Today I Passed the CCIE R&S v5.1 Written Exam

This is a big step for me, and has been a long time coming. I know I haven’t “won” anything yet (I’m not going to be one of those people who put “CCIE written” on my resumé), but at the same time, passing this exam is a major milestone for me. The topic scope for the CCIE written exam is quite vast. There are 100 questions on the exam, which means the single exam cannot cover all of the topics. Until you take the exam, you have no real idea of how deep the topic coverage is, which very much clouded my initial study preparations as I tried to shoot for the moon. I learned over time that that was the wrong approach.

The CCIE R&S written exam has been criticized as being merely a trivia exam. Additionally, the 5.0 version was highly criticized for various reasons, including spelling and grammar/clarity issues. Tom Hollingsworth later followed up and mentioned opportunities for improvement. Those articles were written a little over a year ago, and I am happy to report that I feel like things have definitely changed.

This is the first CCIE-level exam I’ve ever attempted, so I can’t directly say how this version compares to previous versions, but last year I did take the SWITCH exam to renew my CCNP, and I felt a lot of the same frustrations expressed about previous versions of the CCIE R&S exam. I was happy after reading Tom’s article to know that Cisco really does look at the comments left on exam questions. I left lots of comments when I took the SWITCH exam about many of the issues, such as poorly-worded questions and answers.

By comparison, of the 100 questions in the current CCIE RS v5.1 exam, I did not feel the need to leave a comment on a single one (and I was ready!). I honestly felt that all of the questions were fair, decently-worded, and I saw no spelling or grammatical errors. Also of the 100 questions, I encountered perhaps five where the wording was kind of tricky and I would have missed the question had I not read it more carefully. That is much better than I was expecting. There were perhaps two questions covering things I had never even heard of, and I wasn’t sure what category they would fit into.

I also felt like the topic distribution did not align with what is stated in the blueprint, however that could simply have just been with my specific delivery of the exam, and not with the overall question pool. There’s no way for me to know. It could also very well be that those questions simply stuck out to me more than the others in hindsight. The most generic non-breaking-of-the-NDA way I can put it is that I felt like they tested some topics at a deeper level than I expected, and other topics were tested more shallow than I thought they would be. I’m sure everyone who has ever attempted any version of the exam has felt the same way, though.

In one sense, I have been studying for the CCIE for over four years, since passing the CCNP in 2013. On the other hand, it has only been this year that I finally began to take the goal of passing the exam much more seriously and assign some sort of timeline to it. I’ve written about 500 times now how creating flash cards has been one of the keys to reaching this success. I’ve read many of the classic books you’re supposed to read when studying for the CCIE over the past several years. That’s all good background knowledge to have. This year, my primary sources of learning were the official cert guides (this year was my second pass of them, I read them once before when they were first published), Narbik’s new v5.1 book, the official Cisco documentation, and the Evolving Technologies guide and selected topics from the CCIE Service Provider Version 4 Written and Lab Comprehensive Guide, both by Nicholas Russo. I bought Nick’s book because I am also very interested in service provider topics, but it is incredibly valuable for the R&S certification, too.

I can also say without a doubt that another key element to me passing today was purchasing the Boson CCIE practice exams. I’ve used Boson’s exams in the past and felt they were decent, but not especially great. That was not the case here. I can honestly say there were a few questions on the real exam that I was able to answer because the Boson practice questions introduced me to the specific topic. That is, despite all of my other sources of studying, there were some Boson questions that either covered something I didn’t think would actually be on the real exam, or they made me think differently about a topic I had already studied, which led to a deeper understanding overall.

However, the version of the product as I write this is not without flaws. There are a few questions that cover topics that have been removed from the current version of the CCIE, and there were several questions that referenced older Cisco documentation that is either no longer relevant, or to where things are configured slightly different in the IOS 15.x code as opposed to 12.x. Overall though, I really believe had I not purchased the Boson practice exam, I would not have passed the real exam today.

The CCIE R&S written exam really is very far above and beyond the CCNP level. This is what made studying for it difficult at first (the “shoot for the moon” aspect I felt at first). The CCNP breaks the topics up into three exams (it used to be four), whereas the CCIE not only covers all of the CCNP topics in a single exam, it covers a very wide range of things not even mentioned at the current CCNP level, such as QoS and multicast. Additionally, topics introduced at the CCNP level are covered at a much greater depth at the CCIE level (like BGP, for example).

