Exam pass: TSHOOT 642-832

Introduction

When I passed the ROUTE exam in April, I only had the TSHOOT exam left to get the CCNP I had set my sights on by the end of October of 2012. This date had been set in my 2011 appraisal but I was planning on taking TSHOOT the first week in June, just before a well-earned two-week holiday. However, when I realised that the 2012 appraisal had to be done by the end of May and my line manager was returning from his honeymoon in the middle of May, an ego switch in my head flicked on and I thought it would be a good idea to walk in to the appraisal with the CCNP objective ticked off the list.

Failed

With that in mind, I did something which, whilst I don’t regret it now, at the time caused a bruising of my pride. I booked the exam four weeks earlier than I had originally scheduled for and failed it. The first IT exam I have failed and there have been a few over the years. Looking up and seeing the score, 780 where the pass mark was 790, was a real kick in the stomach. It took a couple of days to start being objective about it but it helped that I got a lot of support from peers who had gone through the same pain and knew that it was just a matter of time to bounce back.

Time management

After all, the problem had been that I had run out of time rather than not understanding the subject matter. The last trouble ticket was completely unanswered and the two before were rushed through in the last minutes. I had fallen foul of appalling exam time management. This was down to two factors. Firstly, I had stupidly miscalculated how much time I had for each question, a simple maths failure. Getting this wrong by just five minutes per ticket was enough to misjudge by over an hour! The most important factor was that I hadn’t learned the topology nearly enough and this was unforgiveable considering Cisco make this freely available on their website. I also made the mistake of drawing the diagram out on the wipe board, not from memory, but from the on-screen topology, as the clock was ticking which wasted valuable minutes.

I had planned on booking it for the following week but when I got struck down by a bug that any psychotic maniac hell-bent on taking over the world would have killed his grandmother to get a sample of, I was unable to stay more than 20 seconds from the nearest bathroom. The exam would have to wait. At the back of my mind, I questioned whether I should wait until the original June date to resit but I was 100% confident that my first time fail was down to nothing more than poor time keeping and so I booked it for 13 days after the first attempt.

Regroup

I studied the topology diagram in more detail this time and as a hint to those thinking of taking the exam, you would do well to notice the following things on the diagram (just to be clear, this is highlighting what Cisco make publically available and is not giving anything away about the exam that may breach NDA):

  • IP addressing scheme
  • EIGRP coverage
  • OSPF coverage
  • BGP AS numbers and peer addresses
  • GRE tunnel on IPv6 diagram between R3 and R4
  • NAT on R1
  • DHCP on R4
  • DSW switches are layer 3 inferring use of DHCP helper address for client requests
  • Etherchannel between ASWs and DSWs
  • VLANs for clients and FTP servers

Make sure you brush up on the topics above in particular and remember the topology by heart. Each night in the week before the exam, I would draw the topology from memory and compare it to the original. On the day of the exam, I was able to complete 95% of the diagram before I had even started the exam and filled in the last missing details in seconds. Overall, I think I saved myself at least 10 minutes doing this but whereas I used the full 2h15m on the first attempt (which was still not enough), I was able to complete the second exam in less than one hour with 1h15m remaining. Of course, the value of the first exam was that I was ‘hands on’ familiar with the infrastructure now and was already prepared for a number of its quirks. You should also try out the demo TSHOOT trouble tickets on the Cisco website. Although it’s not exactly the same topology, perhaps the biggest difference being the IP addressing scheme, it will give you an idea of how the trouble ticket questions are presented and help you test out your troubleshooting techniques.

Summary

This time I looked up to see a much more respectable pass mark of 945/1000. More importantly than that was the fact that I was now CCNP certified and it felt great. This is but one step on a journey that probably only ends when I retire but it feels like a great achievement and will no doubt drive me on further.

Till the next time.

How to prepare for a Cisco exam

Introduction

Having just passed my 642-902 ROUTE exam, I thought I would write a post to explain how I set out to walk out with a smile on my face and not egg. I’m not going to discuss the details of the exam itself for obvious reasons but thought I would blog about the training path I took and some general points of exam taking. As I often get asked how to prepare for a Cisco exam, this post will hopefully be useful for a wide audience.

