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Honestly, reflecting back on this 3-month journey and I'm like, I honestly don't do things by half.
Like most, I have a family, both my partner and myself work full-time with 3 boys to raise. When you have to tell your 5 year old you can't play as "daddy really really needs to revise for an exam" or tell your partner you're having yet another late-night Cisco bender in front of the computer (yes that's "your not seeing me until the morning") starts to raise suspicions. (It's fine Daddy sacrificed revision for playtime I probably needed that tiny bit of respite from the study). They only grow up once. The misses on the other hand had to fend for herself (sacrifices must be made lol). To be honest she had more faith in me passing than myself.
For those that followed my previous posts, I apologise, I did want to write more but I went into full panic mode and dedicated every free minute I had to learning and revising for the exam. My deadline was the 7th of August as I wanted to renew my current CCNA certifications expiring on the 8th.
My original plan was to take the exam a week or two early to give myself a chance to retake it in the event of failing. That didn't happen. I had one shot, it was booked for the 7th of August.
Extra Study Requirements:
I had to put a lot of extra work into this to nail down some of the categories. I mentioned in a previous post some of the materials I used to study (Just to recap these for you):
OCG CCNP Encore 350-401 https://amzn.to/441x8LH (Paid Link)
31 days before your CCNP ENCORE exam https://amzn.to/452VjKZ (Paid Link)
CBT Nuggets 350-401 course (60+hours)
All three I fully recommend, however, I found the following areas seriously lacking and had to find other resources to nail down these subjects:
Wireless - CBT didn't touch on nearly half as much as required on 350-401 and to be fair, in their defence, it probably is there but on the dedicated wireless courses. The books I found were also lacking. sections I struggled to grasp:
Radiation pattern diagrams (Yagi/Patch/Dipole etc).
Wireless controller roaming
Wireless in SD-Access
Automation - Man my Dev skills suck hard, the extent of my skills goes as far as knowing how to interpret XML and JSON files. I Understand bits of Python and understand things like variables and basic code. The last I did any code was back in 2004 with Visual Basic and ASP.NET. The OCG just doesn't cut it. Luckily Cisco came to the rescue with "Rev up to recert" program and offered the Devnet associate program for free halfway through July/August (more on this below). Sections I Struggled with or alien to me:
Automation tools (Ansible/Chef/Ruby/Saltstack)
SD-Access/WAN - Book does a pretty good job of the concepts but DNA center is harder to grasp due to lack of exposure so had to use Cisco Devnet for this.
Extra study materials
Wireless - If you're in the networking world, especially Cisco, you will probably come across Kevin Wallace. I stumbled across a youtube video of his for wireless (3 hours). After going through this and making notes everything just clicked! Well worth it if you struggle with some of wireless deeper concepts.
Some of the tech in Wireless I find mind-blowing especially how we are starting to achieve the speeds in WIFI 6! This went from being one of my weakest to strongest to the point I think I could stomach the WIRELESS Implementation track.
Automation - Cisco emailed me halfway through July with the "Rev up to Recert" program. Three programs offering CE credits for recertification. At first, I thought, perfect, I have a fallback method for renewing my certs if I fail or can't take the ENCORE in time. Until you realise to complete the three offerings are 16+ hours each. Do I dedicate the rest of my time to this or cram cram cram for the exam?
Now what was offered was DEVNAE on Cisco U, free for 30 days and valid till the end of September. This saved my bacon on the Automation front! honestly, I knew very little and it has woken me up to the dev world surrounding networking and how it's changing. If you're not doing this get on it, it's going to be big in the future if not now!
I completed two out of the three modules on DEVNAE before my exam and they include labs with a complete Linux environment and scenarios and tools you can practice all the different concepts. Fully recommend. The only wall to this is the cost if you don't get it free. you will need an Essentials Cisco U subscription at a nice $1800. I have found out you can use your CE credits to buy your subscriptions. So it's an option if you don't need these to recertify. You will need 18 credits for the basic sub ($1800) and ultimate sub with everything included 60CE ($6000) Insane pricing!
Content is pretty vast and of great quality but just in good old Cisco fashion, it's behind an insane paywall for those self-studying.
completing the three courses above nets 56 credits 4 shy of a 6k subscription. Slightly annoying but I'll bank them in hopes I can earn 4 more somewhere.
SD-Access/WAN - Jeff Kish from CBT Nuggets has dedicated videos on youtube in a dedicated ENCORE study group that helped me nail several concepts down. Overall I found this quite easy to grasp once you learn all the node roles.
I recommend getting a Cisco Devnet account there are a lot of resources and labs where you can take a look around the DNA centre GUI. You can also practice API calls to nodes with Postman to get a hang of how this all works. It will help solidify the topics in Automation. Also, the only thing I believe is not behind a huge paywall (yet).