I think one of the early mistakes I made when I first started studying right after my CCNP four years ago was to think that now I was basically starting all over again. That was definitely the incorrect approach, as real knowledge builds upon itself, and that’s how the Cisco certification program is designed as well. The CCIE is deeper than the CCNP which is deeper than the CCNA. But there are topics that are universal between all of them. You are asked subnetting questions at the CCNA level, but you still need to know how to do it at the CCIE level. The difference is that hopefully at the CCIE level, you can just do it quickly in your head.

The other mistake I made early on was straying too far from the blueprint. I was under the assumption that the expert level must mean that a person knows absolutely everything inside and out about every facet of every protocol mentioned on the blueprint, so I started out by covering some of the topics at an insane depth. This is most certainly the wrong approach. Nobody knows everything, and you do not become an expert simply by passing an exam with that word in its title.

As it stands now, I believe the CCIE R&S written exam is about half good practical knowledge, and half pure trivia. I enjoy trivia questions, and I feel good when I get them right, but a lot of that knowledge is not useful in the day-to-day design and operation of a real-world network. Additionally, it takes a process such as constant review of flash cards to maintain that trivia knowledge.

Some people recommend to not take the written exam until you are close to being ready to take the lab exam. I can understand and appreciate that approach. However, taking and passing the written exam is also an important “feel-good” milestone and provides some self-validation about my current level of networking knowledge. But, that is the difference between the written exam and the lab exam. The written exam represents the knowledge itself. The lab exam represents the knowledge plus experience.

As they say, now the real work begins.

Cisco CCNP SWITCH Topics

Last year, I was not yet ready to take the CCIE R&S written exam, but my CCNP was about to expire. I decided to renew by taking the SWITCH exam, which had been revised since my original CCNP certification. I continued to study for the CCIE, but I focused my attention on topics that were on the SWITCH exam. As I was doing this, I was still in the middle of transitioning my learning process to using Anki, and therefore I was still taking traditional notes.

I had made this information available previously in individual Google Docs files, but have now consolidated it into this single post. If you’re looking at this information for CCNP preparation, some of it goes above and beyond what you need to learn for the exam. However, after reading the textbooks, you may receive an alternate take on some of the technologies covered here.

In this post:

Continue reading “Cisco CCNP SWITCH Topics”

On Learning: Knowledge Management

For most knowledge-intensive fields of work, including network engineering, you must learn how to manage vast amounts of information if you wish to progress into more advanced levels. The first two articles in this series discuss creating and reviewing flash cards, which through spaced repetitions lead to dramatically increased knowledge retention. But what about static knowledge at-rest?

Knowledge Management:

Just twenty years ago, resting knowledge would typically consist of multiple shelves of books, and several binders full of notes. Many people still operate this way, and there’s nothing wrong with that if it works, since the goal is to know (retain) and understand (apply) the knowledge, regardless of the methods used. For many people, the sense of touch is conducive to learning, hence the physical books and the “muscle memory” of writing out notes by hand.

As for myself, I have always had a preference for knowledge in digital form. A full bookshelf is great for visitors to say “Wow, you’ve read a lot of books!” But beyond mere trophies, I personally don’t experience the appeal of physical books. Digital books don’t take up space in your residence, you don’t have the hassle of moving them around, and of course the largest gain is searchability.

One of my greatest “career blessings” has been having a subscription to Safari Books Online. I say without hesitation that anyone serious about their career in information technology, whether it be software development, infrastructure, design, or business analytics, should consider getting a subscription. I place this service as the single most important money spent on my personal career development each year. New books are added several times each week, and you are frequently offered early access to books that are still being written. Additionally included are many thousands of books that have been published during the past several years, including the majority of the Cisco Press library. One of the best features is the ability to search across all books in the entire library.

For managing this stockpile of knowledge, Safari’s built-in queuing system let’s you collect books you intend to read, or wish to access frequently. I quickly found this to be unwieldy, with the amount of books that I both wish to read, and reference. I like hierarchies, and the current Safari queue is a flat list. What I do is create a hierarchy of browser bookmarks for all the books I’ve come across that I have read, wish to read, or otherwise wish to be able to quickly reference from. I have about 15 folders containing approximately 250 links to books. The folders I’ve created represent general topics, and the links themselves begin with the year of publication. When I wish to reference a particular book, it is much quicker for me to click on the saved link in my browser.

