Vendor Certifications: A Career Jump Starter

“…I’d love to share how certifications have propelled me into a mid-level networking position. I can share my own personality, thoughts, and views on the subject… as long as I’m doing self-study. I don’t like having a teacher and same goes with a job, I personally really enjoy being my own technical lead, which I feel the certifications have done for me. Ultimately giving me the ability (and OCD) to figure something out.”

From the get-go, I was sold on certifications. I haven’t been in IT for very long, maybe a little over 4 years if you count the first year and a half of my college career. By my second year in college, I earned my A+, Net+, and Sec+ through an internship where I worked for classes at a training facility. At that time, I knew for a fact my degree alone wasn’t going to get me anywhere in this world…at least not anywhere I would like to be. I quickly learned that while the CompTIA certs did get me a better job than the majority of my peers, those certs didn’t hold the weight in the industry I thought they would have (and with good reason, as I have later learned).

The realization of having a false sense of ability came when I took the CCNA exam for the first time and got my butt handed to me. Later, I passed it, but still did not know how to console into a router. Tsk, tsk, I know it’s shameful…the harsh realities of  remote training, plus the books seemed to overlook basic things. On that same note, it’s quite humbling and awesome to overcome routing through a modem for the first time. Believe me, I always wondered how it worked. It’s good not take even the littlest of nuances for granted.

I utterly love my certification studies. I live and breathe it. If I didn’t have to work, I would just be trying stupid router tricks in a lab, never sleeping, only napping as the never-ending piles of coke cans and half eaten snacks begin to grow…what’s this social life you speak of? The sun? You mean, you don’t find the sound of loud, blowing fans comforting?

So, I’m sure you’re wondering, “Why, Joey? What’s so great about it?” Well, if you’re reading the Packet Pushers, then you probably love networking like I do. Probably more so, as most of the community seems to have had pretty long careers as network engineers. I find networking fascinating, and almost nothing else can get my attention (except for maybe some GNU/Linux scripting if I’m in the mood). By my third year in college, I begin to loath “structured academia.” I enjoyed learning, but I needed a different way to learn rather than being told. I’ve found that nothing holds more answers to more of my questions than books and labs.

Since I don’t like being in a classroom, what makes me think I’ll like being in a job where the possibility of ill structure & a misinformed technical lead may reign supreme? And even if there is a better way, the person leading is always right? I’m a huge advocate that experience isn’t everything, and there’s a ton of factors to be considered before a person should be deemed higher on the “totem pole.” Earning certifications is a way for me to break away from everyone and do my own thing, while propelling myself forward. Granted, when it comes to the Packet Pushers, there’s more IE’s, NP’s, and NA’s than anyone knows what to do with. But in real life, in the flesh, I know one NP level person and have a distant NP friend…which just goes to show how special this networking community really is.

For starters, I have access to a private lab: this means my *own* knowledge! I don’t have to sit and learn (listen, in one ear and out the other) from somebody I may not respect just to get a credit. The beauty of certification is that I get to spend the majority of my time doing something I love (and believe me, I don’t always like it), and at the end of it, passing a standardized certification exam. Ultimately earning a cert, respect, recognition, and accomplishment. I may have watched too many CBT’s and bought in to Jeremy C. a little too much, but I’m all for it.

Here’s a list of things certifications were, are, and will do for me:

  • Add a positive interest to my life that is productively time-consuming;
  • Provide a structured approach to learning that is real industry standard;
  • Become employable and obtain life stability;
  • Jump start my career to a place you’ll be sure to find a happy Joey;
  • Allow me to be my own technical lead in the world of Routing, Switching, and Security.

I think my uncle gave me the best advice after getting my CCNA. He said, in so many words, “If you tell someone you can do the job, and you qualify for it, you better know what you’re doing. Because if you don’t know what you’re doing, the customer is not going to be happy.” These are simple, yet effective words that are difficult to accomplish. I’ve set out to learn as much as I can, know what I’m doing, and I have developed a pretty harsh case of OCD in the process.

Now, it begs the question, without the certs & years of job experience, what do you have to show for knowing so much about something even the majority of IT folks haven’t the slightest clue about? How do you get the opportunity? At what point does trust & confidence get earned?

I answered by first earning my A+, NET+, SEC+, CCNA, CCNA Security, 4011, CCNP R/S, ASA/Firewall/IOS/VPN Security Specialist certifications, an associate degree in computer science, and a bachelor’s degree in information security all before deploying or even touching a production switch, router, or ASA. I do have plenty of hands on and purchasing experience through my private training, enough to know and confidently make real decisions. As you would probably agree, when you do Cisco training, you learn best practices. This should mean that the products get deployed properly. So, I don’t see anything “wrong” with doing all the training and certs before actually doing it in the real world. Second, I waited for the right opportunity. Third, I deployed a fully security compliant network in a situation where time was of the essence, proving I could do the work.

The work I’m doing now is exactly what I set out to do with my certification studies. I have the utmost respect for everybody involved, which believe me, is rare to come by. I’m still not without a mentor, which is always good to have, especially so early on in my career and life (I’ve been told that I’m deceptively young), but it’s not overbearing to the point my voice goes unheard or anytime I speak an argument breaks out…which I can’t have…it’s a sanity issue for me to have my own voice and creativity about something I know. Also, I know I will always be employed and for good money for as long as I keep going.

For me all the stars aligned and I would say the opportunity to pursue my studies came as a gift. I’ve sacrificed plenty of time & money, which in my eyes, I would be nothing short of a fool to not do.

