Thoughts on Certification

Paper Tiger

I never thought much of certifications. I’ve always figured that they were for entry level people and didn’t have much value (except the CCIE, which I’ve always respected). I mean, we’ve all met the proverbial paper-MCSE, right? height=

Sure, I know MCSEs that are really good at their jobs. I know they are good at their jobs because they have experience and I’ve seen them work, not because they proved it with a cert. Certification is just the hoop you have to jump through to get past HR now days. Besides, these tests are expensive and I already have a good job.

Organizational Benefits

That’s the way I used to think. My thinking about certifications started to change when I heard Alva Couch at the LISA conference a few years ago. He had an interesting talk called “Standard Deviations” of the “Average” System Administrator. Keeping in mind he’s talking to a group of primarily UNIX guys, he makes the controversial statement that the MCSE is great! Why is the MCSE great? It gives an organization a standardized way of doing things (at least in theory). Just like other computing systems, on a Windows Server you can do things multiple ways. If an organization is using the MCSE as it’s standard, then everyone know the standard way to perform task X. That means if someone else has to take over or you want to assign the task to someone else, everyone will be on the same page at 2am when it breaks.

Admittedly, an individual may be able to do it better, but it’s not as maintainable that way. I’m sure you have standardized ways of doing things in your own organization. It’s not necessarily the best way (unless you wrote the procedure), but it’s the standardized way for your organization. This improves the ability of your organization to maintain their systems.

The First One’s Free

At the beginning of 2010 the focus of my job changed from system administration (with networking when there was a need) to mostly networks (with sysadmin when there is a need). This gave me the opportunity to attend my first Cisco Live Networkers. The conference fee includes a “free” certification exam. I figured as long as I was going to get a free exam, I may as well study for the CCNA certification. I would obtain a certification with only one test and most of the other certs had that as a prerequisite, anyway. So I figured I should read through the CCNA Official Exam Certification Library to make sure I filled in any gaps. That’s 1475 pages to read. This took a while but I learned something: I had a lot of gaps.

Of course there were the expected things like frame relay global DLCI numbering, which I’d never even heard of before. Not that I expect I’ll need that any time soon… There was a lot of theoretical networking knowledge that I didn’t have or wasn’t very strong in. Things like the format of Ethernet frames, the names of the OSI layers (All People Seem To Need Data Processing, anyone?) and specific IEEE Ethernet standards and the draft numbers associated with them. Lots of tables to memorize, most of which you don’t necessarily use in every day network operations. When’s the last time someone asked for “802.3ab” instead of “copper gig”? There were other things that surprised me, such as my misunderstanding of the “network” statement when configuring a routing protocol. For example:

router eigrp 100

I thought that meant “route for the network and any subnets”. At least 90% of the time, that understanding worked. Every once in a while it didn’t do exactly what I thought it should do. What that actually means, is “do EIGRP routing on any interface who’s IP address is in the range”. I was surprised at the amount I thought I knew through OJT (and some Cisco router classes back in the IOS 10.3 days), but actually didn’t.

Personal Fulfillment and Career Advancement

The experience of studying for the CCNA was shockingly fulfilling. I learned a lot more than I thought I would or thought I should have, given how long I’ve been doing this stuff. The test was pretty easy and that was reassuring, since I had started to feel like I didn’t actually know anything.  I discovered that the certification path isn’t just for the entry level person. It can also provide a path for career development and improvement of your skills. I’ve started working on the CCNP and am experiencing more epiphanies of understanding and am improving my network skills every day as a result. I’m also gaining a bit of disgust for the current condition of the network, but that’s another story.

So, that’s my long winded way of saying certifications actually have value. Maybe not the value that’s advertised to employers, but value nevertheless. I think the Cisco certifications do and my MCSE friends seem to have similar feelings for the Microsoft certs. I suspect Juniper’s new certifications have value as well. I’m tempted to get distracted by their almost-free Juniper Fast Track program. Even if you don’t pursue the papers that go along with the certification guides or their associated courses, pursuing the knowledge required is a worthwhile endeavor. I would contend that as long as you have taken the time to gain the knowledge, you may as well take the tests and gain the certifications. You never know when you might have a sudden desire to get past that HR hoop.


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