My first lab experience

Thursday 26th April 2012

All packed and ready to go. I get to Kings Cross station in London at 08:30 as my train for Brussels leaves at 08:57. Not even thinking about the lab at this time to be honest. I make my way through check-in, through passport control and I’m on the Eurostar. My wife and I arrive around midday local time in Brussels. We head off to buy tickets to Diegem (€2.50 one way each) and 10 minutes later are sitting on the train. The journey to Diegem itself takes less than 20 minutes.

Once in Diegem we walk to our hotel (Ibis Brussels Airport) which is about 1.5km from the station. We actually pass Cisco on the way there. Cisco’s campus park is pretty much right next to Diegem Station. Once checked in we decide to take a walk to the Cisco entrance I need to be the next day at 08:00. I time the walk and it takes about 17 minutes to get from door to door so that’s pretty good.

After we’ve checked out where I need to be we decide to take a walk around Diegem itself. Bad idea. There is NOTHING to do in Diegem. It’s simply an area full of business buildings and hotels. There are no shops anywhere. Not only that but the weather is bad. We ended up eventually finding a shop far away from the business park but got caught by the rain and we huddled for cover for over 2 hours without an umbrella. At least this took my mind off the exam :) – In the shop itself I buy a couple of drinks, bottled water, dried fruit and nuts to snack on during the lab.

Once the rain died down a bit we made our way back to the hotel as quick as we could. This was the view from my hotel room itself:


While the hotel’s rooms were pretty cheap, their food was very expensive. A relatively simple dinner for my wife and myself ended up costing over €60.00 – I felt pretty ripped off. We had dinner quite early, around 18:30 and then headed back up to the room. I watched TV a bit and then had a small bit of trouble trying to get to sleep. But thanks to the huge walk we did previously in the day I drifted off to sleep around 23:30

Friday 27th April 2012 – Lab date.

I wake up at 05:30. I’ve set both my own and my wife’s alarm clock because I simply can’t afford to be late. I have a quick shower and we head down for a quick, and very expensive, breakfast. This time they charge me €14.00 per person for the privilege. I do however need food so I pay grudgingly. Once done I say goodbye to my wife and I take the walk down to Cisco. I end up arriving at 07:35. As I arrived 2 other candidates arrive together but I don’t feel like talking to anyone. I stand on the end of the bridge and 2 other guys arrive. The doors are still closed so we are all waiting outside. A Norwegian fellow then arrives and starts talking to me. I forgot his name but he says it’s his second time and he seems pretty happy. We chat until Cisco open the doors.

We all show our identification, asked to sign in and then we receive a paper name badge. We are asked to sit on the sofas in reception until the proctor arrives. I chat to the Norwegian guy again and he gives me some ear plugs which was very nice. Most of the others are sitting in complete silence. 10 minutes later the proctor arrives and tells us to follow him. We take the 2 lifts to the top floor. Just outside the actual lab room we are told the rules and then given out seat numbers. I end up sitting on desk 13. It’s right next to the window which is quite nice.

We are told what time we are to start, what time lunch will be and what time we will all finish. The toilets are right outside the door and there is also a coffee/tea/hot chocolate machine there. I have my water and snacks on my desk.


Just past 08:30am. I have the topology on screen, 10 questions to solve and a clock in the top right that is going down fast. I stick to my strategy though. My strategy is to quickly solve any ticket that has 3 or less routers involved. If I get stuck for longer than 5 minutes on any ticket I move onto the next. I solved ticket 1 in about 3 minutes. The next 5 tickets all contain more than 3 routers so I skip them all. I then solve the last 4 relatively quickly. 1 I went over the 5 minute mark, but I knew I was about to crack it. By the time I got to this section only 22 or so minutes had passed. I then moved back to the 5 I skipped. 2 were very complicated so I skipped those and did the other 3. Because I had a bit of time I gave myself 7 minutes per question tops. I eventually cracked 3 of them and moved finally to the 2 complicated ones. I eventually cracked both of those. By this time I had over 20 minutes left but I used those 20 minutes to re-read and verify all of my answers. By the time I was done with this I had 6 minutes left so I clicked on ‘end section’


Straight away I start the config section. I immediately read through the entire lab to see what I’m in for. Some questions are extremely easy, others are not that difficult, and 4 or 5 I think WTF??!?

