The most fun part was Nexus 1000v, N7k and vCloud director (VCSD, hot code name redwood).
I always get inspired by a new technology and always want to be the first to get my hands dirty!. After this I did handful projects on Nexus based products, a lot of VMware stuff and went to UCS training at Cisco. It was all in way back 2009-2010. Then I got side tracked with doing other CCIEs. In 2013/14 Cisco introduced CCIE DC. I was like that sounds interesting as it has multiple technology (UCS, SAN, Nexus etc.) and thought Yeppee, that will really make me a real server guy (Well at least in others view).
2. PLANNING FIRST ATTEMPT (April 2014):
I then started, planning about the DC track prep. I passed DC written exam in the forth quarter of 2013 but I couldn’t find any seats in Australia. The only seats I saw was in RTP around April last year,I booked the lab seat to enforce me to do a study of this track.
Study Material used:
- Cisco Techtorial – CCIE Datacenter exam
- Rick Mur’s Videos – especially on Storage and UCS were very helpful
- Cisco.com Tech notes,
- Bug scrub on the current lab NX-OS codes
- Cisco internal NXOS/UCS and MDS ppts/tshoot guide (TAC restricted), unfortunately i don’t hold this material anymore
- INE blog – I couldn’t’ find any other proper blog where you can get answers to your queries.
- CiscoLive Presio – they are awesome to get you started
The practice was a challenge as everyone know that to build a DC home lab it cost an arm and a leg. I was working at Cisco back then and managed to do a few full lab sessions on internal labs. They also had an internal CCIE DC mailing list where I found a lot of resources to study. Not to mention, At Cisco I met some very smart guys, I hope one day we can still work together somewhere haha– specially. Seriously, it was amazing to see these smart guys in action – the way they work, interact and analyze any issue was awesome. (You guys know if you read this thread who I am talking about, you nerd! .. John Nield and Hung To). I call them unified engineers as they really go above and beyond normal engineers.
I also used a lot of Cisco PEC labs. Unfortunately, that time there were no online DC racks. Anyway, cut a long story short, I went on my first attempt to the states (RTP). It was a 12 hour flight from Sydney to LA and then from LA to RTP was another 4 hours. When I got at RTP, I was really tired and my exam was the next day.
I was confident (thinking I did the first vBlock based cloud project in AU) and excited to see the lab challenge. I think it’s something that is natural to human beings – the human brain loving rewards. Did you every notice how many time you see your mobile phone screen on a day to check if you got anything there? Why? Well the reason for that is simple, every time when you look at the phone screen and check message your brain gets a reward for that and you keep doing it. The brain love a reward just like a dog. You can teach the dog virtually anything as long as you reward him every time. Even I managed to teach wild Australian Lorikeet how to handshake with me. I got 2 pair (sometimes 4 pairs) of wild Lorikeets coming (two or three time) up in my balcony and one does handshake and other doesn’t. That is how I identify which pair is my regular one and so I can feed them with honey. Oh thinking about Lorikeet, I just bought 5 liters of honey for my wild Lorikeets for my those great backyard buddy!!. Sorry went a bit off topic.
Back to the point, so brain love challenge and rewards. I travel all the way to the states for this exam, probably enforced by my brain to do this. Anyone I told that I am going for exam thought I was mad and most of them did not believe that anyone will go to the states for the computer exam!!
The exam day::
I woke up early, the hotel shuttle bus at Durham airport dropped me to the Cisco exam centre. There was a traffic diversion and I managed just in time to get in the door. Fortunately, the proctor was a little bit late. There were 2 other candidates waiting for the exam. One for CCIE SP and other for DC. This time I couldn’t finish the exam, I ran out of time. When I finished the exam, proctor said pen down, out of here. I felt slightly that we are in the US, better put pen down otherwise the proctor is going to shoot us. Return to the hotel, with little hope to pass.
