New Year’s Thoughts: Certs Good, Skills Better


From the near-religious fervor still surrounding certifications after all these years, I know that many see achieving a cert as a way to career success. Possibly “the” way. If you believe that, I would counter with this idea: professional certifications are perhaps a means to an end, but are not the goal. The goal is to become a more capable network engineer. Certs are good, but skills are better.

I raise this point as I suspect some have set as a New Year’s resolution to achieve some certification or other. Many have that goal because they want to challenge themselves and learn. Other have that goal because they want more money. While the two might be related, these are different goals. Certainly, I am an advocate of going through certification programs as a means of improving earning potential. I’ve proven that this can work, given the right employer circumstances. But I also know of many who care less about learning, and more about passing. Thus, the braindump industry has an audience. Buy a braindump, memorize the questions and answers, pass the exams, earn a certification, get a raise.

Allow me to suggest that you not do that. I could scare you with stories I’ve heard from Cisco and Juniper certification program managers about how they catch braindumpers (yes, they have interesting ways of doing this). But, I’m not here to sway you on the ethics of braindumping an exam that’s part of the highly profitable certification industry. There’s probably ten ways you could argue for that approach. My point is one about your actual networking skills.

The industry needs competent, experienced networking professionals. Right now. Today. In the next 5 – 10 years, I expect that demand will grow as networks become more integrated with operations and applications begin to manipulate the network directly to guarantee service delivery. Network people are going to have to really understand their network & networking technologies very well to understand what’s happening when the unicorn-borne magic of software defined networking turns out to be a bit buggy. Or if not buggy, in need of considerable customization to work for a particular organization. Software developers are not going to take over the role of network design and engineering. That job will still belong to those of us that do that work today. Therefore, think long-term when going through your training and studies on your way to a certification. Make sure that the cert you are pursuing is about improving your actual skill as a networker.

New Year’s Thought

More money does not make you a better network engineer. But if you become a better network engineer, over time, you’ll be worth more money. Certifications, when used a means to master new knowledge, can help you get there. So do those certifications right. Study hard, learn the material, and pass the exams on your own terms. The industry needs more amazing network engineers. Not more braindumpers with paper certs.

About the author

Ethan Banks

Most people know me because I write & podcast about IT on the Packet Pushers network. I also co-authored "Computer Networks Problems & Solutions" with Russ White.

Find out more on my about page.


  • Does anyone think that high school, college or university prepared you for real life ?

    Why would certification prepare you for real life ? It’s education. By definition it __prepares__ you for executing a real job.

    • As a computer science major, the only thing college prepared me for is the ability to pull all-nighters when facing pressing deadlines. I have yet to see how that curriculum prepared me for a career in Network Engineering/Administration. It’s been my experience that certs are a better way to expose you to the core skills needed in the industry. It’s up to the individual to dig deeper on the topic and make use of it when needed.
      If I had to go back to college, I’d get the easiest major in the Engineering department, focus the bulk of my energy on certs and labs, while working as a tech support.
      It’s funny how some job postings mention BS degree as a requirement, but when you get hired, not once you will go back open one of your $100+ college books or notes (even if you did, I doubt you’ll find something helpful/practical). Once hired, to get the job done, you will have to rely on your team’s Wiki, senior engineers, vendors’s documentations, and bunch of random forums/blogs/archives.

    • Great points, Ethan.

      Greg – one of the few college texts I have ever referred back to was my slim textbook on decision making theory.
      The other bit that sticks with me was an Advanced Course in Engineering curriculum in which we were held to a very high standard of demonstrating both structured critical thinking (i.e. problem statement, hypothesis, assumptions, analysis and conclusion) and technical writing skills. The ability to convey one’s methodology used to come to whatever conclusion and present the process in a structured and repeatable way has over and again proved invaluable. Both were graduate level courses.

    • You know what? I can honestly say that I benefited from my years in college/university CS, and this is coming from a dropout. I actually spent three years of schooling in three different institutions (long story), but looking back on it I think I am the better for it. Being taught the fundamentals of logic, programming, and hardware principles have given me appreciation and insight into how different systems work together; something that I don’t believe I would have otherwise. Business communications classes taught me to be succinct, and project management courses gave me a few core principles on… project management! All that aside, I work with someone who passed the same courses I took and it doesn’t seem to help him much, so I could be the odd man out.

