Can You Still Get To The Top Climbing the Cisco Certification Ladder?


A question came in from a Packet Pushers listener addressed to Greg and me, as follows. Question gently edited for brevity & clarity.

I have a question regarding the CCIE. I recently obtained my CCNA, after working in networking a while. I have been debating my certification path going forward.

I am considering skipping the CCNP & going for the CCIE directly. I am aware that the CCIE is both quite extensive knowledge wise as well as quite expensive from a financial standpoint. I am interested in both of your honest outlook of the CCIE going forward (how it fits with SDN, value in marketplace, etc.).

I realize that certifcations alone do not prove true value nor do they make the engineer, but I do want to ensure I get true value from my investment.

cat8-300x295My strongest possible recommendation is to go through the CCNP training & certification and also get as much real world experience as possible before going after the CCIE. You can pass the CCIE exams if you study hard enough without first becoming a CCNP – don’t misunderstand me. But doing so is a long-term mistake for your career, IMHO. If you lack the technical knowledge, CCNP is completely appropriate to get through before starting work on the CCIE. Beyond that, nothing prepares you for CCIE-level network design, implementation, and operations like working on real networks. No amount of training will give you the insight and expertise required to be at the top of your game like experience. Incidentally, this is why the best instructors are often the ones who have real-world experience, while professional trainers who have never configured a router in anger can be downright awful.

I believe that the CCIE certification will slowly lose value in the marketplace over the next 10 years. Cisco’s position in networking is being attacked from all quarters, and they have not responded as well as they might have. Cisco is still both a financial and technological powerhouse with massive market share and a huge install base across every imaginable vertical, but SDN & open networking are well-positioned to be somewhat disruptive to them.

Unfortunately, the SDN marketplace is so immature, fragmented, and use-case specific that it’s very hard to predict what the ultimate impact of SDN will be to the industry. Too many companies, open source projects, and standards bodies are going in too many directions, and there is not enough consensus. Even ostensible standards like OpenFlow are being fragmented into near oblivion by companies who extend it, trying to make it useful in production environments.

The venture capitalists aren’t helping matters, as they keep throwing bank vaults full of cash at anyone who can make a strong pitch, even if that idea is more or less the same as other market entrants. I’ve noticed several startups with no business still being in the market hanging around past their shelf life, as new stretches of runway paved with dollar bills are made for them. I have no comprehension of this financial euphoria, as it seems to me to be throwing good money after bad.

Cisco’s own SDN strategy is not yet — and may never be — unified. ACI has received a lot of press, but even among Cisco’s own product families, ACI is an outlier, not representing an overall corporate strategy for Cisco. Rather, ACI is a specific solution addressing the problems of specific customers. Those specific customers don’t really include the massive mid-market, where most folks looking for a network to operate are likely to find one.

All that said, it’s notable that Cisco is incorporating SDN elements into their training programs, although not in the CCIE track yet, at least not that I am aware of. (Someone please correct me in the comments if I’m wrong on this point.) In other words, Cisco is aware that SDN in some form is coming to their product set, and their training programs are starting to reflect that eventuality. The CCIE track is a hard one to change, arguably the hardest, but I think SDN will show up in the CCIE curricula in a major way as it becomes clear what Cisco customers are using Cisco SDN technologies for.

Finally, I think it will still be viable to make a career in Cisco-specific networking for many years to come. However, I also think that with new networking paradigms coming to life, very different career paths in networking will be just as viable — and possibly more lucrative. I’d consider the broader market, and not just assume that the Cisco certification ladder is a guaranteed climb to success, however one defines it.


  • Great response Ethan. I’d like to add that anyone in IT think about their career with a 1 – 2 year time horizon, with long-term planning going out five years at most. Technology moves too fast to make a credible plan with a longer time horizon.

  • Great advice!

    I think it is a trap too many people fall into early in the career. Wanting too much, too quick. As you said experience is king. You have to focus on your career and your growth and that just takes time.

