Mental Case – In a Flash(card)

You’ve probably noticed that I spend a lot of my time studying for things.  Seems like I’ve always been reading things or memorizing arcane formulae for one reason or another.  In the past, I have relied upon a large number of methods for this purpose.  However, I keep coming back to the tried-and-true flash card.  To me, it’s the most basic form of learning.  A question on the front and an answer on the back is all you need to drill a fact into your head.  As I started studying for my CCIE lab exam, this was the route that I chose to go down when I wanted to learn some of the more difficult features, like BGP supress maps or NTP peer configurations.  It was a pain to hand write all that info out on my cards.  Sometimes it didn’t all fit.  Other times, I couldn’t read my own writing.  I wondered if there was a better solution.

Cue my friend Greg Ferro and his post about a program called Mental Case.  Mental Case, from Mental Faculty, is a program designed to let you create your own flashcards.  The main program runs on a Mac computer and allows you to create libraries of flash cards.  There are a lot of good example sets when you first launch the app for things like languages.  But, as you go through some of the other examples, you can see the power that Mental Case can give you above and beyond a simple 3″x5″ flash card.  For one thing, you can use pictures in your flash cards.  This is handy if you are trying to learn about art or landmarks, for instance.  You could also use it as a quick quiz about Cisco Visio shapes or wireless antenna types.  This is a great way to study things more advanced than just simple text.

Once you dig into Mental Case, though, you can see some of the things that separate it from traditional pen-and-paper.  While it might be handy to have a few flash cards in your pocket to take out and study when you’re in line at the DMV, more often than not you tend to forget about them.  Mental Case can setup a schedule for you to study.  It will pop up and tell you that it’s time to do some work.  That’s great as a constant reminder of what you need to learn.  Another nice feature is the learning feature.  If you have ever used flash cards, you probably know that after a while, you tend to know about 80% of them cold with little effort.  However, there are about 20% that kind of float in the middle of the pack and just get skipped past without much reinforcement.  They kind of get lost in the shuffle, so to speak.  With Mental Case, those questions which you get wrong more often get shuffled to the front, where your attention span is more focused.  Mental Case learns the best ways to make you learn best.  You can also set Mental Case to shuffle or even reverse the card deck to keep you on your toes.

When you couple all of these features with the fact that there is a Mental Case IOS client as well as a desktop version, your study efficiency goes through the roof.  Now, rather than only being able to study your flash cards when you are at your desk, you can take them with you everywhere.  When you consider that most people today spend an awful lot of time staring at their iPhones and iPads, it’s nice to know that you can pull up a set of flash cards from your mobile device and go to town at a moment’s notice, like in the line at the DMV.  In fact, that’s how I got started with Mental Case.  I downloaded the IOS app and started firing out the flash cards for things like changing RIP timers and configuring SSM.  However, the main Mental Case app only runs on Mac.  At the time, I didn’t have a Mac?  How did I do it?  Well, Mental Case seems to have thought of everything.  While the IOS app works best in concert with the Mac app, you can also create flash cards on other sites, like FlashcardExchange and Quizzlet.  You can create decks and make them publicly available for everyone, or just share them among your friends.  You do have to make the deck public long enough to download to Mental Case IOS, but it can be protected again afterwards if you are studying information that shouldn’t be shared with the rest of the world.  Note, though, that the IOS version of the software is a little more basic than the one on the Mac.  It doesn’t support wacky text formatting or the ability to do multiple choice quizzes.  Also, cards that are created with more than two “sides” (Mental Case calls them facets) will only display properly in slideshow mode.  But, if you think of the IOS client as a replacement for the stack of 10,000 flash cards you might already be carrying in your backpack or pocket the limitations aren’t that severe after all.

The latest version of Mental Case now has the option to share content between Macs via iCloud.  This will allow you to keep your deck synced between your different computers.  You still have to sync the cards between your Mac and your IOS device via Wi-Fi.  You can share at shorter ranges over Bluetooth.  You can also create collection of cards known as a Study Archive and place them in a central location, like Dropbox for instance. This wasn’t a feature when I was using Mental Case full time, but I like the idea of being able to keep my cards in one place all the time.

Mental Case is running a special on their software for the next few days.  Normally, the Mac version costs $29.99.  That’s worth every penny if you spend time studying.  However, for the next few days, it’s only $9.99.  This is a steal for such a powerful study program.  The IOS app is also on sale.  Normally $4.99, it’s just $2.99.  Alone the IOS app is a great resource.  Paired with its bigger brother, this is a no-brainer.  Run out and grab these two programs and spend more time studying your facts and figures efficiently and less time creating them.  If you’d like to learn more about Mental Case from Mental Faculty, you can check out their webiste at http://www.mentalcaseapp.com.

Disclaimer

I am a Mental Case IOS user.  I have used the demo version of the Mental Case Mac app.  Mental Case has not contacted me about this review, and no promotional consideration was given.  I’m just a really big fan of the app and wanted to tell people about it.

Study Advice – Listen To That Little Voice

During Show 109 of the Packet Pushers podcast, I had the unique honor to be involved in an episode that included the uber geek Scott Morris, distinguished Cisco Press author Wendell Odom, and the very first CCDE, Russ White.  Along with Natalie Timms, the CCIE Security program manager and Amy Arnold, we discussed a lot of various topics around the subject of certification.  One of the topics that came up about 37 minutes in was about being persistent in your studies.  Amy brought up a good point that you need to find a study habit that works for you.  I followed up with a comment that I still have a voice in the back of my head that tells me I need to study.  I promised a blog post about that, so here it is only a month late.

