This is a guest blog post. Views expressed in this post are original thoughts posted by Glen Kemp, Solutions Consultant at SecureData Europe. These views are his own and in no way do they represent the views of the company he works for.
In my last blog (Recertification of JNCIA and JNCIS – A Path Well-Trodden) I laid out my plans for how I was going to try and resit a fistful of Juniper certifications. Things started well with re-certifying the JNCIS-SSL on the first go (well it is my pet subject), but life, but mostly work, intervened once again. Firstly my supposedly “quiet” month of December was rudely interrupted by a training course which had been bumped and then there was a slew of proposals requiring attention. So, instead of having time to leisurely study for four exams (Junos, UAC, Firewalls & WX) I had scant time to study for one. Added to that, it suddenly occurred that if I wanted to complete the “Specialist” level JNCIS-FWV without having to redo the “Associate” level I had to do it before 31 December2011 when my prerequisite cert expired. So, everything, but the firewall exam was pushed into 2012.
I thought it might be helpful to share some my experiences and rituals preparing for and sitting the exams.
Where to start?
Starting to study for the specialist level can be a bit intimidating; they are designed to be tough and not the kind of thing that can be blagged straight after the training course; some experience is expected. However, Juniper make it easier than you’d think to prepare for the exams. If you hunt around the certification section of the website, each of the tracks has an “exam objectives” section, which details what areas you need to study. This is important as it tells you were to focus, and just as importantly were not to waste time. This document can be amazingly specific about the commands you need be familiar with; being forewarned is forearmed and should prevent nasty surprises when you get into the exam.
The exam you study for will obviously dictate your choice of materials as some are better supported than others. If you’ve attended an associated course, then the student (or even the trainer) guide is a good place to start. As a rule Juniper make all the technical documentation for their products freely available on the Techpubs site. Specifically for the JNCIS-FWV I used the exhaustive “Concepts and Examples Guide”. This 2400+ page beast is the single most thorough technical document of any IP platform I’ve ever worked with. Someone getting started in networking could do worse than use this document as a primer. It’s kind of a shame that ScreenOS is going the way of the dinosaurs; the upside is that undoubtedly eBay will be full of bargain, if slightly less than state-of-the-art kit ideal for teaching yourself BGP, IPv6 and Route Based VPNs. For the more mainstream Juniper products there are some books from other publishers, but to be honest I’ve found these to be a bit variable and not particularly indispensable. The possible exception would be the O’Reilly Junos books, which live on my desk.
How do I study?
Study techniques are different for everyone, but for what it’s worth this is what seems to work for me. Once I’ve established what I need to look at I hit the books. I try and study at least 1 hour a day if I can. I break the exam objectives into bullets points and identify what needs to be covered even if it’s something I am familiar with. I then make copious hand-written notes from the source material. My handwriting is terrible and I hate it, but slowly scribing the notes by hand forces me to commit stuff to memory much more easily than just reading it off the screen. Whilst on the subject of screens I prefer to read documents on my bog-standard laptop, whilst I’ve got an e-reader and a decent tablet, scrolling and graphics are just not rendered fast enough on either for my liking, but your mileage may vary. Once I feel that I’m about 70% of the way there I book the exam for no more than two weeks away. I find I need a hard target to focus on otherwise it never happens. If I’ve planned it right I can usually get a couple of days study leave in the days immediately preceding the exam. I’ll use this time to type up my notes and focus on anything particularly challenging. I used to use Word, but of late I’ve switched to using Evernote for all my training and study notes. Whilst it is not as elegant as perhaps I would like in some respects, it’s ideal for this purpose. The major advantage for me is that I can quickly transcribe my notes back into searchable text and include references and images. The Android client is the killer feature for me, as I can seamlessly sync my notes from Windows to my work phone and personal tablet. I can browse my notes in those idle moments on a train platform or on a particularly pointless conference call. Other software is available and it may be overkill for most, but it makes my life easier. No matter what you use, the key advantage of preparing your own notes is that when it comes to recertification (as I am doing here), you’ve got a really good place to start.
When studying I try and shut out as much of the world as I can; this means closing Outlook and definitely Twitter. I know of a guy who goes as far as blocking Facebook etc. on his home router, lest he be tempted! Although I have to keep my phone on, I do make sure it’s out of my eyeline and the message alert set to silent. Much as it pains me, I also tend to try and work in silence as music just distracts me.
I also find that I can work solidly and productively in hour chunks before I have to get up and do something else for a bit. Sadly, gone are the days of my youth when I could sit and read a study guide from cover to cover in one sitting!
The Exam Itself
For various reasons, I almost never end up using a test centre more than once, it mostly comes down to where I’m working that month. I’m pleased to say that despite the general shambles in which I operate, I’ve never forgotten my two forms of ID for an exam. Some test centres are very busy and I’ve had a couple of narrow escapes on whether they’d let me sit the exam when I’ve been late. Others are flexible providing you’ve got the right credentials and you actually show up on the right day, but I recommend you don’t take chances! All the exams are time limited and it’s important not to panic. I prefer to launch straight in; I read and re-read each question and answer by elimination. Anything I’m even vaguely not sure about I “mark” and move onto the next one. Once I’ve been through the whole exam I revisit the “marked” questions solidifying my answers. This usually takes four or five passes before I’m sufficiently satisfied. It’s not unusual to find a clue to one question in another, so it’s worth checking you’ve understood everything. The ninety minutes is typically quite generous and is more than I need. I work on the basis that I either know something or I don’t, endlessly trying to guess stuff won’t get me anywhere so I rule out the illogical or unlikely, and select the “best” answer I can.
This time, I was caught slightly on the hop; the exam was tough and some of the QoS questions I could have been more prepared for and dropped a few points. However, a pass is a pass and I’m happy with the result.
After the Exam
I’m proud to say it’s a long time since I’ve failed an exam, but it’s worth doing a bit of a post-mortem either way. Inevitably there is a curve-ball or two and I try and make some notes and research on anything that vexed me so that I can include it my study plan for next time around!
If you’ve got any additional study tips, then please do share with me and the J-Net community, thanks.