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?