Breaking down the blueprint.

Having passed the CCNP ROUTE exam last September I have experience the importance of finding out what is required of you. With the CCNA I felt that by reading the books with some light Packet Tracer (I just threw up in my mouth) you had enough knowledge to pass the exam.

With my ROUTE exam I realised very quickly from the depth of the information presented that studying to align to blueprint topics was important. Cisco publish the blueprint for each exam on the Cisco Learning Network. This is vital for Professional level exams in my opinion. For the CCIE you must align your studies with the blueprint. (Note that a valid CCO account is required to access.)

Today I am going to show my methodology to learning a topic. Being an exposed to a variety of technologies in my current position most things that appear on a certification I have used or read about before. Only occasionally I have come across technology that is 100 percent new to me on a certification exam.

Step 1 – Choose the Desired Certification

This depends on you, you and well, just you. Don’t study for something you aren’t interested in or study for something trying to predict market trends. Study and pursue something you enjoy. Why? Passion. Passion for a technology, just like your career is contagious. It spreads. It allows your brain to absorb more information when you genuinely enjoy a topic or subject. ( That’s how I feel about Routing/Switching/Security and I have zero evidence other than my gut feeling)

Step 2 – Read the blueprint

This is important. I don’t mean look at it and see what technology it is asking you to know about. Read the fancy words!

Note the language used!

Let’s use this SWITCH exam blueprint as an example. Note the words such as Determine, Create, Configure, Verify, and Document. These give indication to the depth of knowledge required for each technology. Below is my determined level of depth. Feel free to comment if you believe otherwise.

  • Determine – Assess hardware and software capabilities and requirements based on information presented.
  • Create – Make based on your own experience a document, implementation or verification plan based on well-known technical and life-cycle information.
  • Configure – Pretty easy one here. Actually sit at the CLI/GUI and deploy the said technology. In the case of the above picture you should be able to configure things like STP and its flavors, assign vlan’s and implement trunks.
  • Verify – Confirm! This is very important. What show commands prove that you have done what is required. How do you know what vlan is assigned to what port? Confirm by verifying commands with show output.
  • Document – This one is a bit silly but somewhere in that Cisco Press OCG or FLG there will be an obscure page telling you the information to include when documenting the change. This really is an industry experience in my opinion.

Step 3 – Recommended reading

Cisco publish official certification guides and foundation learning guides for nearly all of their exams. This is supplemented by technology specific books. I have for all my exams thus far lashed out and bought the OCG and FLG of each exam. I believe in the fact that information from multiple sources is key to understanding topics thoroughly. When I bang my head against a wall, sometimes all I need is the same information presented in a different way. I believe the Cisco Press books are great for this.

Step 4 – Additional Information

This is important. Industry vendors, non-certification publications, Audio/Video demonstrations or RFC’s. Take your choice. Absorb what you can. Get deep. Just remember that you should aim for a depth that gives you a solid understanding of the topic. You want to learn this topic and not just memorize it.

I am very lucky in the fact that I have access to a variety of vendor offerings regarding the certifications that I am currently studying. INE, IP Expert, CBT Nuggets, Cisco Press, and O’Reilly just to name a few. Add to this the blogged experiences of fellow engineers and the IETF’s RFCs which are the holy grail of information you have no reason not to know the required exam information.

Step 5 – Lab. 

All this reading is one thing. Knowledge is power. Time to transform this knowledge into handy CLI skills. Get down and dirty. You learn so much about deployment from actually doing. It is one thing to use software such as GNS3, IOU and Rack Rentals. It is another to physically do it. The latter is hard to do but I recommend taking note of what you do when you work on physical equipment.

Now, back to certification labbing. Create, break, fix, optimize, break again, add another technology. Watch how the network adapts or changes. If you don’t know why then write down what happened and go research if that’s how it was supposed to react. I think it is a great idea to create a production style network (Choose Cisco IOU ( Don’t ask me where to get it) or GNS3 for this) and treat it like you would your workplace. Set a continuous ping from end to end. Change the routes in the core without loosing connectivity. Test yourself. Test your knowledge. Only then will you truly understand the power of the knowledge your brain contains!

Another way of labbing is to create a new company. As you work through your certification studies you should strive to add more and more to it. In the case of SWITCH start with some VLAN’s. As you go through add ISL and 802.1q trunks. Experiment with VTP. Pretend to audit your network and lock it down with  security mechanisms. Add in access layer security, tighten up your STP domain, or simply explore some IOS hardening options. Each technology could be added to a blog. Starting a blog is a great idea to get your opinion and technology you use out to a larger audience. I feel that this is a topic in its own right and a blog best saved for another day.

Step 6- Notes

I take notes. Hand written believe it or not. I feel for myself personally it increases retention. I create notes for written theory and lab work. Whilst you are studying theory there are lots of little bits of information which are vital to your studies. Timers, caveats, and default settings which you may need to remember or compare. I also take notes of when I am labbing. I draw diagrams of my network. I draw how I want STP to converge if I pull this link out. I write down what went wrong and where my mistake was when it didn’t converge the way I wanted it to.

Step 7 – Wrap up

Well now I have gone through my information I generally peruse through my materials again and re-read my notes. I will continue to lab and attack each topic. I need the information to gel so I always keep reading. It’s possible for me to read a chapter or a blog or a section of notes repeatedly for me to understand it.

Ant’s Thoughts

“A mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge.” - Tyrion Lannister

I hope that this has helped you on the path to certification or just topic breakdown. This blog applies to certification blueprints but can EASILY be adapted to topics in general and not just of the network discipline. If you structure your learning you will find that the retention of details and topics becomes easier. Just remember that you must dedicate yourself to your craft. Always read. Keep learning and keep reading. You can never stop. The day you stop learning is the day you will plateau. These exams are a test of your knowledge and network prowess. They are not a recital.


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