An Existential Crisis in my CCIE Study?

When I was about three quarters of the way through writing my Master’s thesis, I was having some real doubts about whether the study I had undertaken had any value or purpose.  In particular, I wondered whether the magnetic field images and starspot maps I was producing were real, or just mathematical artifacts generated by the deconvolution process. Was I adding to the sum total of knowledge about stellar magnetic fields, or was the whole exercise a case of complex mathematical Onanism?

radial

Radial Magnetic Field of HR1817. Real or just an illusion?

My supervisor tried to put me at ease. The diagnosis was a classic case of thesis-based existential crisis. The cure? Get the thing finished and peer-reviewed. External validation will make the concerns about value and worth disappear. He was right, of course, and I put the whole thing behind me.

Fast forward six or so years, and I am now two months out from my second attempt at the R&S CCIE lab. And once again, I seem to be having an existential crisis about the CCIE certification. This was partly brought about by my inability to get motivated the second time around. I’ve been through the study, spent the money on courses and done the practice labs, but whether it is my aging brain or slightly OCD tendencies, I am struggling with the same problems that cost me my first attempt. Firstly, speed and secondly, a compulsion to double and triple check configurations before committing, brought about by years of having this trait hammered into habit by working in high pressure environments. My lack of progress in these regards has been dispiriting to the point of dreading sitting down to another lab session.

However, the greater trigger about seeing the point of getting the CCIE R&S number was raised in this post by Greg Ferro. Specifically, this line:

Use your CCIE study program to learn technology, don’t get caught up in loyalty to Cisco, they simply don’t repay it.

Why was this resonant to the point of triggering existential concern?  Because I do believe that the point of studying is to learn, and right now I don’t feel like I am learning anything relevant. In my past and current employment, I’ve had to work in every networking area: wireless, voice, video conferencing, security, routing and switching, virtualization, data center deployments, content filtering and WAN optimization. Right now in my current rollout, I am deploying DMVPN and WiFi. Soon, I will be doing QoS configuration for non-Cisco voice. And so plowing through OSPF sham links, MPLS and VRF-lite for the nth time seems pointless when I really need to be getting up to speed on the latest WLC software release and the latest access point offerings.

I had the same concerns when I initially embarked on the CCIE journey. I’d done the CCNP and at the time I craved the pure challenge of going forward with the CCIE R&S. However, I had concerns that a better path might have been to pursue some of the other CCNP-level certifications to fill in the gaps in my knowledge in the other areas. The disadvantage in being the sole network jack-of-all-trades is the tendency to develop an ocean of knowledge that is only an inch deep, and perhaps the better strategy would have been one of dredging the whole ocean a little bit rather than creating a Marianas Trench in a single spot.

I have to try to reignite my enthusiasm for now, especially after the commitment I’ve made so far, but if I had the time over again, I think I would have taken a different direction in my certification study. Don’t get me wrong. I am not concerned that my CCIE study has been wasted, as much as I am having a crisis of faith right now. My CCIE study has taught me much that has been useful, and I can see how some technology decisions I made at my previous job could have been different and better in the light of what I have learned. It is just that I am not so sure how relevant it is to me in the medium term.

I suppose the biggest lesson I have learned is that before you embark on a certification path, make sure you know why you are taking that path and what that path is going to teach you. I couldn’t agree more with what Greg said: use the certification process to learn technology. Too many people I’ve met take the certification paths as check-boxes for career progression, and that is why the brain-dump and exam scams proliferate. The exam pass and the certification are nice to have, but they shouldn’t really be the goal or the point. Learning the technology should be the goal.

Matthew Mengel
Matthew was a Senior Network Engineer for a regional educational institution in Australia for over 15 years, working with Cisco equipment across many different product areas. However, in April 2011 he resigned, took seven months of long service leave to de-stress and re-boot before becoming a network engineer for a medium sized non-profit organisation. At the end of 2013, he left full-time networking behind after winning a scholarship to study for a PhD in astrophysics. He is on twitter infrequently as @mengelm.
Matthew Mengel

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  • http://twitter.com/Iamjeffvader Keith Humphreys

    Snap! I have invested money more so than time in the pursuit of the RS but for the last while have been thinking whats the point of doing it, I don’t really work on Cisco kit anymore and family takes up so much time (rightly so).

    For the last few months I had been thinking of stopping in favour of lower end Certs on difference technologies. Unlike you I haven’t done anything outside of R&S and SP stuff so I feel it’s more beneficial to certify in voice and wireless etc purely to get something of an understanding of those technologies and to future proof myself somewhat should I find myself out of work. Multivendor is important too. I’ve never had an operational need to work on junipers but I did some Certs, just so I would know how to get around their boxes. I also do ALU stuff but that’s my day to day job. Diversification duuuude

    • Bogdan Golab

      I perfectly understand your concerns. I my case it was about being persistant in achieveing the goal – I simply do not want to be a looser.

      After years of being the CCIE (10+) and refreshing the cert every 2 years I think that being stubborn really helped me in my professional life.
      I admit that proficiency level required to pass the lab exam is not required in real life – in everyday work we promote optimal design, simple solutions, etc.
      The lab exam is about applying the Cisco-related knowledge at the ligt-speed;)

  • http://twitter.com/BobMcCouch Bob McCouch

    Matthew, thanks for the great write-up. I’m in a very similar position, preparing for my second lab attempt and also sometimes being frustrated at the topics in the R&S blueprint as it compares to the myriad topics I need to know for my day job. You are not alone there. For me, I think a lot of what I’ve been gaining from the study experience is intimacy beyond any I’ve ever had with the IOS CLI in how it behaves and what it can tell me about what’s going on. I’ve learned those three magic words, Verify, Verify, Verify. And undoubtedly I’ve learned a lot about many relevant technologies alongside the fringe topics and obscure features.

