It’s official: as of November 2019, I am now JNCIE-SP #2981. And I have the socks to prove it.
It’s an honour and a privilege to be able to say I’m Juniper expert-certified, but nothing prepares you for the award ceremony – which, of course, takes place at Buckingham Palace. You knew that, right? The Queen makes a bit of extra pocket money by hiring it out for JNCIE award ceremonies, such is her belief in vendor certification. Prince Charles made history in 1985 when he passed the JNCIA-Security, and she’s supported the program ever since. “I just love configuring IP protocols on the CLI”, The Queen said.
During the ceremony the palace is packed with an audience of over 500 nerds from all around the internet – and the event itself is famously run by none other than Beyonce, who bestows upon the new JNCIEs the coveted “Crown of Packets”, made out of purest gold, with 25 rare emeralds expertly sticky-taped to the outside. Also, after the award ceremony the Queen lets us have ice cream! It’s truly a day to remember. Such a shame then that we’re all given memory-wiping gas as we leave. That’s why no JNCIE will ever be able to tell you that it happened. But believe me: it happened. And it will never stop happening.
Anyway, forget I said any of that. In this post I’ll be sharing my personal JNCIE experience: study tips and exam prep, the cost of the exam, and of course the big event itself.
In a way, my exam experience on the day was VERY out of the ordinary. But, there’s every chance that in the future you will have exactly the same experience as me. What on earth do I mean by that? You’ll find out in a moment. But first, let’s talk about whether expert-level vendor exams are even relevant in the modern world of networking.
WOW, THIS POST IS LONG. WHY IS IT SO LONG, CHRIS?
Because when I was studying for JNCIE, I LOVED reading people’s thoughts and experiences after the exam. Most people will skim this post or not read it at all. But for the JNCIEs in training, they’ll soak up every word. So, for soon-to-be-JNCIEs out there: this one’s especially for you.
WHY DID I TAKE THIS EXAM?
The short answer: because Junos is my favourite networking operating system, and because the syllabus is directly relevant not only to the job I have now, but to the next steps I want to take in my career. Junos is an OS I’m passionate about, and although the studying was tough, it was rarely a chore. Learning the protocols in that much detail was a fascinating journey, and I will never stop believing that the internet is literal magic.
AM I CURRENTLY THE HAPPIEST MAN ON THE INTERNET?
I’m SO HAPPY. Oh my GOODNESS am I happy. When I started my career I was aware that JNCIEs and CCIEs existed, but it always seemed like something that happened to other people. In my mind I was certain that something like this would never happen to me.
I remember the day the email came in with my JNCIE-SP badge. I was tired, still jet-lagged, I was in a different country, and everything already seemed alien and bizarre. So the idea that I, an idiot, could pass something so complicated, was unbelievable in the truest sense. It was during the plane ride back home that it started to sink in – and it was only as I told the news to colleagues in work that the smile started to really creep up on my face. It’s a fortnight later, and the smile has yet to go away.
IS THE SYLLABUS RELEVANT TO THE ISP INDUSTRY TODAY?
In my opinion, yes.
The JNCIE-SP covers a ton of stuff that network engineers in the ISP sector need to know inside-out. BGP, MPLS, VPNs, quality of service: these are all things I use daily, and want to use in even more detail as I move forward in my career.
The only thing on the syllabus I don’t use daily is multicast, but it’s still used globally by many big ISPs. I very much hope to get hands-on with it in the real world one day. Thanks to this exam, it won’t take me very long at all to hit the ground running if I’m ever lucky enough to encounter it in the wild.
Now, it’s true that there’s a fair amount of stuff missing from the syllabus, which ISP engineers use on the daily. When you’re operating at such a senior level you also need at least one scripting language (cough Python cough), you need Linux, you need BNG knowledge, you need cloud knowledge, etc etc. The list could go on for a very long time.
I’d say two things to that. First of all, let’s be under no illusions that the kind of people who know all of those things – and you and I both know that there really are senior engineers who know ALL of these things and more, to an absurdly high level of detail – these people are the true elite of the industry. The titans. They have amazing minds. But they do not represent the *average* engineer. Of course they don’t: that’s why they’re the best.
