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?
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.