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

773 Words. Plan about 5 minute(s) to read this.

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.

Ethan Banks writes & podcasts about IT, new media, and personal tech.
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