I’m not like them. In fact, chances are I’m more like you: I can only successfully master one or two things at a time. The more things I learn at once, the more all those things are diluted.
With that in mind, the second point that I’d make in regards to the relevance of the syllabus is that for me personally, the JNCIE-SP syllabus was perfect. It covered certain topics in extreme detail, and the number of total topics was just large enough to make you feel like your studies are a monumental task, to make your breath short and to crank the pressure up high, without feeling like was an impossible task.
I like the fact that Juniper has separate Data Centre tracks for EVPN; I like that they have a DevOps track; I LOVE the work they’re doing under the NRE umbrella to teach the community automation. If all of that was in one exam, I’d have found it overwhelming, and I wouldn’t have known where to focus. By contrast, this syllabus was just detailed enough that I had to keep a LOT of plates spinning at once, without being literally impossible to stay on top of.
IS IT WORTH DOING A JNCIE / CCIE IN 2019 AND BEYOND?
I’ve heard a fair number of engineers say that the answer to this question is no: going into 2020, CCIE and JNCIE is near worthless. Some say the content is legacy; some say it isn’t legacy but doesn’t include enough next-gen technology to be relevant; some point to the existence of brain-dump sites as something that simply invalidates the entire thing; some say that the Expert-level focus on theory over design leaves engineers with a highly technical but impractical mind-set that prioritises fancy complicated solutions over simple elegant solutions.
I’ve addressed most of those points already, and shown why I think the syllabus is great. As it happens, the final point is one I actually do strongly agree with. But from my own personal experience, the JNCIE has unquestionably been worth it.
I was actually lucky enough to chair a panel this year at Juniper’s NXTWORK conference, where I interviewed three multi-JNCIEs on stage: Stefan Fouant, Nupur Kanoi, and Yasmin Lara. The conversation was mostly about their study strategy, but perhaps the most urgent question I wanted to ask them was whether expert-level vendor certs held any value in 2019 and beyond, in a world of automation, disaggregation, and so on. All of them said yes.
I’ve mentioned already that I use almost all this technology in my day job. In fact, since studying for this exam I found myself being invited into meetings where senior folks brainstormed ideas to fix complicated problems, and I even found engineers far more senior than myself calling me up to hear my take on an issue. This didn’t happen before I embarked on my JNCIE quest. By showing that my knowledge had improved, and by showing that I was willing to dedicate myself to improvement, I won the trust and respect of my colleagues, and that was a very good feeling indeed.
They told similar stories: once you’re invited to be involved in more complicated things, it becomes easier to master those topics. Your day job suddenly counts as studying! You can imagine how much this has improved my confidence. As someone who regularly struggles with imposter syndrome, this confidence boost has been a blessing. Even if we spend less time on the CLI, we still need to need the protocols themselves – and that’s exactly what the exam teaches.
Now, honestly, you will have your own opinion on whether or not expert-level vendor certs are relevant any more, going into the year 2020 – and that’s fine. If you disagree with me, I ASSURE you that there is absolutely no need at all for you to leave a comment to tell me. All I know for sure is that studying for JNCIE has made me exponentially better at my job. It’s not even the cert at the end of it: regardless of whether I’d passed or failed, the process of studying the topics in this much detail has made me a stronger engineer than I was 12 months ago.
You’re welcome to think Expert-level exams aren’t worth it, but from my lived experience, you’re going to have a very difficult time indeed convincing me of it.
HOW MANY WEEKS/MONTHS/YEARS DID I HAVE TO STUDY FOR?
I passed my JNCIP-SP in November 2018, so technically my “total study time for JNCIE” was a year from the point of getting that. But of course, the studying I did for JNCIP-SP counts, as does my years of studying and experience before that. I’ve thrown myself into mastering Juniper over these past two years, but I’ve been in the ISP industry for about 12 years, six of which were focused on actual network engineering. So as a rough guide, let’s say I’ve been studying for two years with a specific aim of finally getting good enough to take this exam, but I was starting from a place of having a fair number of years of hands-on experience behind me.
