I’ve been called certifiable before – a sysadmin’s developing thoughts on certification

I’ve been a system administrator in some form or another since, I suppose, Summer 1988 when I provided ad hoc support for the RSTS/11 system at my college. I made a few bucks doing it as a lab assistant for two years, but I was probably too much of a proto-BOFH to stay on the payroll. I still fielded more questions than most of the lab assistants, and it prepared me moderately well for the following 25 years of user, system, and platform support.

One thing I’ve rarely ever done is get formally trained, or even less often, certified in a technology. I was three classes short of a computer science undergrad major just for fun, which should tell you I’m certifiable (didn’t take RPG, COBOL, or Calculus, but I did a bit of recreational Discrete Mathematics and two doses of Machine Structures).

Around the turn of the century, I took the Legato Certified Administrator (Data Protection) class and exam, and got certified on a technology I’d been deploying and managing for a few years at the time. In 2010 I took the Cloudera Hadoop Administrator course. I almost passed the certification exam then, but didn’t have time to go back and retake it before the retake offer expired. And that’s the extent of my formal training to date.

So what’s changed now?

Having been welcomed into the communities around Cisco’s datacenter technology and VMware’s virtualization platforms, I’m feeling an unnatural desire to work toward certifications in both of those areas. I have the 200-120 box set for CCNA Routing & Switching, although I’ve been leaning toward the datacenter path. I’m still trying to figure out what path to take with VMware, but we’ll have to see.

I was reading the Cisco Learning Network post “6 Reasons Employers Value Cisco Certifications” and it made me think about my aversion to certification over the last few years. So what’s wrong with certification, and what might be right about it?

What could possibly go wrong?

For one, some people collect certifications the way I collect old computers and soho routers. The cert may be representative of being able to complete a vendor’s exam, but may not reflect feet-on-the-ground (or hands-on-the-keyboard) skills, much less big picture architectural thinking. This was common when we were searching for a full year for a network admin at one job a few years back. No matter how many network certs you have, if you can’t at least give a shot to explaining subnetting, you’re probably not ready for the real world.

Another issue is that most certifications are vendor-specific, and may impart an undue bias toward that vendor over others. I’d like to think this isn’t the case, and a truly good network administrator/architect would know a broad swath of the market and be able to fit technology to an identified and triaged problem/business need, rather than trying to squeeze the business need into a given technology.

But what’s right?

For one, there are different skill levels and foci, and tiered/niched certifications can give a hint as to what level someone is. If I come in to an interview with a CCNA R&S, for example, I probably won’t be asked to provide in-depth explanations of SS7 or 802.11ac. There will always be bad interviewers, like the guy a few years ago who wanted me to explain in depth how BGP worked, after I had said twice that I wasn’t a network engineer and had only worked on LANs. So this isn’t foolproof on either end.

More important to me, now that I’m thinking about the process, is that pursuing a certification gives you a roadmap to study and prepare, and a somewhat finite goal to achieve. I never learned Perl because I didn’t really have a scope or a fixed goal. Making a personal goal to “learn me some networking,” alas, probably won’t get me anywhere.

Having a goal to, say, “take the CCNA DC exam at Cisco Live in May” gives me a framework and a finite goal. I can set aside time every week, study some of the Cisco Learning Network materials, watch some Pluralsight programs with Chris Wahl, and have a fixed time frame for preparation for the exam.

So where do we go from here?

For one, I think that box set of the 200-120 CCNA R&S library will probably sit in the closet for a few more months. It was on sale with an extra coupon at Barnes and Noble last summer, so I don’t feel too bad about it.

I will be plotting out my Cisco Certification Written Exam at Cisco Live in May, as hinted above. I blew off the free exam last year, which was probably good considering I’d had Tech Field Day 9 the week before (Tech Field Day events are great for scrambling the brain, and the 90-100F temperatures were leaning toward poaching my brain along with it).

I’m going to get more involved with Cisco Learning Network, as I’m sure Matt Saunders won’t let me slip on this. Hopefully some of my fellow Cisco Champions will cheer, jeer, prod, or otherwise support me on the journey as well.

And I’ll be sure to share my adventure with you fine readers… feel free to poke at me here if you have suggestions or haven’t heard from me on the certification path in a while.

Do share any certification feedback, suggestions for me, or warnings for other readers… in the comments below.