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.