    I also think its a good idea in the first few years of your career to branch out and pick up multiple skills not just Cisco networking. Get experience with Linux, scripting, Virtualization, etc. This helps you become more marketable but also exposes you to other areas that you might find a deeper interest in.

  • In addition to Ethans comments, I have personally interviewed and assessed candidates whom have CCIE written exams under their belts (no CCNA or CCNP) yet can’t answer basic questions on OSPF, BGP etc etc. Solid advice is to work through the certification phases whilst building up knowledge and experience at work.

    Regarding the value of CCIE in the future, another angle to look at is the job market. Experience tells me the bar for high end engineer and designers still lists the CCIE as a desirable or essential. I think the CCIE will more to meet the future developments of networking to so personally see the value in the certification. Ultimately, its probably the most comprehensive training program available which will provide you with invaluable knowledge and skills regardless…

  • I think you’re basically on point with the exception that the value has been on the decline for some time. With the advent of the other lab based, high end programs, most notably the JNCIE but also the lesser known like the ALU programs and the like, the CCIE has been getting slowly diluted for quite a while. Inside of consulting and VAR programs this may not be as pronounced. Yet.
    Make no mistake, I think the information that is required to pass and especially the skill level they impart to those that *really* learn from the training is invaluable, but it is not a golden ticket (and never really was) as some may consider it to be. Much like a degree based program, the designation is as valuable as the education that is absorbed and the ability to use it.

  • On a more mundane, practical level, so long as the requirements for Cisco Gold partnership include having four CCIEs on staff there will continue to be a demand for CCIE.

    • Very true, for as long as Cisco is able to maintains its current level of partners. If some partners fall by the wayside over time, then CCIE demand will go down. Hard to predict, but logically, I believe that the partner levels will roughly parallel how Cisco fares in the market over time.

  • Why would someone “skip the CCNP” when it’s a very easy cert to get if you’ve studied the topics at a CCIE level? There’s a near 100% overlap between CCIE RS and CCNP RS so it’s just a question of going to the test center and taking the CCNP exam after you’ve finished those topics in your CCIE studies. The same probably holds true for the other tracks as well.

  • I think Cisco is already dynamic, and is making its physique ready for a change, and not a sort of reluctant to change..Practically, we are all very sure that Cisco is a dominant and a King(more or less) in networking industry to which majority of the companies, clients and partners have inclined to, all over the world.. i think, We cant make assumptions that Cisco’s stuff will be diluted in future, tat easily,though(i hope so).. Indeed, it seems Cisco is very seriously concerned about the coming trends as it plays big..But, as of now,Cisco is already geared to include the forthcoming technology trends like SDN, Virtualization, etc within its tech stream.. For ex, Cisco has introduced OnePk, Cisco’s ONE Network,Cisco’s own Application, Centric Infrastructure, Cisco Evolved Programmable Network for service provider, etc and it strongly advises professionals to learn python.. So with these new paradigms, Cisco is gearing fast towards the future.. And, above all, watever new technology will arrives, the network will ever be a network, the routing and switching functionalities will never going to change at the underlyling layer.The Core of the networking will never going to be change..One cant program the networks, without knowing the networks. So, i hope Cisco will go faster in the road to the new world with its hands holded with networking profs always..Meanwhile,there is no doubt other vendors also going to popular with its new curriculam..There will be new innovations will be from other vendors and the field will be diversed giving space for everyone.As said in above comments, we surely need to learn everything like virtualization, programming, etc.. But i hope, Cisco will stand in the centerpoint in the future..((I m not a great networking Expert nor a tech enthusiast and not a Cisco’s products marketing guy, of course.What i have put above,is all of my own assumptions and thoughts,so plz bear me if i m wrong anywhere above))..Thanks all.,

By Ethan Banks

Ethan Banks is a podcaster and writer with a BSCS and 20+ years in enterprise IT. He's operated data centers with a special focus on infrastructure — especially networking. He's been a CNE, MCSE, CEH, CCNA, CCNP, CCSP, and CCIE R&S #20655. He's the co-founder of Packet Pushers Interactive, LLC where he creates content for humans in the hot aisle.