Wrapping up the Debate

Wendell Odom
By Wendell Odom October 16, 2014 09:05

What do you want to be when you grow up? Can you picture it? Close your eyes. Now give your mental self a super-hero kind of outfit. What’s emblazoned on your shirt? What job roles do you think you’d like? What technology do you think you’d like to work with?

In the past, most networkers put some cert letters or logo on their mental super-hero selfie. However, I think that the changes in the networking industry mean that we need to pay a little more attention to building that future self-image through better professional development planning. Those plans help try and reach that ideal image of where we want to be in our careers – and how we go about planning our own development has to change along with the rapid changes in the networking industry.

Wrapping the Series

This really will be the last in this series, with posts related somehow to our Interop debate about traditional certs vs. SDN skills development. Here’s a list of the other posts in the series:


Backdrop: Career Development Plan

Of all the things that rattled around my brain surrounding this most recent topic (traditional certs vs. SDN skills), I picked one major theme for this wrap-up post: development planning. I could have taken this discussion in a lot of directions, but it’s the one topic that keeps coming to mind. So I’ll spend all of this lengthy post exploring why I believe we need to be better than ever at planning for future skills, and executing on that plan.

I believe that your own professional development plan as a networker needs to change from the typical planning in years past. That of course begs other questions, including: what does your career development plan look like now?

As an aside, I do believe that anything as important as your career deserves some planning, with written details, and with regular review. Planning certainly helps us study for a certification exam – a relatively objective process – so planning for the less predictable career can be of even more benefit.

So, for perspective: do you have a written plan? By plan, I mean any document that lists goals, and possibly timelines, courses to take, skills to obtain, certifications to pass, and so on. It could be part of your performance planning with your boss or a separate document.

Seemed like a good place for a poll. So, answer the poll, share it around, and we’ll see what kind of numbers we get with this informal poll.


Why Development Plans Must Change due to Changes in Networking

Three big factors – all positive – have resulted in some negatives for we networkers today. Figure 1 sums up the points, which I’ll break down following the Figure.


Figure 1: Analysis of Cisco Certifications’ Effects on Development Planning


Cisco Career Certification Success

Cisco creates two major branches of certifications: career certifications and specialist certifications. Career certifications include the familiar CCNA, CCNP, and CCIE certifications. Cisco’s career certifications have been highly successful – easily the most successful networking certification program by far. Cisco now has a wide array of networking technology tracks with a full CCNA, CCNP, and CCIE path, including routing+switching, voice, security, and data center, to name a few.


Figure 2: Cisco’s Career Certifications

That success gives new networkers a chance to view those certifications as a series of ladders to climb – basically a simple formula for their own career development. That’s been generally very positive for the industry, for those looking to get into networking, for those working in Cisco shops, and those who just need direction about what to learn.


Career Certs: Established Tech Only

Normally, Cisco puts new emerging technology into specialist certifications, and established technology into career certifications. Basically, the process runs something like this:

  1. A new technology emerges, and Cisco begins creating products.
  2. Cisco builds specialist certifications to assess Channel Partner (reseller) skills for those new technologies.
  3. Over time, some technologies mature.
  4. Once the technology is more established, Cisco includes that technology in existing or newly created career certifications.

As an example, Cisco bought a company named Selsius Systems, which was an early innovator in IP Telephony, back in 1998. That purchase helped kick-start Cisco’s entry into IP Telephony. Cisco created the first career certification related to voice 5 years later (CCIE Voice, 2003), and added CCNP Voice in 2005. So, from the time Cisco entered the market, until they had both a CCNP and CCIE with IP telephony in it, was roughly 7 years.

Here in later 2014, we’re somewhere in year 1 of Cisco’s specialist certs related to SDN. So it’s no surprise that the career certifications at this point have no hint of SDN topics. One day? Certainly. But not today.

By the way, Cisco has helped us all by keeping only established tech in the career certifications. If they instead tried to keep emerging tech in each certification, Cisco would likely revise the certs much more frequently. Frequent revisions make it much harder to study for the more challenging exams, particularly for CCIE.


Networking has been Changing Slowly for the Last 15 Years

Don’t get me wrong, even from the title of this section. Networking has continued to change. However, the pace of change has been slow compared to some other parts of IT. Certainly IP routing and Ethernet switching remain much the same. And much of the change isn’t change per se, but addition. After routed IP networks became the norm, we moved everything possible to IP: enterprise voice, video, and storage, migrated carrier infrastructures to IP, and beneath it all, it’s the same old IP routing and Ethernet switching.

The user interface hasn’t changed much, either. While many graphical interfaces exist for configuring and managing networking devices, many network engineers still rely on the CLI. The Cisco certifications teach CLI. For perspective, I started writing the first Cisco Press cert guide (for the first CCNA exam) back in 1998. It included details of how to access a router and switch CLI, how to configure passwords, IP addresses, and routing protocols. The current editions (7th editions, published in 2013) have those exact same topics, and many of the exact same CLI commands.


Conclusions: Difficult to Plan Your Development Today

All those good things about Cisco certifications unfortunately cause difficultly with the quickly changing networking landscape today. It’s like we’ve all gotten used to running marathons, and now we’re playing tag in the yard with a bunch of youngsters. We can keep doing the same things, at the same pace, but to win at tag, you have to juke and jive, fake and reverse, sprint-rest-try again.

Figure 3: Reminder of the Main Three Points


For instance, Cisco great success in career certification means that many of us use their certifications as our only development plan. That worked well for the environment of the previous 10-15 years, where some technologies remained stable, while we kept adding on top of the existing technologies. Today, networking requires much broader skills outside of networking. Additionally, SDN changes how forwarding occurs, and gives us many more possibilities for what the network can do – all exciting, but all requiring new skills

By focusing on established technology, Cisco does us the favor of preparing us for today’s jobs. However, those same stable certifications – right now at least – include little or nothing about DevOps, Cloud, SDN, and the like. If you like using certifications to help guide your development, the “where do I want to be in 5 years” part of your plan needs to consider what that new world will look like, and what you can do today – and your plan can and should include a much wider combination of skills. (Check out all the emerging SDN certifications, including Cisco’s “network programmability” specialist certs.)

Finally, I think it’s worth the time and effort for all of us to take ownership of our careers, do some planning, and review it. Think about the skills you want to have for X years down the road. Make a plan if you don’t have one already. Look at that plan regularly, and adjust it. Monthly review is not too often, even if you just confirm that you’re on track.

The Cisco Network Programmability (SDN) Intro Course
Learn SDN or Go for Traditional Cisco Certs?
Wendell Odom
By Wendell Odom October 16, 2014 09:05
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