A second major source of knowledge for me is through other people’s online articles and blog entries. I use Feedly for my aggregator, and I have enough feed subscriptions to where I see approximately 300-400 new titles each day, of which I will actually read an average of ten. The raw number may sound like a lot, but it doesn’t take long to actually go through them. I select articles to read first by title, and then by source. This is why it is important to have a good title when you post something (a skill I am still developing). My logic is that if a title is very interesting, I’ll open it regardless of the source, and if the title is vaguely interesting, I’ll open it if it’s from a source whom I know to produce great content. The rest get filtered through very quickly. If I ever encounter a blog entry that I’ve really enjoyed from someone (usually referenced from Twitter or from someone else’s blog), I add them to my feed.

I then clip the good blog entries into OneNote for potential future reference. I have about 5,000 articles and blog entries saved in my collection. A large portion of them were collected not because I read them, but because I assumed I would reference them someday. For example, a few years ago, if someone posted a great blog entry, I would take the time to clip every blog entry from their site. I eventually realized this is not helpful, and only leads to “digital hoarding”. I think it was due to a Fear Of Missing Out, of which I am still learning to move beyond. Access to Safari helped me out dramatically in that regard, but the realization and correction of those tendencies is what led to the creation of this third part of my series on learning.

Although having an unread article for reference can potentially be valuable in the future, it’s more difficult to reference something if you’ve never read it. That is why I eventually learned to clip only those articles that I’ve actually read and wish to save, or those that I’ve at least skimmed over and may reference again (instead of just blindly clipping everything). When I need to search for something to reference, I found I always start at Google anyway, and if I don’t find what I’m looking for on the first page (and rarely the second), then I’ll do a search across my OneNote library. Based on this realization, I’ve thought about purging all of my saved articles and starting over so that I’ll have a more “curated” collection. On the other hand, I figure I’ve already done the work of collecting the articles, and their contents are only a search away.

Also within my OneNote library are all of the digital notes I’ve taken over the years before my transition to direct notes in Anki. In a way, these notes are sort of like the many unread clipped articles in that there’s a decent chance I may never actually reference them, but I’ve already put the work in to capture them, so they stick around. Additionally, while Anki is great for most learning, sometimes traditional notes are more appropriate. On the rare occasion that I decide to learn via video, I use OneNote to capture both notes and relevant screenshots.

Another tool that has helped me dramatically with knowledge management is something I encountered more recently: Xmind. At its core, Xmind is mind-mapping software, and while it is certainly useful for that in the traditional sense of the term, instead of using it purely as an exploratory mental exercise, I use it mostly to hierarchically organize existing sets of information. This has been extremely powerful with regard to certification studying.

Shown in the above image, I took the CCIE R&S v5.1 blueprint and organized it hierarchically. This allows me to expand or collapse branches of the overall blueprint as desired. Additionally, I colored green those topics which appear on the written exam only, and not on the lab exam. Not shown, I also highlighted sections that I felt were not covered in great depth (or at all) in the OCG books, so that I can quickly see which topics I need to find alternative sources for. Using the same blueprint hierarchy, on another page I broke down each subtopic and wrote a single one-line explanation of the particular technology. For example, “Bidirectional PIM uses only shared trees and is useful when many receivers are also senders.”

Finally, I have been using Xmind as a tool for project management. The paid version of Xmind has a more complete set of traditional project management functions (such as actual time scheduling and tracking), but I use the free version to list tasks I wish to accomplish, and their associated sub-tasks. I then drag and drop the order of the tasks as things change.

I’ve written before how I feel like studying for the CCIE is sort of like a research project. Some people approach it linearly, based on the blueprint. This is sometimes associated with keeping a “tracker”, which is a spreadsheet of topics to study, along with a perceived level of understanding. I’ve tried that approach a couple of times, but it never felt very useful to me personally. Using Xmind, I’ve created a branching tree structure containing things I would like (or need) to do, re-order them as necessary, and cross them off (via strikethrough text) when I have accomplished them. This lets me quickly see where I’ve been and where I intend to go.

