It’s me again, and not just me alone this time, but with Chara Kontaxi. Chara Kontaxi is a Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE), certified in routing and switching. She works as a Systems Engineer in the sales team with Cisco in Athens, Greece. She will be celebrating her 10th year anniversary as a CCIE next month. I learnt a lot from this interview and I hope just as it has re-inspired me, it inspires you on your decision and your journey to becoming a CCIE. My interview with her goes thus:
ME: Hello Chara! I am Kehinde, how are you doing?
CHARA: Hello Kehinde!! I am doing really well these days, thank you for asking Hope same goes for you too!!
ME: Yes I am really fine, thank you! Can you give me a short introduction of yourself please?
CHARA: Sure why not. I was born and lived most of my life in a suburb just off the west Athenian border, in Greece. It was clear from a very young age that classical education was not my forte’!! My parents decided to introduce me to the ‘magical world’ of the personal computer (PC) when I was almost 17 back in 1991. Nowadays, you are considered to be lagging behind if you have not touched a keypad at the age of 4. Back then, most of my classmates had not even seen a PC- let alone own one – and that was a clear catalyst for my future career choices.
When I finished high school, I went into studying Computer Engineering for 5 years, followed by a Masters (MSc) course in ‘Data, Telecommunications and Networks’. After my second year in University, I joined a team of software (SW) developers in another department. I spent 3 years in that team, and I enjoyed the task, which led me to believe that SW development could be a job for me. Well, I can tell you right now: I was wrong!!!! The first company I ever worked for in real life proved that. When I finished my MSc thesis, I started looking for a job in the Greek market, and SW development had far more choices than networking at the time. I was hired as a junior SW developer in a local IT company. I managed to stay with that job for 4 months before I decided this was definitely NOT what I wanted to do. So, I left and joined Cisco through the Graduate Training Program (GTP), back in August 1999, to become a Systems Engineer (SE). I have been with Cisco ever since.
Today, rapidly reaching 37 years of age, I am a member of the SE team in Cisco, Athens. I am happily married and the VERY lucky mom of twin boys at the age of 3.5 years. I spend ALL of my non-working time with my family, and we enjoy meeting with friends, taking trips and joined outside activities.
ME: That is really cool! When and why did you decide that networking was the career you wanted to go into?
CHARA: Well, I believe it was right about my 4th year of studies (Diploma in Engineering lasts 5 years in Greece). We had to take two semesters of mandatory training in Data Networks. I found the subject very interesting, very different, definitely more practical and life-like. So I orientated about that same topic when I was choosing my MSc. After failing to become a happy professional in SW development, I knew I had to go after what had triggered my interest the most over my years in education. And I did.
ME: Why did you choose the Cisco Certification path? And what was your goal when you decided to take the CCIE examination?
CHARA: The Cisco Certification path was part of my training as a Graduate in Cisco to become a systems engineer. Shortly after joining Cisco, I started on my Graduate training by attending a 2-month introduction on Cisco Routing and Switching technologies in Brussels. That was a very exciting time for me!!! It was a whole new world revealed; I could feel my adrenaline rise every time I entered that lab and I was enjoying every minute of it, no matter how hard it was at times. Although, passing the CCIE exam was not a mandatory requirement for successful completion of the Graduate Training Program, after those 2 months my mind was made up: I had to be a CCIE!
I understood that, being a Systems Engineer of the Sales Organization inside Cisco, would not give me the opportunity to fully leverage the qualification of being a CCIE. But it was more of a personal aspiration at the time, and it became clear later that my CCIE would be a great leverage, should I ever decide to pursue a career outside Cisco.
ME: In your journey to the CCIE, did you go straight for the CCIE or start from the CCNA certification?
CHARA: I started with CCNA in early 2000, right after completing the introductory 2 months of the GTP in Brussels. My CCIE written exam came (and passed!) later that year around July, just in time for the summer holidays. As the new fiscal kicked off in August 2000, my preparation for the CCIE lab started as well, only I was no longer a Graduate. I was now a junior - yet full time – systems engineer and assignments were starting to pile up. I passed the lab on March 2nd 2001 – soon I will be celebrating my 10 year anniversary as a CCIE.
ME: Nice one! How did you prepare for the CCIE exam; what books and equipment did you use to prepare and how many hours of study did you put in daily?