Around 10 PM, the same day, I got my result and it was “FAIL”. Obviously, thought I did well infrastructure section and storage, but UCS took the show. I was not disappointed, but took it as an experience and now I know where to focus more. The next day I took my flight back to Sydney and told everyone that I failed. They said, you went to the states only for 3 days and failed, a bit shocking or them to believe.
Speed was the culprit and reading questions and understanding the diagram was really time consuming. Anyway, I thought I never passed any CCIE exam so far on the first attempt like another candidate. They must be very smart to pass on first.
I already enrolled for PhD this year (2014) at University and my assignment was due in April, just after my fail lab attempt. Focussed on PhD and got my assignment done. Boys, its tough to do a PhD than CCIE, I tell you right here. I have not done academic writing for ages and had to catch up with it. I actually managed to pick it up quite faster than I thought, probably it was saved in a dead socket that just got shocked and become up live. Then I did about 2 research projects for my PhD delivering 10 assignments (15-20 page) each – e.g. topic selection, literature review, research design, presentation and running experiments to generate data, etc. April to October, my PhD took the show while I was still doing full time job.
At work, being technically all rounder didn’t really help to spare more time for my study as I was often pulled up to fix multiple things that nobody was able to fix. The project had a crazy unrealistic schedule and I had to work on weekend on critical integrations and no break during the week because planning for the next weekend integration/cutovr. I think it took a lot of time out of my study schedule. I almost worked 15 extra weeks in the last year (on top of regular full time standard hours). Furthermore, I still went out with my friends once or twice a week to enjoy, but 2014 was a real busy year for me.
The PhD mid session break came in the first week of Nov 2014, I went to a Lord How Island for some research work to collect some data. I rented a push bike and I could not imagine cycling one end of the island to another within 15 minutes by push bike. I actually had a week break there to refresh myself.
3. PLANNING THE SECOND DC ATTEMPT (April 2015):
I tend to get inspired for new study after the Christmas – New year break. Every year during this time, I focus on two things;
a) What I achieved last year
b) What I am going to achieve this year
Experienced last year’s crazy schedule first hand, I really made up mind, I am not going to study PhD+CCE and full time job. I totally dropped an idea of CCIE but focus on the PhD. Then I took a week off again (As I had plenty of time in liue and went to a country drive. I drive passed all 10-15 beaches between Sydney and Melbourne boarder. I was nearly driving to Melbourne, but then thought I might have to extend my stay which was not possible as work demanded to complete something that week. I had some fun with Meercat at Mogo Zoo (in NSW, a must see, kids will love it) and other animals and visited the beautiful beaches on south coast of NSW that I have never been to.
It really changed my outlook, some fresh idea came in my mind and then I rethink that why can’t I study again for CCIE DC, study PhD in parallel (with full time work). I then managed to convince myself and got into this journey. This time I know there are plenty of rack vendor (INE my choice)! More workbooks. Went on YouTube and there it was Rick Mars a lot of videos to watch. Again, I think this is because our brain love being rewarded and put you in challenging situations.
I enrolled in January at University for the second year in PhD, this time I prepared all the required firs terms PhD related research work in advanced. Finished first in mid Feb while I also studied a little bit here and there for DC. By Jan last week, I was doing 4 hours daily hands on practice. I had UCS simulator and N7K simulator practicing at home and PEC and INE secondary sources.
I started looking for DC dates, but no dates in Sydney, all of a sudden one day I saw dates all of a sudden appeared in Sydney. I just picked up the second week of April, 2015 for my lucky exam day!
Feb to April – I started studying seriously, everyday finishing work at 5pm sharp and then studying either for my PhD or CCIE. Sometime I will do both but this time I had no life. I couldn’t go out with friends and enjoy drinks on the weekend. I also had to travel to interstate for two weeks, which really interfered with both my study and I was unable to use my rack time.. What a shocker!!.