For those that haven’t read my first couple of posts (and why is that??), I passed my CCNA via the ICND1 and ICND2 route back in early 2009. At that time I was a Microsoft systems engineer but saw the light and when I had the chance to become a networking engineer last year, I sat the CCNA exam to renew the certification. I moved in to the new role officially in November 2011 but had already begun to study towards the 642-813 Switch exam, which I passed on November 25th. It’s worth noting that I effectively scraped through this exam as far as I was concerned and I put that down to my preparation, which was not as complete as it should have been.

Videos

I used the CBTNuggets video series but, after the CCNA series by Jeremy Cioara which was simply excellent, I found the Switch series to be a disappointment and it included many references to the old BCMSN exam, which told me that the content wasn’t bang up to date. OK, fair enough, the topics might not have changed a whole lot but if you are going to resell something an as upgrade, please don’t just stick a different badge on it! I ended up losing interest and watched the INE video series instead.

Reading

I also used the official certification guide from Cisco Press but here lay another issue, this time with myself. As part of the move to networking, I felt a certain pressure to get up to speed as quickly as possible. This wasn’t a real pressure, it was something that I imagined but it meant instead of reading the book from cover to cover as I should have done, I skimmed some chapters and skipped a couple of topics. This is exactly why my score was not up to my usual self-imposed standards. It was also what made me determind to put time pressures to one side and make sure that I understood all the material before going in to the next exam.

For the 642-902 exam, I basically used the materials\methods below and I’ll briefly go in to a little more detail on how I blended all these together to give myself the best chance of passing the exam:

  1. Cisco Press exam guide book
  2. CBTNuggets video series
  3. Cisco Live
  4. Labs
  5. INE R&S workbooks
  6. INE video series
  7. Work experience
  8. Boson exams

Firstly I broke the book down in to 6 sections; EIGRP, OSPF, BGP, Redistribution, IPv6, WAN\Branch offices. Straight away, it ceased to be a 700 page book and became 6 individual topics that weren’t so daunting anymore. I gave myself deadlines to read each topic and made sure I hit them by increasing the page count per day if I skipped any days, which I made sure was a rare event. I read them pretty much in the order above, except for BGP which I left until last.

As I was covering each topic in the book, I would watch the corresponding CBTNuggets videos. The Route series is a vast improvement over the Switch videos. Jeremy uses GNS3 labs to cover the topics and the topology files he uses are available to subscribers on their website so you can ‘play along’ with Jezzer.

Filling in the gaps

I was lucky enough to get along to Cisco Live in London this year and found it to be very inspirational. The technical sessions were top notch and gave me a head start on a number of ROUTE related topics, such as IPv6 which I had previously not really ‘got’, but a 4 hour hands on lab gave me a massive boost, as did some of the related breakout sessions. The fact that, up until then I had pencilled in a date of June for sitting the exam but brought it back two months speaks volumes about the effect it had on my motivation.

With the book finished and the CBTNuggets videos wrapped up three weeks before the exam date, I knuckled down to some labbing. Again, I broke it down to the six topics and focused on these, even more so on the routing protocols and redistribution and used the INE CCIE Routing and Switching materials to give me a real sense that I was going beyond the requirements for the Route exam. I should point out that I am lucky in regard to the training materials I have access to. My company have a dedicated training budget and were happy to pay for all the books, subscriptions and the Cisco Live ticket, in addition to the exam cost.

As a form of ‘detail revision’, I also decided to go through the 19 hours or so of INE videos in the Route series and was watching a couple of videos each day whilst labbing. I found that this really helped it all sink in and gel. Whilst I could have rewatched the CBTNuggets videos, I think another trainer’s perspective is quite often useful and so it proved.

On the job training

The day to day tasks that I do as a network engineer really helped. For example, I work for an ISP that runs BGP and OSPF in our core and using this live environment to see how the various topics knit together is priceless. It’s also given me a few tasks to keep me busy over the next few weeks and months as I’ve noticed where improvements and tweaks could be made and let’s not forget the IPv6 implementation plan!

Practice exams

Finally, the Boson exams gave me great insight in to which areas I was still weak in. After completing an exam, I would go back to the book and read up on the weak points. The day before the exam, I did 108 questions and got 907 which made me feel more confident.

The methods used between the Switch and Route exams were worlds apart and I know which one I preferred. Putting the effort in really makes the difference and every hour you use for studying now will save you countless hours of head scratching at a later date. With one more exam to go for the CCNP, I am getting a feeling of anticipation but fully intend to apply the same regime to studying, despite the fact I hear from many sources that if you have been working in IT for any number of years, you should be able to pass the TSHOOT exam with minimal study. That doesn’t tempt me in the slightest. I want to make sure my CCNP is as solid as it can be. After all, this is the foundation for my entire networking career from now on. I have the desire to go on to the CCIE at some point, perhaps with some design certs along the way, maybe the CCIP\CCNP SP and some specialisations such as Wireless and Security.