You may know already that less than two years ago, after many years of using “other vendors”, I discovered Junos and thought it was a revelation. Now, you might be thinking that 20 months from “never touching Junos” to “becoming JNCIE” is remarkably quick. You’re right. And in fact, I actually took the exam sooner than I might otherwise might have! I’d like to take a moment to explain why and how it happened.
When I discovered Junos in February 2018, I threw myself into this wonderful new networking OS, blogged as I went, and to my amazement I managed to take it to enough of a level that I was given the honour of being invited to become one of only 25 worldwide Juniper Ambassadors.
Being part of this program massively, MASSIVELY improved my game, and led to me having the chance to get involved with far more complicated technologies and scenarios than I would have otherwise faced. Thanks to the Ambassadors Cookbook that we wrote, I got to dig DEEP into the different ways that you can manipulate what traffic takes MPLS paths, and share my knowledge with others. Thanks to a book idea I had, I got to write tens of thousands of words on the differences between Interprovider Option A, Option B and Option C. Thanks to some folks reaching out to me for help, I got to explore hub-and-spoke MPLS VPNs in more detail than I’d ever had to touch in my day job.
So on the one hand, I’ve only been using Junos for 20 months. On the other hand, I’ve been using, thinking, and writing about Junos to such a detailed level that I’m soon going to join my fellow Ambassadors in contributing towards some new Juniper certification guides. (I’ll say no more on that for now, other than that you’re going to REALLY like what we’re doing.)
If I hadn’t had the privilege of joining the Ambassador programme, my rate of learning would have been way slower. 20 months might seem like a very short time to go from “never touching Junos” to “being a JNCIE”, but as you can imagine, my journey has been somewhat unique, and I’ve been privileged to have some amazing opportunities along the way. I think for the average person, the gap between JNCIP and JNCIE is probably going to be nearer to 18 months to two years, depending on family commitments.
WHAT WAS MY METHOD FOR STUDYING? DID I HAVE A STUDY PLAN?
I wish I could say that I now understand what people mean when they talk about the sacrifices that need to be made for this exam. I certainly cut a lot out of my life: my socialising went down, my gym sessions went down, my lazy nights in watching movies were replaced with (semi-)disciplined studying. But honestly, these weren’t really sacrifices. I’m a single man with no children. I genuinely cannot imagine what someone with family dependencies has to go through to get this bloody certification. They’re the ones making the true sacrifice.
While my sacrifices pale in comparison to others, I still devoted a HUGE amount of time to studying. At weekends I’d often dedicate at least ten hours a day on both Saturday AND Sunday. By which I mean “14 hours, with liberal YouTube breaks.” During the weekday, I studied on the commute to work, on the commute back, plus I’d give it at least two hours after work, usually three or more. Not every single day: if you never take a day off, you’ll burn out, and then you’re no good to anyone. I’d still meet friends, go to the theatre, and take days off just to watch trash on the internet. But I did those things significantly less than I was this time last year. It didn’t matter when I took days off: I just tried to be consistent overall, and I tried to work as hard as I could without exhausting myself.
I actually talked about my study method in a lot of detail in a post I wrote recently, called “How To Study Network Engineering, Without Feeling Guilty For Not Studying“. Give it a read if it sounds interesting. Hopefully it will help you to maximise your time, and kickstart your motivation.
In terms of the actual topics of the exam, I wrote a post this time last year where I helped you to study for the JNCIP-SP. I rounded up the books, KB articles and blog posts you’ll want to read to have a chance at passing the theory portion of your journey. Give it a read: it’s a fairly comprehensive guide to all the stuff you’ll need to master.
I’d already read those books before starting my journey to JNCIE, though I went back and referred to them many, many times, particularly the incredible MPLS in the SDN Era.
In addition, I used the mighty InetZero study guides. These PDFs contain full-scale day-long labs, each one with different questions, different scenarios of increasing complexity.
