Backup Now! Data Backup Planning & Execution

Backup Now! Data Backup Planning & Execution

“But I don’t want to back up now. I’ll do it tomorrow, I swear.”

Is there a soul alive who has created digital data who has not been exposed to the concept of data backup (redundancy) in case of that data vanishing?

It does not seem likely. Similar to insurance, no one wants to buy insurance (or even talk about it), but what could the consequences be if we don’t create a data backup when appropriate, and a catastrophe occurs?

Vanishing data could be caused by a disk drive crash, a malware attack, an electrical surge, a disk drive data capture such as with ransomware, and other miscellaneous actions like device theft. What about operating system (OS) and program files? Should they be backed up along with associated data files?

Digital data does not always refer to data created with computers or computer networks. Cameras, cell phones, smart TVs, DVRs, and a host of other electronic devices can be included in this conversation.

The dominant factor in redundancy preparation is almost always determined by the value of the digital data. Let’s consider some of the basic concepts of why backing up digital information should be considered. First, I hope this story sets the tone.

Floppy Disk Backup at ComputerLand

In 1983, I was working for ComputerLand, a retail computer store in Oklahoma City. During the 1980s, ComputerLand was the largest retail computer enterprise in the U.S. which showcased Apple and IBM personal computers as their anchor products.

A client of ours, a mail order company, burned completely to the ground. They were within a hair of completely losing their business, employees losing their jobs, and lives changing forever. However, someone had the foresight to have completed a backup of the entire company database on floppy disks and had secured it in their fire safe. The data remained intact during the burn.

Because they were a client, management offered (free of charge) to take that large stack of 5¼ inch floppy disks and restore them to a new 10 megabyte hard disk. For three days, all day long, many of us took turns restoring (inserting one disk, then another) their database back to a usable state using the PC DOS Restore utility – one 360K floppy disk at a time. A very slow process, but a business was saved!

Why is Having a Backup So Important?

Organizations (or anyone) who loses a whole building and everything in it, like in the 9/11 disaster or the Oklahoma City bombing, and do not have an off-site backup store, have a very high chance of losing their business.

Losing a business this way depends on more than one factor, including the type of business. For example, an ice cream store that loses data due to a lightning strike can open up their doors the next day and commence scooping ice cream again, without too much consternation.

But a financial institution or an online company where data availability is critical creates a much different circumstance if data is compromised at any level.

So what are the primary reasons to keep an accurate backup of business data?


The first concept, and perhaps the dominant one, is the concept of livelihood. Today’s business records are kept almost completely in digital format and stored locally and/or online. Data is produced and kept on just about every type of transaction imaginable. Losing just the right kind and amount of data can create a reduction or complete elimination of positions within any type of organization.

When data is lost, jobs can be lost, bills potentially may not be paid, and lives can be changed. A relatively simple task of backing up data to multiple locations can prevent many recovery challenges.


Next, is the concept of legality. Organizations that accumulate data under restrictions of legal authority must take extra caution when planning a data backup strategy. For example, losing financial or medical data due to carelessness or poor planning may have a cost of more than just data loss. Government watchdogs could be looming.

Going to court, paying for and defending yourself or your company, does not seem to be a highly productive activity for any person or organization. Legal issues can drain human and financial resources, as well as lower personal or corporate morale.

There is a reason why there are many underground and above ground secure data centers (also known as data backup storage centers or bunkers) scattered around the world. Many financial (and other) institutions send backup copies of their data to these secure data bunker centers. Backups are usually in the form of digital tape media. They can be delivered (overnight) to these centers after the day’s business activity ends and the backups are completed. Many organizations have dedicated “backup personnel” with the responsibility of seeing that their organizations’ redundancy process is completed in a timely manner.


The majority of organizations that produce data may not be under the constraints of legal or mandatory data redundancy. However, as a matter of policy they may incorporate programs to protect their data. This can include part of or all of the following: local tape drive backups, hard drive imaging (exact copy of the hard drive in use), R.A.I.D. (Redundant Array of Independent Disks), server imaging to remote locations, copying data files to offline hard disks or to optical media (CD-ROM, DVD-ROM, Blu Ray), and a host of other partial procedures.

