Feb
28

This document is an attempt to rework the old paper I wrote back in 2006. You can still find the old document here Original Scary Draft. Both documents attempt to present a structured approach for taking the CCIE lab exam. The following is a quick list of the generic core concepts you need to master in order to be successful with the exam:

  • Control your psychological state.
  • Analyze the lab exam using a systematic approach.
  • Follow the strict time-management procedure.
  • Apply repetitive and planned verification scheme.

We now start with the first cornerstone, which is all about

Controlling your psychological state.

It is not a secret that large number of the exams failures is due to psychological issues. Almost no one feels good when he or she enters the exam location. While it’s normal to feel nervous, getting heavily stressed definitely would not help. Dealing with stress is not easy, and it takes considerable time to fix the root cause and master some psychological techniques. We will briefly look at those techniques later. However, the most natural factor that helps you overcome the stress is simply being well prepared for the exam :). How would you know that you are good?

  1. Knowledge

    Thou shalt know thy blueprint in depth. OK, so which blueprint you should use to check your posture? The one that is posted at Cisco’s site is too short and gives you just a brief overview of the exam. Thus, it is a good idea to write your own lab blueprint, starting from the official Cisco’s document. You could find a good example here: R/S 3.0 Expanded Study Blueprint. As you advance through the preparations, make sure you mark things you have learned. When you’re done with the “first” run through the technology topics (e.g. finished working through our R&S VOL1 advanced technology labs workbook) get back to the blueprint and see if there is something you still missing. Practice those additional topics till you know every topic by heart.

    Many people find it hard to memorize that amount of the material in a short time, especially since many topics in the expanded blueprint are not widely used in practice. There are four key techniques that you can use to strengthen your memory:

    (a) Spaced repetitions and Incremental Reading – the technique intended to overcome the well-known “forgetting curve” effect Forgetting Curve. You can find more information about this technique here Spaced Repetitions and here Incremental Reading. There are several applications that use this effect to help you build better memory, for example “Super Memo” (which happens to have a freeware version). You may a bunch of interesting articles about learning and memorization on their home page too (that page looks like it’s stuck in 90s, but the content is still pretty good). As a very simplified version of the approach, repeat the same lab the next day after you initially practiced it, and then do another additional repetition in a week. Also, taking short notes in a notepad (or making blog posts!) or any other simple knowledge database will greatly improve your level of memorization, as it build additionial informational links in your memory.

    (b) Mnemonic techniques. Those have extremely high potential, but require thorough training and serious practice to be used effectively. You can read more about mnemonics here Mnemonic Techniques. Note though, that it really takes time to master those techniques, so many people simply don’t bother or give up :)

    (c) Nootropic drugs (medicine). This special medicine “improves” cognitive functions of your brain, by increasing the bloodstream and cells energy supply. Most of the nootropic drugs said have negligible side-effects, but in many countries they are sold under prescription only (notably the US). It’s up to you to decide whether you want to add chemistry to your brain or not. You can read more about nootropics here Nootropics. Remember though, that consuming extra chemistry is generally considered as being potentially unhealthy.

    (d) The last generic method is naturally involving your brain in various intellectual activities, such as reading scientific papers (or just any material that forces you to think a lot) or playing intellectual games such as chess or sudoku. Professionally playing any musical instrument is noted to also greatly boosts the intellectual potential. It might take considerable time to notice the effect of such “trainings”, but it definitely pays to a patient student.

  2. Proper Work Day Organization

    Achieving the certification requires regular practicing. If you practice from time to time, ignoring the need for a well-planned schedule, you will find it much, much harder making progress through your journey. Therefore, start by establishing your own training schedule: for example, practice 2 or 3 times a week, 3 hours every time. However, pretty soon you will probably fall in frustration seeing that everyday routine breaks your beautiful study plan :) Alas, this is almost unavoidable while living in modern society. As we don’t have enough time to discuss various time management techniques, I’ll just give a short advice based on my own experience.

    First, create a schedule that does not put too much pressure on you. If you can’t afford labbing 8 hours every day (which I was able to do), make it 3 hours 2 times a week - no problems. After that, observe this “lightweight” schedule strictly. Next, start getting enough sleep, and develop a habit of going to bed and waking up at approximately the time every day (like say wake up at 7am and go to bed at 10:30pm). Normalizing your biological cycles greatly aids your brain in its work. There is nothing worse than getting behind your sleep, or breaking out of your sleep schedule, as this results in entering the feedback loop of growing stress level. I know this is a bad news to everyone who likes sacrificing his or her sleep time in favor of training, but you need to take this advice seriously. Poor sleep would result in poor performance - this is just a law of the nature :) [there are different theories of optimal sleep and the things said above just reflect my personal experience]

    If find you in trouble of trying to fall asleep, it might be a good indicator to start paying more attention to fitness :) It’s sad to say this, but many IT folks neglect the importance of physical trainings. It may feel like it’s all right for some time, especially if you are in your early 20s. However, inevitably, the lack of physical development affects your intellectual performance as well. Of course, I do not suggest anyone spending whole days in the gym pumping iron :) However, going to the gym 2 or 3 times a week will do you a lot of good. Not only it has excellent positive effect on your body, it also develops proper discipline that helps you to observe your training schedule. At the very least, if you can’t incorporate regular visits to the gym into your life, try spending 30-40 minutes every day walking on the open air. This is a good aerobic exercise (well, that depends on the place you’re walking through), and it is definitely the minimum that your brain needs.

