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Training Never Goes Out of Fashion: An Interview with Wendell Odom

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Linda Leung talks with Wendell Odom, professional trainer and prolific author of Cisco Press exam guides, about what people these days really think about the classes, the exams, and the whole idea of certification.
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Wendell Odom is a popular Cisco instructor at Cisco learning provider Skyline Advanced Technology Services and is also a prolific writer of Cisco exam guides covering the CCNA certification, as well as the Cisco Quality of Service (QoS) exam and CCIE Routing and Switching. Odom also writes the popular Cisco Cert Zone blog for Network World. A CCIE himself, he took the CCIE exam in 1995 when it was Cisco's only technical certification. I spoke with Odom about the state of the Cisco certification market for IT professionals, whether the CCIE designation has lost its luster, why he believes IT professionals need business skills as much as technical expertise, and why training is more important in a down economy.

What was the CCIE exam like when you took it in 1995?

Back then, the lab was a two-day exam, as opposed to one day [today]. You had a day and a half to configure things. During the second day you were given an hour for lunch, and the proctors would go in and break things on your network. You would come back and fix the things they broke. That was unnerving. One of the things they broke for me was the old Ethernet-style AUI connector for Ethernet cables. They took a cable out of the router and replaced it with a cable with the pins bent down flat. They actually screwed the connector onto the router, but it was not secure because all the pins were flat out. I thought it was an ingenious way to break things. I ended up figuring it out. It took me three hours of troubleshooting and one hour to fix it. I personally think the exam is harder today. It's just as deep as it was then, but there's so much more stuff they can ask you today than back when I was a kid.

As an instructor, how do you keep up with technology?

I've sought out consulting engagements where I'm helping people implement [solutions]. Another way is to teach a variety of topics. You can learn the theory and the commands, but you won't learn the real life, so whenever I meet people who do this stuff every day I shut up and listen. I learn from my students as well. We talk through the problems, and that part can be a lot of fun.

Can you tell me about the Cisco Press CCNA 640-802 network simulator project that kept you busy in 2008?

It's a simulator for routing and switching, and teaches people the skills they need to pass the CCENT and CCNA. We limit the commands up to a CCNA level. We chose eight different topologies for routing and switching that covered all the different scenarios you'd see on those exams. The exams are not just multiple-choice questions on how to configure commands; they're more of, "Here's a scenario, and your job is to figure out from the different command outputs why it's not working." It requires a fair amount of application skills.

Is the simulator a lab?

There are simulation questions on the exam, so it's not a lab in that there's a peer sitting there, but the user interface acts like a real router and switch. With some of [the exam questions], you can fix the configurations to make them work, but in some cases you're not allowed to configure the device; you have to do what's called a "show command" that shows you the status. You use that [command] to figure out the values that tell you what's wrong. It's more akin to what a real engineer does when troubleshooting a network, rather than just choosing from multiple-choice answers.

Most of your books are about the CCNA exam. Is that your niche?

No. I have taught more than routing and switching. I've probably taught more quality of service or MPLS classes than anything else. Although it's good for Wendell the writer to teach CCNA classes, it's probably better for Wendell's professional development to teach other classes and ask questions of students. Teaching QoS and MPLS has enabled me to learn from my students. CCNA students oftentimes are in jobs where networking is only a small part, or they're just starting out in their careers. In MPLS or QoS classes, networking is a bigger part of the student's job, and you learn deeper things from their questioning.

Has the level of interest in youngsters getting into networking decreased over the years as other technologies gain popularity?

At one point networking was a cool thing, but now the "cool" has worn off, and networking is just one path of many that you can choose. Certainly in the 1990s networking was cool because of the Internet boom, but nowadays there are tons of other technologies you can get into—and maybe networking isn't the snazzy thing that catches 18-year-olds' eyes when they go to college. It's just one track you can take in school.

Is that decreased interest going to harm networking in the future? Who's going to be running the networks of the future?

This is just my opinion, but there will always be people who will look at it and think, "What can I do to make a better living?" Maybe it's someone who is 25 who wants to retrain or wants to specialize. But being a networking guy and just knowing networking is probably not a good idea. You've got to know what your company is going to do with the network. If you stay in your hole and don't come up for air, you really lose a lot of perspective. In IT, the networking guy or gal touches so much of the company that you have to be aware of the business and process flows and what motivates people. That makes for a better network engineer. Maybe that means having someone who is 10 years into their career cycle and is retraining. Maybe we won't see many college grads [going into networking], but if we lose some of the energetic talent maybe that's going to hurt to some degree.

Cisco is putting a lot of money into its emerging markets and fast-tracking people there to get Cisco certifications. Perhaps they will be our core networking people of the future?

That's a good point.

Do you think what Cisco is doing is good for IT pros in the U.S.?