Knowledge management is a very subjective topic. To me, learning represents an evolving continuum of progress, and I have tried several different methods of acquiring, maintaining, and managing a base of knowledge over the years. This series represents a set of tools I wish I had known many years ago. Learning is personal, and it takes time to develop the processes that work best for you. As technology continues to evolve, so do the tools and methods of learning, knowledge retention and knowledge management. It can be more difficult to progress if you’re unaware of the available tools and methods. I hope that by sharing my experiences, I may have helped you in some way. Thank you for reading.

Part One: Creating Meaningful Flash Cards
Part Two: Flash Card Review
Part Three: Knowledge Management

On Learning: Flash Card Review

This part covers what I have learned about reviewing the flash cards.

Flash Card Review:

The premise of Anki (and related types of software) is spaced repetitions. To get the most out of the software, you need to make yourself get in the habit of reviewing your cards every single day. When you stop reviewing, you very quickly start to lose retention. However, by maintaining the habit of reviewing cards every day, you will spend less time each day reviewing because the retained cards will be spaced further apart.

When you’re very deep into studying a particular topic, you may create a decent amount of cards in a short period of time, especially if the topic is new to you. This will temporarily increase your time spent each day reviewing cards. The default Anki setting is to introduce 20 new cards for review each day, in addition to the cards that were already scheduled to be reviewed on that day. There is a tradeoff to be realized here. If you have a lot of new cards, your daily review times will be increased. If you introduce fewer new cards each day, it will take longer to learn the material. I have tried it both ways, and found the default setting to be just about right. If after your daily review session you feel like you could take in some more cards, you can easily add new cards to the day’s review session. I recommend doing this 10 cards at a time. Just remember that in doing so, you will have more cards to review over the next few days.

When you are creating lots of cards in a short period of time, I highly recommend setting the review order to chronological, instead of random. By changing this setting, new cards are introduced in the order of creation. When you create multiple new cards, chances are very good that the cards will be related to each other in some way. During the initial review of these cards, you are more likely to have better retention by seeing related cards close together. As time passes and the reviews become more randomized, the initial bond of related cards will have a greater impact on retention. After you have added (and reviewed) the bulk of your cards, it may be beneficial to return the setting to random as you add fewer miscellaneous cards over time.

When reviewing your cards, resist the temptation to click the “easy” button, except for perhaps the first viewing of the card, which defaults to showing the card again in four days. I discovered that for a large number of cards, if I had clicked the “easy” button three or four times, by the time card was scheduled to be shown again, the spaced repetition was too great, and I had trouble remembering it. When I stopped doing this, and reverted back to being honest with myself (and clicking “again” when I really couldn’t fully remember the answer to a card), I found my retention to be greater. The default spacing algorithm works very well.

Speaking of honesty, the greatest retention really does come from judging yourself as honestly as possible when reviewing a card. Even if it’s something that you know you used to know inside and out, if you can’t fully (and relatively quickly) answer a card, you should click “again” so that the card is reset and you view it more frequently.

However, if you click “again” on a card eight times, it will be considered a “leech” and it becomes suspended from the deck. This action is the software trying to protect you from wasting your time learning that particular poor card. If any of your cards reach the leech status, you need to re-evaluate it. You most likely need to figure out a way to break it up into smaller pieces of information, or somehow increase your understanding of the topic. The solution may be to create some kind of visualization to represent the topic, as I demonstrated in the previous post.

Somewhat related is the ability to “bury” a card during review. As you create cards, they will naturally have different levels of difficulty. Burying a card during a review session allows you to move on to the next card in the queue. This can be useful if you’d like to get through the perceived easy cards first, and then do the more difficult cards later by unburying them. If you don’t unbury a card, it will be automatically scheduled for review the next day.

This is a snapshot of my review patterns for the past 30 days:

As I write this, I have about 2500 cards in my CCIE R&S deck, and I have reviewed 3624 cards during the past 30 days with an average of 121 reviews per day (which, not shown, takes about 30-45 minutes). The blue indicates brand new cards learned during a particular day. “Young” cards are those which are scheduled to be reviewed within the next 21 days, and “mature” cards are those to be reviewed more than 21 days from now. The color red indicates cards that I had forgotten and clicked the “again” button. I joke that the red indicates my level of self-honesty.

