The Dark Side of Vendor Certifications

Seen by many as the way to advance one’s career, vendor certifications are pursued by many eager networking professionals. I have done this myself over the years, having held certs sponsored by a variety of different vendors. I must concede that certifications have been helpful to me, but reflecting on certs yet again as I ponder the miry swamp that is voice technology, I’m reminded that certifications have a dark side.

One unfortunate reality for any cert seeker is that your employer might not care. While we all want to be recognized for the achievement that a hard-earned cert certainly is, the fact of the matter is that your employer isn’t necessarily all that amped up about it. The reasons for this vary, but I think the biggest reason is simply that (from an employer’s point of view) if you could do your job before the cert…and you can still do your job after passing a bunch of exams…who cares? The fact that you mastered a ton of new information that can help the network (and therefore the business) perform better isn’t as obvious to them as it is to you. My encouragement here is to make sure your boss is in the loop on what you’re pursuing and why. Take a little time to articulate to management why being certified makes a difference. Maybe they won’t get it, but you’ve done your best to help them understand.

Another frustration for me personally is that braindumping has become a full-blown industry. When approaching an exam, I like to Google for reviews other candidates have posted giving their impressions of the exam. Was it a fair test of the blueprint topics? Did it seem overly hard? Too easy? Were they able to complete it in time? Were the exhibits legible? Etc. That sort of information is hard to come by. Perhaps that’s because people don’t write up their exam experiences all that much. Or perhaps the ridiculous amount of braindump tests for sale are so popular that they are overrunning the Google search results. A word to those that care about the integrity of their certs: the sites selling braindumps are not selling practice questions to help you learn. They are selling you pirated copies of the actual tests. If you’ve been out of the exam-taking game for several years, this might come as a surprise (been there, to my fantastic personal embarrassment). But the field of certification has been seriously overrun by braindump companies. Frankly, it sucks…not so much that these companies exist, but that they are doing so much business that it’s obviously worth it to keep their digital doors open.

Another challenge with a certification is that once you’ve earned it, it’s a responsibility. Once you’re granted the certification, it will only be good, in most cases, for two or three years. Then you need to recertify. In other words, you have to maintain the cert. That’s a bummer a lot of times, because a busy network engineer often doesn’t have much free time to review exam guides and lab unfamiliar material. Recertifying becomes a point of stress in an already stress-filled life.

Now, you could argue that if you’re a network engineer, then recertifying shouldn’t be that arduous. After all, you use this stuff everyday, right? Well, sort of. In every certification track I’ve ever followed, I’ve found that you’ll learn stuff you won’t use. For example, I recently recertified my CCIE status by taking the routing and switching written exam. You know how much I use IPv6, MPLS and multicast? Not at all. Okay, IPv6 a little bit, but very little thus far. So, going through that material at the level required to pass an exam is really hard. You don’t know the command syntax. You forget important concepts. You have a hard time translating scenarios into correct design implementations. Yes, it’s always great to be exposed to new information; that makes you a well-rounded network engineer. But in the context of certification, you’ve got to keep a handle on that information to keep the cert, and it’s tough if you’re not using it in real life.

A final bummer about certification is that it’s not really about you, your personal goals, or making you a better engineer (although you can certainly use certifications to your benefit). Certifications are more about the vendor. Certification is largely a way for vendors to put more money in the pipeline. Put bluntly, certified individuals are part of a vendor sales effort. Certified folks are (hopefully) feet on the street, preaching the packet gospel according to the vendor, converting sales opportunities into network salvation. Clearly, that’s not always true; there are times we engineers go against our certified predispositions. But oftentimes, we go with what we know. To pick on Cisco for a moment, why drop in a firewall from Palo Alto Networks if you’re CCNP Security? Why put in a VoIP solution from Avaya if you’re CCNP Voice? Why look at switches from HP or an edge router from Juniper if you’re CCNP Route/Switch? It’s highly likely that you’ll recommend what you’re most familiar with, especially earlier in your career when you’ve been exposed to a limited number of vendor solutions. Therefore, vendors love it when you certify on their products. You’re more likely to keep the cash rolling in.

Now that you’re depressed and bummed out, let me take a step back. Am I saying that certifications are bad? No. I’m not even saying vendors shouldn’t have certs, as clearly they must to encourage proper implementation of their solutions. But…there is a point in a network engineer’s career beyond certification, where experience is more meaningful. While listening to Ivan Pepelnjak conduct a webinar today, he made the point during his introduction that he’s been around long enough to have seen too much. I haven’t been around quite that long, but I know what he means. After you spend time understanding what’s going on under the covers of networking (perhaps through a certification process), all “new” networking technology starts looking an awful lot like something “old.” And the light dawns on you that it’s not about certifications as much as it is being willing to keep up with the changes, applying what you already know to what’s trendy and new, and then coming up with solutions that fix problems. Businesses have business problems. A solid IT infrastructure riding on the foundation of an outstanding network run by excellent engineers can help solve those problems. And for me, that’s where it’s at.