I took three years to get my CCIE.  Only the last year really involved intense study on a regular basis.  The previous 24 months, I spent a great deal of time and effort with my regular job.  I picked up a book from time to time and refresh my memory, but I wasn’t doing the kind of heavy duty labbing necessary to hone my CCIE skills.  After I had some conversations with my mentors about what the CCIE really meant to me, I jumped in and started doing as much studying as I could every night.  Almost all of my study time came after my kids went to bed.  Basically, from 8 p.m. until about 1 a.m. I fired up my GNS3 lab and tested various scenarios and brain teasers.  I took me a bit of time before I really settled into a routine, though.  There were lots of things that kept tugging at my attention.  The devilsh Internet, the seductive allure of my television, and the siren call of video games all competed to see which one could lure me away from the warm glow of my console screen.  I had to spend a great deal of time focusing on making a conscious decision to drop what I was doing and start working on my lab.  It’s a lot like running, in a way.  Most runners will tell you that if you can get outside and start running, the rest is easy.  It’s overcoming all the obstacles in your way that are trying to keep you from running.  You have to push past the distractions and keep moving no matter what.  Don’t let an email or a text message keep you from starting R1.  Don’t let a late-night snack run distract you from loading a troubleshooting configuration.  The real key is to get started.  Crack open those lab manuals and fire up your routers, whether they be real or virtual.  After that, the rest just falls into place.

There is a downside to all that training, though.  It’s now been 13 months since I passed my CCIE lab.  To this day, I stil have a little voice in the back of my head telling me that I need to be studying.  Every time I flip on the TV or sit down on the couch, I feel like I should have a book in my lap or have a lab diagram staring me in the face.  I’ve taken some certification tests since the lab, but I haven’t really taken a great deal of time to study something that isn’t familiar to me.  I talked about what I wanted to do at the beginning of the year, and I firmly believe now that I’m halfway through that I’ve missed some opportunities to get back on the horse, as it were.  I know that the only way to satisfy that voice that keeps telling me that I should be doing something is to feed it with chapters of study guides and time in front of the lab console again.  I don’t think it will take the same kind of time investment that the CCIE did, but who knows what it might build into in the end?  I certainly never thought I’d be taking the granddaddy of all certification tests when I first started learning about networking all those many years ago.

For those out there just starting to study for your certifications, I would echo Ethan’s advice during the podcast.  You need to make a habit out of studying.  Many people that I talk to want to study for tests, but they want to do it on someone else’s time.  They want their employer to mark off time for study or provide resources for learning.  While I’m all for this kind of idea and would love to see more employers doing things like this, there is a limit that you will eventually reach.  Your employer expects you to spend your time providing a service for them.  If you truly want to have as much study time as you want, you will have to do it outside working hours.  Your boss doesn’t care what you do from 5 p.m. on.  In the case of the CCIE, it was a whole lot easier for me to try and do mock labs on Saturday than it was to try and do them on Tuesday.  The work week doesn’t afford many uninterrupted opportunities for study.  Nights and weekends do.

Make sure you take your study habits as seriously as you do your job.  It might be easy to kid yourself into thinking that you can just pick up the book for five minutes before the next TV show comes one, but we both know that won’t work.  Unless you immerse yourself in studying, all that knowledge that you gained in those scant minutes of furious reading will evaporate when the theme song to that hit sitcom starts.  You don’t have to have total silence, though.  I find that I do some of my best studying when I have some noise in the background that forces me to pay attention to what I’m doing.  However, if you don’t apply some serious consideration to your studies, you’ll probably end up much like I did in the first couple of years of my studies – adrift and listless.  If you can knuckle down and treat it just like you would a troubleshooting task or an installation project, then you’ll do just fine.

Cisco CoLaboratory – Any Questions? Any Answers?

Cisco has recently announced the details of their CoLaboratory program for the CCNP certification.  This program is focused on those out there certified as CCNPs with a couple of years of job experience that want to help shape the future of the CCNP certification.  You get to spend eight weeks helping develop a subset of exam questions that may find their way into the question pool for the various CCNP or CCDx tests.  And you’re rewarded for all your hard work with a one-year extension to your current CCNP/CCDx certification.

I got a chance to participate in the CCNA CoLab program a couple of years ago.  I thought it would be pretty easy, right?  I mean, I’ve taken the test.  I know the content forwards and backwards.  How hard could it be to write questions for the test?  Really Hard.  Turns out that there are a lot of things that go into writing a good test question.  Things I never even thought of.  Like ensuring that the candidate doesn’t have a good chance of guessing the answer.  Or getting rid of “all of the above” as an answer choice.  Turns out that most of the time “all of the above” is the choice, it’s the most often picked answer.  Same for “none of the above”.  I spent my eight weeks not only writing good, challenging questions for aspiring network rock stars, but I got a crash course in why the Cisco tests look and read the way they do.  I found a new respect for those people that spend all their time trying to capture the essence of very dry reading material in just a few words and maybe a diagram.

I also found that I’ve become more critical of shoddy test writing.  Not just all/none of the above type stuff either.  How about questions that ask for 3 correct answers and there are only four choices?  There’s a good chance I’ll get that one right even just guessing.  Or one of my favorite questions to make fun of: “Each answer represents a part of the solution.  Choose all correct steps that apply.”  Those questions are not only easy to boil down to quick binary choices, but I hate that often there is one answer that sticks out so plainly that you know it must be the right answer.  Then there’s the old multiple choice standby: when all else fails, pick the longest answer.  I can’t tell you how much time I spent on my question submissions writing “good” bad answers.  There’s a whole methodology that I never knew anything about.  And making sure the longest answer isn’t the right one every time is a lot harder than you might think.

Tom’s Take

In the end, I loved my participation in the Cisco CoLaboratory program.  It gave me a chance to see tests from the other side of the curtain and learn how to better word questions and answers to extract the maximum amount of knowledge from candidates.  If you are at all interested in certifications, or if you’ve ever sat in a certification test and said to yourself, “This question is stupid!  I could write a better question than this.”, you should head over to the Cisco CoLaboratory page and sign up to participate.  That way you get to come up with good questions.  And hopefully better answers.

My Thoughts on IOU-For-Learning

This week, Learning@Cisco announced a new program designed to help those people out there that want a virtualized router platform upon which to study for the CCNA and CCNP.  While the idea behind an emulated IOS platform is one that has been desired for a long time, what Cisco released today isn’t quite what we’ve been clamoring for.  The new programs use the now-famous IOS on Unix (IOU) setup that has been used internally at Cisco for a while now and was made famous by Jeremy Gaddis in this post.  This is also the same platform that is used in the troubleshooting section of the CCIE Routing & Switching Lab.