The Exam Experience
you never know what life is going to throw at you and getting to sit the exam was slightly challenging for me. My usual testing centre had closed and I don't have a dedicated room that I can use at home. My work location is a university tenant campus so luckily have several meeting rooms to complete the exam in.
The week I wanted to take the exam I had a project at work that involved out of hours working which screwed up my schedule. I got to the 6th of August and decided I'm not ready and was willing to give up on my challenge and let my certs expire.
Through some twist of fate, I decided at the last minute to book it. there was a one-time slot at 5 pm and one at 8 pm. I tried to book 5 pm and it timed out. On reload, that slot had gone leaving me 8:30 pm. The exam is two hours not exactly the time I wanted to take it but I had no choice.
£400 (wtf) later the exam was booked (haven't told my boss yet the invoice is coming his way lolz). I had one last night of cramming.
My last experience with an online exam was with Microsoft MCSA Server 2016 and I just found the process horrible. The proctor questioned everything in the room (all there was in the room was the desk, computer tower and a power bench with weights behind me. They even questioned the infrared detectors for the house alarm that sit in the corner of the room.
To be fair this time round it was simple. You now take photos of your exam area on your mobile at check-in. I got a nice lady who just wanted to view my desk with my camera and make sure my mobile was out of arms reach. Then I got a nice "good luck" and we will start your exam.
I will try not to break NDA. I had some insanely easy questions that I would expect on CCNA, but that's good I guess, as it means I know the concepts soundly. Then I had some stupidly hard questions I had no idea about such as some long obscure Python scripts. I had three Lab Sims (yes they are now back in the new CCNP). These were simple I found in comparison to what I got on my CCNA in 2016. I got about halfway through the exam honestly thinking I don't think I have passed this, a very mixed bag.
My last lab sim hit at about 20mins to go on the clock and I had 12 questions left out of 96 remaining after the lab. I finished the exam with about 5mins remaining so you do need to manage your time effectively to finish on time. Your competency on the lab sims is going to really dictate your available time.
I would say there was nothing off tangent of the blueprint but it's open to scrutiny how deep they take certain subjects or some obscure tech you haven't even seen or heard in your studies. Wireless comes to mind on this and some automation questions seemed very complicated, maybe what I would have expected more from the DEVnet professional track? No doubt they exist there also.
Lab Sims - Do yourself a favour, Verify your work!
In the lab sim, you have access to the full command and auto-complete and "?" just like in real-life IOS on a router or switch. No stripping down the commands like my CCNA had. This might be why certain tasks were easier. If you forget you can still use the autocomplete and help to try and attempt what you need. You do have to save your configs before you click next so don't forget or you won't score points. It does tell you this on the scenario page.
Remember to always verify what you have configured with show commands and yes you have access to show running-config. Casing example trying not to give too much away, what is the difference between these two?:
ip ospf network point-to-point
ospf network point-to-point
Top = IPv4, Bottom = IPV6 (OSPFv3)
I accidentally did OSPFv3 and I only picked up on it when I checked the running config as it says:
"ospfv3 network point-to-point"
Whoops, that could have been fatal. So use the tools you have at your disposal to verify before you move on! My tip of the Day.
Exam Finish The Verdict
I Passed! Holy Crap I actually made it! I can wipe the sweat from my brow!
You are graded instantly but told it's a preliminary score so expect 24 hours to receive any form of official "you have passed". I got "Congratulations you have passed" No score or mark. These must-have now gone. I did get a table outlining my average scores in each blueprint section (80%) across the board.
Overall I have learnt a lot even if 50% of ENCORE has been a recap from my old CCNP Route, Switch & TShoot days in university. It's interesting to see how networking is changing especially around DEV and SD-Access. While I found the likes of automation hard as it's new to me, I still found the topics engaging and I have already been practising automation with Ansible in GNS3 to push configs etc. These skills may look lucrative on a CV going forward in networking if you want to break away from the "typical" network engineer stuck on the CLI.
As for what this is going to do for my career I'm not sure, my job mostly involves Microsoft and Aruba technologies when it comes to networking. I've just always had a love for Cisco when I first met CCNA. But getting exposure to many Cisco technologies such as SD-Access probably isn't going to happen in my current job, who knows?
So Encore is finally over, I do need a break but I'm eying up my specialism to complete my CCNP (Exam two). I did get the ENARSI (Advanced Routing and Services) OCG but I'm now swaying towards Design as I have done more of this in my job than advanced routing. Not made my mind up 100% as of yet, I'm going to enjoy some much-needed chill time.
This whole experience was definitely not plain sailing and I don't recommend you try completing this in 3 months unless you can dedicate your soul to it or have extensive knowledge of all the topics already from experience. This has been the most challenging and steepest learning curve of nearly all the exams I have done but it's one of the top networking credentials around (besides CCIE).
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