    I’ve wanted the CCIE for over 10 years now, since the first time I saw the Cisco certification pyramid. Part of the CCIE endeavor, for me, is getting that thing that I’ve wanted for so long. Most of the best engineers I’ve ever known in my career have obtained a CCIE. While being a CCIE doesn’t make you one of the best network engineers ever, it proves to others and yourself that you can suck in enormous amounts of technical theory, put it in practice, and do it with a particular eye toward detail. If you can do it for Cisco’s CCIE blueprint, you can do it for anything else in this field, too. I need to prove that to myself.

    Good luck in whatever path you choose.

  • Adny

    I love that line “…is only an inch deep, and perhaps the better strategy would have been one of dredging the whole ocean…”

  • Adny

    One thing about your Masters, is you don’t ever have to renew it.

  • andy

    Oh, and nice Space Marine, better then I could ever paint them.

  • JamesWGreene

    I too have struggled with whether or not to continue pursuing a CCIE. The out of pocket expense really causes me to question continuing. I do not have a company willing to pay for it. I really feel I need the training as well but not to learn the technology. Like you I have over 15 years in the business and I am very much in the habit of being meticulous, double or triple checking everything and I am not willing to easily give up on a problem unsolved. I feel like to I need the training to break my good habits just long enough to plow my way through this exam. I guess since it is not necessary for my job at this point, I am not sure it is worth the thousands out of my pocket.

    • http://twitter.com/northlandboy Lindsay Hill

      “…since it is not necessary for my job at this point…”

      Do you intend to do your current job for the rest of your life? I’m not in any way saying that CCIE is the right thing for you to do, I’m just saying that with almost any higher level of study, it’s about where you want to _go_, not where you are right now.

      Oh and you don’t need to training to break habits to plow through CCIE. At CCIE level, you HAVE to verify your work multiple times. The trick is getting fast enough to give yourself the time and space to be able to verify. One of my mistakes first time around was not being fast enough, so I just didn’t have time to get through all the configs, and verify it.

      Second time around, I could bang out pretty much all required configs, no DocCD reference, and it gave me time to deal with the tricky bits, and verify. Found mistakes during verify too. Probably wouldn’t have passed if I hadn’t picked those up.

      I think that speed was a “peaking” thing though – I wouldn’t be that fast doing a CCIE lab today, as I haven’t done any of those full-scale labs since I passed last September.

  • Luis M

    I would continue to study even if you don’t use Cisco gear any more, you don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow. I often think, what am I doing? why am I wasting so much time if I will get paid exactly the same after the exam?. But the point is that we have to DO SOMETHING, relax in the coach doesn’t make us any good. I don’t want to be a ccnp with 40 years if now people with 25 are ccnps. Think about the next big crisis, if you are better you will get a job if you are not better and you are older you will be more likely to be kicked.
    We don’t write the rules and the world is not fair, so if you are better than another person you most likely will get a job, a better job or a promotion inside your company.

    Keep studying!

  • ashwani

    Yeah..The journey seems better than the destination and it must be.

  • thema27

    Good to know. I am currently studying for my CCNP and I am focusing on knowing about and mastering fundamentals of routing and switching processes, I often read Juniper material just to compare and see the global picture really. But Thanks for the heads up.

  • http://twitter.com/nkrypted Brandon Mangold

    For me CCIE was a personal goal to challenge myself. It didn’t hurt that I have also worked in Cisco networks my whole career. I am now the lead network Architect and I have the ability to choose vendors. I don’t feel that the CCIE hurts me at all in that regard. In fact I have been mulling a switch to Juniper in certain segments of our network and I am closely tracking the development of SDN products from Big Switch, NEC and HP.

    CCIE is great for challenging yourself and moving your development as a technologist forward. It certainly will not hurt your understand the foundational protocols and technologies on which modern networks are built. Also having CCIE # is a solid validation that you have a basic understanding of networking. It is far from the end all be all to me it’s more like the CCNA to a bigger world… for me it was just the first step towards my bigger goals. IE the completion of one set of goals, the onset of a new set.

  • MViertel

    This ‘crisis’ seems very familiar and thanks for the great writeup. I did my my CCNA 13 years ago, followed by CCNP, CCDP and CCIP amongst other certs. I also faced the question, if I should commit myself to the CCIE track, but in the end I decided against it.
    Not because I don’t feel its a waste of money, although its value has been getting diluted for years. There was a time when a CCIE could write his own paycheck and now we have people stating that it ‘shows that you have a BASIC understanding of networking’ (see other comments).

    I do agree that it is way to narrow in focus … at least for me. Some people like and/or need that deep focus for what they do or need to do, and that is fine for them. But the unicorns that are able to go deep and broad at the same time are very few indeed and despite the wishful thinking that there would be more all-rounders that can also go deep, the reality is that this will remain a collaborative effort, between subject matter experts and generalists.

    A jack-of-all-trades is not a bad thing. It only becomes bad when someone like that is used when deep knowledge is required, just as using a highly specialist expert is not a good idea when a broad understanding of multiple disciplines is required.

  • marc edwards

    Goals are important. Even if I became filthy rich tomorrow. Rich enough to never worry about work, I would still grind to PASS that test. Don’t give up!

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