For Windows users, partial redundancies could include creating a Windows Recovery Drive, a copied backup of the Windows Registry, or using the Windows Restore Point feature. For Mac (Apple Macintosh) systems, Remote Disc, or Time Machine are built-in utilities for easy access. Linux and UNIX operating systems have a multitude of backup programs available. Many are open source and free; others may be unique to the specific Linux distribution, such as Ubuntu or Red Hat. A simple internet search will provide many hours of backup education.


Convenience, or rather extreme inconvenience, is a minimum description if a dataset is lost and redundancy is non-existing. Really! Does this need much explanation? How inconvenient would it be to lose your livelihood, go to court, or explain to superiors or customers that their data is lost?

A data catastrophe, (i.e., a hard drive crash) is bad enough. But in IT (information technology) crash terms, convenience is having an identical and up-to-date dataset within close access and all that is needed is for a handy tech to install it and get the system up and running again within minutes! Redundancy planning and implementation can be acutely convenient compared to the alternative.

How to Backup Data

Tools available today for data backup and security are seemingly unlimited. Discussing the dozens of tools could take many books to break down the specific software and hardware options and how they relate to the multiple operating systems used by different organizations. Instead, here are some basic technologies popular today.

The first is not a specific technology, but is a key consideration – planning. Optimal data recovery depends on optimal planning.

Planning Ahead for Optimal Recovery

Optimal planning consists of understanding what backup technologies are available, how they are installed, their function, how they are maintained, the level of technical sophistication, the costs involved, and understanding the procedures used to restore lost datasets. It has been said that “no two computer networks are the same.” This means that perhaps no two data backup strategies would be the same even on very similar networks.

Components of a successful backup plan can consist of three major categories: operating system (OS) files, program files, and data files. As mentioned, data is the primary target – both for a backup strategy and for hackers. However, having intact OS and program files can eliminate hours of additional labor restoring a hard drive. They are not as critical because organizations have them either in their possession or have the licenses to be downloaded and reinstalled.

Are data the only backup targets? OS and program files will have to be reinstalled as well. In addition, they may have to be updated. Updating to the most recent versions of these files also has the potential of adding additional time to recovery. It is almost a certainty that in today’s internet climate, not updating OS and program files can lead to security risks and software operation glitches. Organizations may also want to create a backup security policy to protect these backups. Consider having a backup plan meeting to create a plan and get approval for it.

Redundancy Technologies

Copy & Paste

But what is a computer backup? You have probably already used the most common backup technique! The most common utility known for duplicating files for safekeeping is the copy feature offered by all common operating systems. While copy is not considered a formal backup strategy, it is widely used to create file redundancy. It’s quick and easy to use.

Windows graphical user interface (GUI) users know the copy command (Ctrl+C) as copy-n-paste or cut-n-paste. Other copy commands in Microsoft Windows, MS-DOS, and PC-DOS operating systems are xcopy.exe and robocopy.exe. These are used from the command line and offer more features than the easy to use copy command. More complex data backup software is also available.

Many of the Linux distributions that have a GUI offer the copy and paste function. From the Linux command line, the cp utility can be used.

Mac users also have copy and paste functions. OS X offers both copy and paste and cut and paste functions. The copy and paste function can be done two ways: Command+C or Command+V, and using the mouse and the Option key.

Data Backup Chart

Backup Media

Backup media is not discussed in detail here. Backup media generally includes one or more of the following: magnetic tape systems, external or internal (to the computer) hard disk drives, USB (jump/thumb) drives, optical media such as CD-ROMs, DVDs, and Blu Ray, remote backup servers (computers located in another location such as across the room or in another city), or online secure data backup.

Full, Differential, Incremental vs. R.A.I.D.

Data backup strategies vary widely. Two common strategies than have been around since the 1970’s and 1980’s are full, differential, and incremental, as well as R.A.I.D. These are not strategies necessarily to be used in place of the other, but rather to be used with each other to help provide the most secure redundancy possible. Each strategy performs very different services and can be used with various kinds of data backup software.

Full Backup

The full strategy functions almost like it sounds. Although all strategies have software settings allowing customization, the full backup service is designed to fully backup “everything” on a hard disk drive. This includes all OS, program, and data files. Should a computer hard disk drive become unusable or stolen, the full strategy can be used to create an identical state of the hard disk drive at the moment the full backup strategy was completed.

The advantage of the full strategy is important. Only one file is created containing everything on the hard disk drive. All data, programs, OS and user settings are kept intact. Restore the file to a new or blank hard disk and everything should be exactly as the moment before the backup process began. It’s fairly easy to copy or distribute a single file to provide additional security for the backed up file.

