One of the most frequently asked questions on certification message boards is “Is a bootcamp worth it?” Until recently, I had no real experience with bootcamps, but I did have some experience with in-class training. Now that I have seen both types of training, I thought it might be a good idea to pass along some modest advice.
In October of 2005, I attended a 2 week CCSP bootcamp at a well known VUE testing center in San Jose. The class was taught by an instructor that was CCSI and CCIE (R&S) certified. He was also going to take his CCIE in Security as well. The classroom had 6 students; all of us had at least a CCNA, two had a CCIE (R&S), and one worked as a project manager at Cisco in San Jose. Needless to say, the class wasn’t filled with newcomers to the network scene, which was extremely fortunate (more on that later.)
The class went for 2 weeks. The first week went Monday through Saturday from 8am to 9pm, with an hour break for lunch and various breaks throughout (usually the break coincided with a lab…get it done early and then take a break.) The second week was Monday through Friday from 8am to 9pm, but Friday we finished up at 5pm so people could fly home that evening. We took the SECUR exam on Thursday, the PIX/ASA exam on Monday, the VPN exam on Wednesday, and the IDS exam on Friday. We were given a voucher for a free retake of any exam that was failed the first time, and a voucher for the SAFE exam that we would have to take after we got home.
The cost was just under 10K USD for the class, plus expenses such as airfare, hotel, rental car, and food.
With 13 hours a day in class, I usually went back to the hotel to order room service for dinner, all the while studying for the exams that we would take during the bootcamp. I usually studied for 3 to 4 hours, answered emails from work, and then went to bed, making the days about 18 hours apiece. Not much sleep to be had except for Sunday. And as an avid football fan, I made sure to get my usual dose of football on that day. However, about 6 hours of that day was still devoted to studying.
The center that did the training is a VUE testing center, so we were able to take the exams in the same facility that we used to have our classes. We all went in at the same time to take the test, finished around the same time, then went back to class. Usually the exams were taken in the morning after a brief Q&A session with the instructor.
The order of the exams and the studies was not by accident. The first 3 exams had one very common thread; the use of encrypted VPN connections. So, once we went through all the parts of phase I and phase II of setting up a VPN with a router, the same principles applied to the firewalls and the VPN clients/concentrators. All we had to do was learn the way each product did the very same thing. This was key, as it allowed the instructor to bypass quite a bit of redundant material.
Having to cover 5 exams worth of material in 11 days is not for the faint of heart; this was VERY fast-paced, and if it had not been for the talented and experienced classmates, the classes could have been much longer. Instead, we knew that the instructor was also working with version 7 of the PIX OS, so we were picking his brain about the differences. This allowed the class to go outside the realm of the studies without slowing down the class.
At the end of the class, I had passed three of the four tests (barely missed the IDS test, but that is also the area that I had NO experience.) All of the people in there passed at least 3 tests, and one student passed all four. Interesting to note that two of the people that failed at least one test were both CCIE (R&S) certified.
After a retake of the IDS test, I then took the SAFE exam and passed. I am now CCSP certified, and in the US, that means that I also have the INFOSEC certification as well. With each test that I passed, it also renewed my CCNA for 3 years.
I felt that the speed was just right for me, as I was already well versed with the secure part of routers and firewalls, and I have also had the unfortunate experience of using a VPN 3002 client (that is for another rant/article.) Most of what was being taught was rehash, but it also filled in many blanks that I would have not found through my normal day-to-day usage of routers and firewalls. For example, the bootcamp exposed me to the blade versions of these products that can be used for the 6500 series of switches.
It also taught me that as much as I would learn about how to use a Cisco IDS, I don’t think I would ever recommend one. I can now see why my company has a separate team setup the IDS systems and do the monitoring; that is a full-time job, and I don’t need to add additional duties to my already full plate. The class also confirmed my hatred for the VPN 3002 client. I would simply recommend a 501 or 506 firewall, and now I am armed with all the information on why. Before I would just say “They suck.” Now I can say “They suck because…”
What I really enjoyed about the class was the chance to talk to various networking professionals. At my current employer, I am the only network guy in my department. I seem to stand on an island of ideas that cannot be bounced off of my systems-oriented coworkers. At the bootcamp, I could talk to others about various ideas I had for my job and get other ideas as well.
Now for the $64,000 question: Would I recommend a bootcamp to others?
I would recommend a bootcamp for the following people:
You have a good grasp of the subject through experience, so you only need to fill in a few gaps.
You work for a company that is willing to pay for the bootcamp.
You are able to sit in a classroom for lengthy periods of time.
I would NOT recommend a bootcamp for the following people:
You are new to the subject and/or have no experience.
You are paying out-of-pocket.
You study better on your own.
This seems like a meager list, but I don’t think I can stress those qualities enough.
If you have a good grasp of the subject, then you should really benefit from the bootcamp. You can focus your studies on the areas that are new rather than the entire subject, which will make your after hours studying much easier. You only have a limited amount of time to study after class, so the efficiency of that time is crucial. I am convinced that the reason I failed the IDS test was the lack of previous experience. Without any previous experience, there was just too much to study in only two nights. Once I was able to get home and use a Cisco IDS from work, I could spend a week studying the parts that weren’t sinking in and pass the test. I can only imagine what this bootcamp would be like for someone that didn’t have experience with ANY of the products. Yikes!
I mentioned earlier about the classmates. They were all able to keep up with the class, which made it go smoothly. I heard some horror stories from my instructor about managers that were sitting in on the class so they could “understand what their network guys were saying.” This would make the classes drag on until 11pm or midnight, which would leave almost no time for studying. By taking a class like this with no experience, you are doing a grave disservice not only to yourself, but also to others that are paying good money for the class as well. If you have no experience, do us all a favor and not go.
I briefly stated the cost of this class. This is expensive. Very expensive. All of the people in that class had their company pay for the class. I can’t imagine someone paying 10K for the class, another 500 or so for airfare, 2K for the room, and about 300 for the food for two weeks. These classes are designed for a business-to-business sale, not for an individual. If you have the experience and your company will not pay for a class, then I would either go the self study route, or I would find another job where paid training is part of the job description. Good companies pay for their employees to be trained. Bad companies lose good workers that find other companies that will pay for training.
The downside to training at home versus a classroom is having the equipment and labs available, along with a qualified instructor to help work the labs. While eBay may allow for a cheap lab to be setup at home, it is very difficult to get a book to directly answer questions from past experience.
Bootcamps also go at a very grueling pace. Many people may find that spending the extra 6 months by studying at home may be a better alternative to the fast-paced classes of a bootcamp. I am used to a fast-paced work environment, so this was no different from my daily routine at work; others may find this speed more stressful than it is worth. If you enjoy only spending an hour or two a day a few days a week on studying, then I would strongly recommend against this class.
The Final Word
While I would gladly do this class again, I am not sure how much it translates to other subjects, such as the MCSE or RHCE. While 5 tests in two weeks was pretty fast, a one week bootcamp for the CCNA exam may be a bit slower paced. However, I believe that the overall recommendation still applies to all of the certs. If you are new, this is not the “fast track” to getting certified and getting a job. As always, experience will trump certs. Get the experience, get the job, then get the employer to send you away for a few weeks and pay for the classes.