InetZero were actually bought by Juniper themselves. The page for it is here. It’s worth saying that, at the time of writing, the bundle you can buy now doesn’t include the complete set, it’s missing a few full-scale labs. But! I’ve had a chat with Juniper about it, and there’s some really exciting stuff planned for the content, so keep an eye on it. You’ll forgive me for being vague; there’s only so much I’m allowed to say, but from what I’ve been told, it’s going to be a tremendous boost to the community.
WHY WAS MY EXAM EXPERIENCE UNIQUE? AND WHY MIGHT YOURS BE TOO?
As I say, I didn’t plan to take this exam as soon as I did. In my mind I was planning to book it for sometime in the middle of 2020, giving me around 20 months from passing the JNCIP-SP to sitting the JNCIE. This seemed like a reasonable time-frame.
The reason I took it earlier was because Juniper offered half-price certifications at their NXTWORK conference this year in November 2019, to be taken on either of the two days before the conference began.
Usually the JNCIE is $1600 (at the time of writing). Thanks to this offer, I paid $800. I was aware that a lot of people people fail their first attempt – and considering that first-attempt-failure was likely for me, I decided I’d rather fail for half-price than for full-price!
Still, I threw myself into studying, massively upping my game to make up for the shorter time-frame.
Let me be clear: $800 is still a very significant amount of money to me, to risk failure. But an alternative way of thinking about it is: $800 is a decent amount of money to spend on my personal growth. I was already going to NXTWORK anyway, so I was also saving money on flights and accommodation. In total, a real attempt in Amsterdam would probably set me back almost $2000 after travel, hotels and food.
Now, one thing I haven’t mentioned is where NXTWORK took place this year. The fact that I sat this exam at the Juniper conference, led to the absolutely ludicrous situation where I sat a JNCIE exam… in the opulent luxury of Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. You know: the city of 500,000 distractions, and the hotel of ultra-luxury. I honestly think I should get a second honorary JNCIE just for the fact that I was able to turn up to the exam sober!
The experience was frankly nonsense. I remember being in Las Vegas the day before the exam, trying to decide how much studying I should do, and how much I should just explore that extraordinary city – and then catching myself and realising how preposterous it was that I was even having that conversation with myself. Las Vegas is a very overwhelming city; it’s a non-stop party like almost nowhere else on earth, and I think resisting the temptation to go out and have a good time was even harder than the discipline I had to find to study!
Ultimately it’s a very exhausting city, and when you couple that with the jet lag of going from London to America, it’s fair to say that 9am on Sunday when I entered the exam room, I was already very frazzled.
Chances are you’ll be sitting your exam at an actual Juniper office. Then again, this is the second year that Juniper has offered half-price JNCIEs at NXTWORK, and I know that they were very well attended indeed. There’s no guarantee at all that Juniper will do it again in future years, but having seen the clear demand for them, I would personally guess that it’s pretty likely it’ll happen again in 2020 and beyond.
So if you sit the JNCIE at the conference, and you’ve not been to Vegas before, ask yourself how good you are at adjusting to jet-lag. Plan to get there a day or two or three earlier, depending. Bear in mind that the longer you’re there, the more you’ll want to explore that incredible city, and that this might take your head away from the game. And the remind yourself that the fact that you’re even considering those questions means that you’re probably one of the luckiest people in the world.
WHAT IS THE EXAM EXPERIENCE LIKE?
Brutal. Absolutely brutal. It was exactly as difficult as I thought it was going to be, because I was expecting it to be incredibly difficult. And it was! So in a way there were no surprises there, but that’s not a happy thought by any means.
What I wasn’t prepared for, though, is how emotionally exhausting it is. You think that 8 hours is all the time in the world, but it goes by so very quickly. Even though you’re just sat at a laptop, it’s an intense experience. You’ve studied constantly for such a long time; you’ve invested so much energy and money into it; you’ve probably talked about nothing but this exam for the past year, if not more. And now, all of a sudden, you’re there, doing it. You’ve practiced tons and TONS of scenarios. You think you know the syntax like you know your first language. You think you know the subtle differences between three different ways to solve a problem, and you’ve even explained it to other people. That proves you know it, right? Right?