I start off with Layer 2 of course and I find it very easy. I then begin with Layer3. I’m about halfway through when we are told to stop as it’s lunch time. Lunch is quite early as it’s just before midday. We are all brought to the front of the class and given a voucher. We are told that we need to keep together at all times. We are allowed to talk to each other, but not about the lab. Downstairs in the cafeteria we can take one main meal, a drink, and a dessert. I take the chicken and chips, coke zero, an orange, and a dessert. I’m last in line so by the time I sit down the first guys are half finished.

I try and make light conversation but most candidates simply aren’t talking. We are not allowed to talk about the lab, but of course the lab is what’s on all our minds. Before I know it we are told lunch is finished and we need to go back upstairs. This was after about 20 minutes. I take my unopened coke and orange back upstairs. We are told that we can start again as soon as we get back to our desks.

I eventually finish off layer3, and I’ve left 2 questions completely unanswered. I move onto section 3, then 4, then eventually 5. I have missed a few questions here and there and went for those that I knew I could get done right and quickly. I then move back to everything I did not answer. Some were extremely tough. I’ve got the DocCD open but it’s not helping too much. I eventually have an answer to all the questions, but a few I’m not sure if it’s correct or not.

Time is ticking though and you’ll be surprised just how fast time flies when you’re there. I plan a full 30 minutes of verification at the end. At 16:30 I then start verifying all my answers thoroughly. It’s a good thing I did as I noticed at least 3 little mistakes which I fixed.

I write down the point values of all questions I am 100% confident that I for the marks for. I then have a second list of points I have for answers I was not 100% sure about. I have 57 points in the ‘guaranteed’ line and about 15 in the so-so line. 6 I know I won’t get. You need 63 to get 80% in the config section so I’m not that happy about it. I attempt to turn those 15 so-so’s into guaranteed, but eventually run out of time. We are told we are going to get our results that night.

Lab is done. I chat to the Norwegian fellow in the lift on the way to the ground floor but I’m so tired I can hardly speak. I said something about verification but that’s about all I can say. I sign out downstairs, say good luck to the 2 candidates behind me and leave the building and walk back to the hotel. By this time I know I’ve passed TS, but the config is hanging in the balance.
I get back to the hotel and take my wife down to the bar. We have a couple of drinks and I tell her the same story as above. I’m checking my mail every 5 minutes but no email. I keep checking till midnight and no result and I eventually fall asleep.

Saturday 28th April to Sunday 29th April 2012

I wake up at 5am and I see an email from Cisco. I log in and see the result :( Passed TS, failed config. I’m pretty damn upset of course. I had a feeling I would fail, but my marks seem even worse than I thought they would be. I don’t know what Cisco is looking for, but certainly not the answers I was giving.

Our train only goes back to London on Sunday night so we ended up going to Paris on Saturday morning until Sunday late morning. The trip was quite nice and I was trying to put the result out of my mind but of course you can’t completely. Sunday we are back in Brussels and we go to the city centre and eat a lot of chocolates and waffles. It was good.

So here I am back at home. Am I upset? Yes I am. Am I defeated? Certainly not. So what’s next? I can’t do the lab again within 30 days but I’m not going to rush it. I’m giving myself a good 2 – 3 months and I’ll do it again. In this 2-3 months I need to work my socks off. Anything I was remotely unsure about I need to be 100% sure about.

Will it make me a better engineer? Of course it will. I’ve now seen where my weaknesses are and need to step up to the plate.

Watch this space :)

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