Let me start by laying out this disclaimer: This is in no way intended to devalue or criticize any vendor or vendor neutral certified folks or programs. Since the mid-1990s I’ve done many certification programs. In fact, I’ve actually lost track and I can’t even remember them all, so this is not a commentary by someone who is unfamiliar with the process but has seen great value in it in past years. With that out of the way, what I am intending to do is provide my experience and attempt to deliver an often overlooked or written-off perspective on the venerable certification process that has existed in IT since the mid-1990s (perhaps before) as well as attempt to provide food for thought on the subject to help people to think about it as a value-add and not necessarily a prerequisite for a successful career.
To accomplish this, I think it is important to understand my IT roots to help really comprehend my thought process. I began my career in IT in late 1996 working roughly 20 hours a week for both the university I was attending and for a local consulting firm in a small midwestern town, 2.5 hours south of Chicago. It was pretty business as usual: networking involved small ISDN and T1 routers, ethernet repeaters and switches, some token ring stuff, the occasional ARCNET LAN, Novell Netware and Windows NT servers and maybe the occasional UNIX machine. In the down time we did PC and Mac repair (PCs at the consulting gig, Macs at the university). The consulting firm pushed certifications pretty hard, but since I was part-time (and an art student, not a CS major) they would not cover the costs associated with mine. I bought the books myself, studied when I should have been doing homework or sleeping and paid for the tests on my credit card (something I would later regret). The manager I worked for at the university mostly just thought I was overly ambitious and wasting my money, folks at the consulting firm were very helpful and encouraging.
In early 2000 I had a
n epiphany rude awakening. I was out of school, relocating, and looking for a new job. Until then I had done either consulting in the networking field or worked in enterprise networking and security. However, the location I was relocating to was an R1 university town that had very little available in the form of consulting or enterprise work, and what was there wasn’t ….lets say….terribly profitable compared to what folks I knew were being offered in larger locations. Fairly typical, I assumed, somewhat lower cost of living, etc.. As I looked around, applied for and followed up on jobs, I was discovering one fact that very much surprised me. No one cared about the laundry list of certifications that I had painstakingly acquired. As a matter of fact, most did not even ask about them when I was lucky enough to get a call back. One potential employer even went so far as to say “we won’t care about paper certifications, we need to know you can do the work, not take a test“. This surprise was a fountainhead for a complete re-evaluation of my take on IT employment. I ended up taking a job at a small-in-employee-count but largish-in-footprint regional ISP and early broadband provider. I took a very large pay cut to test my theory that skills were more valuable, as I knew this would be a crucible that would either break me or make me in IT networking. It was a huge leap of faith since I was newly married with a wife in professional school. In my case I was proven correct, but it did take a few years of 60 hour weeks, high stress and essentially no social life. Much of the foundational skills I had previously learned hands-on were more valuable than what I’d learned studying for exams since we were a “whatever works” shop and everyone there is what I call a “Hybrid IT” engineer / operator. We all had a speciality, mine was the wide area and security, others were automation, scripting and UNIX system administration, some were good at cabling, some at troubleshooting and customer service. But we all had to do all of it.
What this approach of heterogeneous operating systems, networking gear and Hybrid IT work showed me was that it wasn’t the tests, books or studying that mattered to me. I enjoyed the clean, pure learning process. Make no mistake, I liked passing tests, as I’m extremely competitive by nature, but I also tend be very pragmatic when it comes to my time and my money. I could read and hack and get all of the benefits of learning without the structure, rules and pre-defined externally decided outline that came with “finishing my CCIE” or “sitting the CISSP”. The time left over got spent on operational experience, which was significantly more useful in my situation. This approach is obviously not for everyone. It was a very different time in IT when I did this and clearly environment, personality type, financial situation and necessity are key factors.
So, all of that being said, when some comments of “needing expensive CCIEs” came up more than once at Network Field Day 7 it got me thinking again. Now that the industry is starting to tilt toward needing Hybrid IT engineering as a commodity, with the mainstreaming of software defined networking, automation, white box switches running linux, software routing, virtualization, etc. is vendor specific certification it worth the time and money?
Would time be better spent on something outside of networking to round out a skill set? As an example, which of these things would the industry consider more valuable in the long run, than say, completing a CCNP or JNCIP?
- Study and learn an alternative vendor product portfolio
- Master a proprietary management system such as a new CLI, API, etc.
- Learn an alternative vendors proprietary protocol set (PVST+, EIGRP)
- Practice an alternative IT function (managing a mail server, doing incident response)
- Use a completely different operating system for daily work for a few months (windows users switch to Linux or Mac, or vice versa)
- Teach yourself a programming language
Would any of them be deemed an overall better choice? Is there a cost to benefit ratio? Personally, that time was far better spent and produced more long-term yields by stepping away and learning anything and everything that was presented to me to the best of my abilities regardless of its perceived relation to networking. I have found that almost everything is related to networking in one way or another, so my response is usually “why not?” as opposed to “why?” when someone proposes learning or attempting something new.
With so many networking, security and server OS options available, with SDN, NFV and automation taking center stage in product lines, with FOSS now existing as part of a typical enterprise deployment model and internet access essentially treated as a utility, is spending the time and money on a vendor specific certification actually beneficial? It all depends on your individual situation, I suppose. For me it wasn’t.