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Twitter, CCNA Wireless, and Attempting the CCIE Routing & Switching Program in 90 Days: An Interview with Brandon Carroll

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Linda Leung and Brandon Carroll discuss job prospects for Cisco certified engineers, Cisco's imminent unveiling of the CCNP Wireless program, why IT pros should Tweet, and his next goal of doing the CCIE Routing & Switching program in 90 days.
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If you're a Cisco certified network engineer or studying for a certification and are active in the social networking world, you'll either already be following the Tweets of Brandon Carroll or follow his Cisco Study blog. A prolific writer, he authored Cisco Access Control Security: AAA Administration Services, CCSP SND Quick Reference, and the CCNA Wireless Official Exam Certification Guide. Brandon is a course instructor with Ascolta and teaches most of the routing and switching, and security courses that are delivered out of Ascolta's Bellevue, Wash. office.

A CCNA, CCNP, and CCSP, Brandon in March, on a Friday the 13th, passed his CCIE Security lab exam and is now CCIE No. 23837.

I chatted with Brandon about job prospects for Cisco certified engineers, Cisco's imminent unveiling of the CCNP Wireless program, why IT pros should Tweet, and his next goal of doing the CCIE Routing & Switching program in 90 days.

Linda Leung: First, many congratulations on passing the CCIE Security Lab Exam on March 13, 2009. In May you announced that you're attempting to do the CCIE Routing & Switching certification program in 90 days using nothing by IPexpert products and Cisco documentation. How is that coming along? What surprises — good or bad — have you come across that you were not expecting?

Brandon Carroll: What I found is that I am in way over my head. It's interesting how you can look at a certification from the outside and think that it's going to be pretty easy, and then once you start to work on it find that it's much more difficult. I think that I can certainly do it, but only because of the training I've had in the past related to routing and switching and the fact that, as an instructor at Ascolta, I teach the CCNP track. I don't know if I will make it or not in 90 days, but I'll get there eventually. I need to make sure my family comes first.

LL: How long did it take you to study for the CCIE Security certification, and what was the most challenging part of your study journey and the exam?

BC: I studied for two years for the CCIE Security, but had a fairly strong background in security beforehand. For three years or so prior to that I had been a CCSP (Cisco Certified Security Professional) and had been teaching various security courses for some time. The most challenging part of studying was probably making sure that I got enough in while holding down a full time job and with a newborn. I know everyone has their own situations, but for me there were times when I was so overwhelmed that I had to walk away for a few days at a time. After a break it seemed that the study time I spent was more meaningful.

LL: Let's talk about Cisco's wireless certifications. Building a home lab is a hot topic among certification candidates, and some say that building a lab for the CCNA Wireless program is potentially more expensive than for other CCNA specializations because you can't get away with using older equipment. You've mentioned in your blog posts that you prefer to rent equipment because you frequently travel. How much money do you recommend candidates put aside for the lab if they buy? What are the pros and cons of renting vs. buying? How much cheaper is it to rent vs. buying?

BC: This is a tough one because the only experience I have with paying for a lab is with the lab I assisted in setting up for Ascolta. That lab was pretty pricey because we decided to go with the Cisco 4400 Series Wireless LAN Controllers so the higher-end classes could use the gear as well. That lab was eight pods, or eight controllers, and you certainly don't need all that for a home lab. However, you do need a controller, AP, client, and so on. Still, with that you will not be able to do any roaming. So it really depends. To tell you the truth, I don't know of anywhere to rent CCNA wireless equipment that is set up outside of what training partners provide. I think they run around $500 a day. This makes an ILT (instructor-led training) class even more valuable, because many times it's the first and only time people will have to see some of the equipment.

LL: Cisco is expected to detail the CCNP Wireless program at Cisco Live. What are you hoping the program will cover?

BC: I've seen the program highlights and I think it's going to be a great program. Certainly site-survey and security will need coverage.

LL: Other trainers say that the CCNA Wireless program is a tough challenge as an associate level certification because it covers leading edge technologies. Do you agree with this, and what does it say about the forthcoming CCNP Wireless program? What are the steps that candidates should take before embarking on the CCNP Wireless program?

BC: The CCNA wireless is very tough, and it's sometimes because people in a data world have a hard time with the RF (radio frequency) terminology and concepts. The leading edge technology is also a factor, but once you understand the fundamentals, the technology will begin to make more sense. But there is no doubt about it: it's hard. What does this say about the CCNP wireless? Hold on to your hats — it's going to be a bumpy ride. You can bet it's not going to be easy.