Which isn’t to say I’ll never do another cert…because I do like a challenge, after all. ;-)

Ethan Banks
Ethan Banks, CCIE #20655, has been managing networks for higher ed, government, financials and high tech since 1995. Ethan co-hosts the Packet Pushers Podcast, which has seen over 2M downloads and reaches over 10K listeners. With whatever time is left, Ethan writes for fun & profit, studies for certifications, and enjoys science fiction. @ecbanks
Ethan Banks
Ethan Banks
  • Alex__Clark

    Excellent post! I personally have found that certifications can be a great tool to get my feet in the door and a trump card over my age. However, with the state of brain dumping you mentioned, it is a double edged sword. I am at a point now where I am strongly considering delaying taking my 642-874 (Arch) exam to try and become CCDP because I already have what would be considered “a lot” of certifications for my age. I realize this statement makes me sound like a pompous jerk, but my strong study habits and love of networking can easily be mistaken for cheating. And to be honest, if I was looking over a 20 year old’s resume with CCNP/CCDP, I would immediately think “brain dumper” too.

    Also, speaking to certs being a great sales tool, you are 100% correct! Cisco’s command of the college education world is also complete. I will graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Information Systems without ever touching a non-Cisco piece of networking gear in a classroom. And after speaking with fellow students at other Universities, it is the same there too. The lack of vendor diversity in universities is upsetting. (At least in my experience.)

    • Rob Gilreath

      I worked with Cisco, Foundry, HP, Marconi and 3Com gear in my labs at University and I believe they’ve decided not to become a Cisco Academy because they wish to control the curriculum. The degree was not solely focused on Networking, but has proven to be an excellent springboard into a career in it. It gave me a nice base of IT skills to work from and from there spiked my interest in Networking.

      • Techkid

        Can you tell us where you studied networking?

    • http://twitter.com/scottm32768 Scott McDermott

      I would not immediately jump to the conclusion that you were a brain dumper jump because you had CCNP/CCDP at 20. I would assume it was part of your CS degree studies and that you had a lot of book knowledge and no experience.

      I would still be asking networking questions during the phone screen to make sure you had the knowledge you claim. There’s plenty of people out there who are well past 20 with certs on their resume they can’t back up.

    • rob

      Are u kidding.??? So ur saying anyone with a ccnp. Took me a year of study and ccdp which to me 6 months. I was 25. U are going to assume I cheated. Ur an idiot.

  • http://twitter.com/josh_odgers Josh Odgers

    Nice Article Ethan, and I agree with your thoughts. Braindumps
    de-value actual industry professionals who in fact have earned the
    certification, and not cheated themselves and everyone else.

    I would encourage all vendors to take VMware’s lead and have exams which require face to face interaction with experts, eg: VMware Certified Design Expert. I was fortunate enough to pursue and pass this certification and I can happily say this is one certification you cannot cheat and one that I am proud to have.

    • Will Hogan

      I agree. I do not think VMWare has a scam going on at all. Considering the robustness of the VCP certification that $4K per class is perfectly reasonable!!!

  • http://twitter.com/danieldibswe Daniel Dib

    Good post Ethan. Before the CCIE I was planning on doing a lot of certs (Cisco) but now I’m thinking why I wanted to. Mostly my interest came because I wanted a broad knowledge base and to be recognized as an expert.

    I have given it some deeper thought and my employer would not really care. I would get a cert bonus but that’s not enough to study something I’m not 100% interested in. I would not get a pay raise. It wouldn’t affect my performance at work.

    So now I’m more interested in learning things that really interest me.
    Just staying updated as a network engineer takes a lot of time and now I can spend more time on that than chasing certs. As you said that doesn’t mean I’ll ever take another cert but after CCIE you kind of get bored of CCNA level stuff.

  • http://einaraleksejev.eu/ Einar Aleksejev

    The average employer has no interest in employee training until he can just send the bill to the buyer and/or work gets done. Universities taught computer science is more valuable then vendor-specific certificates. At the same time certificates help you pass corporate human resources department pre-selection.

  • Alexandra Stanovska

    Food for thought, definitely.

    There are reasons why would employer want to have you certified though, but it is company or situation specific of course.
    – obtaining or keeping vendor partner status
    – participation in contests and government tenders etc., the more letters the better (though in my country there are completely different criteria for selection that have nothing in common with competency but that’s a different story)
    – eligibility to obtain “more complex” and “more challenging” work assignments, as individual as well as a team (think outsourcing/offshoring too – very important factor)
    – you have something to put into your end of year performance review ;-)

  • http://twitter.com/mellowdrifter Darren O’Connor

    The important things are in the second paragraph. Sure I probably didn’t need to do my JNCIS-SA recently as I was happy supporting the SSL boxes we have. However while reading through the certification material I learned a large number of things I could do with the platform that I didn’t know at first. This is how I tackle most certifications. Try and learn something new on a platform you already know.

