Leadership

To be or not to be: Certification vs. experience for the network engineer

CCIE recruiter Eman Conde addresses the question of certification vs. experience for the network engineer, and more specifically, for those considering Cisco's CCIE.

My previous post in TechRepublic seemed to awaken a beast I have tempted before. The question for the ages of certification vs. non-certification, or as the famous soliloquy from Hamlet asks "To be or not to be?" As an IT professional I was asked that very question as I matched up Novel servers with Exchange servers in my networks. Why didn't I do as several of my peers had done -- studied for and achieved certifications? I was working on these servers day in and day out so I had proven my proficiency well enough to rise to supervisor and then manager, so why didn't I slow down and certify? Well frankly, I did not feel I needed to. So which was more important to me at the time -- experience or certification?

Fast forward to 2010 and the question still begs to be answered from a CCIE perspective. The earliest CCIEs made their mark on the CCIE lab because they had experience. So there was no CCIE certification without experience back then. At one point the CCIE lab went from two days to one day. Then there began a proliferation of materials to help you pass the written and the lab exams. Consequently, I have interviewed many CCIEs and network engineers -- literally hundreds over the past five years. I have to admit that not all CCIEs are created equal! There are many who really need the experience before they can pass an employment interview after the lab. So I will have to vote on the side of experience, up to a certain point. You see I am still bound to an agreement to recruit CCIEs for Cisco Channel Partners. This is one reason I am the only Cisco authorized CCIE recruiter promoted by the worldwide channels. So I look for CCIEs specifically. There are still those roles where the certification is not sought out, but remember, is the CCIE number when associated with a Cisco reseller is what qualifies them for reseller certifications. Thus begins the argument about the value of the certification.

You gotta walk the walk

The fact is that there are plenty of network engineers who do not or will not pursue certification. When I was managing the TAC for Bell Atlantic Network Integration (BANI) back in the 1990s, I had very good team of network engineers who were the equal of the CCIEs we had on staff. We had a blended need, which is unusual in this industry, and in order to take advantage of the reseller discounts, being a Gold partner helped. With that being said, here's my definitive answer, albeit a long one.

Experience is more important than certification if you do not work for a Cisco reseller and if your position does not call for a certification. Yet I have seen many CCIEs who could not win a technical interview because their certification was not backed up by deep enough experience. Troubleshooting is a skill learned on the job, not out of books, and this was a hard-won fact for the some. The many want ads you see from non-channel resellers asking for CCIEs, from my observations, stems from a need to briefly describe what kind of skills they need. Rather than create a detailed job description you read, "Wanted CCIE voice." Rather than to create a job description based upon a need, it is simpler to assume the certified networker comes equipped with the skills because of the certification. I used that CCIE Voice role as an example because time and time again I see this very kind of requirement even from Cisco resellers. They are asking for the certification instead of the skill, even though according to Cisco's last published figures released in March, there were only 1,201 CCIE Voice-certified people in the whole world!

From a personal value perspective, whatever your professional goals are in life, you gotta walk the walk. Experience will trump certification every time because the wisdom of the time spent on the job is unequaled. Classrooms are filled with the future unemployed or underemployed. The enterprise was built on the backs of people who live and breathe the technology every day. But in the end which is more important to you? After all, "That is the question", right?

About

Emmanuel Conde has the distinction of being the only CCIE recruiter promoted by World Wide Channels of Cisco Systems.

19 comments
fred64
fred64

Experience and work record are the real indicators of good tech. Certification is not an indicator of technical prowess, rather of individual effort. That is not to say a certified tech will not be good, it is to say experience teaches more than any classroom or lab, and how well you do in the real world is the proof -- certified or not. Unfortunately, the folks in the HR department have no clue as to how to sift good experienced techs from the bad, so they use certifications as the entry ticket.

savedad
savedad

I was out-sourced in Feb. and having been in IT for almost 25 years, I'm not guaranteed immediate employment, so I've taken it upon myself to go after some certifications. I started with the original PC, and have grown as the industry has, including Windows NT all the way up to Server 2008... from Windows 286 up to Windows 7! I have trained newbie MCSE's because they didn't know what a server looked like! They had their paper, but in practical practice they didn't know squat! However, almost every position posted... even entry-level, want certifications, so that's what I need to do!

mtaylor619
mtaylor619

It is not uncommon for 'experience' to consist of five years resetting passwords, which is really two weeks of experience x 125. What certifications do is expose you to the larger picture by forcing you into a disciplined learning mode. If you move into the experience phase with some idea about the subject you will become better than someone who has the tunnel vision of their particular specialty.

jred
jred

I've always avoided certs, simply because I've met way too many certified dumb@#$'s. Now, finally, after nearly 20 years of network experience, I've decided to go back to school and get my certs... As a veterinarian...

Craig_B
Craig_B

From my perspective, it seems that certifications get you the interview. Most places simply use certifications as another filter on the many job applications they receive. Once you get the interview based on certifications, you need the experience to back up and answer the technical questions to get the job.