LL: What are the common mistakes that students make when going through the CCNA Wireless training program and also when taking the exam?

BC: I notice that people focus more on the technology that doesn't matter for the test. They get side-tracked. I notice that people also have a hard time understanding the relationship between an exam and the course that it's based on. For example, if I were to draw a picture, and you were to ask people about that picture, they couldn't explain it based on a different picture. This is what people try to do. They bypass the certified training and go straight to the Cisco documentation and miss the fact that the exam is based on the material in the course. If a course developer explains a technology one way and then the test is written based on that, it could vary slightly from the Cisco documentation. You can't really say that the test is wrong because it may not be based on versions that are used and so on, but this is really a hindrance for those who take things literally.

LL: You specialize in wireless and security. Why did you choose these specializations, and would you recommend this avenue to people interested in a career in IT over other specializations?

BC: I chose security because I knew there was a need for security, and at the time (10 years ago) there wasn't a huge focus on it. After 9/11 security became an even bigger topic and the job market was good. As for the wireless, I just enjoy the technology. When you look at the way networks are today, I can't imagine that people are going to shift focus from wireless and focus more on wired connectivity. I've seen various vendors working on solutions for hi-def TV over wireless, and I think LG has a TV that only has a power cable coming out of the back of it. Wireless technology makes so many things possible, and it's certainly a growing market. As far as recommending anyone get into these types of specializations, I would have to say yes. Mainly because you must set yourself apart in these economic times, and when you can do that in a market that is growing yet lacks certified professionals, I think you are taking a step in the right direction.

LL: The Cisco CCIE exam is notoriously the hardest exam to pass because Cisco sets the bar high for its expert-level certification. But is it healthy to maintain this exclusive club and isn't the high salary associated with CCIEs beyond the reach of the average midsize organization?

BC: I think its great to keep the bar high, and the salary being high is simply a company's investment in quality work. Consider the alternative of paying multiple employees to do the job of one CCIE; factor in the time it takes them to research complex topics and the money spent to bring in contract help, and I think the CCIE salary is more cost effective for a company. Is it out of reach? No.

LL: On the other hand, Cisco has a Global Talent Acceleration Program to fast-track IT pros in India, Jordan and South Africa to the CCIE-level. Do you think this will result in an overabundance of CCIEs and drive down CCIE salaries?

BC: I think we have seen CCIE salaries decrease over the years anyhow, and I don't think there is an overabundance. If you can pass the test you deserve to be a part of the club. The fact is that it's an extremely difficult exam, and that keeps down the numbers in and of itself.

LL: You are very active in social media. You have your own blog, Brandon Carroll's Cisco Study Blog, have an active Twitter profile, and welcome friends on Facebook. How has social media helped you in your career? Why should IT pros embrace social media and where should they start?

BC: I think that social media has helped me to get more in touch with readers of my books, people who are working on projects similar to mine, and even people who are studying for exams I am working on as well. It gives you such a reach that it's just amazing.

I actually was talking about this at dinner tonight with a few other guys who are on Twitter and who are either working on or are already CCIEs. The comment was made that there is no other forum where you can post a question once and have multiple CCIEs see it and reply, see others reply, and chime in on conversations. It's like a global meeting of the minds — all the time.

As far as others getting started I would recommend a Twitter account — an app for your phone and desktop — and just search for Cisco and follow people who are talking about similar topics. It's hard to get started if you don't follow anyone. Follow @ciscolive, @ciscosystems, and even me, @brandoncarroll. Watch what we are talking about and with whom and follow those people as well. Look for blogs that have a Twitter badge and follow that link to follow that person on Twitter. Also, a number of news networks are starting to advertise that they are posting on Twitter, so watch for those and follow the ones that interest you.

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

BC: At Cisco Live I will be jumping into some breakout sessions, hanging out at the Ascolta booth (1040), and speaking at two breakout sessions on the SNAA Cisco Certification exam and training. I'll be going to the tweetup on Monday, the CCIE party and author reception on Tuesday, and the customer appreciation event on Wednesday. I'll probably be answering a number of questions, as my wife is attending Cisco Live for the first time as she is preparing for the CCNA exam. I'll also be meeting up with a number of friends I've made via Facebook and Twitter.

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

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