CHARA: I can hardly remember the material, I am afraid. I would take upon anything that I could get my hands on at the time; from Cisco books, online configuration “technotes”, to online tests and exam simulations. I even tried going through the command reference guide, just to see what I could come across in the lab. Just 6 weeks before taking the lab exam, we joined a preparation course for two weeks. It made a clear difference in our focus during the last month of preparation, and it had a definite impact in our performance. Our lab was set out of a bunch of Cisco routers (mostly 2500 and one or two 2600) and 2900 switches in the local office – we were missing some parts, like VoATM, which eventually was part of the exam, but we had plenty to work on and we were lucky in that way.
Having said that, we spent most of our life in the office for quite some time; working till the afternoon, studying and doing labs until late night or early morning some times. I would say we spent at least 5-6 hours daily on our preparation during the last 2 months before the preparation course, and it was a sprint on the last month. VERY intense!!!!
ME: So how many months did it take you to study and prepare for the CCIE exam? (Written and lab)?
CHARA: For me, a person who had never seen the command line interface (CLI) before GTP, it was a clear start from scratch on September 1999, up until March 1st, 2001 when I sat for the lab. The year in the GTP was mostly about Networking Theory and Cisco configuration, interchangeable with on-the-job sales training. Let’s not forget; as SEs, we were targeting the Sales organisation not the Professional Service team. The end of the Graduate Training brought me to the written exam in July 2000.
ME: From your CCIE number, I know you took the CCIE exam early enough when the Lab was two days. How did you find the lab exam and how many tries did you have with it? Also how many tracks have you written so far?
CHARA: INTENSE! Exciting? Difficult to put into words…. I can remember my hands shaking, as Day 1 was coming to an end. I knew things had not gone as I hoped they would. I barely made it passed the 1st day. Frustration kept knocking back as I was trying to relax and prepare mentally for the following morning. I knew that before I could even begin Day 2 tasks, I had to find and correct Day 1 mistakes, which inevitably meant less time to complete the lab. That night we had a call with our CCIE mentor, and his message was clear: ‘You are NOT giving up without a fight!!’ My blood pressure failed to return to normal levels until I managed to go to sleep.
Yet, Day 2 went really smooth. It seemed everything was falling into place. And then Troubleshooting came…. 2 hours went by, which I have apparently erased from my conscious. I can remember looking at stressed faces around the room but nothing more. Next thing I know the proctor is giving me my CCIE number. As soon as Vasiliki came out of the room with hers as well, it was ‘Case closed’ Time to relax & celebrate!!
We did it on our first attempt and that made it even more exciting. Since then I have sat 4 recerts and consider taking my 5th in the next 6 months. I might consider Emeritus for the future, since it is almost 10 years now, Emeritus will be an alternative for me soon.
ME: Some people I know, all they have is emulators and I know of graded labs and packet life, what do you think about preparing for the CCIE exam without any life equipment to practice with?
CHARA: NO WAY!! I admire anyone who even tries to get there without real hands on through a physically attached console cable to their laptop. I know it would not work for me no matter how much time I’d devote.
ME: Did you have anyone to mentor you, when you decided to take the CCIE certification exam?
CHARA: I sure did! And not just one! We had a CCIE within the team, who was assigned as our mentor during this process, and provided guidance based on his experience. Honestly, (lol) he was not ‘a-walk-in-the-park’ individual! He was rather strict but fair in a real-life, almost cynical way and could easily stretch you to your limit. Yet, he gave us all the room we needed to evolve and work at our own pace, while remaining reachable, even on the very evening we had finished our first lab-day!
Then, there was our manager at the time, who seemed to want us to succeed even more than we did (if that was possible). He put a lot of focus on our preparation in a consultive manner – and you know … a good listener and trusted advisor can take you VERY far during times of intense load and endless efforts towards a specific goal!
Finally, we had our previous manager, who could not care less about certifications but he was a charismatic leader who had the most amazing – and rare (in my honest opinion) - talent to brighten your day and change your mood. He painted a totally different perspective to our efforts and I can still hear him sing: ‘Always look at the bright side of life!!!!’ while crossing our lab doorstep.
ME: That is really cool! During your preparation for the CCIE exam, did you have other women to study with?
CHARA: Yes I was very lucky to actually share this experience with my only female colleague at the time. Me and Vassiliki joined Cisco through the Graduate Training Program on the same day: August 1st, 1999. Our life, career and achievements were moving in parallel within Cisco for a very long time. We went through the graduate program together; we were studying together, taking flights together and did the preparation course together. We had breakfast and lunch together for most of our days during our first year and up until the day we both sat for our CCIE lab in Brussels on March 1st 2001.
I only hope I was an inspiration to her, the same way she inspired and motivated me to go on, when tension was rising and things were getting really difficult to cope with.