Challenges also follow the full strategy. That one single file is often enormous in size. Depending on how much information is on a hard disk drive, it can take hours for the backup process to complete. It can also take hours for the file to reassemble on a new hard disk drive during the restore process. The backup file only contains data as of the date of backup. Any changes made since the backup are not included. Individual files are not accessible, meaning that to access any programs, folders, or files on the backed up media, the backup file would have to be restored first. This can be an inconvenience.

(Note: There are newer backup systems now available that do allow for individual folder and file access. Some of these newer systems also allow for an accelerated backup and restore process, saving time.)

Differential Backup

For backing up files that have changed since the last full backup, differential or incremental strategies can be used in conjunction with the full strategy. A differential is a type of backup that copies all the data that has changed since the last full backup.

A full/differential recovery would include restoring the last full backup first, and then the last differential backup performed. Differential file sizes would be much smaller, allowing for a quicker restore, at least on the differential restore. Again using this system, two files are used for restoring, the last full and the last differential.

The differential type of backup does not clear the archive bit. This means that the next time a differential backup is performed, it backs up everything that has changed since the last full backup. Previous differential files can be discarded.

Incremental Backup

A full/incremental strategy is also an option. With an incremental strategy, each backup captures all computer software changes since the last backup, usually an incremental backup. A completed incremental backup does clear the archive bit. This means that it closes out (completes) the backup process.

For example, a full backup on Friday, an incremental backup on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, with a hard disk crash on the next Friday, means that restoring a hard disk drive up to date through the last Thursday, would mean restoring a total of five files (the last full, and the incremental backups for Monday through Thursday).

Backup and Restore Schedule Samples


Backup #

Full Differential Incremental Restore from Differential Restore from Incremental
Backup #1 All data Last Full Last Full
Backup #2 All data Changes from backup #1 Changes from backup #1 Backup #2
Backup #3 All data Changes from backup #1 Changes from backup #2 Backup #3
Backup #4 All data Changes from backup #1 Changes from backup #3 Backup #4
Backup #5 All data Changes from backup #1 Changes from backup #4 Backup #5 Backup #5

Determining which system and desired frequency would be optimal to use for any given computer or network requires evaluating how the systems are used, the importance of timely recovery, and the volume of data to be restored. In addition, a hybrid of full, differential, and incremental can be implemented.

R.A.I.D. Backup

R.A.I.D. is another option that can be used on its own, or with any other data security strategy. R.A.I.D. is not a specific strategy, but offered in many different forms called levels. For example, some of the most popular levels are R.A.I.D.1, R.A.I.D.5, R.A.I.D.10.

R.A.I.D. usually requires more technical knowledge to install and implement. Computer BIOSes, microprocessors, PC motherboards, controller cards, and software knowledge is required before optimal R.A.I.D. implementations can be incorporated into PCs, servers, and networks.

The basic concept of R.A.I.D. is that multiple hard drives are installed into an array. When a hard drive (or hard drive controller chip) fails, one of two actions can take place, depending on the R.A.I.D. level. First, a duplicate hard drive could be immediately available because of a process called mirroring (an exact copy). The mirrored hard drive is instantly online and the users do not know that an error (crash) has occurred.

Another R.A.I.D. level might send an error message to the administrator that a crash has occurred. The administrator then can rebuild the lost data to a new hard drive using data stored on the remaining hard drives in the array. No data is lost, only a little time is required to get the system back up and running.

There are many variations of R.A.I.D. They vary on their own, and can vary on implementation depending on the OS supported. R.A.I.D. is a very popular concept, and is widely included in data redundancy.

Let’s Conclude

Much has been written about data security and is available in many places including online. However, like a regular Sunday sermon, we users need to be constantly reminded of securing our data before it becomes lost forever!

Whether you are a home user that has spent many hours scanning your family albums, a financial or medical organization, or anything in between, you can help prevent inconvenience, livelihood or legal consequences by protecting important data. Now is a great time to plan for a data loss emergency.

Perform a data backup now!

Do you love everything IT?

If you want to start or advance a career in IT, LeaderQuest can help! We offer 5-10 day courses with traditional instruction and hands-on labs designed to quickly get you ready for your certification exam. Our Career Services department works one-on-one with each student to help them prepare for the job hunt, and connect them with our local Employer Partners. You could be doing Data Backup for a company professionally!

