Are you struggling to complete a vendor certification? Do you have the will, but perhaps not the way? Getting through a cert program is tough — I’ve completed several of them. And I’ve developed a methodology for successfully completing a cert. With luck, this process might help you move ahead.
1. Understand what, exactly, is expected of you by the vendor. This might seem obvious, but it’s a crucial point. You must understand the knowledge domains, classroom time, real-world experience, and examinations required to obtain the certification. Different certs have different objectives. Determining the vendor’s expectations is the first step in deciding just how to approach the program.
2. Create a sheet with all blueprint topics listed. In most cases, a vendor will publish a blueprint of topics you are expected to master as the certification candidate. Write them all down. I recommend that you don’t copy and paste them. Rather, actually type them out to force yourself to think about each of them individually.
As you work through the list, you should see some topics that are familiar due to your day job or lab work, topics that aren’t quite so familiar, and topics that you’ve never even heard of. This process puts you on notice for just how much work is ahead of you as pursue mastery of the topics.
3. Write down how you’ll master each of these blueprint topics. If the vendor put the topic on the list of stuff you have to know, then there’s a way to get the required knowledge. For example, you might read a book, do some lab work, attend a class, or run through online training.
At this stage, be as specific as possible about the “how.” For example, writing down “Read CCENT book, chapter 5,” next to a blueprint topic is a specific, easy-to-follow step. “Read,” is not specific enough, as it places a burden on you to figure out what, exactly, to read sometime later.
This means that you’ll do a significant amount of research up front to figure out where the information you need resides. A hint for Cisco certification seekers is that what you need to know can often be found in articles on cisco.com, if your Google-fu is strong. Cisco’s tech article repository is astonishingly deep, mostly well-written, and completely free.
4. Put a specific duration next to the learning task. Estimate how long each learning task will take you. If you’re new to this, make an initial estimate, then double or even triple that time for your final estimate.
I can’t stress enough that “reading” a chapter while slumped in the couch in a stress-induced Doritos coma after a long day of work is not effective study. Your time must include careful contemplation and topical review so that your mind fully comprehends the information.
Effective study is not simply reading a chapter in a book or blasting through a course module. To master the information, you will need to take notes, comprehend review questions, and, depending on the topic, practice in a lab.
5. Set a date next to each learning task. Your study calendar is what rules your life when you are seeking a certification. You don’t go out with friends. You don’t hone your PS4 skills. You don’t pose for selfies with your book. You don’t binge-watch House of Cards. You do what the darn calendar says. And if it says you’re doing 2 online modules, reviewing with lab exercises, and then writing a blog as a way to review what you learned, then that’s what you bloody well do.
If you don’t treat your study calendar with this sort of gravity, you’ll never finish the cert.
Will there ever be exceptions to this stern perspective? Maybe. Family emergencies. A crisis at work. Illness that truly knocks you flat on your backside. And in those situations, you have to adjust your study calendar, and get right back after it as soon as possible.
6. Build in time for breaks. When studying, get up once every hour or two for 5-10 minutes. Clear your head. Get a little food. Caffeinate if you need to. Walk around. But keep your mind quiet. Don’t check Facebook. Don’t go through voicemail. Just have a few minutes away where you disengage from study.
If you are unused to long periods of focused study, these breaks will help you get through it. If you happen to be capable of extended focus, then you might not need breaks as frequently.
For CCIE candidates, you should be training yourself for 10+ hours of uninterrupted focus, in my opinion. You need this much focus to get through the lab. If that’s daunting, work up to it, increasing your consecutive hours of focus over time. If you’ve never considered this before, I strongly recommend you make this deep focus a goal.
7. Build in time for review. You won’t remember it all the first time. You MUST review regularly. Vendors like to cram an enormous amount of information into their exam requirements, and some of the study guides are hundreds of pages long as a result. If the information is new to you, there is precisely a (let me think…okay…got it) ZERO chance that you’ll remember it all after the first pass.
You must review earlier studies to cement unfamiliar facts in your mind. Many people use flash cards for this. I’m a writer, and so my strategy is to keep extensive notes and/or post blogs about my studies. Other folks I know prefer to write notes longhand. Like savages.
8. Book the exam. This will help you stay focused and committed. Booking the exam always induces angst, but it can also induce motivation. “That test is coming. There it is, on the calendar. Wow…I better put the game controller down and study.”
Note that your local testing center isn’t sitting around waiting for you to book a slot. Testing centers are often booked weeks or even months ahead of time. Don’t wait until you think you’re ready, and then expect to book the test for the following day. That is unlikely to work out, in my experience.
9. As you complete tasks, cross them out. Crossing out tasks might seem pedantic, but there is satisfaction that comes from this, especially if you are task-oriented person like I am. Also, seeing what’s crossed out vs. not crossed out is a good progress indicator. You get a visual reference displaying how far you have to go.
10. Fear no topic. In certification programs, there are always those topics that seem intimidating. Maybe you’ve run into the topic before, and you just didn’t get it. Or maybe you work with the technology and have had a frustrating experience. Seeing that topic on the list fills you with dread. (Multicast. There. I said it.)
Look – if other humans can get it, so can you. This is such an important concept to grasp. Stop doubting your ability to be a master of topics that, on the surface, seem beyond your comprehension. Those other people that crafted this technology aren’t likely to be any smarter than you. You can 100% do it, and I don’t mean this in a Disney-esque “believe in yourself” way. The simple fact that someone else gets it means that you can as well. Period. All you have to do is dig in.
One tip is that some texts are written horribly. Don’t waste your time with a text where you read a paragraph and find the content so buried in jargon and sadness that the information is inaccessible. Get what you can from that text, and then go find a description of the technology written by someone who understands it well enough to explain it clearly.
11. First understand the “why.” Then worry about the “how.” A classic mistake when learning technology is to dive into the configuration paragraphs as if memorizing commands somehow indicates topical mastery. CLI-fu is the LAST step in learning a new technology.
Technology confusion often comes by focusing on configuration details without understanding the point of the technology. I believe deep in my guts that there’s little “hard” about any technology once you grasp the overview of what it’s for and how it’s meant to function. So, skip the CLI until you have a clear picture in your mind of what the tech is for. Only then will the configuration steps have enough context to be memorable.
Certifications happen when you break them down into their component parts and take them on one at a time. Now go eat the elephant.