The new program is completely hosted by Cisco.  All of your access to the IOU environment is done via web and SSH.  You, as the end user, have no access to the files that comprise IOU.  Since the emulator is presented as a component of a learning package, there is no opportunity to modify the topologies presented.  They are canned and align with the courseware you purchase.  This is great for people that are just starting out in the networking world that have no access to the proper gear to learn how to enable telnet sessions and address an interface.  By limiting the access you have to a topology, you get rid of some of the confusion that surrounds tools such as GNS3, namely the dearth of options that tend to confuse the first-time users.

I have a couple of problems with what Cisco’s released so far:

1.  IOU isn’t a true layer 2 emulator.  The software that comprises IOU is great at simulating IOS running on a router.  That’s because it’s essentially an IOS image that has been modified to run on a different “hardware” platform.  So long as all you are worried about is working with routers, IOU is a great resource.  However, if you really want to dive into the second layer of the OSI model, you’re going to come up short rather quickly.  Basic layer 2 configuration is fine for a CCENT/CCNA type of student, but by the time you reach the CCNP level of switching, you’re going to find the interface of IOU wholly unsuitable.  Since IOU emulates a router, it has to emulate switching as it would be on a router with an ESM switch module.  That means that anything that relies on an ASIC to function, such as QoS, is right out the window.  Which means that some of the more esoteric and hard-to-learn parts of using IOS on a switch remain off-limits.  I’ve been able to use 16-port switching modules in GNS3 to emulate switches for some of my studies, but I quickly reached the limits of this configuration with things like advanced spanning tree configuration or specialized tasks like Storm Control.  I think that Cisco needs to put a little more effort into providing an emulated environment for switching.  Finding a way to emulate the ASICs of the QoS functions would make those learning VoIP QoS on 3560/3750 switches much happier.

2.  There’s still no proof-of-concept for engineers.  As luck would have it, I have a small lab at $employer to test some of the things customers ask me about.  It’s been cobbled together with bits and pieces of cast off equipment over the years.  Where I run into trouble are those cases where the customer has a setup that I can’t quite reconstruct with the equipment I have.  What would be nice is a kind of emulation environment that allows me to reconstruct this setup quickly.  This is the perfect scenario for something like IOU.  Being able to quickly reconstruct a customer’s environment or duplicate your own environment for things like change control and internal testing would be a dynamite idea.  By utilizing a Cisco UCS cluster with the right topology files, I could have my WAN configuration duplicated and run several sample configs for maintenance window changes quickly with the capability to roll them back if something horrible breaks.  That’s where the true power of having an emulator lies for the advanced engineer.

3.  Strict control of IOU cuts out the “gray market”.  It’s no big shock that Cisco has taken the stance with the 360 Program that you’re either with us or you’re the “gray market”.  Vendors like Internetwork Expert (INE) and IPExpert have their own courseware and rack space designed to aid their students.  These racks use real routers and switches to allow students the ability to do practical studying.  However, these kinds of study aids are prohibitively expensive for a training provider to get into.  Now, imagine if you could fire up and virtual rack of routers and switches for your students at the touch of a button.  The barrier to entry becomes much lower to those companies wishing to get involved in the training market.  The possibility then exists that you could have some bad apples in the bunch that might dilute the training offered to students and put a black mark against your name.  By holding all the cards in the IOU discussion, Cisco ensures that the technology never leaves their house, so any training partners wishing to leverage the power behind the emulated IOS platform must abide by Cisco’s rules if they want to keep playing.  Cisco can then force training partners to use 360 materials or the equivalent for CCNP/CCNA/CCENT training.  That forces the non-Cisco approved partners out of the space sooner rather than later.

Tom’s Take

Cisco’s getting to the educational platform party ahead of some of the other network vendors, like HP and Juniper, but they’re doing it with baby steps.  High level engineers have been hoping for a truly unlimited emulator for testing things for quite a while now.  I think they’re still going to be waiting for a while to come.  This new learning program is leveraging IOU to replace aging programs like the Boson Network Simulator or the NetSim products.  By tailoring it toward the entry-to-mid learner, it allows them to work out the kinks in the presentation while still keeping control over the platform for the time being.  I’ve heard that they will expand this idea to encompass security offerings and one day the CCIE as well.  I think that the IOU Learning Platform will be integrated into the 360 program and will only be offered as a part of the materials that you receive from your subscription to it.  I seriously doubt that even a CCIE-level student will have unfettered access to IOU in their own lab, since the possibility of a non-crippled version of IOU being readily available creates too many complications for Cisco support.  It’s already fairly easy to get a copy of IOU if you know where to look.  Imagine what would happen if a copy from a CCIE candidate got out into the wild without fixed configurations or limitations that you face in the hosted CCNA version?  I applaud Cisco for the steps they’ve taken in the right direction for allowing students access to emulated educational software.  Now it’s time to observe what happens and meet the needs of those of us on the other end of the scale.

If you think that Cisco needs to offer a full IOS platform for educational purposes, please head over to Greg Ferro’s site and put your digital signature on the educational IOS petition.  The more signatures that are gathered, the more pressure that can be brought to bear on Cisco to show them the will of the engineer.

So? So, so-so.

By now, many of you have read my guidelines to presentations HERE and HERE.  I sit through enough presentations that I have my own opinions of how they should be done.  However, I also give presentations from time to time.  With the advent of my new Flip MinoPRO, I can now record my presentations and upload to whatever video service I choose to annoy this week.  As such, allow me to present you with the first Networking Nerd presentation:

47 minutes of me talking.  I think that’s outlawed by the Geneva Convention in some places.  So you can follow along, here’s a link to my presentation in PowerPoint format.

I don’t like looking at pictures of myself, and I don’t like hearing myself talk.  You can imagine how much fun it was for me to look at this.  I tried to give an IPv6 presentation to a group of K-12 technology directors that don’t spend  a lot of time dealing with routing and IP issues.  I wanted to give them some ideas about IPv6 and what they needed to watch out for in their networks in the coming months.  I have about a month to prepare for this, and I spent a good deal of that time practicing so my delivery was smooth.

