Cisco Systems certifications, such as Cisco Certified Internetwork Engineer and Cisco Certified Network Professional, have become sought-after credentials for most network professionals. They also are required levels of competency that many CIOs and other IT executives look for when hiring staff.
Some say the slew of Cisco certifications has become an alphabet soup of titles, and others add that no piece of paper outweighs experience and intelligence.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of Cisco's certification and education program, which started with the CCIE examination. More than 500,000 Cisco certifications have been issued since the program was started -- that's about one Cisco-certified professional for every four of the approximately 2 million Cisco routers installed.
Cisco is very different than it was 10 years ago, and that has caused the company's training and certification organization to evolve as well. What started as a test of users' knowledge of WAN routers and protocols now includes switching, security, wireless, telephony and storage.
"One part of how we approach our programs is to look at the demand," says Don Field, senior manager of core technologies for Cisco's Internet learning solutions group. He says that as Cisco adds technologies to its portfolio, new certifications evolve from user and channel partner demand. And while Cisco's certification offerings grow, some programs get scaled back. For example, Cisco's SNA IP certification was phased out several years ago after most corporations migrated off SNA networks, Field says.
CCIE is the highest level of Cisco certification.It represents "the upper echelon of networking experts worldwide," Cisco's Web site says.
"Six years ago, when first introduced stepping-stone certifications to validate skills along the way to reaching the ultimate objective of being a CCIE," Field says. These include the CCNP and Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) certifications. Each of these levels also has two to four subsets, such as specializations in routing and switching, security and voice.
Also available are four paths for certification: design, installation and support, security, and service provider specialization. Many of these specialized certifications are aimed at channel partners, integrators and resellers of specific products, and Cisco requires them to obtain various levels of channel partner support and status.
So how much weight do all these titles and certifications have with users?
"I require certification of anyone I hire," says Vaas Johnson, director of network systems at the Wake County School District in North Carolina. "Basically it's assurance for us that the folks who are doing configuration and management of network equipment know what they're doing."
For the school district's network support, installation and management tasks, the county hires contractors, who are under Johnson's supervision. The last four-year contract that went out to bid called for four network engineers, one of them having a CCIE, with the others required to have a CCNA or better level of certification.
"I was active in getting that specific language put in the contracts," Johnson says. "From the experience we've had, the certification is very positive. It carries some weight with us. It demonstrates proficiency with the equipment and shows the ability to learn and stay current."
For network staff and administration professionals, the development of lower-level certifications has become a good way for users to quantify and validate knowledge accumulated from years of experience with Cisco equipment.
Because no formal coursework is required to take any of the certification-related courses, users can study and take tests at their own pace.
"Most of the stuff I already learned on the job," says Craig Cuthbert, a network engineer at Sierra Nevada Corp., a manufacturer of aviation equipment in Sparks, Nev., discussing the recent CCNA exam he took -- and passed. "I crammed for it in about a week, then just went in and took it."
Cuthbert says he did buy some books and studies, because some material in the exam covered areas he does not deal with directly, such as Layer 3 routing and WAN protocols.
He says the tests are useful not just for padding a r‚sum‚ but also for forcing users to look at technology areas that might be outside what is in front of them every day.
On a need-to-know basis
"In order to get the certification, you need to know it," Cuthbert says. "It forces you to know what else is out there and not just concentrate on your one little area or specialty."
Although the amount of certifications available are good for people interested in a specialty, Wake County's Johnson says he prefers certifications with a broad base of knowledge.
"It's not helpful for management people on making hiring decisions," says Johnson of the alphabet soup of Cisco certifications. "I'd rather have someone with a breadth of knowledge. If someone has a more broad certification, that means they have the resources to get the answers they might need. They should be able to figure it out if they have that level of thinking talent."
To other IT executives with Cisco-based infrastructures, certifications are one of many criteria for choosing staff.
"Cisco certification is important," says Phil Go, CIO of construction company Barton Malow in Southfield, Mich. "But it's definitely just a foot in the door." Like any form of training or education, a Cisco certification is considered along with a person's experience and background.
"The most important thing is the actual performance, the actual work that someone has done -- whether that person is a (CCIE) or not," Go says. "There's no substitute for actual experience. At end of the day, it's really the results that are being delivered by the person and the type of value they add the organization."