CCIE relevancy: Is Cisco's venerable network certification on top of programmability, automation trends?

The Cisco Certified Internetwork Experts (CCIE) certification is a career pinnacle for many network professionals. But not everyone thinks it's worth the investment in time and money.

WAVE Life Sciences was barreling toward its commercial launch when it hit a critical speedbump. The company’s network, a key part of the launch, received a negative assessment and would need to be re-architected. Anthony Murabito, vice president of IT at the Cambridge, Mass. biotechnology company, only wanted one thing from the IT pros that would be helping him fix the issue fast – to be Cisco Certified Internetwork Experts (CCIE).

“We needed to do a major refresh and replacement on our network and, when I looked around, I had no network skills available in the organization,” Murabito says. Cisco’s top-tier certification would serve for Murabito and his hiring team as an indicator of a candidate’s expertise.

Murabito’s reliance on the CCIE as network gospel comes at a time when the industry is debating the relevance of the CCIE. A search for “CCIE” and “is it worth it?” returns dozens of blogs and comments from people who wonder whether investing US$10,000 to $15,000 as well as a large chunk of their time (it can take over a year to properly study) is the best strategy for advancing their network careers. With cloud platforms such as Amazon Web Services and Microsoft’s Azure gaining in stature and a heavier presence of virtualization, focusing so heavily on just Cisco’s environment seems folly to some critics. Others, like Murabito, say until another certification comes along that is as proven a bellwether for talent, the CCIE, which was first awarded in 1993, is still the best bet.

Keeping the CCIE relevant is a priority for Cisco and its training team. In 2016, Cisco added an emerging technologies track to the written portion of its CCIE (and CCDE) exam, asking questions about cloud, network programmability, and the Internet of Things (IoT), albeit without the same depth as other traditional networking topics. Last fall, Cisco fine-tuned the emerging technologies questions, which is worth 10% of the overall score. Test takers are expected to be able to compare and contrast public, private, hybrid, and multi-cloud design considerations, describe architectural and operational considerations for a programmable network, and describe architectural framework and deployment considerations for IoT.

“What we were hearing from the industry is that CCIEs are expected to be more than just network engineers. They need to be technologists who can tell their business what’s coming and how to adopt these technologies,” says Joe Clarke, distinguished services engineer at Cisco and an original contributor to the emerging technologies section of the CCIE.

For instance, the emerging technologies sections aim to make test-takers aware of the impact of IoT protocols and low-power and loss-prone networks by asking questions such as what is an IoT technology that seeks to cover a wide area using a mesh of very low-powered devices? (Answer: ZigBee) For programmability, they want to help engineers understand the implications of being able to incorporate scripts into the network in a friendly and useful manner and where software-defined networking (SDN) can be used to improve performance.

“While the network engineer of today doesn’t have to be a software engineer or software architect or even a great programmer, he or she does have to be unafraid of programming,” Clarke says. “You may not like programming, but it sure will make your job easier.” That’s the message the enhanced CCIE certification hopes to convey and to present these technologies as an evolution, not a revolution. “We don’t want to scare people off. We’re trying to take them there in a way that feels transitional.”

Clarke anticipates that emerging technologies eventually will be addressed in a broader and more integrated manner as demand for automation and programmability grow. For those looking to concentrate in these areas, though, Cisco offers Network Programmability Design and Implementation Specialist and Cisco Network Programmability Developer Specialist certifications.

Supplementing the CCIE 

Joseph Swanson, director of technical solutions at a contractor for a large government agency and a recently re-certified CCIE himself, says the certification certainly jumps out to him when he is hiring network professionals because “90% of the work here is still traditional CCIE technology and methodology.”

“Route/switch, one of the more traditional CCIE paths, is not dead,” Swanson says. The commitment it takes to obtain a CCIE proves a candidate “has the ability to buckle down and learn something fast.”

He would like to see the certification evolve. “The current CCIE certification needs to be augmented to support more SDN and programming functions,” he says. When he reviews resumes, he looks for programming experience and if candidates know the basic structures of “if/then/what”, how to use REST APIs vs. copy and paste, and whether they can write a script and push it out from a server. He recommends network engineers learn automation programs such as Ansible, scripting languages such as Python and Perl, and data interchange languages such as XML and JSON. He also recommends network engineers become well versed in AWS and Azure.

As the cloud and virtualization overtake traditional networks, Swanson expects to see that shift in resumes as well, where experience designing a program or script will stand out more than having deployed 5,000 switches manually.

“I believe the CCIE is still extremely important and relevant for those who have it,” says Andrew Lerner, a Gartner analyst. “However, if I were to guide a network engineer starting today, I’m not sure I would point them toward any specific vendor network certification.”

Lerner wrote in January about how enterprises should look beyond network vendors for network innovation, and he says the same is true for certifications. “Established networking vendors present themselves as trusted advisors to their enterprise clients; however, they have not guided customers toward dramatic operational improvements, particularly in the data center,” he wrote.

Moving forward, he says, “the skill set networking folks will need is going to be multi-vendor, so a single-vendor certification, which crafts the world in that image, wouldn’t be my suggestion.” Instead, learning Linux inside and out would prep network professionals for automation and programmability as it is “the lowest common denominator that permeates across multiple products.” He adds that most learning is available online, including labs and study materials at low or no cost.

This new era of networking is going to depend more and more on self-taught skills, agrees Zeus Kerravala, founder and principal analyst of ZK Research. For instance, he says open-source configuration management tools like Puppet and Chef are incredibly useful for network engineers delving into orchestration. That said, he is still bullish on the benefits of a CCIE. “Until some other vendor reaches double-digit market share, network professionals should stay current on their CCIE,” he says.

Greg Ferro, founder of the Packet Pushers podcast, disagrees. He recently decided to let his CCIE lapse and says it’s “not relevant for the future I want to follow.” Like Swanson, he sees that future heading more toward AWS and Azure, as well as Google. He adds that Cisco’s skills aren’t “as portable as they once were,” citing the closed nature of Cisco’s SDN technology compared to other vendors' implementations.

Ferro calls on network engineers to learn programming and automation on their own time. “A key aspect of certification is about showing your work. There are more effective ways to do that,” Ferro says. For instance, he recommends starting a blog and sharing the results of a lab on an Ethernet Virtual Private Network or posting Python scripts on open-source software building site GitHub. All of these, in his opinion, go a long way to showing real skills rather than answering correctly the emerging technologies questions on the CCIE exam.

Murabito, meanwhile, sees value in pursuing certifications as well as bolstering emerging network skills. He has a development plan and budget in place to help his networking professionals to not only continue or obtain their CCIEs but also learn programming and automation.

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