What’s my opinion of my performance?  Well, as you can tell by the title of this post, I immediately picked up on my unconscious habit of saying “so”.  Seems I use that word to join sections of conversation.  I think if I put a little more conscious thought into things, I might be able to cut that part down a bit.  No sense putting words like “so”, “um”, and “uh” in places where they don’t belong.  They are crutches that need to be removed whenever possible.  That’s one of the reasons I like writing blog posts much more than spoken presentations: I can edit my writing if I think I’ve overused a word.  Plus, I don’t have to worry about not saying “um” while I type.

You’ll notice that I try to inject some humor into my presentation.  I feel that humor helps lighten the mood in presentations where the audience may not grasp everything all at once.  Humor has it’s place, so it’s best to leave it out of things like eulogies and announcing the starting lineup at a Yankees game.  But if you watch a lot of “serious” types of presentations, a little levity goes a long way toward making things feel a lot less formal and way more fun.

I also try to avoid standing behind a lectern or a podium when I speak.  I tend to use my hands quite a bit to illustrate points and having something sitting in front of me that blocks my range of motion tends to mess with my flow a little.  I also tend to pace and wander around a bit as I talk.  Having to be held to a physical object like a lectern would drive me nuts.  I would have preferred to have some kind of remote in my pocket that I could advance the slides with and use a laser pointer to illustrate things on the slides, but I lost mine some time ago and it has yet to turn up.  Luckily, I had someone in the room that was willing to advance my slide deck.  Otherwise, there would have been a lot of walking back and forth and out of frame.  Note to presenters, invest in a remote or two so you can keep the attention focused on you and your presentation without the distraction of walking back and forth or being forced to stay close to your laptop.

Let me know what you think, good or bad.  If you think I spaced out on my explanation of the content, corrections are always welcomed.  If you don’t like my gesticulations, I want to know.  Even tell me if you thought my Spinal Tap joke was a little too corny.  The only way I can get better as a presenter is to get feedback.  And since there were 8 people in the room, 7 of which I knew quite well, I don’t think I’m going to get any feedback forms.

The Nerd Presents: Tips for Presenting

Everyone in the world has at least one good presentation in them.  It doesn’t take much to put something down in a few slides and talk about it.  For most people, the hardest part is getting up in front of a group and actually speaking.  Once you get over that, the rest is easy.  However, in my job I get to listen to a lot of presentations.  I’ve had a lot of time to look beyond the content to things that tarnish your image when in front of customers or learners.  I won’t profess to be an expert when it comes to the art of presentation, but I think most would agree with me that looking at these tips will help out in the polishing department.

- Close down Outlook and turn off your mail notifications. As professionals, we are all married to Outlook/Thunderbird/Entourage.  No matter what it seems impossible to escape it today with the ability to load it on our desktops, laptops, and mobile devices.  However, when you stand in front of me to start pitching your software or tell me about a new technology, please turn off your mail client and notification system.  Think about it like this: you don’t leave your cell phone ringer on when your presenting because of the distraction.  Why would you leave the new mail popup in the corner?  At best, it causes me to shift my focus from the content of the slide deck to whatever new message you just received.  At worst, I may be privy to inside information from your company, sales targets and customers, or in rare and somewhat ironic cases, end of life notices for the very product you are trying to sell me.  Ask yourself this question: If you were listening to me tell you about how great my Project Foobar is and I receive an email from my lead product specialist with the subject “Inability of Project Foobar to Address Basic Business Needs” would you still be interested in hearing my pitch?

- Shut down instant messengers. For that portion of the crowd that thinks email is so yesterday, there is the instant messenger (IM).  People use a variety of clients, from the tried-and-true AOL instant messenger to newer things like Trillain or Pidgin or even Cisco Unified Personal Communicator.  Guess what?   Shut it down before you start talking to me.  All of the reasons above still apply to IM conversations.  In the case of IM though, people are a lot more informal.  So conversations may not start out with simple hellos.  You may get something more pointed or perhaps a greeting too salty for the taste of the group your are presenting to.  Imagine a co-worker sending you profanity laced tirade during a speaking engagement with a Catholic school.  Or something leaning toward the more delicate and personal from your spouse when you are speaking to a prospective customer.  The ability to embed pictures in IMs makes this prospect even scarier.  And before you say “I can just set myself to away” think about all the times that an “emergency” has come up and you’ve been pinged on IM even when your away.  Chalk that particular one up to most people assuming that “away” means “I’m sitting right here and I just don’t want to talk to you right now”.  Better to just shut yourself off from the IM cloud for a while and not take any chances.

- Change your desktop wallpaper to something bland. I’m guilty of this one, so allow me to start casting stones.  I like wallpapers.  Generally something abstract or landscape oriented.  I do have the occasional cool picture of something fire and ice related.  But for the most part, I tend to avoid pictures of people or animals or quotes.  Especially if they could be construed as the least bit offensive.  But even my conservative taste in wallpaper can be distracting when presenting.  You say, “But no one is going to see my desktop if Powerpoint is up the whole time.”  True enough, but how many times are you only using Powerpoint?  What happens if you have to switch slide shows?  Or look at a document on your desktop?  Or switch to a web browser to load a live video?  There are a variety of reasons to jump out of Powerpoint, and if you don’t think ahead of time, you might just find yourself showing a picture of your last trip to Cancun to all of the members of your church group.  Even in the case that it’s a picture of your newborn daughter, your presentation focus will be lost as people start cooing about how cute she is, how old she is, whether or not she’s sleeping yet, whether or not you’re sleeping, ad infintium.  In my book, it’s best just to change your wallpaper to basic black and move on.

