Have a Better Boot-Camp Experience

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I’ve written a lot about boot camps: surveys, reviews and advice galore. This month I’d like to condense that experience into short, sweet bits of information to help you get the most for your boot-camp dollars (not to mention the time you’ll put in, with a week or more of long days and short nights).

Before you read any further, you’ve either got to agree with some assertions I’ll make or at least willingly suspend your disbelief as you read further. First, I’ll ask you to accept the notion that boot camps offer some of the best intensive training around. Second, I’ll ask you to buy the notion that taking a boot camp really will help you pass your exams and get you certified. Third, I’ll ask you to believe that intensive hands-on access to an instructor and a well-equipped test lab really will help you develop useful skills and knowledge. And finally, go with me on the idea that the higher cost, intensive effort and time away from the office required to attend a boot camp really are worthwhile.

To start things off, let me list my key points of advice, after which I’ll launch into further detail and supporting information:



  • If you don’t meet the prerequisites, don’t waste your time and money.
  • Shop around for the best deal (then bargain like heck).
  • Ask for, obtain and check references.
  • Make sure you’ll get lots of lab time (and support).
  • Be picky about the instructor.
  • Read and work ahead.
  • Do your homework.
  • Make the most of the boot-camp experience.
  • Take your exams ASAP.


Read on to learn more about each of these essential admonitions, based on feedback from more than 70 separate boot-camp experiences.

Meet the Prerequisites
Boot-camp designers aim their materials carefully at a target audience so they can balance class coverage against the student information deficit: what students don’t know and need to learn in class versus basic fundamentals or introductory material everyone should know. They are also very careful to state class prerequisites clearly and succinctly. Good boot-camp operators quiz prospective candidates to make sure they meet these prerequisites and won’t admit those who fall short into their classes. If you don’t make the grade for a class, don’t waste your time trying to get in—or your money attending.

Shop Around
In the wake of the IT slump, training companies are hurting, just like so many other industry sectors. Opportunities to play “let’s make a boot-camp deal” are as good as they’ve ever been. Another good idea is to find one or two others willing to attend the same offering and go for a substantial “group discount.” Finally, there’s the time-honored technique of finding the best price possible, then going to the operator whose camp you really want into and asking it to match the competitor’s price. Time-worn or time-honored though these techniques might be, they do work.

Check References
Most boot camps have been in business for years and will happily furnish glowing references for you. It’s smart to ask for such references and check them. It’ll give you a chance to ask whatever kinds of questions you can think of and will help you make sure you’re going to like what you’re getting yourself into. It’s also a good idea to look around message boards, mailing lists and other places where certification candidates gather to exchange information and ideas to see what you can find out. You’ll never run short on rants or opinions, so be careful with posters in these domains.

Lots of Lab Time
Attending boot camp is as much about time spent doing as it is about time spent learning. Make sure any boot camp that gets on your short list offers unlimited lab access after hours. Likewise, make sure you get at least two to three hours a day of supervised lab time so you’ll have somebody to ask for help. Boot camps all claim to offer time away from distractions, access to great instructors and time to spend practicing what you’ve been learning. Make sure that whichever boot camp makes your grade gives you ample opportunities to use a well-equipped lab so you can practice what they preach.

Be Picky About the Instructor
In interviews, surveys and reports from attendees, no factor weighs as heavily on the quality of the boot-camp experience as the instructor who teaches in the classroom (and usually in the lab as well). It’s possible to sign up for what is ostensibly the same boot camp at the same location from the same operator and have one group of very happy students (who studied with the great instructor) and one group of less content students (who studied with somebody less great). Don’t just sign up for a boot camp; research the instructor of your choice (preferably, the best in the bunch) and make sure his or her smiling face greets you when you walk into the classroom. This is another reason why checking references is so important. You’re not just looking for the best boot camp; you’re also looking for the best instructor.

Read and Work Ahead
Preparation and familiarity with the subject matter will help you ride out the intense, focused and demanding pace of coverage at most boot camps. If the camp sends you an advance-reading list—and most of them do—maximize your chances of a good learning experience by reading and working ahead as instructed. You’ll have to scramble less to keep up, and you’ll be better able to take advantage of the situation, rather than trying to cram your head full of facts, figures and console or keyboard commands.

Do Your Homework
A recurring theme from boot-camp reports is long days plus two to three hours of homework every night: reading, practice questions and sometimes even after-hours lab assignments. Do it all, do it as well as you can and enjoy it, because diehards report that homework is what helps them retain what they learn and helps them flush out topics or activities where they need more help or coverage to get things down pat. Don’t skimp on the homework to bask in your bathtub—crack those books and really dig into the material. When else will you get a chance to learn like this anyway?

Make the Most of Boot Camp
While you’re at camp, it’s also a good idea to try to make the most out of your experience. Many students report that after-hours conversations with fellow students and interactions with instructors helped them solve critical problems at work or got them ready to deal with thorny design or migration issues. While you’re at camp, you’ll have access to a premium group of practicing professionals, so use the opportunity to interact with them to the max. You’ll be glad you did.

Take Your Exam(s) ASAP
Follow-up on exam results shows that students who take their exams at camp or within 30 days of leaving camp have at least a 25 percent higher chance of passing those exams than do those who wait longer to hie themselves off to a testing center. If you’re going to spend the time and money to go to boot camp, get the exams over with sooner rather than later to guarantee the best possible results. Since many boot camps offer one, two or more exam takes, use that opportunity to the max. If you possibly can, why not go home with your certification already in hand?

Happy Camping!
Those who are ready to start digging into the boot-camp experience might now be wondering: “How can I identify boot camps to start my selection process?” It’s easy! Visit your favorite search engine and search on “ boot camp” (substitute MCSE, CCNP, CISSP or whatever kind of boot camp you want to attend for ).

Ed Tittel is president of LANwrights Inc. and is technology editor for Certification Magazine. E-mail Ed with your questions and comments at etittel@certmag.com.


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