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Cisco Certifications at Work: An Interview with Jay Swan and Denise Donohue

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Linda Leung talks with Jay Swan and Denise Donohue on the evolution of Cisco certifications, how employers view Cisco credentials, and what new technologies they are learning themselves.
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Jay Swan and Denise Donohue are both senior networking professionals who are highly regarded in industry. Jay, CCIE No. 17783, is a senior network engineer for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe Growth Fund in Ignacio, Colo., and Denise, CCIE No. 9566, is a senior solutions architect with ePlus Technology, designing data and VoIP networks for companies. Both Jay and Denise are former Cisco instructors and course directors at Global Knowledge.

They are co-authors of CCNP Quick Reference, among other publications.

I spoke with them during this year's Cisco Live in San Francisco to get their thoughts on the evolution of Cisco certifications, how employers view Cisco credentials, and what new technologies they are learning themselves.

Linda Leung: Cisco opened up a lot of options for networking professionals when it introduced the CCNA specializations: CCNA Voice, CCNA Wireless and CCNA Security at the 2008 Cisco Live event. It used to be that once you've attained your CCNA, the next logical step was to go for the CCNP. But now there are these specializations to delay people from going for the CCNP, or stop them in their tracks altogether. What decisions are you seeing people make?

Jay Swan: I'm not teaching Cisco courses right now, so I don't see the same volume of people pursuing certifications as I did in the past. In my current company we are encouraging people to start with the new CCENT, then CCNA, and then get a CCNA specialization. This is due to the fact that currently we have a greater need for breadth than depth in our support organization, but that could change in the future.

Denise Donohue: People are self-selecting specialization tracks earlier than before, since the new CCNAs are available. I still encourage everyone to go for the route/switch CCNA first, since all the other apps depend on having a solid network. But generally people are choosing a track and continuing on it, then maybe switching gears later.

LL: What's the best method for CCNP candidates to get practical experience with Cisco gear? Do you support or advise against using facilities like emulators and simulators, or is it always best to work on real gear?

JS: I think it's good to use both. For a raw beginner, it's important to have hands-on, physical experience with cabling and installing devices. As you progress, this becomes less important. Tools like Dynamips that actually run IOS in a virtualized environment are great. I have had very few problems with running Dynamips in a Linux environment, although it can be quirky on Windows. It allows you to quickly build complex lab scenarios that would require a lot of prep work in a hands-on lab. The only disadvantages I can think of are 1) it takes a while to get proficient with Dynamips setup and configuration, and 2) the virtualized hardware platforms are limited, so you can't work on things like Catalyst switches, Nexus, ASR, etc.

DD: There is no substitute for real equipment. You can practice specific skills/commands on the simulations and, as Jay mentioned, you can set up virtual networks, but the capabilities are limited to what is programmed in. Online labs that use real gear are a good alternative to buying your own.

LL: In your years in the industry, how has the value that employers put on the CCNP changed? How has that affected the future career and certification paths of IT pros today?

JS: Smart employers have always regarded certification as an indicator of ability, rather than proof. I don't think that's changed. A certification of any kind on a resume is helpful, but the candidate needs to be able to answer interview questions related to the certification with some degree of proficiency.

DD: I agree with Jay. I do think that employers still value ability more than certifications, but in a perfect world the two go hand-in-hand.

LL: You've both been Cisco course instructors. What should students do when on the course (or before or after) to help them make the most out of the classes?

JS: It's very helpful if a student has some familiarity with the material before coming to class. You can't expect to come to a class and retain hundreds of factoids that you've never heard before, but if you arrive with some background knowledge you really improve your detailed understanding of the material dramatically.

DD: Additionally, if students take the time to re-read the material and spend some time practicing what they learned in class, it helps a lot with their retention. The week is crammed so full with information that you can't expect to retain it all without some work on your part.

LL: If getting a CCIE is a goal for CCNP graduates, how long should they work at the CCNP level before they can prepare for the CCIE?

JS: CCNP probably includes well over 50% of the material that is tested for CCIE, just not at the same depth. I think the best path to CCIE is to start by developing a really advanced understanding of routing and switching theory: understand not just how things work, but try to figure out WHY the protocol designers and IOS programmers did things a certain way. During this phase, work on developing an organic knowledge of IOS diagnostics (i.e., show and debug commands) for every situation. Lots of people can configure all the features that are required in the CCIE lab, but being able to rapidly diagnose problems resulting from complex interactions of different features is what really makes the difference in passing the lab.

I can't really give a good guideline on how long it takes; a lot of it depends on how much time you're putting in on a weekly basis. I am a proponent of taking your time and reviewing things many times before taking tests; I would recommend a couple of years at least. Other people have different opinions, though.

DD: I agree with Jay on how CCIE candidates should prepare. But the amount of time greatly depends on how much effort you are willing/able to put in. If you have no life and spend every spare moment working on this, or if you make sure you have a really good understanding of the technologies when studying for the CCNP, then you'll be ready sooner than two years. Six months is about the fastest I've heard of.

LL: Some recruiters have said to me that when the economy is good, prospective employers are more willing to hire folks who can demonstrate experience, even if they don't hold certifications. But in a down economy, employers are more likely to ask for certifications plus experience because they have a pick of a wider pool of candidates. Do you agree with this?

JS: You shouldn't expect a certification to be much more than an interview-getter in terms of employment prospects. I'd rather see people treat certifications as a motivator to increase their knowledge than as a check mark on a resume. The certification might increase your chances of getting an interview; after that you need to rely on your knowledge and experience to impress the interview panel.

DD: Yes, certs can get you an interview but you still have to prove yourself. There are too many cheat sites available for an employer to assume that your certification means you actually know the technologies. Also, having a certification means that you're someone who goes the extra mile to improve themselves; that you take responsibility for your own knowledge and your own career. That goes a long way with me.

LL: Do you think Cisco certifications are tougher to pass now than in the past?

JS: The CCIE written exams seem to have stayed about the same, or perhaps gotten slightly more difficult. I haven't taken a CCNA level exam in a while, but from what I'm hearing from others, it is much harder than it was five or six years ago.

DD: Cisco has tried to make the exams test what a candidate actually needs to know, so they include simulations and require you to interpret command output now. I think those make them more difficult, but that's a good thing. The route/switch CCNA covers so much material now that it's no longer an entry-level exam. I feel bad for new engineers trying to learn all the information needed for it.

LL: As senior networking professionals, what new technologies are you learning about? Virtualization or wireless, for example?

JS: Good guess! At work, virtualization is a big topic right now. I'm particularly interested in virtualization security. I'm also interested in IPv6 and Internet scalability issues, although as an engineer in the small-to-midsize enterprise world, they don't affect my day job very much, yet.

DD: I'm on the network design/architect side so I'm concerned currently with how the coming trends affect network design. Virtualization is driving so many changes to the network and data center, and I want my customers to be prepared. So I'm learning new ways to think about network structure and protocols. I'm encouraging my customers to look into the future and develop roadmaps to keep their networks working optimally as they grow and to virtualize.

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

JS: For the technical sessions, I am focusing on virtualization and security this year, although as an IPv6 enthusiast I'm also looking forward to geeking out at Eric Vyncke's session on IPv6 security issues. I'm also going to enjoy being in San Francisco for the first time in many years, and seeing lots of friends from years past.

DD: I'm mostly taking data center-related sessions this year, with a few security and routing ones thrown in for fun. Plus, it is always great to catch up with people you only see once a year, and make new friends for next year!

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

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