CCIE Flash Card Deck for R&S v5.1

Today I have decided to finally release the flash card deck that I created for myself in order to pass the written portion of the CCIE Routing & Switching v5.1 exam. This deck represents many months and hundreds (if not thousands) of hours of study effort.

After passing the exam, I had considered putting together some kind of study package, but I recently started thinking about how version six of the CCIE R&S is going to be here before too long, and it serves no purpose for me to sit on this accumulated knowledge and not share it.

That being said, I still believe you will receive a greater benefit by creating flash cards yourself, as I’ve written about previously. The process of comprehending what you are studying and converting that knowledge into a useful format for yourself is very empowering. Sometimes, though, it helps to get an outside viewpoint, which is what this deck of nearly 3,500 flash cards represents.

I passed the written exam using these cards I created. However, there are most certainly different errors and mistakes present in the cards. This could be due both to my sources having errors, as well as from me misinterpreting something. Or it could be as simple as a type-o.

Nearly all cards are tagged with at least one topic. My flash card deck is available in the following:

I hope this proves to be useful to you! Thank you.

Retrospection and the Future: Still Studying for the CCIE Lab

Last October marked the five-year anniversary of my blog. I had started an introspective post looking back over the past five years, but the truth is, I feel like I spend more time looking forward than backward at this point.

That’s not to say I haven’t come quite a long way in the past five years. I sometimes need reminding of that whenever I feel like I’m progressing too slowly. Occasionally, I get down on myself for being in my late thirties and still toward the beginning of my career in networking, when I see many shining examples of people much younger than me who are much further along in their careers. However, I cannot change the past and my various circumstances, and I cannot go back and make different decisions at different points in my life.

I can recognize, though, that just five years ago, I was considered a high-end technician or perhaps low-end systems administrator (even though I had some light networking experience sprinkled in there as well). Since then, I progressed into enterprise and networking support where I received a senior-level promotion in less than a year, then to a full-on network engineer, and now to senior network engineer with another recent promotion. I occasionally need to step back and realize that, regardless of age, there are people who never make it as far as I have, let alone in just five years. My wonderful wife is always great at reminding me of these things whenever I need a pickup.

So, to looking forward: my last post detailed passing the CCIE R&S written exam, which was a very big milestone for me since I’m doing this out of self-interest. However, the lab exam is still a decent amount of time and work away from where I am now. I still spend a large amount of time each week studying for it. Having access to the Cisco Expert Level Training has been huge for me. It’s no magic bullet, as achieving the CCIE legitimately requires a LOT of personal work and dedication, but I feel like it helped greatly to organize and narrow down the topic scope into a more manageable form of study.

I stated before that there is a huge difference between the written exam and the lab exam, and that it probably is in fact a good idea to study for the lab first, then pass the written exam shortly before you plan to attempt the lab. I also stated, though, that for me, passing the written so early was an important method of self-validation. That being said, I found out very quickly that there is a huge difference between just knowing the technologies, and being able to configure them.

Going through the first few CELT workbook labs, there were several instances where I knew exactly what they were talking about, but I either could not remember how to configure them, or I couldn’t solve the task in the exact way for which they were looking. I also quickly learned that I needed to improve my reading comprehension as well as attention to detail.

On top of that, there are things that simply require outright memorization for the sake of speed during the lab. To that end, I’ve been digesting the material a little differently than I did for the written exam. With the written exam, I made and studied detailed flash cards, eventually creating a deck of nearly 3,500 cards before I took and passed the exam on the first attempt. With the lab exam, I’ve been going over various materials yet again, going even deeper where necessary, and creating new study materials for myself.

The first thing I did was create a mind-map in several phases. In the first phase, I created high-level topic domains following the hierarchy of the CELT program (Layer 2, IGPs, BGP, MPLS, etc.). For the second phase, I went through every item on the official lab blueprint and molded the topics into the appropriate places within the appropriate hierarchies in the mind map. I then used INE’s expanded blueprint to fill in the remaining topics (pruning the list where necessary – not everything on their expanded blueprint is actually on the lab exam). Finally, I covered the specific configuration of every topic in the hierarchy by going through the configuration guides and command references, and cross-checking it with the version of IOS used on the lab.

I then worked on expanding my Python skills a little bit by creating a set of scripts that take each of the topic items and randomizes certain elements, such as names, interfaces, ASNs, etc. The idea was to create something similar to flash cards, but to make it less repetitive since the elements are randomized wherever possible. As I write this, the script is still very simple in that it presents you with an isolated task, you enter the answer, and then it shows you the correct answer. I have not yet progressed into combining topics together for questions.

You might wonder what value this has for me personally since I am the one who created all of the questions. The CCIE is absolutely massive, and it covers a lot of technologies that I may never actually work with in production, and therefore it is difficult to memorize everything. There are many topics where I know how they work and what they are supposed to do (and what problem they are supposed to solve), but remembering the exact syntax offhand can be difficult.

One of the features I intend to code into the script is the ability to judge how difficult the question was (similar to Anki), so that in future sessions, I can simply skip over the easy ones and drill in the harder questions. I may also work the script into a GUI or web-based version in order to further expand my Python skills, but at the same time I’m doing my best to not take my eye off the prize, so to speak, and make sure that I’m not being distracted too much from actually studying for the CCIE.

Distractions can be very difficult. Learning scripting and automation is important for network engineers. However, my current work environment does not require it, so I’ve only dabbled in it here and there just to make sure I understand the concepts. I imagine I will immerse myself deeper into it (and other topics as well) after completing the lab exam.

I have not had my sole focus on studying for the lab, which has been making it take longer to achieve. I do not intend to stay within enterprise networking forever, and I have been introducing myself to various service provider topics. After passing the CCIE, I intend to try to find work within the realm of service provider networking.

However, I keep reminding myself that passing the lab is a personal goal, not a professional requirement. This can be both an advantage and a disadvantage, depending on how I am feeling at any particular moment. The advantage being that I need to remind myself occasionally not to put too much pressure on myself. The disadvantage being that there are so many things I want to explore, but the CCIE requires dedication of some form.

When the studying gets tough, I question the value of the CCIE, as I’m sure everyone who has ever studied for it also has. This of course has been covered in every imaginable outlet with every imaginable argument both for and against since the inception of the CCIE in 1993. I can see both sides of most arguments. I am still taking the approach that simply studying for it, whether or not I ultimately obtain the trophy, is making me a better network engineer. I can much more comfortably solve problems now using different methods that I would not have been able to just a couple of years ago. And I can do it in a vendor-agnostic way when necessary. It’s certainly true that you don’t need any certifications to be able to do that. But once again, the certification has provided a meaningful learning path for me to follow.

It’s difficult when you’re studying topics that you know you’ll never actually work with in real life, or when working with normal technologies and having to push them into types of configurations that would probably never occur on a production network. But I keep telling myself that working with these various technologies in these various manners will help me to recognize patterns in the future, and ultimately make me a more seasoned engineer.

I still have at least a year worth of work before I plan on taking the lab exam. I am doing my best right now to drill in the basics so that if I need to refer to the documentation, it will only be for those rare miscellaneous topics, if at all. I strongly believe this initial effort, while slow, will pay off in the end.

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