- Collect all your documents related to the presentation in one folder on your desktop. Most of my presentations are loaded with technical content.  Many of them, however, don’t have the density of the documents I used to put them together.  Making my slides into eye charts won’t help my audience understand my topic any better.  But if I mention that there is a document that includes more technical depth to this particular subject, invariably someone is going to ask to see that document.  Or ask about a fact or figure from it.  That leads to me needed to go spelunking through my file system to find it.  Call me somewhat old-fashioned, but I don’t really like people staring at my file structure and folder contents.  Especially if those folders contain competitive information.  What might happen if my customer sees a document named “Juniper ASA Comparison and Debunking.pdf”?  Sure, if I’m presenting one of those products it shouldn’t really matter, right?  But what if the other product is one that the customer has never heard of?  Yeah, if you’re researching firewalls and you’ve gotten to the point of hearing a presentation about one, hopefully you know about the other.  But in my mind, just the presence of that document could derail your presentation with questions that might not be pertinent to the discussion at hand.  Better to copy all of the relevant documents that you have sourced from your presentation into a folder labeled “Presentation Documents” and put it on your desktop so you don’t spend precious minutes searching for it.  And while you’re at it, consider changing your browser’s homepage if you shell out to the Internet during presentations.  Google is a good safe bet.  Your sports book?  Not so much…

- Don’t read the slides back to me. Pet. Peeve. Number. One.  Don’t read your slides back to me.  I’ve walked out of presentations that I’ve paid for the honor of attending for this gaffe.  If you are reading the slides back to me word-for-word, it tells me you’ve done no research on the topic and you have no depth on knowledge on the subject.  Marketing people are the worst when it comes to this.  They just assume that what has been printed on the slide is the definitive answer to everyone’s problems and just start reading it to me like gospel.  Guess what?  I can read too!  As you’re outlining the contents of that slide, I’ve already glanced over it and picked out the most relevant pieces of information that interest me.  If you then start at the top and read the bullet points to me, I going to guess this is all new to you too.  I treat my slide deck like I would treat a stack of 3”x5” index cards that I use for notes.  I expand on each of the bullet points in my slide deck with additional discussion topics.  That’s also one of the reasons I print my slide deck ahead of time and make it available to the people that I speak to.  That way, they can jot down the notes I speak about and reference them against the printed slides.  The way I see it, you came to see me speak, not look at my fancy multiple-build-slide transition heavy corporate approved 100-slide deck.  If you want me to read the slides back to you, it’s going to feel way too much like circle time in my son’s kindergarten class.

Many, many moons ago I was an intern at IBM in Rochester, MN.  My first-line manager decided that the other intern and I needed to get some practice giving presentations to clients/customers.  She therefore decided to make us present some Windows 2000 tips to a group of users that had recently received new Thinkpad T20s (how’s that for dating myself?).  After I had put together my slides, my mentor told me that I needed to go grab a brand new laptop from the laptop pool and use it instead of my personal machine.  What I questioned her reasoning, she told me that by using a fresh laptop out of the box, the usual cruft that come along with my personal machine would be absent.  I wouldn’t need to worry about some of the things I’ve listed above, like Outlook (in this case Lotus Notes) or my desktop wallpaper.  I could concentrate on my presentation.  And while I won’t say that her advice made my presentation into something that changed the fabric of the IT culture at IBM, it was successful because I didn’t have any technologically-enhanced blunders.

If you don’t have the opportunity to give yourself a new laptop every time you need to present, you could always have a clean virtual machine that consists of a basic OS with a PDF reader and presentation software.  That way, you don’t have to worry about getting any unnecessary things popping up inside that VM.  Just make sure to keep it updated from time to time to ensure your machine won’t pop up with a Windows Update restart prompt every 15 minutes during your slides.

Just some things to keep in mind when it’s time to jump up in front of a hostile crowd and start talking about how this information will change society or how your product is the greatest thing since sliced bread.  If you don’t have to worry about some of the more mundane things in the background of your presentation, you’ll knock their socks off with the content in your slides.  Just be sure not the mention Gartner.  That tends to get the natives restless.

2011 – Looking Forward

I almost wrote an end-of-year recap for this particular blog post.  I thought back to all of the things I’d accomplished over the past year.  It didn’t take me long to realize that I didn’t really keep track of them as well as I should.  The other thing that changed my mind was Greg’s great post about looking forward.  I’ve only been blogging for about 3 months.  I’ve really only had an online presence for about half the year.  So recapping what I’ve done wouldn’t really do much to help me take stock of what’s been going on.  But I’ve been trying to codify some things that I’m looking forward to in 2011 and I thought that putting them down in print would be a great way to make me own up to them.  So, without further ado, here’s what I’m looking forward to for the next 365 days.

1.  Passing the CCIE R&S lab. We are quickly getting to put-up or shut-up time when it comes to my CCIE lab.  I know that I’ve only failed when I decide to quit trying, but the trying is really starting to smart.  I’m in a unique position amongst some of my peers, in that my employer has been very gracious in allowing me to keep attempting the lab.  But I’m starting to feel like I’m imposing on their goodwill.  I’m starting to see a lot of RFPs being released that are requiring CCIE credentials to design what are essentially enhanced layer 2 networks.  I realize that these RFPs have been crafted in some degree to lock my employer out of consideration in the bidding process.  My pride tells me that I want to pass the lab for no other reason that to fly a big middle finger to them, as if to say “Ha! Guess what I did?!?”  In the end, I want to really succeed here because I’ve never let any test beat me, save one.  And I’m not about to let the CCIE become the second.

2.  Upgrade my VCP to version 4. The other thing that I do a lot of at my job that doesn’t revolve around networks concentrates on VMware.  I work with it more than I do with the actual OSes that get loaded to it, and I think it’s about time I made the move to getting certified on the current version.  There are some interesting possibilities that await should I manage to get there, including the idea of getting the VCAP4 – Design.  My job focus is quickly moving on toward building networks and systems on paper rather than physically, so some more designed-focused learning would do me some good.  But first things first.  I’ve got to get with the now.

3.  Start looking at the CCIE Voice. Heh, compared to #1, this one looks kind of silly.  Why start looking at another CCIE track when you aren’t even done with the one you started with?  If the truth be told, I’ve stuck with R&S as long as I have because of my stubborn streak.  I don’t work with BGP or MPLS in my every day job.  I doubt I ever will unless I switch roles and/or employers.  But I deal with voice every day.  It’s not what I started out to do, but I find it interesting.  And so I’m thinking that I might consider looking at some of the Voice courses and whether or not they appeal to me.  Who knows?  Maybe Voice will be an easier lab for me?