    Unfortunately my employers don’t see it the same way…

    • Mike Fratto

      That’s it right there. The value of a certification–the real value–is what you learn. The paper is a bump-in-the-wire.

      • http://einaraleksejev.eu/ Einar Aleksejev

        The real value is measurable and is expressed by the price of the goods. I would suggest that the SSL-boxes cost of the service remained the same? From the employer’s point of view nothing changed ;)

  • http://www.facebook.com/melanton Clifton Harris

    I had my A+ and Network+. During the time I just got a yawn. Atleast when I got my CCNA I got a “Good job” and a virtual “pat on the head”. I agree on all those points. I realize that I’ll become a Cisco Cheerleader by studying Cisco certifications. At the same time, knowing this and trying to find a semi-decent paying, rewarding career is the goal. Yes, there’s Juniper but I have never come across Juniper hardware. Anywhere. In all my my 27 years of living and doing numerous paid/unpaid jobs. Not a single time. The only ‘networking’ hardware I’ve come across otherwise is Barracuda. So while I know I’m a Cisco Cheerleader, it’s hard not to be when the only vendor you’ve seen is Cisco.

    A certification, for me, is to keep doors opens. Increasing the chance of getting my hands down and dirty with networking design and being able to setup/troubleshoot networks that’ll sprall across my monitors. So I see it as the golden ticket to a better life? No. It just means I have passed the HR check box filter.

    Braindumping is a problem. There’s definitely no way around that. Most people agree that dumping tests is little more than memorizing specific answers to specific questions. For those that the knowledge slips by, a person who did not braindump can also be seen as a braindumper. How so? At an interview I expect to be grilled technically on what I have on my resume. I have a few certifications, and if someone grilled me on the finer points of A+ I wouldn’t be able to tell you – Even though I’ve been working on computers since in Middle School. If unable to answer related questions about CCNA would make any CCNA look like he dumped the test. I have run across interviews that’ll grill you on the most obscure facts. Not the easy ones. It would be the type of questions that you would dig through multiple sources and some of those sources will not agree on.

    How to fix braindumping? Make the certification more exclusive like CISSP? More Labs? Face-To-Face interviewing? I don’t know. I like Labs, so I think that’s the best answer!

    • Alexandra Stanovska

      Re: “It just means I have passed the HR check box filter.”
      Spot on.

      • -J

        YES YES YES YES. Oh, but isn’t nice to get that contract because of it!!!!

  • marc edwards

    Without getting Cisco certified I would probably still be working as desktop support on a help desk. That is about as far as my $50,000 college degree in Information Systems would take me (which included an internship in a data center).

  • Steve Lavoie

    Every certification that I got was a rewarding experience. Sometime financially by my employer, not in the way that a cert added a few $ to my salary, but it is more good point in my yearly evaluation. Braindumping is bad for us all, but in real life braindumping is useless, the braindumper is usually not showing the level of expertise that his cert supposed.

    Otherwise every certs help me round-out my expertise in a subject and it often pay off in the long term.

    Also, as I say to junior guy at my job, do certification in what you like, and do it because you like to study and grow your expertise. Don’t do it because the boss want it or you want this job, as it will be useless and cause much more stress when you will have to re-cert 3 years ago.

    Currently, I have an A+, Network+, Linux+, an MCP (LOL on Windows 2000 pro!), a VCP3/4/5. Currently I am working for a VCP-DT and VCAP-DCD as it is a partner program requirement.

    • sdwtbk

      I remember a few years back when I was studying for the Security+. I read the 500pg. book, I took the video trainer, I took a week long 8-5 bootcamp class, and studied flash cards and legitimate practice exams over a month long period. I always studying, I even had to quit my day job in pursuit of a career in networking. I remember this guy came along one week while I was doing the video training at the training facility. He literally never opened his book, never watched training video. He spent the whole week memorizing questions… He came out of the exam room bragging that it was the exact same test! I was so upset! I thought he shouldn’t be allowed to do that… and no, it didn’t make me feel better that “he wouldn’t know what he was doing while he was on the job.”

  • http://umairhoodbhoy.net/ Umair Hoodbhoy

    I think it’s important to require candidates to recertify periodically in order to maintain the certification. For all the trouble I went through for CCIE prep, it is not nearly as grueling as a PhD thesis defense (my wife is going through that). Technology evolves so rapidly that the only way to assume that a person is up to date is if he/she maintains their certification. I’ve come across a few CCIEs from 10 years ago who have done complete career shifts and have lost their certification in the process. No sense assuming that because they knew DLSw and Token Ring inside out, they can build a modern network.

    On a separate note, are there any networking certs out there that test network diagram drawing skills? Given that diagrams in Cisco exams are often illegible (which I never understood) I’d be interested to know whether there are any Cisco exams at least that test this? This is a question that comes up in job interviews, so why not in exams?