In a post which now appears to have been deleted, Greg Ferro got right to the point in his article Response: Certifications Are Not A Big Deal. Stop Being a Princess About It. The majority of this (my) response was written while Greg’s post was still active, but I had to come back and inject more context after I spotted on June 30, 2019 that the post had become unavailable.
To save you digging in the WayBackMachine, the history to Greg’s post as I understand it is that Greg made some comments in Episode 238 of the Packet Pushers’ Network Break suggesting that vendor certifications were trivial. A listener evidently gave some strong feed back disagreeing with this, and so in Episode 239 of the Packet Pushers’ Network Break Greg responded to that feedback, and reiterated his position about certification study, specifically framed around Cisco’s CCNP. Greg made some reasonable points; that the certification programs from the vendors are not designed to teach fundamentals in the same way that, say, a computer science degree might do, and that the aim is really to make money for the vendor, and reduce their tech support costs, and as such the vendor certification education programs are compromised, and that for anybody with a CS degree, vendor certifications are fairly trivial. I don’t agree with everything Greg said, but it’s a good discussion point, at least.
It seems that user “Toothy McGrin”, however, did not appreciate Greg’s attitude regarding the triviality of certifications and minimal time spent on certification training versus “real” education. I can’t find Toothy’s original comment online, but Greg quoted that he said:
CCNA/CCNP may not be a big deal in the circles you travel in, but for a lot of employees and employers they are. They still require sacrificing a lot of time that could be spent with your family or friends or just R&R after a 10 hour work day, and the vast majority are self financed.
I don’t like the angle Greg took in responding to Toothy McGrin, but it does make me think about our motivations for getting a vendor certification, regardless of how easy or difficult they might be to achieve, and what the true educational value is of the certification.
Why do we get vendor certifications in the first place?
Many vendors oblige their resellers/integrators and channel partners to have a particular number and/or level of certified droids on staff. This makes sense up to a point; after all, it’s nice for customers to think that an integrator, for example, might design, sell, install and support equipment that they actually know something about. Naturally, having a bunch of certified nerds isn’t enough, so some vendors have an additional certification program specifically aimed at sales and pre-sales, to make sure that the most
expensive appropriate devices are specified in the design.
To be fair to “Toothy McGrin”, it’s ok to whine about putting lots of effort into a cert if it’s one you are doing only because you are forced to do it if you want to keep your job.
“I’m a CCIE, so I know what I’m talking about.” Yeah, but no. As I’ve covered previously, a certification does not make your opinion any more valid than anybody else’s. In fact, to quote myself from that article:
It’s what we DO that determines our value.
It’s ok to be proud at having earned a difficult certification; in and of itself, that’s a worthy achievement. But don’t brag on it. Please don’t brag on it. I can pretty much guarantee that however good somebody thinks they are because of that certification, there are plenty of people out there without the same cert who can engineer them into a corner with one arm tied behind their back.
Note: Braggers don’t get to be Whiners.
Because It’s There
Yes, it’s the mountain-climber’s rationale. And honestly, it’s ok to collect certifications like My Coke Rewards if that gives a sense of satisfaction. That said, if that’s the motivation for certification, I’m not sure that such a person would be entitled to whine about their decision to go after a string of letters that are only used to pollute their email signature.
Becoming a Better Engineer
Stop right there. Certifications do not make you a better engineer.
Learning Stuff and Improving My Skills
There’s something here that’s valid, but there’s a complicated relationship between the process of learning things and that of taking a certification exam. I believe there’s a saying about how reaching a goal is not as important as the journey taken to get there, and the end goal of achieving a certification makes the journey somewhat tricky because it makes you learn things along the way that aren’t necessarily helpful.
Let’s be clear; rote memorization is not learning. Rote memorization will, however, likely get you through most certification exams, because most certification exams tend to focus on testing the (short-term) retention of facts. Some people find memorization easy, and such people will likely find certification exams easy. Others don’t work like that, and for them, certification exams are likely to be a real struggle.
The typical multiple-guess certification exam format is not capable of testing a candidate’s underlying understanding of a technology, and even the “simulation” questions tend to revolve around the memorization of implementation steps. Put bluntly, multiple choice exams are not good preparation for designing and operating a network, which may be why certifications like the Cisco CCIE™ and Juniper JNCIE™ have proven to be relatively highly valued (argue about this if you wish), as there’s a hands-on element to the testing.