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Tips for IT Resumes and Interviews from a Sales Perspective

Tips for IT Resumes and Interviews from a Sales Perspective

Would you like to maximize your IT interview and career leverage? Do you want to stand out from competitive applicants with a better IT resume? If so, the following strategies may be for you.

80% of Salespeople are Untrained

Have you heard the radio commercial about the business promoter who is advertising a sales training course to business owners and sales managers?  I have heard this ad on national radio for years, and the theme never changes. The advertisement claims that more than 80% of “professional” salespeople have never read even one book on sales training.

This advertisement suggests people who depend on selling for a living need to be trained to say the right thing, or not say the wrong thing, in a timely manner. It’s no wonder that somewhere in the 80% range (or higher) of sales people either completely fail or perform at less than desired standards, shortening their career and income potential.

A Cautionary Tale

Does effective verbal communication training only apply to sales professionals? Not by a long shot! I want to share with you an experience that happened to me in May of 2017.

I had just moved into a new house. In fact, the whole neighborhood was dotted with new build homes and families were moving in every day. The very next day I answered a knock on the front door. A young (maybe late teens) man was canvassing new residents soliciting (presumably representing local, well-known) pest control services.

Before I could almost say a word past “Hello” he blasted into my face every feature and benefit his company offered and every reason I should sign up on the spot, including the “biggest” discount the company has ever offered! This lasted about 90 seconds, which seemed like 90 minutes.

Whew! What just hit me? I immediately realized what was happening and politely thanked him and wished him success in the neighborhood. Obviously he had little to no communication training and was only following a script.

Now, let’s dissect at what just happened.

The young, uninvited sales person was asking a total stranger (me) to fork over an annual financial obligation to his company. In this case, a total stranger who has just paid a large down payment on a new house, a major closing expense, a revised insurance payment, the utility companies’ requested deposits, as well as bills to the Internet company, the trash company, and the moving company.

If you have ever moved, you know what I am talking about! I was tired of paying people. In other words, the timing was poorly calculated, not to mention the sales strategy. So, how does this relate to interviewing for tech jobs?

You are a Salesperson, Too!

What’s the solution for getting hired as a technician? One solution is to train on what to say, when to say it, and how to say it – the same way salespeople are trained. Have you ever considered applying for a position from a salesperson’s perspective? If not, maybe it’s time.

Developing and perfecting timely verbal skills is an asset that can carry you throughout life. Specifically, develop and practice on how to construct wording on a resume and how to respond to questions in an interview. Consider learning these skills from a “selling” perspective. It’s actually easier than you might think.

Remember! You are selling yourself to an employer. You are a salesperson, for now and always. It does not matter what position you are applying for. Even if your job description is not described as a “selling representative,” you are still representing yourself (your department, your company) as an effective prospect and effective employee post hire. Many people construe being friendly as a skill. It is not. Being friendly is a characteristic, not a skill. Everybody can be friendly, but only the practiced can convert their amiable nature into an effective skill set.

New Trend in the 1990’s: A Need for Individuals with Two Skill Sets

By the 1990’s, organizations of all kinds were implementing PCs and networks at an increasing rate. More and more companies were finding the advantages of operating their own LANs and IT departments. Companies and organizations needed more competent people to operate them. As the need for more technical personnel evolved, the need for people-oriented technicians evolved too. Industries everywhere were screaming for people with technical knowledge that also had the ability to work appropriately with people.

But there were few individuals who combined both effective people skills and technical skills. Those that did vaulted to high-income status. The fact is – people skills and technical skills are two completely separate skill sets. And each skill set needs to be developed (or trained) separately.

Adding some sales techniques to your skillset can help you nail interviews and propel your career to new heights. So let’s get started!

Tips from the Sales Perspective for Resumes and Job Interviews

I’ve read many books on selling, including authors Tom Hopkins and Zig Ziglar. What I’ve learned from these writings, even though I consider myself a tech and not a salesperson, is that getting what I want is much easier with just a few strategic and timely words.

Selling strategies provide tips on how to get more of the things you want out of life with less effort (fewer words). All you have to do is learn a few strategies and timing for those strategies. And I’m all for that! What about you?

The following are tips I have gleaned from reading best-selling and communication materials (not from resume-building and interview developing resources) that can help all of us IT professionals obtain and keep the career position we desire.