One thing I have realised is that there is no rush for these career making skills and that is why I’ll be going back to the Switch topics and applying the same process again to them that got me here with the Route. In fact, INE have a deep dive series specifically on Layer 2 that sounds like just the ticket. On a final note, this was my 5th Cisco exam and, despite me loving the CCNA exams the first time around, was my favourite so far. Things are really starting to gel now and I have to say I have a strange attraction to BGP that I will be pursuing further…

The real exams

This last section (which I originally missed out due to being giddy about going on holiday the day after my exam!) is about the exam itself. Oh yeah…that bit!! As you progress through your studies, you should start getting a better idea of when you will be ready to sit the exam. My suggestion is to book the exam about 4-6 weeks before the date itself. This will hopefully give you a last burst of energy in the final stage – there is nothing like a target to aim for. I always try to book the exam for about one week (and usually no more than two) after finishing the books, videos and labs, giving me that 1-2 weeks for exams and final reading up.

What are my thoughts on postponing an exam? It all depends on whether you mind about having to sit some exams more than once before you nail it. If you do care (and I’ll admit I have this obsession about NOT failing an IT exam based on a failed university chapter earlier in my life), then feel free to push it back a week or more, but don’t do this more than once. If you are not bothered about a failure here and there, then stick to the original date. Either way, I think you should try to be as ready as possible, although I can see the benefits of sitting an exam when you might not be 100% ready (examples include your 1st exam when you don’t know what to expect, a renewal that has crept up on you and you must take it before a certain date).

For the exam day itself, I can offer some basic tips. Make sure you have your ID with you, book the exam for a time that suits you (e.g. if you usually feel sleepy mid afternoon, book a morning exam), make sure you know where the test centre is, where parking is etc. Leave plenty of time to get there – most centres I’ve been to have let me start early anyway. If yours doesn’t, you will at least have time to settle your nerves and maybe have a cup of tea\water\etc., (or nip to the loo…).

The exam itself should be an exercise in self-control. Make sure you read the pre-exam blurb carefully, especially if you are fairly new to exam taking. Ask for the paper and pen that you are usually allowed to take in so you can make notes. Before the exam starts proper, you should be told how long you have and how many questions are waiting for you. This is important information. Use it to determine roughly how long you have on each question. I say roughly as some questions will take seconds to answer but a simulation could take 20 minutes or more. The point is, if you have two hours to do 50 questions and you find yourself on question 10 with 30 minutes left, you’ve managed your time poorly. Rather than doing the maths on a question by question basis, I would check my time every 30 mins (in the example above) and try to ensure I was 25% further in. With that in mind, don’t be afraid to drop a question if you’ve hit a road block. In my last exam (ROUTE), I got stuck on a simulation at question 40 ish with 30 minutes left. 8 minutes later, I had done about half of the required work but was going around in circles. What did I do? I set myself a target of dumping the question with no less than 15 minutes left. At that time, I had progressed further but still not nailed it but continued to the next question regardless. As I clicked ‘END’ on my last question, I had exactly 28 seconds left on the clock. My hard decision had allowed me a chance to answer all the remaining questions.

And finally

My last bit of exam advice would be to make yourself as comfortable as you can. For me, that usually means being in the room alone as I like to talk to myself out loud, stand up and stretch my legs from time to time and even sing\hum to myself to chill out! Find what works for you, that doesn’t upset other exam takers.

Till the next time.

New Year’s resolutions 2012

Just before the end of January hits us, I thought it would be a good idea to put my 2012 study wish list down in writing in the form of New Year’s resolutions. This will not only be a valuable checklist for me, but will provide motivation as the year moves on and putting it on my website will drive me on further.

I want to do the numbered items in that order. I’m being sensible this year as I want to make sure my CCNP reflects a good knowledge and not just good exam skills, especially with me only moving over to networking officially last year.

2013 should be even more exciting, but I’ll not be setting those goals in stone until nearer the time. I already have a good idea of what I want to do next year but I’ll be more focused if I keep that open and get my head down for the list below.