The color yellow in the image deserves special mention. If you’re creating lots of cards in a short period of time, your next-day reviews can be substantial at first. Sometimes it helps to cut down the next-day reviews a bit by studying ahead the previous day. For example, I prefer to study as many cards as possible first thing in the morning, and I usually finish all the reviews in a single session. But if I know I’m going to have a larger than normal amount of cards to review the next day, sometimes I’ll study ahead later in the day.

To do this, click the deck title > custom study > review ahead > 1 days. This creates a custom deck containing the cards that you would normally have reviewed the next day. I like to keep the reviews at about 75 or less per day, but sometimes it gets up to over 100. By doing this, all of tomorrow’s reviews are placed into a temporary custom deck, and I can review however many cards I wish, then delete the custom deck. The reviewed cards are treated as if it was tomorrow, and the remaining cards that were deleted from the custom deck will be scheduled as normal. For example, if you have 100 cards due for review tomorrow, but create the custom deck and review 20 cards, you will only have 80 card due tomorrow.

By reviewing the cards scheduled each day and building up the retention of knowledge, I’ve found that when I move on to another learning source for the same topic, it is easier to pick out the details that I don’t already know and make new cards out of that to add to the deck. This demonstrates knowledge building upon itself. For example, as I mentioned, my CCIE R&S deck contains about 2500 cards as I write this. I created the bulk of these cards by going through the OCG books with a fine-toothed comb. Now that I have moved on to other sources of learning, I am usually aware of when I have already created a card for a particular topic by virtue of having seen it several times already. If there is something that I’ve already created a card for, but don’t remember, chances are that the new card will be somehow phrased differently anyway, and having both cards in the deck will also lead to greater understanding and retention.

This end result of moving between different sources of information and realizing the details of what I have already learned is what has made using Anki so revolutionary for me, and why I felt it was important to devote yet another post to the wonders of spaced repetitions. I remember going through books in the past, and then moving onto other books within the same topic scope and feeling like I was essentially starting all over again. Back then, knowing how much information I needed to retain, it gave me a slight feeling of hopelessness.

Now, being able to demonstrate to myself the progress I am achieving is extremely empowering. I’ve encountered several things in my day job which, previously, I would probably have had a vague understanding of, but now I can immediately recall the acquired knowledge and place it into action. That is a very powerful feeling.

Part One: Creating Meaningful Flash Cards
Part Two: Flash Card Review
Part Three: Knowledge Management

On Learning: Creating Meaningful Flash Cards

This is part one of a three-part series.

I still study for the CCIE R&S. I study for it in some form (and often multiple forms) every single day. My attitude, thought processes, and learning process has changed quite significantly in the last year and a half. My experience is growing, and timelines are starting to become more concrete. I’ve written about this before, but this past year really has been life-changing with regard to my study habits, “learning how to learn”, and discovering what works best for me to take in, manage, and retain information.

Just over a year ago, I wrote about using Anki. This software has been the catalyst for my learning transformation. I wrote a blog entry after having used Anki for only a short period of time. With this three-part series, I am now expanding on my experiences of using Anki since then, as well as knowledge management across different platforms.

Flash Card Creation:

I have learned a lot about the process of creating good, quality cards, as well as consuming them. For so many years, I took direct notes while reading books or watching videos. Despite taking the notes, they made little impact on my studies due to lack of quality in both the notes and the review process. Using Anki has helped me refine both activities, and I now formulate my notes directly as flash cards. I also realized that I am able to absorb information much better in the written form, as opposed to video. Following are some tips that help me to create more effective cards.

When creating flash cards that go beyond simple raw facts, take the time to succinctly explain the concepts and meanings or reasons behind the topic. It has been said that you don’t really understand something complicated until you can explain it in simplified language. If it’s not making sense to you while you’re trying to make the card (such as if you’re tired of studying for the moment), don’t try to create the card until you can fully grasp the concepts, otherwise you’ll just end up creating poor-quality cards. You can’t force meaningful learning, and you must break down what you don’t fully understand.

When creating cards, understand the tradeoffs of shorter versus longer. Shorter cards are easier to remember, but sometimes a card must be longer due to the amount of information to convey. Always try to limit cards to a single fact or idea. If a card must contain multiple pieces of information (for example, if everything goes together and there’s no real logical way of breaking it up) and you’re having trouble remembering everything after several reviews, try to figure out a way to create a visualization.