Anyway, last two weeks before the exam, I ask my manager to take Monday and Friday off (I had plenty of Time in L). Then luckily I had an Easter long weekend that helped me to focus on study. This time I
a) I developed my speed on doing tasks that I was slow on.
b) Focused how to troubleshoot
c) Checked blogs, latest tech notes
d) Made note of all events when I was not able to produce lab results, e.g. Fails to bring F port channel Trunking. UCS FCOE VPC won’t come up, FEX not registering, etc. About 150 of them. I will be sharing 20 of them here, which will help you guys
e) I managed to find a study buddy, but he vanished after he passed, just over a week! After he passed he said he has nothing to do with me! What a shocker.
f) Adopted a proper learning method – e.g. Read, observe and repeat methodology that is standard across the academic world.
g) I reused Cisco free PEC labs available to Cisco partners for part-by-part learning scenario
h) Once I learned part-by-part then I need full time full rack e.g. OTV+FP,Infra, Storage , FCOE etc.
i) In a DC rack rental, previous candidate often leaves their practice unresolved. I’d always fix them before I do my rack scenarios.
I continued it just before my lab attempt, In April, I forgot about my PhD related work but jut focused on CCIE stuff. Well, I got 10 days to deliver my PhD project literature review so has started working on it already.
4. THE EXAM DAY – SECOND ATTEMPT (The Lucky day):
I have been practicing all day on weekends, just before the exam. I finished labbing at 11PM and went to bed, woke up at 5:30 and couldn’t sleep afterwards. I woke up had a shower and breakfast. At 7AM my wild Loikeet came on my balcony demanding food – I shook hands with them and ask them to wish me good luck. Hey one of Lorikeet bit my finger as I was slightly late to feed them pure Mudgee honey!. Probably she was not happy with me feeding her grapes.
Got support from my friends wishing me best of luck by text message.
This time I was confidently as I managed to control my speed and accuracy of doing tasks. I was also familiar with the lab topology and was confidence to handle any scenario that might come up in my plate in the lab. I took a train ride to CCIE exam centre, it only took me 30 minutes, had a cuppa and a bottle of water. Took it upstairs, saw there was another candidate was waiting for the exam. Reception lady was very friendly and she told us that sometime proctor arrives a few minutes late. After a few minutes there was another candidate at the reception. One was for R&S and another for Service provider. The SP guy flue from Korea. He left lab just after 4 hours, not sure if he passed.
The proctor finally arrived, he took you to the exam centre after we showed him a photo identity. This time I was calm and I read the whole exam in less than 15 minutes. Made notes like NTP, IP address, UCS FI ports, MDS plots, loopback address, WAN address.
Last time I went task-by-task in chronological order. This time I changed my strategy and I think that finally paid it off.
a) Configured DC1 MDS1 First
b) Configured DC2 MDS1 second
c) Then moved onto N5ks – including fex
d) Then UCS and Nexus 1000v. On 1000v you will not see the VEM. I thought if I forgot this section because of me tripping into other issues,this will make sure have enough points. Remember the UCSs and 1000v Is a great point CoW.
If you got up to these sections right, you know if you are loosing the battle with lab (cancer)or winning.
e) Then DC2 N7Ks – finish everything here, including L2/L3, OTV ACL etc.
f) Then Once you finish DC#2 – most tasks in DC1 or copy and paste of DC#2 – a true notepad job!
g) This time I managed to finish the whole lab within 7 hours. One hour spare to verify the solution.
h) Verification is a key to pass so I made sure I did it as much as I could from the remaining time. As a result, I picked up a few blunder mistakes (assigned wrong loopback address in DC1), UCS port type requirement got wrong and a few others. I picked them up at the last minute.
i) The proctor came up and said you only got 15 minutes left. Then I did another round of final checklist with task written on paper – ticked them how much I scored. I only missed 3 questions that I didn’t know the answer. Tried looking up in the document, but I couldn’t find.
BTW, if you are planning to do an exam in Sydney, you will not regret , the proctor here is a really nice guy and very knowledgeable. He will try to help you , obviously without telling you the solution. I asked him 5-6 questions and he was to the point and excellent in explaining his thoughts on my doubts. Another guy also had the same opinion about him.