4.  Wikify my documentation. I’ve been putting this off for a lot longer than I should.  I need to take all of the information that I’ve gathered that resides on my laptop and put it into a form that other people can use and edit easily.  I want to have all of my knowledge in a place my peers can get to so that they might find the information they need quickly.  I want to clean up my haphazard note-taking style and make it readable.  I also want to be able to disappear for a few days at a time without getting ten phone calls and tons of e-mails.   I want to be able to pass the Bus Test.

5.  Start teaching more. Part of the reason that I started this blog was to collect all the random things that I come across and write them down in a place that I could easily find.  As an ancillary objective, I hope that other people might benefit from my research and study so that they could avoid the mistakes I’ve made.  I’ve considered bringing that into something a little more formal.  Some of my old college professors have talked to me about speaking to student groups.  My boss has discussed having me train user groups and train-the-trainer type scenarios.  I look at it as a two-fold opportunity.  I get to disseminate my knowledge, but I also gain the ability to tighten my presentation skills and put a little polish on my approach.  I don’t want to end up as a curmudgeon that sits behind a keyboard all day and loses all social ability.  I figure that forcing myself to get out and speak to people might just do that.

I figure five things should be a good list to work on.  Especially since  #1 is going to consume a lot of my time.  I hope to look back on this in 52 weeks and check off a few things.  I also hope that I can add a few more items to the list as I go.  Because surprises are always a good way to keep your edge sharp.

The Recertification Treadmill

I like tests.  Probably a lot more than I should.  Oh, it wasn’t always like this.  I dreaded test days in college.  Cramming chapters worth of information into my brain so that it could just be regurgitated later and forgotten shortly after than.  In fact, I can distinctly remember studying the OSI model for one of my IT infrastructure classes and thinking, “I only need to remember this for the exam.  After that, I’ll never see it again.”  Of course, that same OSI model is now permanently tattooed on the insides of my eyelids.

Then I entered the Real World.  I found out about certification tests and all they entail.  You mean I can take one test proving my mastery of a subject and you guys send me a certificate and a little wallet card?  Sign me up!  It also helped that my employer is a partner with multiple vendors and needed me to take as many tests as I could to keep their partner status up-to-date.  So I set off on my odyssey of test taking.  I’ve got certifications from Novell, Microsoft, CompTIA, Cisco, HP, (ISC)2, and many more.  I’ve taken enough tests that the test administrator at my local testing center recognizes me in the street.  I know more about the ins and outs of testing procedure than most people should.  And, I’ve been handsomely rewarded for my test taking prowess.  And, for the most part, I’ve enjoyed every second of my learning.  Except for recert day.

Yes, every once in a while one of the vendors sends me a note that says I’m due for renewal.  My professional title is now in jeopardy if I don’t study some new information and go see my local Pearson/Prometric guru.  So I start pouring over material in an effort to not need new business cards.  I cram all that new information in my stuffed head and run out to take the test again.  And I pass.  And for a while, I’m a golden boy again.  Until recert day comes up again.

Some vendors tell  you that you can keep your certification for ever and ever.  Like my MCSE.  Of course, I’m not technically “current” with that one, especially now that the new title is MCITP (or something like that).  So, while I’m a whiz when it comes to Windows 2000, I’m not really authorized on the new hotness of Server 2008.  Oh well.  Other vendors, like Cisco, keep the same certification title, but they change the tests around from time to time.  Like my CCVP.  I originally certified on CUCM 4.1.  Back when there was a separate test for those gatekeeper thingies.  And then Cisco went and released a new CCVP track about CUCM 6.x.  I didn’t have to recertify because my CCVP was still good.  But now, they have eliminated the CCVP and changed the voice certification track to the CCNP: Voice.  You can still take the CCVP tests and get grandfathered in before the change to the new CUCM 8.x material if you want.  And that’s what I found myself doing about 2 months ago.  I figured since I worked with voice everyday it shouldn’t be too rough to just jump in and take the tests.  My reasoning was that the partner requirements for Advanced Unified Communications would change after the CCVP –> CCNP: Voice move, so I wanted to get out in front of this change before I was forced to.  I managed to stumble through the troubleshooting test and both CallManager tests in fairly short order.  As I brushed up on my CVOICE basics, I remembered that a previous visit to the Certification Tracker showed that I hadn’t taken the QoS exam, even though I distinctly remembered the pain and agony of that one.  I wrote in to Cisco Cert Support, hoping that I didn’t have to go through it all over again.  While I kept studying for my CVOICE test, I got the response.  It seems that those tests expire after 3 years, and I would need to retake it again for it to be valid.  However, according to Cisco, I was already a CCNP: Voice, so I wouldn’t need to retake it.  Huh?  When did that happen?

Cisco’s recertification policy for professional level exams says that taking any professional test with a ‘642’ prefix will recertify your CCxP.  Little did I know at the time that my first test, Troubleshooting Unified Communications, had recertified my CCVP and triggered the upgrade to a CCNP:Voice.  So, the CUCM tests were for naught.  The CVOICE test did give me a CCNA: Voice tag, so I’ve got that going for me now.  The Cisco recert cycle is nothing new to me.  I’ve been taking the CCIE written exam every year because it’s the only way to keep my specialist designations current.  In order to keep my employer in the good partner graces, I have to keep remembering OSPF and MPLS trivia and take the CCIE written at least every two years.  It’s the only way for me to keep my certifications current without devoting all my time to studying and taking tests instead of doing the job I was hired for.  I was confused in this particular instance with the CCNP: Voice because the certification website never said anything about there being an upgrade path from my 4.2 CCVP to the 8.x CCNP: Voice.  I’m happy nonetheless, but I started thinking about the whole recertification process and why it bothers me somewhat.

I can take any 642 level Cisco exam and recertify all my CCxA and CCxP titles.  I can take the CCIE written and do the same, including my specialist tags.  VMware makes me take a new test and sit through 5 days of training to get a VCP4.  Microsoft wants me to take a whole new set of tests to become a new MCSE/MCITP.  Novell just keeps certifying me on Linux stuff even though I haven’t taken Novell test in years.  And we won’t talk about HP.  Ethan has a great post about recerting his CCIE that hits on a lot of good points.  Normally, we have to either shut down our productivity for a few weeks to get into the recertification groove, or try and find time outside of work to study.  Either way, it seems like a colossal waste of time. It’s almost like being elected to the House of Representatives.  You need to start campaigning for re-election right after you’ve been elected.  It’s just annoying that I have to take time out of my schedule to relearn things I’m already doing.  Is there any way to fix this?

