Supplementary Study Resources

By stretch | Wednesday, January 26, 2011 at 4:16 a.m. UTC

I have noticed a trend among newbie networkers to assume that limiting their education to what is provided in textbooks is acceptable. Often I'll be asked to expand on a topic which was not fully explained in a study guide, or I'll encounter a complaint that a configuration example given in print does not correlate with real-world behavior. What bothers me about such inquiries is that the petitioner has made little if any attempt to search for answers beyond the space between the front and back cover, instead opting to offload the burden to another individual. It seems as if they assume this other individual possesses, perhaps, a slightly bigger book containing the answer they seek.

I don't think this attitude is necessarily the result of laziness. Rather, I suspect the overemphasis of printed material throughout education is to blame. Almost the entirety of schoolwork through primary, secondary, and to a large degree university schooling is based upon printed textbooks. From a young age we are ingrained with the idea that answers come from books, and that is of course a very noble sentiment. However, I have noticed that such a sentiment often works against those studying within the realm of IT.

There is a tendency, especially among certification candidates, to subconsciously qualify the above sentiment: that answers come only from books. Books or people. Such a notion is obviously a severe impediment to learning, and I believe it is the driving force behind so many redundant questions in classrooms and on discussion forums.

Textbooks in IT, it must be recognized, are merely a convenience: useful, certainly, but not a necessity. They are collections of distilled information, organized in such a manner as to be easily digested. To offer an analogy, reading a textbook is akin to taking a driving tour through the wilderness, as opposed to cutting your own way with a machete on foot.

When I teach, I encourage students to look beyond the book. This is difficult at the entry level, where many are struggling merely to tread water. As individuals gain experience, though, they should be expected to move beyond official curricula and acquaint themselves with higher-level sources of information. For those accustomed to a textbook-centric approach in education, it helps to consider alternative sources as a tree rooted at the book. Another way to consider it is this: upon what external sources did an author draw in order to write a book in the first place? Even the most experienced and intelligent professionals would be hard pressed to draft a book of moderate length entirely from their own knowledge. No, they reference and cite myriad higher-level sources, many of which are discussed below.

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Standards Documents

Written standards are typically the most reliable source of technical information. This isn't to say they will never lead you askew, as details are often left open to interpretation, but they are a more reliable source than most.

Popular IT standards bodies include the IETF (RFCs), IEEE, and ITU.

Official Exam Information

If you need to learn more about the exam requirements for a certification, go straight to the source. For example, details about Cisco's ICND1 (CCENT) exam, are readily available at cisco.com.

Websites

There are myriad websites freely available, some of which rival printed works in the quality and abundance of material they provide. Some, like Wikipedia, provide broad coverage of general knowledge, whereas others apply to specific niches.

Blogs

Blogs might as easily be grouped with websites, but deserve special consideration as they are intended to be read somewhat regularly. I maintain a list of my favorite networking blogs here.

Discussion Forums

Also called message boards, these exist to cover virtually every topic one might think of. I include forums on this list not only as a venue to pose questions you might have, but also to provide a vast knowledge base of questions already asked. Always search to see if your question has already been asked before posting on a forum.

Two very popular networking forums are Networking-Forum.com and Cisco Learning Network, though there are certainly many others.

Tools and Software

Many online tools and software are available at little or no cost to help with practical experiments, from simple subnet calculators, to packet sniffers, to full-blown router emulators.

Of course, this article is far from a complete reference for supplementary study resources. Please feel free to suggest others in the comments.

About the Author

Jeremy Stretch is a network engineer living in the Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina area. He is known for his blog and cheat sheets here at Packet Life. You can reach him by email or follow him on Twitter.

Posted in Education

Comments


Peter (guest)
January 26, 2011 at 5:21 a.m. UTC

Great post. I'm a senior person at an IT consulting firm, and persuading new hires to look outside books is sometimes a difficult thing to do.


ben_j
January 26, 2011 at 6:55 a.m. UTC

I've found some value in using Discussion Forums to expand my own knowledge by picking a topic and attempting to help the user resolve the question. I find this works best if you pick a topic that you're relatively familiar with, but that you might have to do a bit of experimentation to provide a specific solution.

It also helps to keep some of the information you don't use often fresh in your mind.


WizeOne
January 26, 2011 at 7:05 a.m. UTC

I agree with point this article makes.

The best way for a newbie to learn is have them research what they are trying to accomplish and have them try it in the lab. Once they work it out there we can move to production. Yes this prolongs the process of getting things done. The topic here is not speedy networking.
To many companies these days have higher level engineers write a procedure for the newbie to follow. In some cases I see the where this may be necessary. But if we want to train our young engineers to be good engineers then we should have them do the work we did when we were coming up.


Xboy_mr
January 26, 2011 at 7:15 a.m. UTC

hi jeremy how about traing VIDEO's. dont you think they are useful, e.g. JEREMY CIOARA video nuggets at CBT-Nuggets are awesome, and they are useful. at least just to cultivate the issue.

and another thing, the thing that you mentioned might work for CCIE LAB EXAM, but for those trifle CCNA and CCNP's, dont you think it's too soon for those candidates to search the blogs and foroms, i think all they need is: 1.the official study guide(not obligatory Cisco Press. Todd Lammle books are great) 2.some Lab manuals books 3.gns3


neilobrien
January 26, 2011 at 9:28 a.m. UTC

That's the kind of point I was TRYING to make over at HERE but Jeremy does it in a much more articulate manner (and a nice diagram always helps!). It's wrong to assume that any one source of information is definitive, be it a book or a blog or otherwise.

