CCIE Preparation: Study Processes and Scheduling
This article is Part 2 in a 7-Part Series.
Once you’ve figured out why you want to become a CCIE, and you’ve made that commitment, you need to figure out HOW you’re going to go about it. This post covers some practical aspects, such as study processes, and how to schedule your time.
Theory and Application - Written and Lab
There are two parts to passing the CCIE: The written exam, and the practical (lab) exam. The written exam is not a certification in itself. It is simply your entry ticket to allow you to book a lab exam. The blueprint for the written and practical exams are very similar, but the written is more a multi-choice exam, and requires more theoretical than practical knowledge. You need to first pass the written exam, and then you have up to 18 months to sit the practical exam (sit, not necessarily pass). You get another 12 months to attempt the exam after each failure, up to a maximum of 3 years, at which point you must re-sit the written exam.
Since the clock starts ticking once you’ve passed the written, many people ask:
Should I clear the written early on in my studies, or should I leave it until late in my studies? After all, if the content is similar, then it should be easy to pass the written late in my studies, right?
There’s no right answer to that. My personal approach was to spend a lot of time working on foundational theory knowledge, reading a lot of books, and then pass the written exam, before going deep into practical studies. You may prefer to use practical studies to help solidify your foundational knowledge, but whatever you do, do NOT skimp on the foundational reading. Do NOT just jump straight into configuration. You will struggle for a long time if you do that.
One key point: If you are nearing the end of 18 months after passing the written, but you’re not ready for the lab, then don’t go and sit the lab just to extend your window. It’s a lot cheaper to just sit the written again.
How do I actually study? There are many people who never learnt how to properly study at school, either because they didn’t care about school, or because they were smart enough that the exact process didn’t matter. At this level you need to think about HOW you will study, and what techniques work for you. We all have different learning styles, so your exact approach will be different to mine. Knowing your own learning style will be very beneficial. You may not know exactly what your style is - try to figure it out as you go through the CCIE process. Know what study methods help you retain information. Here’s what I did:
- Blueprint: Make a copy of the extended exam blueprint in a spreadsheet, and carefully go through all items, marking your current skill level. Be brutally honest. Every couple of months, go through it again, recording changes. This should show where you’re improving, and where you still need work.
- Reading: I read most of the recommended books early on. You don’t need to read all of them, but you definitely need to read the classics, such as Routing TCP/IP Volumes 1 & 2. You should also select titles in areas where you are weak - e.g. If you haven’t worked much with MPLS, you will want to do extra reading. When reading a book, I will make summarised notes as I go. I don’t usually refer back to the notes, but the act of writing it down forces me to pay attention to the book. Don’t copy everything out though, that’s just wasting time. The Cisco documentation should be referred to frequently, and should be the first place you look, not Google. There is a wealth of information available there, for free. This foundational material will set you up well for later practical work.
- Videos: Several training vendors offer online videos, where they walk through topics, usually with a mix of slides, whiteboards and real equipment. Personally I find this learning method doesn’t work very well - I drift off, and don’t properly take it in. Watching them once was enough. You may be different. Some people like to report how much time they spend watching videos, but I’m not convinced that’s always a useful metric.
- Flashcards: I started making flashcards about topics I had problems with, and referring to them frequently. There’s good software out there for doing this, and I found it useful for quick recall.
- Finally, labs: Everyone talks about ‘doing labs’, but you’ll notice I’ve left it to the last. Labs are practical exercises, either focused on a small group of technologies, or perhaps combining multiple protocols into one working network. There are several training vendors who provide excellent workbooks with hundreds of lab exercises. More on these in another post. Don’t rush into these without knowing your theory first. But then expect to spend hundreds of hours working through lab exercises. The key here is get value from the work you do. Don’t keep repeating things you know, and don’t just blindly copy the solutions out of the answers. Know what you’re doing, and why. You should also feel free to make up your own lab exercises, or to modify existing ones, to see what happens. You’ll learn a lot that way. One particularly useful technique when doing lab exercises is to write all of your configurations into Notepad, then paste it into the router. This gets you better with knowing the full configurations, and can save you time when you need to cut/paste into multiple routers.
Creating a study schedule is an important part of staying on track, and ensuring you manage your time effectively. You need to be thinking about what you on a day-to-day basis, and what the broader arc looks like.
CCIE preparation is usually a multi-year effort. It’s not something that you can knock off in a few months. There’s also a huge number of topics to cover, so you need to have a solid overall plan of attack. If you don’t do this, you’ll bounce around from topic to topic, and your study will be ineffective. You also need to be realistic about how long this will take. Aim for around 18 months. It could be a little more or less, but that is quite realistic for most people. Ignore those who talk about doing it in 3 months. They’re either very smart and experienced, or they’re cheating.
I recommend putting together a spreadsheet, with one line per week, and mapping out a plan for what you expect to cover each week. This should cover the topics, reading and/or labs you plan on doing. If you have picked a training vendor, check to see what sort of schedule they recommend. I used a modified form of the INE plan. That should give you an idea of what a study plan looks like.
Don’t forget to mark out any planned weeks off - e.g. Holidays, major work projects, etc. Also be realistic about what happens when you have to change your plans - if you lose a week or two, don’t worry too much, just reset your schedule.
Your overall long-term schedule will dictate what topics you should study in any given week. But the weekly schedule helps with structuring your daily activities. You need to work out what times are available to you, and how best to use that time. My own schedule was for 4 nights during the week, from about 7–9:30, plus one full day on Saturday. I would usually take Friday night off, and Sundays off.
Let’s say my long-term plan had me doing INE Vol 2 full-scale multi-protocol labs this week. I would plan on spending about 8 hours on Saturday working through a lab, noting any difficulties I faced along the way. Then I would use my weekday evenings to follow up on those problematic areas. My follow-up would be a mixture of textbooks, videos, Cisco documentation, and focused labs - either from a vendor workbook, or of my own making. By the following Saturday I should be ready to take on a new full-scale lab.
Your weekly schedule is important for your family, as it sets boundaries on when you will be available, and when you will be studying. It MUST include time off. Do NOT plan on studying all day, every day. Don’t push yourself too hard, or you’ll burn out. There’s no point staying locked up in your office all night if you’re so tired you can’t see the screen. Find out what times work for you too - for some people this is late at night after the kids are in bed, for others it’s very early in the morning while the house is still quite. Figure out what works for you, set a plan, and stick to it. If you’re realistic with your time scheduling, it’s easier to focus on your study during that allocated slot, because you know you’ve got time scheduled to read/watch TV/hang out with your wife.
Hopefully you’ve now got an idea about how to organise your study time, and what your study processes will look like. In an upcoming post we’ll look at training Vendors and Workbooks - why do they exist, and what do I get out of them?