QAonCall
QAonCall

but it seems you have either a straw man argument or one of the many other fallacies. I have rarely (maybe ever) seen a posting that indicated support for 'paper' . I acquire certifications to demonstrate to my clients and potential clients a 1) standard knowledge set 2) Professional proficiency 3) Selling points for my business In any and all certification I have or maintain, I always have the underlying skills to do the work. However, in the real world, certifications to provide an arbitrary yardstick for clients to use in a given knowledge space are an excellent way to separate. The conversations I have seen on the board here generally center around is it better to: 1) Have certs or degrees 2) Have certs or not 3) Get a specific cert For my part, I could never provide a cert to demonstrate my years of experience, however, if they allow a potential client to quickly assess a specific or broad set of skills, and that gets the interview, then they have been good investments to me.

CCIE Agent
CCIE Agent

I know this sounds like tooting my own horn and for that I apologize now... A good career advocate, like a specialized recruiter can help you open the door. If the advocate has a vendor agreement with a company and a good reputation with that employer then you might be able to get around the less qualified HR person who first reads your resume. Because on-line resume submissions are a beast, the HR person really cannot help but take a few shortcuts in determining which resumes to send to the hiring manager. I have learned that this industry I work in needed this kind of advocacy and so it has been very good for my network of CCIEs and network engineers. Not all recruiters or headhunters have the skills to sell a good candidate if the candidate does not have certifications. Test drive your advocate, recruiter, headhunter, career agent or whatever term we might be using at the time, but do diligence is the rule of the day. Ask about fees and their record with any company they are sending your resume to. My point is we cannot blame the HR person there are so many resumes to sort through especially during harsh economic times so a short cut like only reading the resumes of people with certifications is a harsh reality. Do your job by treating a job search like a job and people like me can do ours!

sleech
sleech

From my POV, certs are good early on in your career to prove you know what you say. By the time you've been here as long as I have (18 years), you should have developed a body of work known to enough people that certs aren't an issue. The dimension that appears to be missing from the conversation is people management. While contracting, I make sure I keep in touch with former employers, some former team colleagues and a couple of trusted recruiters. They know me, know my skills and what I've done. It's these guys who land me my next role.

CCIE Agent
CCIE Agent

and you thought I was not reading these? I know of a pair of CCIEs who own a gas station.

alex.ramirez
alex.ramirez

I've been in IT for the past 10 years. In my experience, the only reason I landed the first internship in IT was because I had certifications. Now after being in IT for so long I've got over 7 certifications. What you learn in text books do translate on your proficiency on the job, that's a fact!

bob
bob

I learned servers and networking on the job, but when the company I worked for went under, I found HR departments wanted certs to even talk to you. And then the IT dept will interview you and find out if you know what you are talking about. Eventually my experience did get me a job. (while I was working on the certs!) I now have them and I feel much more comforable job hunting. And I will say this for the classes. Experience gives you a breath of knowledge, but not always a complete picture. The classes helped fill in the gaps of stuff I never "learned on the job."

lmalhoit
lmalhoit

It seems like everyone argues on one side or the other. The best solution is to have both!

CCIE Agent
CCIE Agent

My intent was to circle back to the quandary of cert or no cert. Speaking with many certification focussed clients I find it easy to simply tell folks they need a certification but that seems to leave out the many more network engineers I know who are very good and earn a tidy living without a CCIE number. Today the shortcut employers use is the certification as a litmus test and often I think it is just easier to eliminate candidates and make their work easier. Who can blame us as recruiters we get a lot of submissions and few are ever even qualified for the postings we make.

CCIE Agent
CCIE Agent

You are so right. For those of us with some mileage the reputation and body of work are what speaks for us. Our network has developed the word on us while continuing contributions extend the legend. With an IT career that stretches back to 1974 I have managed to earn the value of a certificationless professional history. Still those neophytes who wish to break in will need to get a certification to open doors as they try to build their own legends.

jred
jred

I thought about that, too, but I like animals more than people...

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

If your trying to get started or return to IT, experience comes second to certs. The further away your last IT position gets on the resume, the harder the job hunt becomes. The trick is having experience to back up your certs though. The paper should be an indication of experience already obtained rather than an exam you read a book for and wrote last week. The market being flooded with paper certs is what really makes a mess of things.

SysAdminII
SysAdminII

I have to agree with lmalhoit. I have been studying for the CCNA and want to work as a Network Admin. But the company I work for won't even consider me unless I have a cert to get me in the door. Time and time again you run up against the obstacle....if you dont have the experience we won't hire you for the job...but it you can't find some place that will allow you to gain the experience then how do you ever get to apply for the job. The next best alternative is to get the certification and then 'maybe' someone will give you the opportunity to gain the experience. I can work in a lab environment all my life, but that is not like working in a actually corporate network environment troubleshooting errors daily.

dapper_dz
dapper_dz

When we look at the meaning of qualified in IT what are looking at really. Qualified to do specific task or having knowledge of a specific task. So when you employ people, what do you look for? Most certified people have broad knowledge on IT, but are not skilled in all areas of IT. Because of the obvious steep learning curve for the newcomer, the experience IT pros tend to learn quicker and adapt in a work environment. Getting Certified is a good way of getting your foot in the door, with the hope that you will get the necessary experience to move forward to be really "qualified". So who is really qualified!?

CCIE Agent
CCIE Agent

Experience and certification are a recruiter's dream. They are a welcome pair!

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