Network pros aiming high for industry

It’s the networking world’s answer to hockey’s Stanley Cup, to an Olympic gold medal, or to a World Series ring. And while there might not be a stadium full of fans screaming in appreciation when this triumphal summit is reached, the feeling of achievement is no different than that of a victorious athlete.

It’s the Cisco Certified Internetworking Engineer (CCIE) designation, a title that affords its holder instant respect amongst colleagues and clients, an ability to pick and choose from drooling prospective employers, and a salary that contains as many zeros as that of some pro ball players. And although other designations are becoming increasingly valuable, it’s still the CCIE that means the most to the careers of networking professionals.

Attained only after passing a rigorous pre-qualifying written exam and an even more arduous hands-on lab exam, the CCIE designation is not doled out to anyone like a free newspaper at a subway stop. A 65 per cent failure rate for first-timers is indicative of just how hard it is to get.

“These aren’t pumped-up certifications; these are pretty meaningful,” said Dan McLean, research manager, network support and integration services for IDC Canada in Toronto. “(In the) area of certification for engineers for building enterprise networks, I think that the Cisco set of certifications are probably the most renowned. They’re the most recognized.”

The benefits of a CCIE designation are numerous, McLean said.

“The CCIE opens every door imaginable. We’ve heard stories where…services companies have gotten people certified at this level and almost immediately, these people have gotten job offers, typically from [the U.S.], typically in the six-figure salary range, and it’s usually in the neighbourhood of US$200,000 a year.”

Before such champagne can be sipped from the networking Holy Grail, however, a number of enormous hurdles have to be cleared.

The road to CCIE designation begins with a two-hour multiple-choice exam administered over computers. The score needed to pass is subject to change from time to time, according to Cisco’s Web site, but participants are given the score they have to reach before taking the 100-question exam.

If this hurdle is successfully cleared, the next step is a trip to one of only 12 Cisco CCIE examination labs worldwide. Canadians usually take this two-day affair at Cisco’s sole Canadian facility, located in Halifax.

Designed to test a person’s actual ability to correct problems that may arise on a network, the exam requires that participants fix errors that an instructor injects into a test network. According to Bob Singleton, vice-president of technical operations for Cisco Systems Canada in Toronto, this hands-on element is comprised of two parts.

“In the first part, we ask you to design and build a network, and in the second, we break it and you have to fix it in a certain period of time. It’s like a real-world scenario.”

An exam-taker is usually given between 20 and 60 minutes to repair the problem, said Singleton.

“We may inject a routing error,…or if there are disconnects or loops within the routing table, you have to trace it back and find out where the disconnect is.”

Singleton admitted that the process doesn’t have much in common with a relaxing soak in a Jacuzzi.

“Like any certification (test), or any program that has a time-limit exam around it, there is a certain amount of pressure to be accurate and quick, because it’s a combination of those two things that give you your pass,” he said. “You have to get it right, but you have to get it right quickly.”

Brian Rhodes knows first-hand the pressure of which Singleton speaks. A holder of the CCIE designation since 1996, Rhodes is today a technology integration advisor for Bell Canada in Toronto. He’s responsible for helping Bell clients build out existing Cisco-based networks and to help others build them from the ground up. Back in 1996, however, Rhodes was merely one of five nervous candidates sitting in a bleak room at Cisco’s headquarters in San Jose, Calif. waiting to take his hands-on exam.

“I particularly remember when we arrived at the… training location, there were people coming in to attend sort of regular courses as well,” said Rhodes. “When you said you were for the CCIE exam, they would tell you to sit down at this table. I can remember sitting there and watching all these other people coming and going…and all of a sudden everything was quiet and we were the only people left. You could see everybody was a little bit nervous, nobody really wanted to talk to one another, and then all of a sudden this guy comes in and takes us to the lab.”

According to Singleton, the CCIE exam isn’t for networking rookies.

“[The CCIE is] designed for people who have been in the industry and have specifically worked on large networks,” he said. “You have to be very comfortable with the configuration command of some of our hardware and software and specifically you have to be comfortable with the IOS (Internetwork Operation System) because that is the heart and soul of our technology.”

The IOS is software module that runs on all of Cisco’s products that enables the different protocols and hardware work together.

Most CCIE tryouts are sent by their employers, and with a cost of US$1,250 per student, it’s not hard to see why there are few independent participants. IDC’s McLean added that many companies will not even entertain the thought of sending their employees for fear that bigger firms will come along and snap them up.

“The trouble is that these people can be quite difficult to retain because they’re in such demand,” he said. “We’ve heard of companies that say, ‘We’re not even going to do this because we’re afraid of losing these people, that we don’t want to make the investment because we don’t think we can afford to keep them.'”

By no means does Cisco have a monopoly on weight- carrying networking designations, however. Although it does not involve a hands-on component, Microsoft’s Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) and MCSE + Internet designations are rising in importance, mainly because there are so many Microsoft systems out there to mange.

“I deal a lot with (people in) higher education and I tell them all the time that if they are not teaching a Windows component to their students, they are doing their students a disservice because there are very few businesses out there who aren’t running a Windows component,” said Elizebeth Moyer, an education program manager for Microsoft Canada in Toronto. “I’m not going to say they aren’t running my competitors’ stuff as well, … (but) they really do need that Windows component, at least a flavour of it, to be ready for the workplace, if they want to be a serious network person.”

Rhodes agreed.

“It is the pervasiveness of the Microsoft operating system,” he said. “I have no plans to get another designation yet, but if I do another one it would be the MCSE.”

What advice does Rhodes have for those looking to embark on the road to CCIE certification? Take advantage of CCIE preparation courses now being offered by many companies.

“It will take a lot of the surprise out of what hits you when you get there,” he said.