      Regarding certificates, passing a couple is one of my resolutions. For me, it’s not so much about learning something new as it is to prove to myself and others that I know what I’ve experienced. I push myself to learn something either because I need it or I find it interesting. Certificates are, for me, the afterthought.

  • I agree with you Ethan. However, this flawed thinking has to change from all angles. When I first separated from the military, the first question recruiters asked was, “What certifications do you have?”. They didn’t ask about experience or skill-level. Naturally, I had none of the above since I was completely new to the field but I quickly learned what was needed to “break in”. Certfications are definitely a means to an end and I use them as motivation to gain more knowledge as you alluded to. Not all of my peers share my appreciation and respect for them which is a shame because it waters down my accomplishments. Nothing I can do about that though as it appears to only be getting worse.

  • Great topic and great point for discussion as there is some serious flaws in the current hiring methods of most large companies – especially with HR departments trying for the easy CV keyword ‘Search and Shred’ and so many Job Descriptions have the alphabet soup of qualifications in which it is very hard to map those to the actual required skillset.

    Add that it is sometimes hard to get quality experience on some of the Core Systems and sometimes your only choice is to get a CERT just to open the door to get the experience and then the skill.

    One thing is for sure – working with other quality skilled people is the ultimate goal for ‘Highly Productive and Highly Skilled People’. You learn the deep knowledge this way and therefore the skills follow…..but how do you capture this on a CV to get past that HR shredder?

    • This is admittedly a problem – getting by the screeners who have no idea what they are looking at. Reflecting back on several of my networking jobs, I’ve been able to land an interview because someone in the company knew me. That made sure my resume wasn’t ignored, and I was able to connect with the right people. That doesn’t mean I always got a job offer, but at least I got to talk to folks.

      Another “trick” is to make sure your CV has appropriate acronyms, just to get the keyword matches. I’ve been told that many employers use search engines to parse through resume/CV databases to find possible candidates. Therefore, it’s wise to think through your resume as if a machine were going to look at it, as well as a human. I haven’t had to polish a resume for a while, but I have a section littered with equipment and acronyms just for this reason. Ergo, a section like, Cisco Catalyst 6500, Cisco Nexus 7000, OSPF, BGP, 802.1q, etc. Several lines of whatever I could think of that I had worked on that might be relevant to a prospective employer.

  • so would you suggest studying for networking and learning linux and programming at the same time ? i am 26 now and just starting networking. There is so much to learn it just seems very very daunting.

    • There is a lot to learn, and a lot of it will come with time. I devote a considerable amount of time to reading and study, and am still frustrated by what I don’t know. Just take it in bize-sized chunks, digest, and then move onto the next thing. Focus is important, too. Get a hold of one specific area of study, and stick with it until you’ve got a handle on it, then move on. Trying to take in everything at once add to that daunted, overwhelmed feeling. Reading a big general-purpose networking book front-to-back will just kill you if it’s all new material. Reading a chapter at a time with a good space for review and lab work to make better sense of it will work better.

      As far as Linux and programming. Knowing your way around a Linux system will be helpful. Many network appliances you’ll run into are based on a Linux or FreeBSD distribution, so knowing the rudiments of a *NIX CLI is always beneficial. I’ve run Linux servers of my own, and run Linux desktops. I’ve done a small amount of shell scripting. I’ve worked with perl, php, tcl, and SQL, usually in the context of retrieving data from network devices and throwing that information onto a web page. I’ve also built some web sites that were all PHP front-end with SQL backends. All at a simplistic level, mind you, but enough to get a handle on the principles involved. I’m looking ahead to learning Python, as that seems to be the programming tool of choice for those interacting with network devices using APIs.


Most people know me because I write & podcast about IT on the Packet Pushers network. I also co-authored "Computer Networks Problems & Solutions" with Russ White.

Find out more on my about page.

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