And in that moment, on the day, sat at that laptop, it all disappears. It leaks out of your brain via your ear, and directly to the floor. The combination of adrenalin and nerves and exhaustion mean that previously simple scenarios suddenly seem like the most complicated thing you’ve ever done. It’s draining, utterly draining. I’ve been in some intense customer meetings; I’ve dealt with outages at 3am that affect hundreds of customers; I’ve been in the middle of colleagues screaming at each other; and yet this exam was easily the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do in my professional career.
And would I do it all again in the future to get a second JNCIE? Yes. Absolutely.
WHAT IS THE ACTUAL EXAM LAB LIKE, WHEN YOU TAKE IT AT JUNIPER’S NXTWORK CONFERENCE?
One word: intense. Two words: really intense. Three words: really, REALLY intense. Four words: really, really, really (you get the idea with that.)
NOTE: I gave a draft of this blog post to my good pals in Juniper Education for fact-checking, and to make sure I’m not breaking the non-disclosure agreement. So believe me when I say that I’m telling you as much as I’m allowed to!
Now remember, I sat my exam in a hotel, at a conference. I can’t stress enough that 99% of you will have a VERY different experience to me. You’ll be at a proper test centre, with great gear, an external monitor if you want one, a fantastic mouse – in other words, you’ll actually be at a fully-kitted-out Juniper office. With that proviso out of the way, let me tell you about my personal experience.
As I say, you’re at a laptop. You’re configuring real devices in a lab somewhere in the world, and you’re doing it remotely. You’re allowed to bring your own screen, as well as your own keyboard and mouse. I didn’t, though I wish I had brought my own mouse because the one Juniper provided at the conference was a travel-side mouse rather than the usual bigger size that I’m used to. Not a big deal, totally usable, but when you’re working for 8 hours and you’re stressed out of your mind then it’s nice to be comfortable.
The laptop comes with Notepad++, which you’ll be using plenty! It also comes with SecureCRT, which is what you’ll be using to configure the devices. One of the first things I did was to open up as many tabs as there were configurable routers, to make my workflow nice. How many routers were there to configure? I can’t give too much away, so let’s just say there are less than 12 routers that you’ll actually need to configure, and then about 25 non-configurable routers on the outside of your ISP network that belong to peers, transit partners, and customers. You have read-only access to some, but not all, of these devices.
The actual questions come printed over about 8 pages of A4, along with two copies of the entire topology (one to keep neat, and one to scribble the heck out of), as well as an appendix which lists things like the prefixes you should be receiving, LSPs, QoS markings, etc.
There’s a few interesting things to know about the way the exam is marked. For a start, there’s no partial credit for answers. If a question is worth six points, you get either six points or zero points.
Next, you have to get points in every single section to pass. If you get 100% in almost every section, but you don’t answer a single question in the final section, you fail. At first I thought this was unfair, but a colleague convinced me otherwise. To be able to call yourself an “expert”, you have to be able to show that you know the full thing.
You’ll have heard already that you should read every single question before you start, and it’s absolutely true. There’s two reasons in particular. The first is simply because it will give you a good feeling to know what’s coming up ahead. If you don’t know your game-plan then you have no idea how to pace yourself, or indeed what you’re ultimately trying to achieve. By being fully aware of what’s expected of you in the allotted time, you can mentally allocate your time per-section, and this will give you a good feeling as you go through the day. And believe me, you’ll want all the good feelings you can get.
For example: at the five hour mark I was worried I wouldn’t get to the end, so I skipped to the final section, answered questions there, and then came back to where I’d left off. In the end though, I finished with an hour to spare. If I hadn’t read the full exam, it would have been difficult to make a decision like that.
There’s another reason to read the whole thing: some later questions depend on you doing earlier questions in a certain way.
