A little bit context
For a lot of reasons, this piece almost didn’t get written; I’ve been kicking the idea around for quite some time but eventually decided to let it go live.
Time indeed flies. Instead of becoming a dentist in a whole different universe, ten years ago in Tokyo Japan where few people knew me, after multiple attempts I finally passed the soon-to-retire routing and switching CCIE lab exam. At the time I was a Cisco Systems employee and it had been 6 years since I’d become serious about the lab. Later on, I made myself a double CCIE when I passed the Service Provider track, again after several attempts and 5 years of solid preparation in 2014.
Subsequently, I taught the course for a failing business, worked as an architect, wore the entrepreneurial hat and launched a start-up, invented stuff, filed patents, presented at conferences- And of course over the years built and managed pretty large network and systems engineering teams across North America, EMEA and APAC.
Looking back, the 10-year trip as a CCIE has undisputedly been a fun ride with quite a few lessons that I learned the, I guess, hard way. Fast forward to earlier this year, a long conversation with a smart and young engineer of mine sparked the idea of putting those lessons in writing.
First things first, I tried my best to structure this piece to convey an unbiased message. That is exactly why I avoided the preachy tone of “So, you…” at the end of each paragraph. The sole intention of the author here is to share his own observations which understandably can vary from one person to another. This structure enables me to leave the process of drawing conclusions and turning them into real lessons to the readers.
Hope younger engineers find this piece helpful in making smarter decisions.
- Not everyone has to be a CCIE: This very well deserves it to top the list. I don’t think it would be a headline-maker confession that I felt so blessed when I passed the test for the first time (or even for the second time). After all, a total preparation plan of 11 years had been paid off. But here is how my mindset evolved: there is a plethora of smart but uncertified people out there who can move mountains. I do not feel surprised anymore to find them sharper than myself or any other certified person. And guess what? Some of them might even have flunked the exam before they gave up. Today as a hiring manger, I do employ them and value their hard-earned experience. I am also glad this approach helped me adjust my interview style to pivot away from CCIE-centric to be much more inclusive.
- CCIE; a college degree replacement? I have no idea how many times I’ve been asked this question. And how many times I struggled to steer clear of a classic yes or no answer. And obviously, my memory doesn’t serve me well to recall how many times I failed to pull it off without getting into an hour-long discussion. When I started doing mock labs and glancing over the exam calendar, I already had a prestigious master degree to put on my resume but the future wasn’t clear. After all, even the best universities won’t teach you everything that you’d need in real world. Yet, now 10 years later; here goes the tough question; would I be better off if I changed course altogether and went to the dental or law schools? Most probably I would, at least on the financial side of life! Would I be better off if I did nothing and capped things off right after completing the college degree? Most probably not, unless I started a PhD in engineering and pursued an academic or R&D life.
- Jealousy is real but who cares anymore? There is very little dispute over the fact that the CCIE/JNCIE community makes up a tiny percentage of total network engineers. Moving away from being hypersensitive, it’s been years since I developed a thick skin against jealousy at work over certifications and who has how many of what. In those early years when the CCIE population wasn’t as large; I would find having the title an easy way to put myself in the crosshairs. I’ve been to interviews as a candidate where the interviewer went to great lengths to prove him/herself against “one of those CCIE’s” and have been to customer engagements where I was reminded repeatedly “this really doesn’t take a CCIE”. Good news; if all it takes to move the business forward and keep customers happy is to maintain a low profile, I can adopt (and I did) and still remain productive. It would be a win-win situation to leverage the energy behind all those egos to deliver a better service or product to customers.
- The battle between the glorious persistence and wasteful stubbornness is real: The smartest people can hedge their bets as necessary and proudly walk away from sunk costs in life. Another remarkable lesson of life and takeaway of the 10-year CCIE journey lies right here. With the same lenses on, I wouldn’t have persisted so much on several things that drained months and years out of my professional life. Ironically perhaps even the second CCIE itself. Now, of course 10 years older, if I fail any exam 4 times and have to spend 5 years to possibly overcome that, I will move on, invest and focus my resources somewhere else. Don’t get me wrong, I still do persist as hard as I can but this time much more cleverly. I take my time to research, define, redefine and evaluate success criteria while keeping an eye on the borders between missing out on other opportunities and chances of hitting some thick streaks of gold.
- I don’t fall for the hype anymore: The 10-year journey taught me the much-needed patience to sit down and let the market stew without jumping on every flash in the pan. I would’ve been an early adapter of everything but now I value stability and customer satisfaction above anything else. I also learned; this doesn’t go against being innovative; you can still invent and be very creative.