  1. CCNP ROUTE – having already passed the SWITCH exam at the tail end of 2011, I’ve already started studying for the ROUTE exam and have just about got EIGRP and OSPF out of the way. I’m hoping an IPv6 class I’m taking at Cisco Live London next week will help me in that area and that leaves BGP and route redistribution for when I return. However, I’m not in any rush and have a date for the exam of May time pencilled in
  2. CCNP TSHOOT – I want to give myself three months from passing ROUTE to have a go at this exam. Again, that’s plenty of time but I really want to make sure my CCNP is solid. After all, it’s just another step on the journey…one that never ends
  3. CCDA – no set time for this one other than just wanting it by the end of the year. I think design skills are critical for any IT engineer, but in particular in the field of networking. As well as giving you an understanding of why the pieces of the puzzle do, or perhaps do not work together when troubleshooting existing networks, it is a skill required of network architects
  4. CCNA specialism – not sure which one. I like the idea of doing the Wireless and I love the whole topic of IT security. Either way, I intend on getting both of them, but only have my sights set on one for 2012. With a new wireless deployment coming up at one of our offices, I think I may let that sway my decision for now

Till the next time.

The path to…glory?

I brushed over this on my initial post but I am going to flesh it out here, primarily to keep me motivated on the way.

Decision made and I’m 100% committed to the networking track so enough of the Microsoft certifications. I may very well upgrade my server certs when the next version comes out but that doesn’t appeal to me at the moment. I am set on becoming as good a network engineer in a way that is focused and in depth and use that as a strong foundation to build upon. Microsoft has given me a great career to date working for a number of wide and varied companies but when I passed my CCNA back in February 2009, I knew I was hooked.

I first wrote this post with a list of all the certs I have in mind for the next 1-5 years but it ended up sounding like a exam junkie’s wet dream, when my goal is knowledge, not just a certificate. Personally, I find the latter a useful measure of the former but I’ve worked with many people in IT who thought that the paper certificate was worth more than the knowledge required to get it and understand it. I refuse to be that person and want to be proud of my skills, with certificates that reflect that as an added bonus. There have been some great blog posts recently in the networking community around the value of certification and I may write one myself in the future to give my thoughts in more depth.

So, what methods do I use for training then? For each exam, where feasible and relevant, I approach training as below:

Books – either the specific exam guide book or one that covers the main topics. Cisco Press books have come a long way since I first started reading them, although they still need to tighten up their proofreading, but having the topics laid out in a logical order is very useful. I find using books on the networking track much more useful than when I studied for Microsoft, where videos and hands on worked more for me

Video training – either CBTNuggets, but recently my preference is for INE. I am lucky that my company pays for subscriptions to both and also all my other training materials e.g. books, exams
As I go through the various video topics, I fill in the gaps and supplement my knowledge with books and the web. I am trying to get myself more acquainted in particular with Cisco’s Doc CD site, which is a must for CCIE lab candidates

Labs – with all the topics in my head, I head on to my INE based lab. This is part physical, part virtual and I will cover this in a later posting. As I am going through the video training, I often fire up GNS3 or, to a lesser extent, Packet Tracer on my laptop to walk along with the trainer and see similar output. I find this helps me remember commands when I come to doing the labs ‘proper’

Of course, to supplement all of this training, I am a network engineer by day (and sometimes by night!) and live environments provide some great challenges and help broaden my overall knowledge. I use the above methods for all my IT training with even more emphasis on the labs for the Cisco stuff, but outside of the ‘official’ studying, there is still the day to day knowledge to keep up to date.

I am on Twitter as vegaskid1973 (hoping to get this changed to lose the numbers!) and follow a number of high quality networking feeds. Come and follow me, but be aware its a mixed bag you’ll get from me! I also read different blogs and websites to try and keep my working knowledge up to date as much as time can permit. In general, I find that it all sinks in if I focus on a particular topic e.g. STP, OSPF, BGP and cover the videos, blogs, books, labs before moving on to the next topic,rather than going through an entire book, then video series, then labs, etc. Prior to doing the exam, its the hours of labs that I find most useful.

The last point I should make is based on work\life balance. Although networking for me is a hobby as much as being work (and I know how fortunate I am to be in that position), the time comes to put the books\laptop down and spend time with my wife and daughter who both keep me on my toes. I’m not sure if either of them know how much time I will need to put in to this but its all made easier by the fact I enjoy it so much. What is important is that you don’t let that side of things suffer.

I’ll post a quickie on my home lab setup and then I should be ready for some proper blogging! Till the next time.