My CISSP Journey, Part 1: The CISSP Exam

In the 1990s, my IT engineering and management career was thriving. I led a team of about 15 seasoned professionals and worked in a business unit where information security was a key objective. We rose to the challenge and brought several key capabilities into our work environment, including multi-factor authentication, encrypted remote access (via modem), firewalls, and hardened servers and workstations. My part of the enterprise fared quite well in penetration tests conducted by an outside firm.

Before this time, I had spent years in computer operations and more years in Unix and C-based software engineering, so my IT background was quite broad. This experience proved later to be a solid foundation for my pivot into security.

In 1998, I was looking for a good book on Solaris security but could find nothing at all. I called one of my publisher connections at Sun Microsystems Press and secured a book deal to write the book, Solaris Security. Writing this book proved to be a great learning opportunity to shore up my knowledge in various areas.

In 1999, I met a colleague, Bob Maynard, who had his CISSP certification. Before knowing Bob, I had not met anyone with this certification, and it intrigued me. I looked at the (ISC)² website and decided that I would pursue this certification.

There were no books in print in 1999 or 2000 on the CISSP certification. The only available training was directly from (ISC)², and it was expensive even then. But my colleague Bob had his giant three-ring binder from the course that he had taken the year before, and he agreed to let me borrow it for a few months. He said apologetically that he had written numerous notes on the pages, which I told him would add more value.

In 2000, the CISSP exam was offered only once per year in Seattle, and I had just missed it. I found an exam in November in Colorado Springs, and booked an air trip, and registered for the exam.

I pored over Bob’s CISSP course binder studiously for months, right up to the night before the exam. There were no practice exams of any kind, so I was unsure of whether I would pass.

The exam itself was arduous – and that’s about as nice as I can describe it. At that time, the proctor in the room would pass out the exam books, which were sealed and serial numbered, and we were instructed to make no mark of any kind in them. Next, the scantron sheets were handed to us, and we were directed to fill in our names and other information. As you may know, Scantron involves the use of a pencil and filling in little bubbles that are machine scanned. Your hand will become sore after filling in more than three hundred of these bubbles, but that’s not the worst of it.

Typical Scantron answer sheet

The exam questions are brutal. Rather than black-and-white, they explore shades of grey and challenge your intimate knowledge of the subject matter, which ranges from the desired height of security fences to hashing algorithms.  The CISSP test at that time consisted of 250 questions, with a six-hour time limit to answer them all. I used nearly all of the six hours, double-checking several of my answers. I turned in my exam sheet, not at all confident of my prospects for passing.

I drove back to the airport, turned in my rental car, and boarded my flight back to Seattle. I fell asleep on the plane before they shut the door, and the flight attendant had to rouse me in Seattle, where I was the last passenger to disembark the aircraft. I usually don’t sleep on airplanes; for me, this was an outward sign of my mental exhaustion after taking the exam.

In Part 2: writing CISSP exam questions.

In Part 3: proctoring CISSP exams.

In Part 4: writing a CISSP study guide.

In Part 5: earning the CISA and other certifications.

In Part 6: continuous education and CPE recordkeeping.

In Part 7: paying it forward.

4 thoughts on “My CISSP Journey, Part 1: The CISSP Exam

  1. Pingback: My CISSP Journey, Part 2 | Peter H. Gregory

  2. Pingback: My CISSP Journey, Part 3 | Peter H. Gregory

  3. Pingback: My CISSP Journey, Part 4 | Peter H. Gregory

  4. Pingback: My CISSP Journey, Part 7: Mentoring Others | Peter H. Gregory

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