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Cisco Network Academy Shines Bright in Alberta: An Interview with Scott Empson

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Linda Leung and Scott Empson discuss the value of the Cisco Networking Academy, how it's viewed by potential employers, and the advantages of going through the Academy vs. other learning methods
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Cisco is perhaps the only networking vendor to manage a learning program aimed at students in schools and other public learning institutions to train a new generation of networking professionals. The Cisco Networking Academy has been around since 1997, and according to Cisco some 600,000 students go through the program each year in 160 countries. One institute offering the program is Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, where author Scott Empson is the program coordinator.

Scott also teaches Cisco routing, switching and network design courses in certificate, diploma, and applied degree programs at the post-secondary level. He is an author of numerous CCNP Guides, including CCNP Portable Command Guide Library and CCNP ONT Portable Command Guide.

As he was preparing to attend Cisco Live, I asked Scott about the value of the Cisco Networking Academy, how it's viewed by potential employers, and the advantages of going through the Academy vs. other learning methods.

Linda Leung: What's the most rewarding aspect of being part of the Cisco Networking Academy?

Scott Empson: Working with Academy instructors from around the world that all subscribe to the same ideas and philosophies that what we are teaching is making a difference in students' lives.

LL: What kinds of people have gone through the Academy with you?

SE: The Academy courses that run at my institution are part of a larger certificate or degree program. We have students who are fresh out of high school and are still looking for direction in their lives. I teach older students who have university degrees from another country and have immigrated to Canada looking for a better life. They take our programs, part of which are Academy courses, as a way to allow them to get recognized training that will make them more desirable in our workforce.

LL: The Academy seems to be pretty unique in the industry. Is there anything in the industry that comes close — CompTIA's A+ or Network+, perhaps?

SE: The Academy is one of a kind. I do not know of any other company that has gone to this great length to try and create such an amazing learning opportunity. The CompTIA group has created a series of learner outcomes that are vendor neutral in different areas of IT, but it has not created full courses or curriculum to the quality that is the Cisco Academy. And for any other company that has created vendor specific training (Microsoft, Citrix, etc) for their own products, nothing comes even remotely close to what the CLI (Cisco Learning Institute) has created for the Cisco Academy.

LL: What's the cost of going through the Academy program? What are the options for prospective students in Canada to get help raising funds? Could students apply for the Canada Student Loans Program to help fund their Cisco education?

SE: I can only speak for my institution, but for right now, the Cisco Academy is part of larger, accredited certificate or degree programs. Because of this, students who are accepted into these programs can qualify for student loans, either through the Canada Student Loan Program or through Canadian financial institutions. When we did offer courses to the public as "general interest" courses — ones that were not part of a certificate or degree — I do not believe they qualified for Student Loans.

LL: What specializations are popular with IT students? Which areas are less popular, and do you think we'll eventually have a shortage of skills in those less popular areas?

SE: As with the real world, security is the hot topic — it's everywhere in IT, and rightfully so. Getting even more specialized is the concept of forensics and penetration testing. But to get into these areas you need a strong basis in the fundamentals. Will we ever see a shortage of skilled workers? We're seeing that right now. That's why the Cisco Academy is such an integral part of IT training — they're providing the training in the fundamentals, and will continue to do so.

LL: How do businesses partner with the Academy, and do your students eventually get jobs with those partners?

SE: In Canada I see businesses partner with schools that provide training in the Cisco Academy. But at a high-level some companies do want to partner with Cisco and the Academy — an example of this is Future Shop (a Canadian consumer electronics retailer), where students in the Academy program at either a high school or post-secondary level can use their Academy status to bypass the first level of screening when applying for a job there. Academy students in the IT Essentials course have been identified as desirable employees. Other companies have talked with Cisco about this.

LL: Cisco is putting a lot of emphasis on extending learning opportunities to students in developing nations, to women, and to those with disabilities. What do you think the IT workforce will look like in 10 or 20 years?