- CCIE is a means perhaps another tool in your box and not a target: I would’ve argued this statement to the bitter end in that very afternoon in the streets of Shinjuku in Tokyo. But now I am a changed man. I am willing to admit, there will be a long and bumpy road before you after you pass the lab exam. Overlooking the importance of continuous development can make any expert level certification useless in no time and CCIE is no exception, especially if I am away from the day-to-day activities.
- CCIE doesn’t cover every ground: While this one might sound kind of obvious, still I think it’s still worth noting especially for the future CCIE’s. For instance, even if you pass the service provider track a quick search on Cisco.com or the configuration guide reveals the little secret that there is still a significant number of topics you have not even heard of. This number shoots through the roof when you start exploring other vendors. The lesson is; while CCIE enables an expert level to look at problems and potential solutions but doesn’t necessarily make me an expert in each and every topic surrounding my teams’ projects.
- The theories are not going away: It’s hardly a secret that CCIE is heavily a configuration exam, yet I was fortunate to have remained in the group of people who still read those thick old books and old/new RFC’s. The 10-year adventure taught me that I can easily lose technical battles and major deals over sheer theories. I learned to treasure the distinction between a BGP config master and the smart kid who can tell me what my BGP speaker does other than mere passing on when it receives an unsupported but transitive attribute.
- CCIE Service Provider is NOT the CCIE routing and switching 2.0: I am a huge fan of the SP track. But at this point in life I tend to disagree with the famous saying that: “Now that I’ve passed the R&S track let’s crack the SP track quickly!”. I will probably write a whole new article on this one alone but if you do not currently work for a service provider or have no plans to seek employment with one this probably is not the greatest “next step”. It in fact is a good initial step all by itself.
- Having multiple CCIE’s or very high written scores must have an impressive resume to back them up: Let’s be frank here; one of the easiest ways to raise my suspicions in a job interview is to tell me one has multiple CCIE’s in totally different fields in some of which he or she has never actually worked. You can even dig a deeper hole by telling me that you’ve passed them all in a short period of time where “short” would depend on many things including your number of years of experience. Along the same lines but on the written test, if the pass mark is 750 and someone passes with a meager 760 on his third attempt, I will still have tremendous respect for them. You can easily make me raise an eyebrow by showing me a written score of 990 on your first CCIE written attempt.
- The CCIE doesn’t define me anymore: The CCIE used to be my elevator pitch in the early years after passing the lab. Nowadays, it might still be somewhere in my long resume but I learned over the years that I won’t be successful unless I expanded my vision to other areas; maybe some knowledge on virtualization, data center physical aspects, storage, Linux kernel, security, some automation, FPGA/micro-controllers, some voice even some finance and business details. Be curious! This of course, reflects how I moved forward in life and needless to say, it completely depends on you and your specific career path though.
- The next big thing does not have to be another CCIE: When I passed the test, even a number of months before, I quickly began planning a new CCIE track as my next big thing. It’s been 10 years and this one too can be added to the list of items that I would have done differently. If I had a clearer picture of my career path; which I should have, I would’ve probably topped it off with an MBA after a few years. It’s just one example of how one can think outside the box. You may have other preferences but seeing the world outside the CCIE box, is certainly one of the blessings of being a 10-year CCIE.
- And the biggest takeaway of the 10-year journey: I saved this one for last because it would be disingenuous if I claimed the technical boost was the most fundamental benefit of becoming a CCIE. No it was not. I didn’t realize that when I first embarked on the journey. As I pointed out earlier there are many highly successful professionals out there without any certifications. So why bother? You’ll eventually learn what you need on the job. Right? Isn’t it a total waste of time particularly if you’re going to potentially fail a number of times and drag this on for years? That’s the million-dollar question that I managed to answer only years later. My response to that through a decade-old lens is that it brought commitment and order to my professional life and habits. I learned how to deal with unreasonable deadlines, accommodate insane limitations, be patient and read through long pages of technical documents seeking a specific trick that might solve my issue. I learned how to remain committed to a professional (or even personal) goal even when everybody else is going on vacation. It showed me how to keep moving forward toward a designated target, sustain damages, stay laser focused and eventually accomplish the mission, or fail, go back, examine your weaknesses and attack again. I personally had never worked 5 or 6 years toward just one particular goal in a structured fashion. While the CCIE didn’t explicitly show me how to, it certainly underscored the need to master such skill-set and helped me develop one. That, when combined with the concepts of sunk-costs and ability to hedge bets improved my professional life considerably.