Tips for Resume Writing from the Sales Perspective

1. Create a list of every skill or duty you have performed at each previous position.

This is also known as a skills assessment. Some listed items might seem totally insignificant at the time, and most likely would never be shared in an interview or on a resume. But you never can predict when any one of these seemingly insignificant assets might get you hired. (See the next step to consider when these might apply.)

2. Put “Page 1” material on Page 1, not on Page 2.

Do not blow past this step. Read it carefully. Put “page one” material on Page 1, not on Page 2. In this step, “pages” are a metaphor, not specifically the number of pages constructed for a resume. Some of your assets will belong on “Page 1,” some on “Page 2,” and some on “Page 3.”

Carefully analyze what the potential employer desires (in the job description area) in a new hire. For example, if they are looking for certifications place them on the first page, along with any other educational or experience requirements.

Page 2 information might include length of time at an employer, or the total experience you may have had with you certification experience.

Page 3 information might include any continuing education or related training experience. This is not typically shared at a first interview, like Page 1 info would be. Page 3 information should only be shared at a very strategic time when the information would be totally relevant to the conversation. This might only occur during a third (or final) interview.

3. Present your personal history in a hierarchical format.

Short, abbreviated information on Page 1, and slightly more detail can be provided on Page 2. Page 3 information ideally should include supporting information in more detail than provided on Page 1 and Page 2. The same format can be applied for a personal interview. Provide general “overview” information at first. As an interview becomes more in depth, begin to share more detailed information.

This is the best time to provide more detailed (Page 3) information because this is when the interviewer is ready to “hear” you. If an interviewer is not ready to receive your responses, he/she will not “hear” you. I was not ready to “hear” what the young pest control sales person was offering. Result: no sale.

Short, simple, and direct is a good formula for developing a resume. This is how “selling” works. Provide the most relevant content on page 1. If more information is desired, provide it (Page 2). If still more information is desired, then provide it (Page 3).

Poser, Amateur, or Professional?

During a job interview, chances are your interviewer is subconsciously or consciously trying to determine if you are a poser, amateur, or professional. Which of these images do you want portray? More importantly, which of these do you want to be?

Practiced responses can assist in determining how an interviewer perceives you. Professionals are people who have practiced! Professional sales people are people who have practiced their sales pitch. Professional musicians are people who have practiced their instrument and music, or they would not be in the band! We techs also have to practice our verbal/people skills to sustain our technical careers at the highest level. Here are some tips on becoming that professional.

Start with reading just one book on selling.

You can easily pick up a used book for pennies. Again, some of my favorite authors include Tom Hopkins and Zig Ziglar. Another great resource is Dr. Stephen Covey’s international bestseller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Read and practice what you have read. I know of few successful people who have not read this book. I even took his fantastic course.

Strategically place your verbal communications in the most appropriate and timely manner.

To demonstrate this strategy, consider these simple military and hiking strategies.The enemy is attacking. You have 10,000 rounds of ammunition. They are just in range of your firepower. Do you want to expend most of your ammunition just because you can reach them at a great distance? Or do you want to save some or most of your ammunition in case you have to engage them at close quarters? This is like saving some information for “Page 3” or the third interview.

You venture on a three-day hike in the mountains. Do you want to eat all your food on the first day, or do you want to ration food resources for the entire excursion?

Writing resumes and interviewing for a new position are very similar. You have a number of assets that can help your prospective employer determine if you are a good fit for a particular position. Direct, specific, and timely answers to questions can be much more convincing during the interview process, rather than randomly expounding all of your assets at less than a timely manner.

Are You Ready to Interview?

When you are sitting across from an interviewer or writing a resume, do you want the person considering your skill set to think of you as a poser, amateur, or professional?

We can do better.  Let’s learn from the history (mistakes) of others. History is “screaming” that we need to be appropriately discerning how we verbalize communication to potential employers, coworkers, family members, and to anyone else we encounter. History has shown the value of combining technical knowledge with good interpersonal skills. Study, practice, and perform.

If you need help brushing up on your technical skills, LeaderQuest can get you the training you need. To request more information on our IT, cyber security and networking training, click the link below!

Test Taking Strategies and Study Strategies for Certification Exams

Test Taking Strategies and Study Strategies for Certification Exams

Oh, those certification (cert) exams! There’s so much content!