SE: The world of IT is truly a global one, in that it doesn't matter where you come from, what gender you are, etc. Everyone who wants to learn can learn. And if you have the skills, you can get hired. Cisco should be commended for trying to create these opportunities for those areas. In 10 to 20 years we will see a very diverse cross section of IT workers from all sections of society.

LL: Do you see a particular willingness by experienced IT professionals to help train a new generation of IT workers? How should such experienced IT pros offer their skills and experience to newcomers?

SE: The best way of IT professionals helping out is through mentorship — taking that new hire and working with them to allow the new hire a better chance of becoming more productive in their position faster.

LL: During economic downturns and with rising unemployment rates, there may be some people who are tempted to retrain for a new career in IT. Where would you recommend these folks to start? Should they train for the CCENT or jump straight to the CCNA program? How long should you hold the CCNA accreditation before attempting the CCNP?

SE: I believe that in order to have a better chance of getting that first job in IT, you need to be well rounded. Where I live, the people who get hired have a strong skill set in a number of areas — not just Cisco, but in network administration — Microsoft and/or Linux, PC repair, help desk and user support, wireless, Database, and so on.

If you have little job experience, get a certification exam to prove to potential employers that you have the ability to train for and study for passing an exam that is recognized globally. In some markets, a CCENT may be what you need. A CCNA is always better.

I also feel that a worker needs to have at least two years of experience on live production equipment in order to have a CCNP recognized as something of value. There is always the risk that someone with little work experience but a lot of certification credentials will not be taken as seriously as someone with fewer certs, but more practical experience. It is a fine line.

LL: And for these folks, is going through the Academy a better choice than training alone and attending a few classes, which may give them more flexibility, especially if they have part-time jobs?

SE: One of the strengths of the Academy is the ability to work with the actual gear. Studying alone is not enough. In this world you need to get your hands dirty working with the gear, practicing to design, install, configure, and troubleshoot networks. That is what the Academy courses allow you to get — hands-on practice. There is no better way to learn this.

LL: You hold the CCNP, the CCDA, CCAI and Network+. Do you have plans to study for other certifications? Perhaps CCIE?

SE:I hold some other certifications, most notably the Certified Ethical Hacker. There is always the desire to write the CCIE, but it is a huge undertaking. A true CCIE needs to have hand-on experience with all different types of Cisco equipment and technologies, some of which I do not teach or have access to. As an instructor in the world of post-secondary education, I do not always get to work on the necessary equipment or teach the necessary classes to give me a strong enough background to be a worthy CCIE candidate.

I have attempted the CCIE written exam, and have not achieved a mark sufficient enough to be allowed to take the practical exam. I do not call this a failure. Rather, this shows where I need to improve upon. The CCIE is not for the faint-of-heart; it is very demanding, and not everyone has the ability to pass. But if you do pass, consider yourself amongst the very elite in this industry.

Before I go for another attempt at the CCIE, I am considering looking at the CCDP or maybe the CCNA-Security exam and moving in that direction.

LL: Final question: what will you be doing at Cisco Live?

SE: I'll be reconnecting with old friends and networking and making new ones. I'll be seeing some sessions on some technologies that I am familiar with, and some new ones that I have no clue about. I'll stop by the World of Solutions and look for new technologies, products that I can use in my classes. I'll advertise my students and their skill sets to industry, and collect as much swag as I can carry back home (t-shirts, backpacks, etc) to use as prizes in my classes. (Some of my students don't have backpacks, and if I have one that says Cisco on it, or HP, or any of the other companies there, my students really take to using them.)

I'll also stop by the Cisco Press section of the Marketplace, and reconnect with all of the wonderful people there who work endlessly to market, promote and sell my books.

And when I am really needing to clear my head, I will be found in some corner of the Marketplace or World of Solutions… juggling. My co-author, Hans Roth, got me started on juggling as a way to ease stress and decompress, and it's always fun to toss the balls around. He's very good. I am not.

Linda Leung is an independent writer and editor in California. Reach her at leungllh@gmail.com.

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