Read, read and read again from multiple sources, then put what you've read into practice to SEE it for yourself. It's the best way to learn something in my opinion but it's the only way to prove it to yourself at the same time.

Jeremy is correct in that too many people rely on a single source (usually Certification books) but CBT's were mentioned above as well. I have to say in my early days of studying I was guilty of this as well. But all these resources have to compliment each other, they can't and shouldn't be used as an exclusive source to learn something.


Brannen
January 26, 2011 at 12:00 p.m. UTC

Good point.

I would also suggest adding in peers and colleagues. One of the most beneficial things is having others who feel your pain, who might know a thing or two, or if you really want to KNOW something, then be able to teach it.

Plus, it's really nice to be able to throw around network geek-speak to someone and not only do their eyes not glaze over, but they actually understand what you're talking about. :)


kIdFrY
January 26, 2011 at 4:19 p.m. UTC

In this particular case, let's try and identify some of the root causes of why this happens... How many books out there claim to be the one-stop-shop on a particular subject? (e.g. This book covers all the objectives of exam XYZ). In addition, many times these books boast statements such as, "Includes all the information and exam topics you need to pass such and such exam). What is somebody to think (especially an individual just starting to get their feet wet w/IT) when they read something like this?

Let's take this a step further - Many years ago I used to work for the CNAP (Cisco Networking Academy Program) - I couldn't even count that total number of times that we (The Help Desk) received complaints about the curriculum not matching up with the actual Cisco exams. I realize things have changed and the 'official' Cisco curriculum has been revised and is more geared towards passing the certification; however, I'm believe the point I'm trying to make is still valid.

Obviously, many people (including people who have already been in the field for some time) still assume that CiscoPress books' are all you need to pass a specific exam. Let's be honest, this is certainly not anything exclusive for our new brethren - just ask the people who read the SWITCH self study guide and then took the exam.


ciscokid
January 26, 2011 at 4:21 p.m. UTC

Very good post again stretch!

I would say that in the past I've fallen in to the trap of reading only study books and taking what is in them as gospel.

Recently I have tried to broaden my learning using blogs, videos and forums. As I don't have a great deal of access to networking kit/ technologies at my work,I do find it difficult to take all this information in.

I find that recreating the issue mentioned in a book or in a blog, using a home lab, really helps me learn things. This does take a good bit more time and effort (especially if you don't have all the kit to hand, or use it on a daily basis in work)so I guess this could be a reason many people just use books.


bennet
January 27, 2011 at 9:14 a.m. UTC

I agree with Stretch. The overemphasis of printed material throughout education is the culprit. Moreover, in today's world people really don't have the time and patience to 'cut their own way through the wilderness with a machete on foot'. Most would rather prefer 'taking a driving tour' and for many that seem to work... Wonderful post Stretch!


joshlowe
January 27, 2011 at 6:37 p.m. UTC

I think one other important source of information (which may fall under the tools/software categroy) is experimentation. When my students have a question about how something works (a protocol for example) beyond what their textbooks tell them, my response is often "Why don't you try it?". I think the students learn more from creating an unorthodox scenario, turning on some debugs, and watching what's actually happening.

That, and RFC's of course! :)


dlots (guest)
January 28, 2011 at 1:45 a.m. UTC

I will admit I am guilty of this quite often... but I really do try not to be.


ciscooey
January 30, 2011 at 11:53 p.m. UTC

Reading this open up my eyes... I am guilty of it for most of my CCNA study. Though of course I have learnt via video and labs (GNS3 and packet tracer) but still my focus was on the hardcopy.


JonL (guest)
January 31, 2011 at 3:31 p.m. UTC

I see the issue as an understandable one since the objective for studying is usually to pass a test. Sticking to the information in the book religiously is the easiest, least time consuming way to do this since the student is being tested on the "Cisco way" of networking.
My comments are sure to lead to a debate discussing the value of certs, which is not my intent. We all have to start somewhere which is why I make it a point to stress the value of using a lab to extend learning beyond what is contained in cert prep books.


geoff (guest)
February 1, 2011 at 10:29 p.m. UTC

Half of the problem in IT is the way the certification works. Students are told if they use any materials outside the sanctioned study material they may be banned. They wind up following the safe path to NOT get themselves banned. They then take this behavior into the workforce.


ciscolok
February 3, 2011 at 5:53 a.m. UTC

My study resources are vast, hugely thanks to the existence of internet ;)
Whenever I encountered features that I am not familiar with I will search google, or ask around in support forums or CLN.
I was lucky, I have good books which I can refer to whenever I encountered some technical challenge which I do not understand, things I cannot find from books I search cisco docs, if cannot find from cisco docs I will post questions in some forums and hope people can share their experience with me and I will setup proof of concept with my own lab when i get the answer I post them to my own blog for sharing.
I always tell my friend at work, whenever there's a challenge which we do not understand there are always ways to find answers :D

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