“Help! Is there any way to streamline the learning process in preparation for my next certification exam?”

The massive number of acronyms, new concepts, dozens of new definitions, performance skills to master, coupled with busy family and life responsibilities, can feel overwhelming to anyone. Information Technology (IT) study resources can be 500-1,500 pages. Content is often supplemented with learning labs, practice questions, graphs, diagrams, and other exam-related content.

Do test taking strategies or shortcuts exist? Are there any study strategies that can make this easier? Anything helps!

My name is Gary Bell. I have spent the last 13 years of my life teaching IT courses, and 15 years before that working in the IT industry. Over time, I have discovered test taking tips that I have incorporated into my own IT exam preparation. If you are open to either new or amended exam preparation strategies, see if these same strategies can work for you, too.

Preparing for an Exam

I have always suspected that some individuals are better test-takers than others. They seem to have secret ways to prepare for exams or a gift to perform well taking exams. I seem to fall in the category of “others.” Because of that and because of the volume of information to be studied, slowly and methodically over the years I have developed some personal strategies to assist in absorbing huge amounts of new information. Maybe they can help you, too. Below are my tips on how to prepare for a test and build up your test preparation skills.

Attitude and Emotion

Here’s a surprising strategy. Our attitude and our emotional ability to work with technologies may be key in IT career success.

Considering attitude, do you really want this IT position? Or do you feel you are compelled to accept a position because of the feeling, “I need to feed my family?”

Regarding emotional ability, do you have the “emotional stability to be more responsible, better able to focus on the task at hand and pay attention, be less impulsive with more self-control, and improve your scores on achievement tests” (Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman, publisher, Bantum, 1997, p. 284)?

In his book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman expounds on why emotional intelligence can matter more than IQ. Developing IT skills is hard enough. It takes time, practice, experience, and patience to become proficient with IT skills. If an individual faithfully desires to succeed in an IT career, then the journey will becomes much easier.

Before an exam, make sure that your attitude is in the right place and that you’re not in emotional turmoil. Don’t let recent life events distract you from focusing on the exam.

Exam Objectives

Match study material to exam objectives. Supplemental IT content is usually included because it may be related to the topic being discussed. However, if it is not listed in the exam objectives, consider absorbing that material later. Keep a copy of exam objectives handy for quick review, and let these objectives guide where you spend your study time. This is one of the most important test preparation strategies when it comes to spending your time wisely!

Bookend Preparation

Many exam objectives require becoming familiar with steps, or lists of courses of action. Most anyone can master memorization, or learning one list. Often there are many lists (or sequences of steps) that should be mastered before sitting for an exam.

Make it simple. Learn the “bookends” first. Here’s an example: for a six item (step) list, memorize the first and last steps first. These steps are usually very logical and easy to remember. For example, consider the following list of CompTIA’s A+ troubleshooting best practice steps that will appear in their revised and updated version of this certification due in 2019:

CompTIA A+ Best Practice Troubleshooting Steps

  1. Identify the problem
  2. Establish a theory of probable cause
  3. Test the theory
  4. Establish a plan of action to resolve the problem and implement the solution
  5. Verify full system functionality and, if applicable, implement preventive measures
  6. Document findings, actions, and outcomes

Troubleshooting usually begins with verification (identification) that a problem actually exists – the first step. Upon resolution, documenting activity associated with the problem and resolution must be recorded – the last step. Now you know two steps.

That leaves only four more to grasp. Try for two more. It should be fairly obvious that you should verify (test) your solution before you complete documentation (Step 5). And before you verify full system functionality, one must perform the fix (implement the solution) (Step 4).

Now, there are only two more to go. Do you think you could come up with a plan for the last two (Steps 2, 3)?

The more important I think the list content is relative to the objectives, the more apt I am to learn (memorize) all the steps. Less important lists, at least in my view, tend to just get the “bookend” treatment. By solidly knowing one or two or three steps in any type of list, often I can figure out a test question answer even if it’s about a step I did not pay much attention to.

This method also applies to the content within the steps. To be truly prepared for questions related to steps or lists, you must be prepared for the content within the steps. For example, if you were asked “Which step would a technician typically ask the user?” The answer is Step 1, because it is part of identifying and verifying a problem condition exists.

Short of learning every list in maximum detail, it is better to know 1-3 steps of a given list well, as opposed to, “I sort of remember that in the textbook, but I can’t quite remember the exact order or what was in the steps.”