ME: How were you able to combine your studying for the CCIE exam with work and home activities?
CHARA: Study and work at the same time is never easy. On one hand I was a trainee, so my work responsibilities during the first year were very well controlled. On the other hand, I was new in Cisco and - as in any new career endeavour - you are willing to take up even more assignments than you can handle, in order to demonstrate the spirit required to establish yourself as a professional within the team. I believe it is all a matter of going the extra mile to achieve your goal, and I am not ashamed to admit that my home activities were out of the picture for some time. But having fun was always IN! I was not married, nor did I have any strict family obligations as my partner was working abroad at the time. All I had to do was work, study and see my friends (my parents were complaining a bit, but they were generally supportive)!
ME: What is your take on certification and inexperience? (Lately we have so many young people who do not have much of work experience, studying, attending boot camps and taking the CCIE exam) What do you think about it?
CHARA: I think they do it because it gives them a great boost in entering the job market and immediate leverage in both salary and prestige. Who can blame them!
ME: So after becoming CCIE certified, do you think it was worth your input and hard work?
CHARA: Yes it was. As I said, it was more of a personal aspiration than a requirement and I never had the change to explore the benefits of being a CCIE outside Cisco itself. Yet, being a CCIE goes hand in hand with recognition and sometimes admiration. I must say, and please don’t judge I did enjoy both.
ME: Okay. Due to the recent economic situation in Greece right now, as a CCIE, do you feel the heat of the downturn?
CHARA: Remember, I work in pre-sales so my CCIE does not make me any different or less dispensable than the next guy… or girl (lol). Although, job opportunities in Greece appear to be inexistent right now and many, many people are losing their jobs even in networking/IT, CCIEs seem to hold their posts quite firmly. There is an ongoing demand for certified contributors – just not at its peak these days; having said that, it appears to me that CCIEs are not heavily impacted by the downturn: at least not those that are employed by Cisco Partners.
ME: Being a woman CCIE and an engineer, has it affected your feminism in any way? And have you had any negative experience when it came to discrimination?
CHARA: Never thought of it that way… It never occurred to me that I might evolve differently than I did. My wardrobe did not change, nor did I move to trainers as a result of becoming an engineer. If anything, playing the ‘former’ boys-only game on my terms boosted my feminism. I never felt the urge to be ‘one of the guys’ in this business, but I made it my purpose to be part of the team. Women in our business still step out of the crowd – they are too difficult to miss. People are definitely paying attention to the fact that I am not another guy. This can be a huge advantage in many occasions.
Yet, do not be fooled, discrimination is everywhere and all of us had a taste of it. It is not a perfect world out there and it is definitely NOT a woman’s ‘prerogative’ to be discriminated against. It is important to accept reality and never stop trying to make it better.
ME: What is your notion about women in technology and engineering; what do you think about it? (There is this general myth that the those fields belong to the men)
CHARA: Well, things change! Every field outside of the household used to belong to men. This had nothing to do with capacity of the gender, male or female. It had to do with our culture and our social standards. Today men are making progress in fighting through stereotypes as well; they become chefs and nurses, they become models and hairdressers, in the same way women become doctors and taxi-drivers, entrepreneurs and engineers. By adding our personal touch, each one of us contributes to the success of our undertakings. Women and men can make equally excellent professionals in technology & engineering, each in their own way.
ME: Very true! From your own perspective, what touch do you think women have on network designing or what special thing do you think is felt in the system when one has a lady in a network infrastructure team, looking over and managing the network?
CHARA: Attention to detail would be the definitive one (in my honest opinion). Women can be very precise and very thorough. This is a great asset in network design, deployment and administration. We also have a unique way of being proactive while parallel processing different tasks – this is what we do in our personal life as well. These assets, properly balanced, can make a difference in a team’s operation and achievements, as well as at individual level.
ME: What advice do you have for young girls, ladies and women who want to study and take the CCIE exam?
CHARA: Same advice I would give anyone. You said it yourself: becoming a CCIE is a journey! You should not be afraid to embark upon it; you should embrace it and enjoy the experience! It does pay off in more ways one can imagine!
ME: Do you read the CCIE flyer?
CHARA: I definitely do I have it on my Bookmarks Toolbar readily accessible – I totally enjoy it!!!
ME: Thank you for your time... I appreciate it.
So readers, though lengthy, I know you have picked up something from this interview. So let us get back to the books and racks and also watch out for next month’s edition; do not miss it for anything!!!!!!