To quote Ethan, “Certs really can jump-start your career and knowledge if you use them that way.”

I’m currently one exam away from NP Sec…the IPS, and believe me, the excitement of learning something new hasn’t gone away! I never bought in to the hype about certifications being too difficult to get. Consequently, I’m not smart enough to know the IE is practically impossible. You better believe the CCIE is next on the list for me.


  1. says

    That’s definitely one way to do it! I feel the same way about certifications. When your degree doesn’t quite help you out in your situation, you make your own courses tailored to your wants and needs.

    You’re ahead of everyone else by deploying them in a lab. There are many out there who just cheat their way into a certification, get a job, and have no clue what the hell they are doing.

    You have the right mindset here. Great work!

  2. says

    Good job on your certs man. Although I’ve had a little experience in networking before certification, I can say that certs helped me to do things the right way, how to troubleshoot/fix/break things.

    Sure with experience you learn this by reading different documents/forums etc but I’ve benefited from certs big time.
    Its safe to say that certs saved my life because of the situation I was in when I first got to USA.

    • Joey says

      Thanks and that’s good man, they can really put a positive spin on life. Experience is important, but Certs are a way to learn and get a job.

      • Rrendon says

        Good Job Joey! I have watched you from a young age battle with the question of “what am I going to do with my life” and I have to say after I have seen the accomplishments you have completed and your very first real world network engineering design, I am quite impressed! You will not only make any company proud to employ you but also confident that you will do the best job possible. I look forward to working with you in the future and seeing your new accomplishments. Uncle Randy

  3. Jimothy Jones says

    Joey, I am somewhat in the same boat as you cert-wise in that CCIE has been my next cert that I have my sights and motivation set on. With the emergence of SDN do you still see the CCIE as a highly sought after skill that employers will look for in the next 5-7+ years? I am afraid of investing too much time into it when really might be needing to jump on the SDN bandwagon. But to be honest im getting annoyed with SDN at the same time with all the promises that it will be big, but no one can yet explain what exactly it is or how it will run.

    • Joey says

      Heck Yeah! Dude, Routing ain’t going no where! Granted the CCIE is probably about 10 years out of date, meaning 10 years ago, one would be on the cutting edge by doing it. Honestly, I feel like I’m about 10 years behind in that 2003/2004ish is when all this technology really seemed to be taking off.

      So it’s inevitable that technology (even in networking) will change. But it’s not going to happen over night, and you can’t convince me that all these companies have investing so much money into physical routers and switches, that they would take a loss to invest in something new.

      I don’t know if you listened to the knewest podcast here about SDN, but everyone was saying that you do need to get a handle on it. I was just told that a person need Microsoft, VMware, and Cisco, specifically relating to the Data Center to be “cutting edge” and needed.

      All of that is overwhelming, so I’m going to stick to exactly what I”m doing. I know that if I start attempting to learn too many technologies at once, like attempt 3 different certification exams at the same time, I will never get anything done.

  4. Joe says

    This sums up how I felt about school and getting certifications as well. I plan on continuing down the certification path for the rest of my career, but one thing that should be mentioned is taking a little break now and then for your own peace of mind. Juggling certifications and school/work (or both) all at the same time with the rest of life going on in the background can be incredibly taxing. Great post other wise!

    • Joey says

      I agree, the copious amounts of studies are tremendous! I figure, not this summer but by next summer, I may be somewhat “up-to-par” with the knowledge and I can take a break (or at least slow it down a bit).

  5. Ryan Milton says

    This is largely me. I’ve been in network engineering for about 2.3 years. I also got my A+, Net+ early on –just to do SOMETHING–But they only whet my appetite for more. I completed my CCNA a bit more than a year ago, then to pay for CCNP–because I still didn’t really know anything–I got a job in a software company as a technical analyst (NO networking except the “ping” command), and I kept studying. After that, because I never finished a bachelor’s degree, I was going to keep “labbing” and reading until I got a job as a network engineer (couldn’t afford more school). When that did occur, at the end of 2012, I found myself hired to be a network manager in an all Juniper shop! But, what the heck, while all the cert work DOESN’T begin to scratch the surface of what one needs to know, it does put you on the playing field. So now, its JNCIA, JNCIS-ENT, and -SEC too. Yes, Juniper isn’t Cisco, but it is widely used and I’m now in a service provider role way, way beyond where I thought I’d be those 2.3 years ago. Lastly, you are right, need a mentor–or two! Mentors like sushi and beer, by the way. I would say that I still have a long ways to go, to even be an “expert,” but now the forcing medium of Certs/position mean my studying has a directionality, a flow, if you will.

    • Joey says

      that’s funny that you had a job at a software company. My last gig was at a software dev company where my role was very Microsoft centric… It really didn’t matter that I have a bunch of networking knowledge, as it didn’t help me do my job. I was terrible at managing things like exchange and SQL. But I think part of the reason is because it didn’t interest me. Juniper is cool! Congrats on the position! You’re right the certs put you in the playing field and introduce you to everything. That’s where I’m at, It’s so easy to get overwhelmed with copious amounts of studies, so I’m going to stay focused on Cisco myself and stay with that work wise. But you can’t rule out the twist and turns life brings, like how you’re doing Juniper now, you probably didn’t plan that at the start.

      • Ryan Milton says

        Exactly…I was going to become the next Jeremy Cioara (I probably saw too much of him too!) in Cisco. I still plan on heading for the “007” CCIE, but I will have to cool my heels on that for now. I think that it actually can be beneficial to know both of the major routing “languages.” Again, thank for the article.

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