Getting certified the Cisco way

In a dimly-lit hallway of the cavernous Las Vegas convention center, three Cisco networking customers were fretting over a networking certification exam they had just finished.

"Dang, it's like finals week at college," said one man. A woman in the trio shook her head; the second man in the group groaned.

"I think that baby, well, I might wanna take it again," the second man said, forcing a smile.

All three looked up and smiled widely when a reporter approached, asking later that their names not be used for a story. They turned to walk slowly out of the convention complex into the 105-degree Vegas afternoon, arms wrapped around one another's shoulders in consolation.

Taking a Cisco certification exam is serious stuff.

The winners -- and those who pass really think of themselves as winners -- get a plaque and a Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) identification number for the toughest level of tests, a number they can use on business cards and resumes to enhance their earning potential. The losers, who often take the exam again, are sometimes out more than US$10,000 for travel, books and preparation classes, as well as the testing fee, according to several who took the test last week at Cisco Networkers 2006.

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

A total of 2,808 people took tests at Networkers, and many who preregistered were able to take them for no charge, although fees normally range between US$125 and US$350, according to a Cisco spokeswoman. The fee is nonrefundable if test takers fail the exam. The written test is only Part One of the overall exam and is followed at a separate time and place by a notoriously difficult eight-hour practical lab test. CCIEs must take the written test every two years to stay qualified, but they need to pass the lab test only once.

Some companies require their networking engineers to attend Networkers for training or testing as part of their annual reviews, several IT managers said. None said they ever heard of an employee getting fired or reprimanded for failing an exam. But all said that having a certification can greatly boost chances for a promotion or other advancement.

Jon Campbell, CIO at FirstHealth of the Carolinas in Pinehurst, N.C.., said he had been prepping all week in his hotel room for a CCIE test on network security. Although he oversees 17 IT workers at FirstHealth, he said, "I am doing it for me, not them.

"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 is the toughest by far.

He should know. After passing a Cisco certification written exam once, Campbell failed the lab test several weeks later. "I thought that I had it after the written, but then I took the lab. Oh boy," he recalled.

Cisco runs a boot camp to prepare for the tests, but Campbell said most engineers self-study for the written portion. "You have to have a good base of engineering knowledge first," from school and work, he said, if only to fully understand the textbooks.

For the CCIE security exam, one Cisco expert in an online blog recommended using seven different text books to prepare for the two-hour written exam. The 100-question security test has multiple-choice and fill-in-the blank questions. For the lab test, the online testing rubric lists more than 100 devices, software and security attacks that engineers must be prepared to troubleshoot.

The average pass rate has been 26% for both written and lab tests since the start of the program in 1993, although many people take the exam again if they fail, a Cisco spokeswoman said. About 12,000 people take the written exam each year, with about 9,000 taking the lab test annually. In all, there are fewer than 14,000 CCIEs in the world in five areas including voice, routing and switching, security, service provider and storage networking.

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