When I entered the tech industry back in late 1998, I had never heard of Cisco and knew almost nothing about the technical underpinnings of computer networks. My previous career had been as an ordained minister and all the education I had received was geared toward that profession. Since I began in a sales role, I was determined to actually understand the solutions and technologies that I was providing to customers. Nothing undermines confidence more than constantly answering questions with, “I’ll talk to my engineer and get back to you.” Ultimately, it was that thirst for learning that led me to Cisco and the CCNA certification, and ultimately, the CCIE. Since my desire is for others to succeed in the same type of endeavors, I want to share the best strategy for succeeding in your respective certification journey.
Principle 1: Know Yourself
One of the great things about human beings is that we are all unique and “wired differently,” creating a pleasant amount of variety in the world. It also means that each of us learns differently as well. Essentially there are three modes by which we learn, and many individuals combine two of them, as follows:
- Auditory: This style of learning focuses on the spoken word, as the name suggests. Auditory learners enjoy listening and have a much greater retention rate when attending discussions, lectures, or engaging in conversations.
- Visual: Visual learners absorb information by seeing it, which can involve reading, diagrams, and other graphically-oriented media. This can range from having an almost photographic memory to just greater retention from visually-oriented teaching methods. Personally, I am a visual learner, and a fast reader, which helps me absorb large amounts of information.
- Kinesthetic: In reality, everyone in one way or another is a kinesthetic or “hands-on” learner, which involves application of some concept in a concrete manner, sometimes described as “learning by doing.” Over the years, I have gained a great appreciation of pairing theoretical teaching along with practical application
The key here is to understand what kinds of learning environments are best suited to your individual needs, rather than just accepting the concept of “one size fits all.” Struggling with a method that is not natively your own simply invites frustration and literally destroys motivation. Instead, understand how you learn and find study materials that fit into that in the best possible way.
Principle 2: Develop a Strategy
Figure 1: Learning Strategy
When I first started down the path of studying for Cisco certifications, I would simply read books on the subject that I wanted to master. At that time, certification exams were more about reproducing facts and details than practical application but today’s exams employ sophisticated simulations that require more than simple memorization. A well-rounded learning strategy can assist students desiring to succeed in modern certification studies, which is as follows:
- Knowledge: It almost goes without saying that passing certification exams requires a student to know the core subject areas inside and out. Some of this involves memorization, such as the OSI model, Ethernet standards, and other topics. At times this can get rather dull and uninteresting, but knowing the basics of the various technologies involved is necessary to build the skills needed to pass the exam and utilize in a career. Fortunately, each Cisco test has a carefully constructed Exam Blueprint that breaks down the finer points that candidates are expected to know. While not exhaustive (you can expect surprise questions on any exam), these documents cover the basics fairly well, but be prepared for surprise questions on any exam.
- Understanding: It’s one thing to know the facts about something and quite another to know what those facts mean and how to apply them. When I first studied subnetting, I skipped the mathematical calculation process in favor of memorizing pages of tables with the various combinations. Years later, I realized just how much easier the process is by understanding how it all works at a binary level. I marvel at how much simpler my learning process would have been if I had just taken the time to understand the basics so much better. A closely related principle is to understand how the protocols work at a fundamental level and how they relate to one another.
- Hands-On Application: At the risk of overstating the principle, a Cisco certification candidate should never attempt an exam without a generous amount of practical, hands-on practice. In my own studies, I have maintained a rack of actual equipment that can be staged to almost any scenario and used to reinforce any concept required. When I did presales consulting, I would frequently simulate potential solutions (or reproduce customer problems) in lab environments to better understand the dynamics. Not only does this strongly reinforce critical subjects, it produces a level of understanding that goes well beyond mere theory or book knowledge. While I am a fan of actual equipment, there are numerous simulators available that can accomplish this as well.
Principle 3: Set a Date
Preparing for a “date with destiny” is thrilling in its own right, but if it never results in an actual exam attempt it can feel empty and out of reach. Sitting for a Cisco exam is somewhat like becoming a parent: you will probably never feel completely ready, but looking back you are glad you took the step. In my own studies, I would start out learning the new principles, then go online and book the exam. That step made the whole experience “more real” because there was a looming deadline that kept me both focused and motivated. Granted, there were times I felt like I needed more time, but if that was truly the case, exams can be rescheduled. Never setting a date is like dating someone for years but never committing to something more. I have taken a lot of exams (no exaggeration) and only rescheduled a few times.
Principle 4: Don’t Fear Failure
Very early on, I had an unbroken record of passed exams, which I was very proud of. Up to and including my CCIE written exam this held true, but it came to an abrupt end when I failed my very first attempt at the CCIE lab. Since the pass rate for first attempts is reportedly 10% or less, I took it in stride, but as that became a second, third, and fourth attempt, I really began to get discouraged. What I learned during that time is that failure is not a bad thing as each attempt helped me to better understand the technologies, how to apply them, and how to execute a better strategy. When I finally passed, my level of understanding was vastly greater than when I started. In your own studies, use the experience to sharpen areas of weakness and see it as a “dress rehearsal” instead of some sort of personal disaster.
Principle 5: Keep it Clean (Don’t Cheat)
Vast amounts of information are available regarding certification exams on the Internet today, whether they are Cisco, Microsoft, VMware, Comptia, or others. The benefit is that many forms of legitimate preparation materials are readily accessible with costs ranging from moderate to free. On the other hand, there are also various outlets that provide pirated or illegally obtained material, which are usually referred to as “braindumps.” The ethical concern is that by using these materials you support theft of information from Cisco itself, which created the exams to begin with. There are also tangible consequences that companies like Cisco have put in place to deal with this problem, which are outlined in the Cisco Confidentiality Agreement. If a student is caught cheating or using stolen material, they can have all of their existing certifications immediately revoked, which is certainly a stiff penalty. Finally, the person who ends up getting shortchanged in the long run is the student, as just passing an exam or knowing facts does not equate to having skills in networking. Actually learning and achieving something worthwhile is a great reward in and of itself.
I can say from personal experience that Cisco certifications can greatly enrich careers, result in competitive job opportunities, and provide respect in the global marketplace. By approaching it with a deliberate, intentional, and reproducible strategy, you can accomplish incredible things both from a personal and professional standpoint.