I kept forgetting the five requirements of using the EIGRP Add-Path feature with DMVPN until I created this visualization:

This image contains the exact same information that was present in my original text-only card, but by adding colors, shapes, and positions, I was able to have a mental visualization of the information to recall.

If you’re taking in something of unknown importance, create the card anyway and then suspend it from review. For example, in studying for a certification, you may or may not need to know all of the fields within a particular protocol header. Something like this can be relatively complicated as well as intensive to try and memorize, and it might be unnecessary. By having the suspended card in your collection, you can easily revisit the information or reinstate the card if you discover it really is necessary.

Mnemonics are also extremely useful. What are the thirteen fields in the IPv4 header? I can tell you that “Very Heavy Dudes Prefer Fat Fried Food To Pretty Healthy Salad Dish Options” is easier to remember than: Version, Header Length, DS Field, Packet Length, Fragment ID, Fragment Flag, Fragment Offset, TTL, Protocol, Header Checksum, Source IP Address, Destination IP Address, and Options. When I created this mnemonic, I purposely tried to come up with something silly so that it would be easier to remember.

After creating several cards (such as for a section or a chapter), go back and break up cards that convey multiple ideas (that can be easily broken up). For example, a card that asks “How and why…” can probably broken up into separate “how” and “why” cards, which will increase your retention. A card-creation habit I had to break myself out of was phrasing a card as “What is X and how do you configure it?”. I discovered better retention by creating separate cards for “What is X?” and “How do you configure X?”.

Likewise, create cards that allow you to learn the same thing in reverse when possible, known as two-way learning. For example, one card could ask “What is the IP Protocol number used by L2TPv3?”, and a second card could ask “What technology uses IP Protocol 115?”

Don’t worry about this too much at first when you’re creating the cards, as it may inhibit the initial creation. However, do take the time to go back and break them up. What I discovered for myself was that when cards contained multiple pieces of information, I would remember one part, but not the other, so the card became less valuable in helping me to retain the information. Two-way learning cards might be a little more difficult to realize, especially when examining many cards at once, and you may bump into diminishing returns if you attempt to create two-way cards for everything. Raw facts make the easiest two-way cards. However, for cards that explain a particular concept, creating a two-way card can demonstrate that you really understand the topic.

Assign tags to create meaningful groups to use later for custom review decks. Try to use somewhat broad categories, and avoid creating lots of super-detailed tags unless they are combined with tags that are more general. For example, use STP as a broad category, with RSTP,  MST, and STP Enhancements as subcategories. Don’t create tags that will represent only a few cards. Use tags that will create meaningful groups to study from, otherwise just use the search function in the browse window.  On a related note, in the card browser search box, you can exclude a term by prefixing it with a dash. For example -EIGRP or -tag:IS-IS excludes cards containing the word “EIGRP” or cards tagged with “IS-IS”.

When creating cards, try to keep in mind that you may be reviewing them again months or even years later. This incentivizes you to create good, quality cards. As mentioned, don’t create cards if you’re not understanding the material at the time. Be honest with yourself, and If you’re just not getting it, take a break and come back to it. For example, I’ve noticed if I’m feeling tired, I have trouble creating good meaningful cards, but if I come back to the same material the next day, it all begins to make sense and I can create better cards as a result.

Remember, you can’t force learning. It has to mean something to you. When attempting to create quality cards, try to be as accurate as possible with your understanding of a topic (aside from raw facts which are either correct or not), but remember you can always edit a card later if your understanding of the particular topic improves. I have found myself more than once reviewing a card created months ago, with an improved understanding that allows me to re-phrase the card to have more meaning or clarity.

Make your cards as useful as possible within the realm of diminishing returns. Don’t worry about making the cards and tags perfect. The goal is to retain the information from the individual cards, not to have them perfectly phrased or organized. If a topic seems too complex to explain simply, look for ways to break it up into smaller pieces. A concept may seem singular at first, but if you can break it down into even smaller components, you will have both better retention and a better understanding of the topic. Reviewing the individual components will make the assembled whole make more sense in your mind.

Part One: Creating Meaningful Flash Cards
Part Two: Flash Card Review
Part Three: Knowledge Management