Time Allocation Absorption (TAA)

Some material is essential to know not only for exam preparation but also to be able to function quickly and efficiently in the field (job performance). Looking up resources certainly works, but that activity can be slow and may indicate a tech is not ready for the task at hand.

I developed a method for my test prep which I call Time Allocation Absorption (TAA). A more simple description might be called Mini Index Card Method. This strategy allows more focus (time) to areas most needed. This works well for short word-and-description material I need to master, and is one of the best ways to study for an exam.

Two examples are IP port numbers and acronym identification. Here’s how it works. I create a small stack of index cards (any color) cut into two pieces (½ size of a standard index card). Using the port number example, I write the TCP/IP protocol on one side, and the associated default TCP/UDP port number(s) on the other side.

Test Taking Strategies 1 Test Taking Strategies 1

Referencing exam objectives, I produce a card for every listed protocol or port number. I do the same for the acronyms. The acronym goes on one side, the full-word representation on the other.

Now here’s the learning method. In no particular order, I read the first protocol; recite to myself the associated port number, if I know it. If not, I flip the card and peek at the answer, spending a brief moment memorizing.

Next, I go to the second card and repeat the process. When satisfied, I go back to the first card and repeat the process for card #1 and #2. If I get both correct, then the process moves to card #3. If I get it correct or incorrect, I go back to #1, and repeat through the first three cards. If I miss one, I start over. If I get them all correct, I move to card #4. I repeat this process until the entire stack is completed.

Notice what is happening here. When I reach the final card in a 20 card stack, in theory, I have seen card #1 twenty times, card #2 nineteen times, card #3 eighteen times, etc. all the way to the end. I do not pretend that I have nailed down the beginning cards and skip them. What I am doing is reinforcing what I should have already learned.

Repetition accelerates learning.
The repetition process should begin to permanently etch port-number associations into my long-term memory. For content that needs a little work, just reshuffle the cards and place any unlearned content towards the front. For more information on this technique, check out this video demonstration.

Self-Assessment and the ABC Method

How do you know if you are exam-ready? Is it just a feeling, or is there an objective signal stating that you are ready? At some point the decision must be made. It’s time! How do you really know when?

Assessments! Assessments are your best friend!
The only way a student pilot will ever get to fly an airplane on his/her own is by the grace of an assessment by a licensed and experienced pilot instructor. For IT people, the same principle can apply. Assessments can greatly help determine your state of readiness.

Assessments (or practice tests) evaluate one’s ability to answer questions related to the content. Here are two methods to consider.

First, take as many practice tests from different authors (publishers) as possible, not just from one. Consider using at least three authors that offer multiple quizzes and tests. I typically use three to five authors. Why so many?

I have noticed with this method that there seems to be many questions that are strikingly similar comparing one author to another. To me, this is a clue that I had better be sure I am familiar with the question, the correct answer, and the wrong answers. Right or wrong, I assume that most of the question writers are also certified. Maybe they know something that I should too.

Watch out! IT industry questions can come is surprisingly different formats. Only studying one set of questions from one publisher could be a bit misleading if you are expecting similar exam questions. Exams could offer very different question formats. Exposing yourself to varying question formats can only be beneficial.

Second, consider the ABC method (my term). Use chapter quizzes and/or full-length practice exams. Hopefully they are provided with your study material. Next, on a sheet of notebook paper or using a word processor, create three to five columns and label them each A, B, C, to start (D and E are optional). Down the left hand side number the quizzes or tests you might be taking. If there are 11 quizzes, there will be 12 rows numbered from 1-11 and row 12 can be labeled Total (average %).

Test Taking Strategies 3Now take the first quiz (Row 1-A). I prefer taking this assessment before I read or study the content. I do not look up anything, or cheat myself, or pretend I know the answer. I want to record exactly what I know and do not know. I finish all the quizzes in the first column (A), and record my honest scores for each.

I study the content. Then I take the same quizzes for the B column, and never in the same day. (Even I can remember an answer if it was reviewed a few minutes ago.)

My goal is to keep repeating the above process until my scores are at a minimum of 90%. Hopefully, I can do this by the time I reach the C column. If not, I may have to expand the columns to D or E. Strive for 95% or higher. Repeat the process until all quizzes and practice exams are well in the >90% range. Once I reach that plateau, I schedule the exam.

