One of the challenges future network rock stars face is that they don’t know what they don’t know. This is a cold, unyielding fact. Certifications get a person down the road a good distance, but ultimately, there’s no teacher like experience. I don’t mean this to be discouraging for those trying to break into the networking business, but I do want to point out that many seem to see the CCIE in particular as a path to cherubim announcing their entrance into the data center, rack doors opening via Jedi hand waves, and of course, piles of gold.
Here’s the thing. I don’t care if you nailed the lab on your first attempt. If you’ve done little or no real world networking, then all you’ve learned so far is a lot of technical details explaining how to accomplish a set of tasks. While passing that wretched lab exam certainly places you in some elite company, you learned very little about how networks are designed, implemented, and maintained in production environments. In other words, you don’t know why certain things are done. Or just as importantly, not done.
When I evaluate resumes, I don’t look at certifications first. I look for experience first. I see what a person says they have been doing, what their responsibilities were, and what their role was in their previous jobs. If they also have a certification or three, that’s great, as it tells me that this person is very possibly driven and committed to their chosen field of expertise. After that, I ferret out just how much lying they did on their resume by asking them a series of probing, involved questions that take me as deeply as they are capable of taking me about things they claim to know. Some do well. Yes, they really were responsible for a massive OSPF redesign. Some do badly. No, they really weren’t responsible for a multi-thousand node network, because their network was outsourced as a managed service. If a person is certified, I’ll ask them how long it’s been, what they thought of the testing process, what other certs they are interested in, etc. But the certification has not been the deciding factor for most of the positions I’ve hired people into.
What good are certifications, then? In my opinion, certifications are good for getting started – for getting your foot in the door. I’ll take an enthusiastic neophyte with a cert who has a decent knowledge base and a realistic attitude for the right position. That position is not going to be “running the show,” however. Certifications are also good for moving up. Once I got going in my IT career, I kept up with certs as a way to help me climb the responsibility ladder. However, as I’ve continued on in my career, it’s not been about the certifications as much as the experience that’s helped move me on and caused companies to want to retain me and/or stick me in a management role. No one put any pressure on me to earn the CCIE designation, for example. That was a personal quest. I earned no extra money for earning and subsequently holding onto that certification.
While an admirable (and attainable) goal, in my opinion, going after the CCIE while in or just after college isn’t the right way to think about building a networking career. Some have done it. Others will do it. I know. I get that. Just keep in mind that it’s the time in the trenches designing around difficult problems, resolving failures, and learning why things happen the way they do that will make you a solid performer year after year. Once you know “why”, you’ll find that “how” matters a bit less.