This post is a follow-up to Why We Love Continuing Education and Certifications and continues on with What Certs Should My IT Team Have?

A few weeks ago I was reading to my daughters one of our favorite Shel Silverstein books and came across the following poem:

The little blue engine looked up at the hill.
His light was weak, his whistle was shrill.
He was tired and small, and the hill was tall,
And his face blushed red as he softly said,
“I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”


So he started up with a chug and a strain,
And he puffed and pulled with might and main.
And slowly he climbed, a foot at a time,
And his engine coughed as he whispered soft,
“I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”


With a squeak and a creak and a toot and a sigh,
With an extra hope and an extra try,
He would not stop — now he neared the top —
And strong and proud he cried out loud,
“I think I can, I think I can, I think I can!”


He was almost there, when — CRASH! SMASH! BASH!
He slid down and mashed into engine hash
On the rocks below… which goes to show
If the track is tough and the hill is rough,
THINKING you can just ain’t enough!

It’s hard to work up the motivation to prepare for an IT certification!  But the truth is, thinking you can just ain’t enough!  These days I study and learn about IT topics completely differently than I used to.  I believe it’s easier than ever to gain the knowledge required for an exam.  Everyone learns differently and what works for me may not work for you, but hopefully some of my study habits will provide guidance and motivation.

How I used to Study For Professional Exams

Early in my career, the best way for me to prepare for an exam was to buy the official Cisco or Microsoft book and read through it from beginning to end.  As dull as this sounds, I was excited about the material at the time so it worked out fine.  I chose book study because:

  1. As a youngster I didn’t know much and I needed to understand the finer details about every topic.  There was a large gap between my knowledge and the exam material and I needed to slowly absorb the concepts.  The official books also didn’t skip or gloss over any topics.
  2. There weren’t as many learning options are there are today.  CBT Nuggets, Pluralsight, Udemy and YouTube provide loads of learning opportunities for any skill level and any budget.
  3. Speaking of budget, books were the cheapest path at the time.  Back then my choices were to buy the book for $100 or attend a 5 day course in another state for $3,000+.  I was newly married at the time and the classes were unobtainable.

At some point Cisco offered a complimentary 3-day certification training to our company, which I attended.  The class was helpful, but there was a huge variety of experience in the room.  When a seasoned tech would ask a question that was beyond the understanding of the beginners, a tangential path had to be taken to bring everyone up to speed.  Although useful, the teacher couldn’t adequately handle the number of students and I ended up mostly relying on the book anyway.

I’ll never forget the day the Cisco Account Manager was in town and paid a visit.  I told her about my certification goals and she went out to her car and brought back a DVD set from TrainSignal.  Later that evening I started watching it and was thrilled that there was a highly knowledgeable instructor along with excellent diagrams and animations to help explain the material.  This was so much more engaging than the book I was reading (I’m looking at you Cisco QoS!) and the instructor helped to keep things fresh.  After that experience I avoided the books when I could and gleaned from our account manager’s DVD library whenever possible.

Later on, CBT Nuggets had really expanded their library and I bought an affordable all-access subscription.  With that subscription I had access to courses for many vendors and was only limited by my time.  Speaking of time, I had three young children then and because the CBT Nuggets courses are divided up into many 3-10 minute “nuggets”, I could weave in study time between family time.

How I Prepare for Certification Exams

I watch all training videos at two times speed.  It might sound crazy (literally) at first, but viewing at faster speed helps me focus, plus it eliminates the temptation to open another tab and listen in the background.  I’ve listened to so many training videos at this speed, that my brain has become accustomed to it and regular speed feels terribly slow.  The obvious benefit is that I can get twice the amount of studying in for the same amount of time.  Well that’s not entirely true because, here’s my second habit, I watch the same material over again from another instructor.

We have all-access accounts on both CBT Nuggets and PluralSight and they usually have classes for the same certification.  I find that different instructors present the material in a way that highlights different concepts, so I watch both.  Yes I hear material twice, but the repetition helps make the knowledge permanent.

Since I’m getting the material twice over, I typically listen to the second course on my phone at points of downtime — getting ready in the morning and driving to and from work.  I miss the graphics, but if there is something important I’ll pause the course and take a look.

Thankfully creating labs is so easy these days.  GNS3, virtual appliances, trial licenses, and on-demand labs mean there’s no excuse for not having hand-on experience.  Typically I will follow the instructor throughout the course in custom labs or review configs in production environments.  Often after I’ve learned a principle, I’ll review how I set something up for a prior project and I’ll see how it could’ve been implemented better / more efficiently / simpler.  I try to learn from my mistakes and take the time to make improvements.

After I’ve completed both courses I take practice exams, usually from Boson or MeasureUp.  These exams reveal knowledge gaps and send me searching for supplemental material.  Usually I’ll find blog posts and YouTube videos that fill the void.

Then I take the exam.  No need to schedule it because I scheduled it a month ahead of time.  Without that date on the calendar, I might procrastinate.  I schedule the exam and somehow my busy life gives way to the pending exam and my studying gets done.


Test Results

If you’ve ever taken an electronic proctored exam you know what it feels like to complete the last question and click submit.  There’s always this moment of fear, excitement, anxiousness and stress all compound into one.  After the results are shown you either celebrate with fist pumps and muted cheers, or your stomach goes into knots and the stress on your shoulders gains mass.

Failing is painful.  I failed both the CCNA and the CCIE written twice before passing.  All I can say is stick to it and keep on studying.  Experience is the best teacher, so lab-up what you don’t understand.  Seek out mentors and ask questions.

Passing is the best!  Take time to celebrate.  Tell your family and friends.  Then be a better IT professional.  Passing will often be the driving force for thinking about the next topic and certification.  Ride the wave of excitement!

Lastly, don’t get a big head about certs.  There is always more to learn because technology will never stop progressing.  There will always be someone that knows more than you and that’s ok.  The expert in anything was once a beginner.

The best thing to do with knowledge is to share it with your team.  Mentor those that are behind you on the path and you might find that your positive feelings from passing that cert linger on for a long time!

Best of luck to you.  As you climb the mountain, take heed of the little blue engines on the rocks below!


See part three in the series: What Certs Should My IT Team Have?