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.