There was a time when I could speak Spanish well. In order to get my bachelor's degree I needed to fulfil a language requirement. So one summer I took an intensive Spanish course. The teachers were native Spanish speakers, and the classes were conducted entirely in Spanish. By being immersed in Spanish four hours a day, five days a week, I quickly learnt to speak the language - maybe not fluently, but well enough to understand and be understood by native Spanish speakers.
Then I got my degree, went to work and never spoke Spanish again. Put me in a Spanish-speaking country today, and I will be totally lost.
My experience with Spanish is analogous to what is happening to many people today who are seeking the quick route to gaining an industry certification. There are boot camps that advertise how you can become a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) or Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) in two weeks. Book shops carry various books on how to cram for the exams. The idea is to become certified as quickly as possible.
And why not? Surveys have shown that people who have an MCSE or a CCNA get more job offers and better salaries. But as I found with Spanish, the problem is if you don't use the knowledge, you lose it.
I have Certified Novell Engineer, Cisco Certified Design Associate and CCNA certifications. Yet I'm not a network engineer: I'm a manager. By attaining these certifications, I have gained the knowledge I need to understand the technical issues of networking and talk to my employees at a technical level. But I'm not a network engineer. If you see me in front of a terminal configuring a router, you'd better run for help.
If you see me studying a detailed network design, you'd better check my eyes because they are probably glazed over.
Cramming for a test or completing a two-week boot camp does not make a network engineer. What makes a network engineer is experience - experience that comes from late nights of staring at a terminal wondering why that new remote router doesn't respond to a ping. Experience that comes from having the manager, director and vice president of operations staring over your shoulder while you're trying to figure out why the network response time just bit the dust. Experience that comes from hopping on a plane at a moment's notice with a laptop, duffle bag and tool kit to bring up that new location.
I have nothing against industry certification. The knowledge that is gained from studying for any certification is valuable. But you can't stop with certification. Today, the MCSE or CCNA is equivalent to a bachelor's degree - it's an entry point into the technical arena, a way to quickly gain the basic knowledge and skills needed to do the job. But passing a test does not make a person an experienced engineer.
You have to take that basic knowledge, use it and keep it up to date.
* Chuck Yoke is an IS manager in the US. Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com