With that said, however, candidates do have some choice about how they learn the facts that will be on the certification tests; there are decisions to be made about which route to take on their journey to certification. The fastest way to certification is to buy a certification study guide book which is focused solely on teaching the things likely to be in the test and may even provide online simulators in which the candidate can practice exam scenarios (I’m assuming that the days of including a CD with a study guide are long gone).
The slower but more effective way is to find resources which teach the protocols and technologies. Practice what is learned on real (or virtual) devices. Build networks; lots of them. When a scenario doesn’t work, troubleshooting is a superb way to find out if you’ve understood the fundamentals behind that scenario. Discuss them with other people. Try teaching the topic to somebody else, as teaching is a great way to find out what you don’t really understand.
To Make Myself More Marketable And Earn More
Well, it sure can’t hurt to have a certification on a resume. If nothing else, it may help a candidate sort higher in a pile of similar resumes. Of course, with no hands-on job experience, the resume could end up going right back down the stack, but as Greg rightly points out, lazy recruiting agents and lazy hiring managers can be a thing, and sometimes they do use certs as a way to whittle the field down before looking any further. There’s a reason that people will do anything to include the letters “CCIE” in their resume, even if they haven’t taken any concrete steps towards the cert itself.
“Toothy McGrin” makes an interesting comment about most people self-funding their certification paths. I don’t know whether Toothy (may I call you Toothy?) is correct that the majority self-fund, but I’m sure many people do. Ultimately though, it’s a means to an end, isn’t it? I mean, do people go through college and incur student loan debt just for fun? Ok, some people might, but most do it because they believe that having an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree makes them more marketable and will help them earn more. In some cases that education is the bar for entry into their chosen profession. Ironically, in networking it’s rarely necessary to have a degree in telecommunications or similar; just having a degree at all seems to be the check mark for many jobs. Either way. it would be nice to think that the investment made (in both time and money) learning networking would end up be rewarded by way of a paycheck.
Ever heard the saying that nothing worth having comes easily?
“[CCNA/CCNP] still require sacrificing a lot of time that could be spent with your family or friends or just R&R after a 10 hour work day,”
Yes, certs do require sacrifice, and if they didn’t, everybody would have them and they’d be completely meaningless (perhaps Greg would say “even more meaningless”?). But go back to the first section of this post: why does one work to attain a certification? It’s a kind of rubber stamp (or whatever perceived value) of learning. If the aim was to learn stuff and improve skills, did you use your time wisely to actually learn and practice those skills, rather than learn how to pass the test? If so, then wasn’t that sacrifice worth it? You’ll be able to prove your value much more effectively than somebody who just studied for the exam. Are you now better at your job? Are you able to make better decisions because of what you learned? Does that in itself make you worth more and more promotable? That’s the pay back. Ironically, of course, to attain the certification, You’ll still have to top up those fundamentals with a bunch of useless trivia to answer all of the questions on a certification exam, because that’s how those exams work.
As for the 10-hour work day, well, I don’t know what Toothy’s day job is; for all I know, they are working in an Amazon Fulfillment Center* to pay the bills while trying to develop their networking skills at home. I don’t think it changes the fact that any form of self-improvement takes sacrifice of some sort. Ask anybody who does body-building whether the time they spend in the gym takes them away from their family and friends, or whether they have to invest money in gym fees? I sympathize (empathize, in fact) with coming home from a long day at work, whatever that work might be, and then having to turn your brain on again in order to study. I can only suggest explaining to family and friends what you’re doing, and why, and hope that they understand and can be supportive of your goals for self-improvement.
Certifications alone mean very little, or at least they should do, but we know that some people use them as a filtering technique. Some people think that the more certifications you can cram into a resume, the better. Personally, if I see somebody with 20 certs, my gut reaction is that they are simply a good test taker and fact-memorizer, and there’s a better than average chance (based on my experience) that they’ve had relatively little hands on with the subjects of all those certifications. It’s pretty easy to weed out the test-takers at interview so long as – and this is really important – one doesn’t structure the interview just like a vendor test, asking the candidate for the kind of trivia they would memorize for a multiple choice exam. If a candidate does well at interview and demonstrates an understanding of the technologies and protocols, not just vendor exam trivia, the certs simply don’t matter.