I left the exam centre at 5pm and checked my phone while on the way back to home and within I got an email stating – your result is available. I clicked while I was just ordering a beer at the pub with colleagues. Unfortunately, my mobile won’t open Cisco site as it was on GPRS. I have iPhone3 that somehow I don’t want to give up yet, but it was quite frastrauting. I went to a bartender and asked him to give me WIFI code. My drinks were waiting, my friends’ thoughts I was ordering some sprits but little they know what I was after. I nearly chucked my phone into the rubbish bin, but then thought it my 8 year old toy and I should have more patience. Anyway, after connecting to wifi, I managed to open a website and what my eye saw was unbelievable. “PASSED”. I screamed and everyone at the pub thought I was mad. Then my friends explained the why I screamed out. I then kept refreshing the screen, though it may be a mistake again, but I think my brain was inspiring me to do something to get rewards.
My CCIE Journey ends up here, hopefully no more CCIE. I think 4xCCIEs are enough to retire, what a your thoughts? Seriously, after PhD which I will most likely finish in 2017, no more study. It’s going to be a full stop.
5. TIPS FOR CURRENT CCIE DC ASPIRANTS:
a) Read online blogs – you will always learn something that you can’t find on Cisco documents
b) At DC rack rental: Most of the time you will see previous candidate has left his configuration unresolved e.g. not able to bring the San port channel up or VEM not showing up on Nexus1000v. I suggest, when your turn comes up, check it out and try to resolve it. That is exactly what might happen to you in the actual lab.
c) Check what other candidates are practicing on online racks. Take a backup of their config that they left because their time is up and try to find out why they are practicing that. You will get a lot of info re where to focus.
d) Narrow down particular tasks and mindmap it.
e) Use endnotes or similar software to manage your reading list. I personally use endnote.
f) Follow the above order – e.g. do storage first – you will know why I said it
…. I will be publishing a link here to other tips related to MDS, OTV etc.
6. HOW TO MANAGE STUDY TIME:
I am sharing a few ways that could help you to save time for study. Remember, there are only going to be 24 hours in a day unless you go to a marsh and they have 48 hours a day type solar system so we got to get what we can out of these hours. This is just a matter of balancing it out.
a) If you are married, ask your relatives to help you out with kids drop/off, pick up, shopping etc. SS you get more time to study
b) Set up your study pad in your grandpas’ / relative’s home. This will enforce you to concentrate more and regularly on the study
c) After 5PM switch off work and personal work emails and don’t’ try to let your brain overpower you.
d) The sleepless – study found if you sleep 4 hours over a few months and then sleep longer in between makes up for the loss. I had pulled that research article from one of the top ranked journals
e) Ask your manager for Friday of over 2-4 months of the study period. I was lucky my manager approved it.
f) If you are not worried about full time vs part time – get a contract job and only work for 6 months, remaining 3-4 a month you can dedicate to study. Get it done and then get another contract role. I personally don’t care if I am permanently or contractor. These days there is no job security anywhere. If you can’t do a job, then you will be chucked out anyway.
g) At work, try to aim to finish at 4pm. Try to do given work task as quickly as possible so your plate is always empty and you take home no job. Your brain is free to entertain DC stuff
h) Try this – Take 10 minute lunch break and leave office at 4:30pm to escape the peak hour traffic buildup.
i) Try taking Friday or Monday off to stretch your study on weekends.
j) Remember, if you don’t use it you lose it theory – read, observe and report is the key of success.
If you have any other tips and would like to include them here, please feel free to contact me.
What’s next? Nothing, CCIE has been just a brain game for me, personally, it keeps me a challenged. Good food for my brain.
A lot of people asking me why I don’t have R&S under my belt. There is a secret hidden behind that, I’m not the only one who does not have R&S, I also know the genius Mark Snow (also 4xCCIE) also somehow he also have not added R&S to his portfolio.
Well the reason is simple – why go margarine when u have butter 🙂
For those who are unable to get the dates, make sure your brain’s neuron networks are active till the exam date.