  3. Speed and Accuracy

    Every CCIE lab exam is a collection of different tasks, with almost every task being relatively easy. It is the amount of the material that makes it complicated. Therefore, you should be able to configure every single in timely fashion and making minimum number of mistakes. No referencing the DocCD, no deep thinking, just plain typing. Spending a lot of time on a single task is very frustrating. Of course, there is nothing wrong with referring to the documentation, but you probably want to do this at max 3 of 4 times during the exam.

    The thing you need to master is blind typing. If you’ve been working around PCs for 8-10 years, you probably already have this skill :) Otherwise, you can find various training programs on the Internet to improve your typing speed.

    Next, practice typing large configuration blocks without ever referring to IOS CLI helps functions (i.e. without using “?” or “Tab”). There is a simple way to achieve this goal: type your configurations in the notepad, line by line and then copy-paste it into the router command line. If you notice any typos or configuration errors, edit the code in the notepad and then paste the edited version. In addition to improving your speed, this greatly helps in spotting the errors and troubleshooting. Not to mention that this greatly aids in memorizing the code samples :)

  4. Stress Management

    The best way to manage stress is to avoid it. The rules are simple:

    (a) Quit smoking, drinking alchohol and consuming excessive amount of natural stimulants, such as caffeine. This might sound pretty boring to many of readers, but don’t say I didn’t warn you :) Not to mention that quitting some of your bad habits will have overall positive effect on you whole life.
    (b) Get enough sleep and start regular physical exercises. We’ve discussed that before, but it’s worth mentioning again. This simple rule probably adds another 50% to building the stress-free life and yet so many people in the world prefer to ignore it ;)
    (c) Build a habit of taking regular time-offs. Every week, for at least a day, forget about your work, the lab, everything IT-related and switch contexts. It might be hard to do, but it is definitely worth it. Of course, don’t even think of spending your whole vacation on lab practice. Sounds impossible? Yeah, but at least you can give it a try...;)
    (d) Normalize your nutrition. This is a complicated topic to discuss it within the context of a technical post. There is a TON of information available on nutrition, which could be found on the Internet. Most of the times you’re probably know already if there is anything wrong with your diet ;) And no more soup jokes here!

    Now, look over (a)-(c) again. Most likely you are saying something like “you got to be kidding me, I can’t do all that stuff”. Of course, even if you can’t give up some unhealthy habits, it does no mean you are not going to pass the exam – it’s just going to be a bit harder :). So for those of you who still need help dealing with the stress, let’s consider some basic relaxation techniques, aimed at reducing the pressure on your brain.

    (a) Jacobson’s Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) is simple to learn but really effective technique. It is based on alternatively tensing and relaxing your muscles. You can read more about PMR here Progressive Muscle Relaxation. Note, that if you are intensively practicing any kind of sports, you are effectively using some components of PMR. It may take a month to properly master the methodology.

    (b) Abdominal Breathing. Might be the most well-known and popular stress-reducing exercise. It is even simpler than PMR, but takes more time to bring the desired effect. You can find information on abdominal breathing on the Internet, and this technique is probably a must for everyone to learn.

    (c) More exotic things, such as meditation and autogenics (I’m a big fan of these two). They went through detailed scientific studies and were found to have certain positive effect on mental health. You can read more about autogenics here Autogenic Training, but be aware that these techniques require constant and pretty lengthy practicing – at least 3-4 months.

    (d) Sedative drugs. The effect of sedative drugs develops quickly, but it is not persistent, wearing off as you stop taking them. Even worse, sedative drugs may negatively affect your intellectual performance, up to making you fall asleep during the exam ;) Thus, I would only recommend using them in situations where you really have no other choice.

  5. OK, enough of psychology for the technical article :) Now the last question to be answered – how could you check if your mind and body are good for the lab exam?

    1. You feel sure of yourself, but you don’t feel like a superman. Because if you feel that the exam is going to be a piece of cake, then most likely it is not :)
    2. You stayed in good shape and had enough sleep the last couple of weeks before the lab.
    3. When you look at the blueprint, you don’t notice white spots, nor don’t feel urge to open the DocCD immediately.
    4. You feel like the lab is going to be some fun, not a torture. Seriously, through all my lab attempts I always liked the feeling I had in the morning before the exam. It really helps when you love your test.
    5. You took a couple of mock labs and passed with the score of 95% or higher. OK, the score of 80% is good too :)

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