Find a lawyer.  Any lawyer.  If you’re having trouble, check behind the nearest ambulance.  Now, ask them how many times they’ve retaken the bar exam.  Odds are good they’ll stare at you and tell you that you’ve lost your mind.  Lawyers don’t have to resit the bar exam every time they need to renew their fancy degree.  They are allowed to use Continuing Professional Education credits.  All they have to do is take a class or attend a conference and they can count that learning toward recertifying their degree and certification requirements.  IT people are the same.  We spend a lot of our time watching webcasts and going to trade shows.  I go to Cisco Live Networkers almost every year.  When I’m there, I take the opportunity to learn about technologies I don’t encounter in my every day job, like TRiLL or FabricPath.  I’m doing an awful lot to keep current with trends and technology in the industry, and it feels like it’s all for my own edification.  It doesn’t really count toward anything.  Except in one case – my CISSP.  Because (ISC)2 uses a CPEs too.

The vendor-neutral certification bodies have it right, in my opinion.  (ISC)2, BICSI, and CWNP all have a CPE policy.  They say that you can go to conferences or read books and count that learning toward your certification.  They want you to prove that you’re staying current, and in return they’ll make sure you are current when it comes to certifications.  Sure, in the case of the CISSP, most of the learning needs to be focused on security, but that’s how it should be.  I can count some amount of general education credits toward my CISSP, but the bulk of the education needs to be focused on the subject matter of the certification.  I think something like this would be a great addition to Cisco’s arsenal.  Give your certified professionals a chance to apply the learning they do every day toward recertification.  You’d sell more Cisco Press books if I knew I could read one and count 5 points toward my CCSP.  There’d be even more attendees at Networkers if it counted for 40 CPEs every year.  But, there also need to be some restrictions.

Some vendors don’t like the idea that one test can recertify all your titles.  Juniper doesn’t.  So make sure that the education credits only count toward a specific area of knowledge.  The Migrating CUCM class from Brandon Ta that I go to every year could count toward my CCVP, but not my CCSP.  My TRiLL webcasts could count for points to recertify my CCIE R&S or SP, but not the CCIE Wireless.  If you marry the education to a specific certification, you’ll see much higher attendance for those kinds of things.  For people like us that spend time writing about things on the Interwebs, authoring articles for places like Network World or Information Week could count as well, since you are disseminating the knowledge you’ve obtained to the masses.  Even teaching could count toward recertifying.

This idea is not without issue, though.  The first argument is that allowing certified individuals to use CPEs might cause problems with the cottage industry that has sprung up around teaching these subjects to people.  Ask yourself, How many people would go to VMware classroom learning if it wasn’t required to obtain the VCP?  I’m sure the answer would be “A whole lot less.”  It’s no secret that Cisco and HP and Microsoft make a lot of money offering classes to people in order to get the certified on technology.  Companies can specialize in just teaching certification coursework and turn a tidy profit.  And these same companies might not be too keen on the idea of a revenue stream drying up because Cisco or Novell decided to be noble and not require everyone to take a new test every 2 years.

Another consequence, though one for the better, would be the contraction of the “braindump” market.  A lot of people talk about the braindump market catering to those who want a fast track to the CCNA or other entry-level cert.  I’m of the opinion that a larger portion of the dumping population consists of already-certified individuals that have neither the time nor the energy to study for a recertification exam.  These people are facing a deadline of needing to stay current with whatever alphabet soup comes after their name, except now that they have a steady job they don’t have the time to devote to studying all night to pass.  Faced with the option of letting their certification expire, or paying money to someone for the answers to the test, they swallow their pride and take the easy way out.  In their mind, no harm is done because they were already a CCxA in the first place.  They know the material, they just don’t have time to remember what the “vendor answer” is on the test.  Now, give these same people the opportunity to apply a webcast or vendor presentation that they’d sit through anyway to that CCxA.  I bet that more than half the dumping sites would go away within a year.  When the market starts drying up, it’s time to move on.

I really hope that the vendors out there take the time in 2011 to reassess their recertification strategies.  Giving certified professionals more options when it comes to proving they know their material can only build goodwill in the future.  Because the current method feels way too much like a treadmill right now.  I keep running in place as fast as I can just to stay where I’m at.  I think things need to change in order to make the education and learning that I do have a tangible impact on my certification progress.  Because sooner or later I’m not going to be able to keep up with the recertification treadmill.  And we all know what the result is when that happens…

Nerds on Film

I’m a visual learner.  I’ve known this for quite a while now.  While I can find a location with printed directions from Google or Mapquest, once I’ve been to a place and seen how to get there I won’t get lost again.  Network diagrams convey information much more clearly to me than spreadsheets.  Even the act of my watching the information being written on a whiteboard is enough visual stimulation for it to stick with me.  I think in pictures.  And, for the majority of my career this has served me well.

That is, until I started doing site walkthroughs.  Part of my job as a consultant requires me to walk around customer sites and observe things.  I need to figure out what kind of electrical power is available.  I need to know if the racks in the location will support a small UPS or a large rack-mount server.  I need to know how many patch panels are installed.  In short, I need to build a picture of your equipment and network so I can start figuring out what you need.  In the past, I’ve always taken notes in my handy notepad.  I jot down what I’m thinking at the time and what I’m seeing.  Which works great as long as I can provide some context.  Some notes, like “needs power” make sense if you remember to tag which rack you are talking about.  Or you can remember which order you went through if you forgot to provide locations.  Other notes, like “messy” or “I don’t want to ever come back here” tend to get lost in the shuffle.  And so I found myself looking at my notebook days after my walkthrough wondering exactly what I was thinking when I jotted down a particular entry.  That is, after I combed through the the 5 notebooks and legal pads I keep on my desk and in my car where notes may or may not be written down.  Even moving to an electronic device for taking notes didn’t alleviate all my note-taking challenges.  All that changed last year thanks in part to Cisco.