Let me give you an example that I made up, which wasn’t on the exam, to give you an idea. Imagine that in the MPLS VPN section, the first question asks you to configure a layer 3 MPLS VPN, and the question makes no mention of what route-target to use. Then imagine that the final question in the section asks you to configure a flavour of interprovider MPLS VPN, gives you specific route-targets to use, and tells you that the targets have to be the same in both autonomous systems. If you hadn’t read ahead, you’d have to go back and edit your VPN.
Now just to be clear, I made this example up. But it’s a good example of how you might be tripped up: if you’d chosen your own route-targets earlier in the exam, you’ve got to go back and edit them to match the requirements of the later question. And a complex multi-site, multi-AS VPN that worked before might suddenly stop working, if you forget to edit the targets on just one of your routers. And remember, there’s no partial credit for questions.
I had two proctors who were available to answer my queries on the day. You don’t have access to the Juniper website, but you do have access to all the help files built into the router. There’s an hour for lunch, and you can of course get up as often as you want for a break. We all know that sometimes engineers can stare at a problem for hours and not see the solution, but 10 minutes away from the screen can give us the distance we need for our brain to work it out, or for our eyes to see the config in a new light.
Once I was done, I spent 45 minutes reviewing my answers. And in my final 15 minutes… I walked out, because I realised I hadn’t truly reviewed my answers. You know when you read when you’re tired, and you read the same paragraph of a book five times, and every single time you don’t take even a word of it in? By that stage of the exam, I was like that. I was alive, but I wasn’t thinking. My brain was mush. As silly as it sounds, I had to conclude that I was mentally done, and whatever will be will be. I left the exam thinking that I’d done just well enough that I had absolutely no idea how I’d done.
HOW LONG DID IT TAKE TO GET THE RESULT?
For me it was five working days later.
It’s not immediate, though the exam is mature enough now that it can be mostly marked by a script. If the script passes you, you’re good. If it doesn’t, then a human intervenes to double-check. This guarantees that people aren’t unfairly marked down if they come up with a new solution that the script doesn’t recognise.
You’ll be told by email, at which point you’ll be given your sweet digital certificate. Make sure your postal address is correct in the Juniper Certification portal, because after a few months you’ll get an award in the post that you can proudly put on your shelf – or alternatively, as I plan to, you can constantly and arrogantly wave in the astonished and angry face of your colleagues, who will come to loathe you to their very core. Neat!
WHAT’S NEXT FOR ME?
In the short term, there’s a few things I want to cover a bit more, even though I’ve passed. I want to write blog posts about multicast and quality of service, so I’ll be revisiting those topics and sharing with you some cool tech that I’ve acquired on the way.
Once that is done, I definitely want to learn Python. I’m keen to get hands-on with segment routing. I’d like to take the JNCIA-DevOps exam, not only so I can say I have all five JNCIAs, but so I can have a better feeing for all the cool emerging tech.
I was certain that one JNCIE would be enough for me. But now I’ve had a fortnight to rest… I’m kind of excited to go down Juniper’s Data Centre certification track. I don’t know any EVPN, and I think it would be cool not only to learn it, but to share my learnings with you all. So, in the short term, Python. In the long term… oh…. oh god….. oh no……….. I’m going to do another JNCIE, aren’t I? Oh god. What’s wrong with me. Oh god.
SHOULD YOU SIT A JNCIE EXAM YOURSELF?
It goes without saying that it depends on your personal circumstances – for example, whether it’s relevant to your current job or your future career, whether your family and dependents can give you the time, how much support you’ll get from your employer and your colleagues – but on the whole, I would say do it. I thought I loved networking before, but it pales in comparison to now. I have a deep appreciation for the complexity of the protocols, and the brilliant minds who created them. If you can afford the up-front costs, then by all accounts it will pay itself back in the long run, and more. Your confidence will increase, your job prospects will increase. And even if it turns out a few years down the line that we use the CLI less and less, the protocols themselves aren’t going anywhere. Mastering them can only be a positive thing.
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