It has been 757 days since I last posted an update on my CCIE journey on April 11th 2021.

This journey should have been over quite some time ago. Alas, here I am, CCIE unnumbered, starting to receive the dreaded “12 months until your certifications expire” emails. Yikes!

Time to talk about the gap and what I am doing.

No Lab Date? No motivation.

I started studying for the CCIE Enterprise Infrastructure lab exam around January 2020, “formally” committing to snagging that CCIE number in May 2020. Fast forward to August 2020, and I felt comfortable with most of the blueprint. I broke into the Software Defined Architecture topics by completing Terry Vincent’s Micronics Training SD-WAN Advantage class and passing the ENDSWI v1.0 exam. Shortly after, I polished up on design concepts and completed the ENSLD v1.0 exam. I brushed up on my Python, tackling the network automation topics without issues. Oh. I also went insane and took out a loan to procure a Cisco DNA Center appliance and Catalyst 9ks. That happened.

At the time, studying and labbing was easy. I worked in a 24×7 Operational Technology (“OT”) NOC role, working day and night shifts. The position had a lot of downtime, and I had a supportive supervisor. I also had access to various environments, allowing me to apply what I was learning routinely.

I felt “lab ready” in November 2020 but faced three problems throughout the entirety of 2021:

  1. COVID resulted in Cisco suspending CCIE lab examinations meaning there was no Sydney lab!
  2. Western Australia was extremely strict with interstate travel, and even when permitted, border entry requirements often changed rapidly.
  3. Maintaining a “lab ready” state with no end date in mind was complex, particularly given that I had been promoted and had significantly less downtime in my new role (not bad).

I tried to book the lab exam four times in 2021, and on all four occasions, I had to cancel everything due to sudden changes in Western Australia’s border situation.

Saying that I was pissed off, frustrated, and annoyed is an understatement. Combine this with a significantly high workload and a turbulent personal life, and it’s no surprise that I hit the pause button.

Cert vs. Work

Labbing on Enterprise Infrastructure

2021 was the busiest year in my professional career (until 2023, another story though…!).

During the planned Smelter Campaign Maintenance “mega shutdown”, the team was given one hour in October 2021 to implement an entirely new OT network core layer, reconfigure the Layer 2 domain and bring up a stack of new redundant links to the distribution layer, and perform factory acceptance testing (“FAT”). Think of a “mega shutdown” as an extraordinarily long and complex maintenance window where teams upon teams work in parallel with each other. Everyone must complete their work safely and successfully per scheduled requirements. When I say “teams upon teams”, I refer to several hundreds of people. Therein lies the problem. Mining and processing operations cannot function very well, if at all, without the OT Network. So we had to ensure that FAT passed perfectly before making the final “go/no-go” decision. Achieving rollback within the maintenance window would be impossible beyond this point. In other words. We had to get it right else one of the largest copper mining operations would be catastrophically impacted.

So, we had ten months to prepare for it. It was a herculean effort by all involved. My role within Reliability & Technical was to remediate technical debt that posed critical problems for our cutover window. No outages permitted. I performed a failure analysis across the entire site network, figured out how to decommission a set of legacy chassis switches within a very fragile Layer 2 core without triggering any packet loss (lest I trip the entire site), fixed some odd switching issues within the industrial DCs, validated traffic flows and proposed configuration within the distribution layer, and assisted with developing the FAT plan. All while not being on-site because of COVID travel restrictions in Australia. No pressure, eh? Fortunately, I work with a fantastic group of folks and had a lot of help at my disposal, as well as vendor support expertise to boot! 

Come October 2021; the team was a lean, green fighting machine. We had ground out several practice runs within a full-scale lab environment involving vendors. We introduced chaos to the execution plan to determine how to respond to what could sting us. The day came, we saw, and we conquered. SCM 2021 OT Network Redesign was a success! We had implemented a highly available backbone that converged so quickly that we effectively decoupled the control system’s state from the network’s.

Why tell this story?

I decided to put the books down and step out of the lab environment to study for my CCIE differently. I focused on identifying how to pragmatically apply the knowledge I had acquired by solving complex problems in industrial networking. It was effectively going full circle as I was testing Enterprise Infrastructure. I approached scenarios exactly how I would be within my home lab. Identify and compartmentalise the problem, validate expected behaviour, brainstorm ideas, formulate a test plan within a lab, deploy changes to production, and validate resolution. The only difference between the two environments was change management. One environment required approvals to deploy fixes, while the other did not. Which one was which, you ask? No comment…!

Switchin’ Gears – It Do Be Business Time

I was promoted to Principal Networks in March 2022. I am grateful for the opportunity, but fuck me dead; the jump between Senior to Principal was more significant than anticipated. The biggest difference was that my scope became much broader, and the problems that needed solving were a mixture of business, risk, and technical issues that spanned multiple teams. I had to effectively figure out how to build a networking practice for my operational site, identify whether the network strategy and architectural roadmap were fit-for-purpose, provide accurate input into OPEX overhead spending and cost growth, ensure that required remediation and improvements were captured into the 5-year plan (“5YP”), and define a training and development pathway for our frontline teams. All while juggling BAU work and ensuring I supported project network engineers where required. I was officially accountable for the OT network.

I needed to step back from just focusing on solving technical problems within the wired network. I learnt how to problem-solve architecture issues with TOGAF 10; developed routines with partners & suppliers – including performance benchmarking and cost-optimising contracts; uplifted my IT service management capabilities by completing every ITIL course and chipping away at DevOps Institute course; took an introductory finance course, detailed what was required to close gaps in value streams and processes; built a training and assessment program for networking resources that would take a newbie from Zero to Hero; dove deep into topics on multi-cloud networking, load balancing and security; and identified how applying automation to the OT network will quantitatively decrease risk.

Getting across such a broad scope within a year was a difficult but enriching challenge. The biggest challenges were learning to ask for help, letting go and delegating work away from myself. The day-to-day chaos associated with my role has decreased significantly since I finally solved these problems. It is refreshing knowing that I am in “implementation mode” until December 2024.

Rebirth

The CCIE lab exam is back on the cards now that my personal and professional life has collectively taken a chill pill.

I am approaching things differently this time. I will opt for small and consistent sessions rather than intense study sprints. The study sprints were utterly unsustainable. To enable this, I have redesigned my home network to permit secure remote access to the lab environment while travelling for work. Combine this with automating the lab workflow, and I think I’ll be more productive. I have documented the entire process and will detail how to approach building a CCIE EI lab in cost-effective and ineffective (lol) ways. Word of advice – don’t be sleeping on the DevNet Sandbox CML2 instances.

I am targeting CCIE EI v1.1 revision which goes live September 23rd 2023. I am comfortable disclosing that I will book an attempt between December 2023 and January 2024. I have a number of critical projects to focus on delivering between now and July, so it will be a slow ramp-up until those are completed. On the bright side, these projects require working with a number of routing protocols and tools. After that though? Full steam ahead!

That’s enough from me. Stay tuned!