When I was at Cisco Live Networkers 2009 in San Francisco, I was fortunate enough to win one of these:

For those of you not familiar, this is the Flip Video camera that Cisco now offers after their purchase of Pure Digital in 2009.  This particular one was won by playing the Mind Share game at the Cisco Learning Lounge.  When I won it, I first thought “Great!” Then I realized that I never really take pictures of anything, let alone video.  When John Chambers was sitting on stage during the keynote talking about the revolution of video and how it was going to become a real game-changer, it didn’t really sink in.

Not until I was back home and working on the drudgery of my regular, non-nerdy non-convention life did the reality of video truly hit me.  All of the problems I had experienced with notes could be solved with video!  No longer did I have to remember to write down some key piece of information before it was forgotten.  No longer would I have to make several trips to a site to answer a question about port counts or rack types.  I could be free to conduct site surveys in a much more informal and meaningful manner.

Now, instead of flipping out my notebook or iPad or papyrus and quill, I take my Flip camera out of my backpack and just turn it on.  Then I talk.  I describe what I’m seeing.  I talk about rack types and punch downs.  I sweep the camera all around the area, noting anything of interest I might find.  And when I’m done with my video note, I save it to my computer for future reference.  In six months when an account manager asks me what kind of power is available in the room, I don’t have to make another trip to the site or spend half a day pouring over notebooks.  I simply fire up my video record of my walkthrough and give them the answer they’re looking for.

It also helps to jog my memory when I look at a map of the building or I’m asked about a specific closet.  I can go back and relive my time there to get the answers I need.  And others can watch my videos and see the same things I’ve seen.  That way, I can provide as much info as possible for as many people as I can in the shortest amount of time.  That, in essence is the power of video.  And for visual learners like me, it’s a really powerful way to demonstrate what I’ve seen to myself and to others.

And, thankfully, since I’m the producer I never have to be in front of the camera.  I let the visuals speak for themselves.  Because the last thing my customers and co-workers need to see is another nerd on film.

God Help Us, We’re In the Hands of Engineers

A comment over on Jeremy Stretch’s wonderful site touched off a bit of a discussion today about the proper use of the term ‘engineer’.  It appears that the “real” engineers in the world have gotten into a bit of a tiff with us computer nerds about why we aren’t allowed to call ourselves engineers.  A little background:

According to the font of all knowledge, an engineer is:

...a professional practitioner of engineering, concerned with applying scientific knowledge, mathematics and ingenuity to develop solutions for technical problems. Engineers design materials, structures, machines and systems while considering the limitations imposed by practicality, safety and cost. The word engineer is derived from the Latin root ingenium, meaning "cleverness".
Engineers are grounded in applied sciences and are distinguished from scientists who perform research and artists who create with a focus on aesthetics. The work of engineers forms the link between scientific discoveries and the applications that meet the needs of society.

(COPIED FROM HERE)

Hmm, okay.  So, that sounds like it could be a lot of things.

- applying scientific knowledge (check)

- Mathematic knowledge (check)

- Developing solutions and systems (check)

- Considering limitations of cost and practicality (double check)

Okay, so far it looks like myself and my brethren are engineers for sure.  Ah, but wait…here come the scientists:

According to multiple sources, the “real” engineer is distinguished by holding a 4-year Bachelor of Science degree in an engineering discipline, having 6 years experience, and taking one or more tests.  This appears to be the most common set of requirements (more on this later).  So, because I didn’t put down civil engineering as my major in college, I’m out.  Because I don’t have six or more years experience building sewers or roads or bridges, I’m disqualified.  And because I haven’t forked over $1000 or more to the state licensing board, I’m just a lowly technician worthy of engineer nerd scorn.

What I have done, though, is spend my career building complex systems relying on specific scientific and mathematic principles.  Knowledge that not everyone who’s ever hit the power button on their laptop has.  I make the magical packets flow so you can watch Youtube videos and download dirty pictures.  I make your e-mail work so you can get blueprints and site updates.  I keep the QoS flowing so your emergency need to check Google Earth to make sure no one built a subdivision in the way of your highway.  I do things with my knowedge that would make you cringe and look the other way because you don’t understand them.

I took industry-specific tests from Novell, Microsoft, Cisco, HP, and Symantec to prove my knowledge.  Those governing bodies granted me the right to use the titles MCNE, MCSE, ASE, and SCSE (all have the word ‘engineer’).  And, for the record, these are the same tests no matter if you take them in Texas or Thailand.  I know of engineers that took their tests in other states because they were ‘easier’ and used comity to be licensed in their home state. So, in a sense, I am an engineer for all those reasons.  Yet, the professional engineers (P. Eng) get all huffy about it.  For the record, I thought P. Eng was Sean Combs’ name this week…

In the US, you are a P. Eng if you take the classes and tests and have enough experience and get signed off upon by other engineers.  But you can still use the title “engineer” through the use of a industrial exemption.  This means that if I work in industry providing engineering services, I’m exempt from getting licensed.  This exemption is pissing P. Eng’s off left and right.  Why, might you ask?  Because civil, mechnical, and electrical engineers are using it to get past taking the tests.  The IEEE is having kittens because they think anyone involved in engineering services that directly impact public safety should be required to be licensed before they use the term.  I can see that insofar as it impacts the safety of other people.  But yelling at lowly computer nerds because they claim to be “engineers”?  Tilting at windmills, in my opinion.  And heaven help you if you claim to be an engineer in Canada without a license.  I think they dispatch the Mounties to shoot you in the street like a common horse thief.

You wanna complain about me using the title “network engineer”.  Okay, let’s switch spots for a week.  I’ll spend all day staring at blueprints trying to figure out which way the road is supposed to go.  You can head back to my desk and keep the network running and figure out why the boss’s e-mail isn’t lightning fast.  You can unclog the tubes and carry my pager to respond to network outages at 3:30 in the morning on a Sunday.  You can put up with me calling you asking why I can’t get to Youtube today to watch some cat playing the drums.  And if you don’t run screaming back to me within a day loudly proclaiming that I am truly an engineer, I promise I’ll start calling myself something totally different.  Like Network Rock Star.  Since nobody needs any talent to be one of those.