Many companies use agencies to submit resumes for job listings, and in order to get to that interview in the first place, a resume has to somehow bubble up high enough that the agent is willing to put the candidate forward. Recruiters don’t always have the skills to speak to a candidate and judge which ones are any good (because they aren’t skilled in the technologies either) so a resume listing certifications looks like a better choice to send onward to the client. Some hiring managers (where there are direct resume submissions) also evaluate on a similar basis, as I said earlier.
And therein lies the rub. Certifications are easy to get for some, and hard to get for others, depending on whether you are a good test-taker, good at memorizing things, or good at learning fundamentals. That certification is relatively meaningless at interview but in order to get selected for interview it is necessary to have one or more certifications to raise the resume higher in the pile.
The good news is that most people are in the same boat; many of the people competing for the same jobs are also likely self-funding. The even better news is that there is more free training, documentation, guides and great information out there than ever before, and relatively easy availability of virtual devices on which to practice developing skills. That’s going to take time and sacrifice and most likely some funding which, as an investment in your career, is probably worth it.
The bottom line is that until we have a recruiting system which can filter candidates on something better than lists of certifications on resumes, certifications remain table stakes in order to get to interview. If we had a better way to rank candidates it would probably help people who have thousands of hours of hands-on skills, probably gained through that personal sacrifice. Whether one takes an exam at the end of all that hard work would becomes almost irrelevant, but it wouldn’t remove the need to work at the technology in the first place.
Are vendor certification exams easy? No, but they’re easier for some people than for others. As the “viewers” of those certifications in others, we can bear that in mind.
Should vendor certification exams be dismissed as irrelevant? No; they do prove an ability to learn some information, much as a degree shows an ability to learn some information. As I’ve said about my own CCIE™,
“A CCIE is a network engineer who knew how to answer the specific questions that were asked on the day they turned up for the written exam and the lab.”
The same applies to pretty much any other vendor cert (give or take the lab in most cases). How we choose to value that, well, that’s up to us.
Do vendor certifications require sacrifice? More than likely, yes. I think Toothy felt that Greg was mocking and dismissing the sacrifice that students of vendor certifications are making, but the more I have read Greg’s response and filtered out the hyperbole, the more I believe that Greg was reacting to the implication that making a sacrifice somehow entitles somebody to special consideration (or maybe a participation trophy) and it really doesn’t; most of us been in pretty much the same situation.
I’ve lauded Greg in the past as a champion of sharing information and of developing the networking community, and I stand by that. On the other hand, Greg’s response to Toothy McGrin was unbecoming; it seemed personal, insulting, patronizing, dismissive and uncalled for. It was certainly not in the spirit of building community, and perhaps the post’s removal was inevitable.
However, I’m not a fan of revisionist blogging and I would rather have seen an apology attached to the post than to see its removal. (Of course, maybe there was something else behind the scenes that I’m not aware of.)
Updated July 1, 2019: Credit to Greg; he posted an apology today after being offline over the weekend.
It’s easy to “zing” people – and companies – on the internet. With blogging platforms and social media, we get to publish pithy, sassy diatribes about things, created entirely without any counter-argument, and boy do they feel good at the time. But as Tom Hanks (portraying Joe Fox) so accurately said in the movie You’ve Got Mail:
Someone upsets you and instead of smiling and moving on, you zing them. “Hello, it’s Mr Nasty.” […] But then, on the other hand, I must warn you that when you finally have the pleasure of saying the thing you mean to say at the moment you mean to say it, remorse inevitably follows.
The fantastic Mr Fox has a point, and I suspect we’ve all been there at one time or another.
Toothy McGrin, hang in there, keep studying and remember that vendor certification does not equate to your ability to do the job. To be successful, you need to learn, practice and troubleshoot the fundamentals, and then the vendor-specific implementations of those will come much more easily to you over time. Plus, you’ll be a way better engineer.
6/20/3019: Edited to add: For another great perspective on this, check out the post “Arguments Gone Wrong” from @ghostinthenet. Great point of view, and good additional reading in my opinion.
7/1/2019: Edited to include a link to Greg’s apology.
* When I hear “Amazon Fulfillment Center”, somehow I always think of the “IOI Loyalty Centers” in the movie version of Ready Player One.
Leave a Reply