Users tread a hard en route to Cisco certification

In a dimly lit hallway of the cavernous Las Vegas Convention Centre late last month, three Cisco customers were fretting over a networking certification exam they had just finished.

"It's like finals week at uni," said one man. A woman in the trio shook her head; the second man in the group groaned. They turned to walk slowly out of the convention complex into the 41° Celsius Vegas afternoon, arms wrapped consolingly around one another's shoulders.

Taking a Cisco certification exam is serious stuff.

The winners get a plaque and a Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) identification number for successfully completing the toughest level of tests; they can use that number on business cards and resumes to enhance their earning potential. The losers -- historically a significant majority of test takers -- are sometimes out more than $US10,000 for travel, books, preparation classes and the testing fee, according to several attendees at Cisco's Networkers 2006 user event.

The event featured dozens of intense training sessions on the latest Cisco hardware and software, as well as a keynote address by CEO John Chambers. But the main event for thousands at the conference was the chance to take a standardized certification test.

Jon Campbell, CIO at First Health of the Carolinas, said he had been prepping all week in his hotel room for a CCIE test on network security.

"The tests are tough, and the ones who pass are really the creme de la creme," said Campbell, who has taken certification tests from three other major vendors but found Cisco's to be the toughest by far. He should know. After passing an earlier Cisco certification written exam, Campbell failed the lab test several weeks later. "I thought that I had it after the written, but then I took the lab test," he said. "Oh boy."

A Cisco Web site recommends using seven textbooks to prepare for the two-hour written CCIE security exam. For the lab test, the online testing rubric lists more than 100 devices, software and security attacks that engineers must be prepared to troubleshoot.

A Cisco spokeswoman said that 2808 people took tests at the conference, paying fees up to $350. Many who preregistered for the test were able to take it free of charge. The written test is followed by an eight-hour practical lab test, which takes place at a separate location. CCIEs must take the written test every two years to stay qualified; they need to pass the lab test only once.

Several engineers taking last month's exam said reaching the CCIE level can lead to better job assignments, pay raises and perhaps an easier pathway to another job, because managers understand the value of the certification.

Jason Witty, director of IT for Southern Wine and Spirits, said he recently opened a new warehouse with wireless and other communications technology with the help of a CCIE assigned to the project by IBM under a consulting contract. The CCIE was able to train technical staffers and helped prepare the warehouse launch, Witty said. "He was a lifesaver," Witty added.

Some engineers at the conference avoided the exams but still took advantage of the courses. Franz Hufnagl, network systems manager in the office of Julius Blum Inc, a maker of cabinet hardware, said he probably would never take a CCIE exam but chose to attend Networkers for the high-quality courses. The native of Austria said that in much of Europe, certifications aren't as widely revered as they are in the US.

In fact, he suggested that some companies may be urging workers to get certifications in the hope that they will get special consideration from Cisco, such as having their calls for help get answered more quickly.

Wu Zhou, an analyst at IDC, said the certification programs are at the centre of Cisco's highly profitable services division, which in the last quarter brought in more than $1 billion in revenue with a gross profit of 68 percent. Cisco customers who take certification classes are more likely to fix their own problems, reducing Cisco's services costs, Zhou said, noting that "services at Cisco are highly leveraged".

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