Notice the log on the right that I used for a cert exam. Some content I had a better understanding than others in the beginning. One caution is I try to avoid (not pretend) I know an answer when I really do not.

I mentioned earlier that it is possible to prove that changing an answer creates more wrong answers than right answers. Well, in the process above, I noticed that when I change answers, I very often get it wrong. I have not actually logged that kind of data, so I cannot verify it even to myself. But I am totally convinced that changing an unsure answer is not in the best interest of getting the most answers correct.

Learn vs. Memorize

Exam preparation requires memorization, at least in the beginning. Some content may be worth memorizing just for an exam. But much content is well worth learning (committed to long-term memory) not only for a cert exam, but to be able to function when landing that next position. You never know what type of pre-employment assessment you might encounter. You definitely want to be prepared by retaining as much content as possible.

Be careful here, but I do tend to classify some content as retainable just for the exam. Then I magically seem to forget it.

Buckle-down Method

Certification exams are not necessarily easy. I do not recommend “shortcuts” as a primary strategy. Every exam subject deserves our best efforts: the buckle-down method. It’s the real “shortcut” for long-term success.

Sitting for an Exam

Common Exam Tips

This is just a reminder of common strategies that can apply on most any exam:

  • Prepare for exam day. Get a good night’s rest, make time to have breakfast and get to the exam on time.
  • Read the question, every word. Watch for words like is or is not, always or sometimes.
  • Learn to identify distracters and to ignore them, as they have nothing to do with the question.
  • Eliminate the obvious wrong answers first, then consider what’s remaining.
  • Consider reading the answers first, then the question.
  • If allowed, start by writing out a brain dump of important info you’ve memorized on a scratch sheet.
  • Be aware of time spent on each question and don’t let a tough one take up too much of your time. Come back to it if needed.
  • Use all of the time available to you. If you finish the exam, go back over your answers to look for any mistakes.
  • Take deep breaths and stay calm. Panicking will not do you an favors!

While I cannot verify that these strategies are solid, I have spoken to individuals who swear by them.

Don’t Change Answers

The first strategy requires no study effort. None. Only “question awareness”. Avoid changing an exam answer in which you are unsure, also known as – guessing. Leave your first intuition (answer) alone, and move on.

When I first started graduate school, my professor explained this concept to my class. She explained that changing an answer can result in a 45 percent chance of getting the question correct. Leaving your first answer “as is” produces a 53 percent chance of getting the question right.

Using those numbers, a test-taker could get eight more questions answered correctly on a 100 question exam. That could easily mean the difference between pass or fail.

CompTIA, an IT industry certification provider, also supports this strategy. In their course material (IT Fundamentals) testing suggestion section, they state, “Studies indicate that when students change their answers they usually change them to the wrong answer.”

I have used this strategy ever since I first learned of it. Is there any way to prove that it works? Maybe. That will be addressed later in this writing.

Skip the Hard Ones

From personal experience, other cert takers, and suggestions provided by industry exam providers, consider skipping the harder questions, and return to them later.

Some certification exams present performance-based questions. They seem to appear towards the beginning of exams. The recommendation is that if you cannot work out a satisfactory answer quickly, mark it for review (if your exam allows it). Continue and answer the rest of the questions that might be more quickly answered. Also consider marking any other question (i.e., multiple-choice) for “review” if you find yourself spending excess time on them as well.

After completing the last question, return to the questions you have marked for review. In most cases you will have more than enough time to complete all questions. Each question counts the same on most tests, so the strategy is to get the highest number of questions correct, not necessarily the hardest.

This method works! In 2002, I spent too much time on the first five questions of a Network+ exam. Suddenly, I realized I was almost out of time to answer the remaining 85 questions. In a sweating panic, I blasted through the rest of the questions. The result was good. But the journey (pressure) of getting there was miserable. I learned the hard way. You don’t have to.


Never allow a single exam to define your career. Regardless of if you pass or fail an exam, your next charge is to press on. If you pass, do not relax, take the next cert in sequence, attend the next webinar, seminar, or training class, but ABL (always be learning). If you fall short on an exam, identify what needs to improve, and go back and succeed.

Never allow a single certification exam to define your career.

Perhaps by applying these test taking strategies and study strategies for exam preparation, you will feel more confident about your career progress.

Much success,

Gary Bell