Every couple of years I see things in the press that say there are too many qualified people to do the jobs in a particular part of IT, and then a couple of years later they say there are not enough people. I think networking knowledge and skills will be useful to people if they make a 20-year career in networking, or if they spend five or two years in networking and move to another part of IT. It doesn't bother me that there are networking people in the emerging markets. I'm not fearful for my colleagues that they will suffer from a glut of having too many people. I think networking will continue to grow, and as long as it's growing we'll need more people to manage it.

You've said in the past that you believe IT people need to understand the business as well. How do you get those skills if you're just starting out in your career?

I'm a big fan of the idea of not having to go to school to learn business, but rather to make friends with business people. Go out and play ball with them and ask them what they do. Along with that, go and find the top trade rags in that part of the world. If you're in a tire company, read the last two years' worth of back copies of the lead rag for that industry. Spend an hour or two a week to do a little bit of learning like that. Seek opportunities to talk to the applications people in your company. Go to their meetings and find out what the applications on the networks are doing. I've learned a lot about business in my consulting world by knowing about the applications that are running over the network. It will tell you how the business functions relate to each other.

In a down economy, what's the best advice you can give people who are either in a job or out of a job?

It's probably more important to enhance your skills in a down economy. We are in such an unusual economy that it's not going to be simple to get the next job, but learning is something positive you can do that will affect your ability to get the next job. We all know people who have done their jobs well and are still out of a job. Learning is one thing you can control, and [you should use it to] prepare yourself for when the economy turns around.

I've been through a couple of dips in the IT world, and it always seems that people spend more time building skills in a down economy. Perhaps it's because people have more time on their hands, or are thinking of what they can do to improve their chances. I think it's true that you see a small uptick in the inexpensive ways of getting more skills and a downtick in the expensive ways—spending $50 on a book versus $2,000 on a course, for example.

When the economy improves, I suspect your advice would be to keep learning. How can we motivate networking pros to want to keep their skills up to date in any economic situation?

Certainly, I think the urgency goes away when the economy is good. Ask yourself what is your career, and where do you want to go? It's not your company's responsibility to ask that. I'm a big fan of writing down your goals on a piece of paper and pulling it out and looking at it. What do I need to do to get there? Is it to get technology certifications or to get business skills?

In your Network World blog in January 2009, you asked readers whether they wanted to be a CCNA, CCNP, or CCIE during the down economy. Almost 40% said they would rather be a CCNP making $20,000 a year less than a CCIE. Why do you think that is?

I think people believe they have a target on their heads. The more senior you are, the bigger your target. A family member said to me, "I make three or four times what an entry-level person makes, and while I know that experience is useful, it's easy for my employer to say, 'Not three or four times more useful.'" He said he expected to be gone in a few weeks, and he was. The fear in the market is real. It's unfortunate. I think learning about and applying solid financial planning is key during this time. How do you manage your budget, and how do you keep yourself from buying something that you don't need?

So what do you say to your CCIE buddies?

Broaden your business skills. Am I a CCIE who can make the routers and switches sing, or am I the CCIE whom the CIO is going to notice because I know how things work in the organization? That kind of visibility counts for something. Some CCIEs are not known past their direct manager.

I think Cisco's CCDE [Cisco Certified Design Expert] qualification puts your résumé into a much different light. While the CCIE still has an aura about it, I think the CCIE plus CCDE in two or three years is going to make you stand above just CCIEs.

What kind of aura does the CCDE have?

It implies that I've gone to the next step. Not only can I make it work—I can tell you how to make it work. I think it implies a fair amount of intelligence and experience. It applies an awareness of how companies work, because in the design you've got to know how business processes work.

What's the value of Cisco certifications for non-resellers? Are the people you teach mostly from reseller organizations?

If it's a CCNA class, the percentage of customers versus partners doesn't seem to change. It's heavy toward the customer. People want the skills, but you also get people who say, "I don't care about passing a bunch of tests, because it's not going to affect my performance review; I just want to know how to be able to do my job." And then you get people who work for channel partners, who say, "I want to know how to do my job, but also be able to pass the test." For a public class, that makes it difficult for the teacher, if you have 10 people who want to pass the test and 10 who couldn't care less. If it's a CCNA class, you're obligated to teach and prepare people to take the test.

Isn't it in everyone's best interest to take the test?

Yes. When they're that close, why not? If it were me, I would do it. You've got to have some motivation to spend the money to take the test. It could be useful for your résumé one day, and you do learn better if you learn with a view to taking a test. [On the other hand,] I used to work with a company where it was frowned upon to pass certification tests. It was almost a negative in your performance evaluation, because your boss thought you were about to leave. I've bumped into people who say, "I can't take the test because I like my job, and I don't want my boss to think I'm going to leave."

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

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