Rehashing Certifications

While at Cisco Live in Barcelona this week, I had a chat with someone—I don’t remember who—about certifications. The main point that came out of the conversation was this:

One of the big dangers with chasing a certification is you will end up chasing knowledge about using a particular vendor feature set, rather than chasing knowledge about a technology.

At some point I’m going to edit a post a video short on engineering versus meta-engineering (no, it won’t be next week), but the danger is real. For instance, in an article I’ve had in my bookmarks pile for a long while, the author says—

My boss advised me that getting my WPCE (WordPerfect Certified Resource) cert would accomplish two things: 1. It would establish my credibility as a trainer; and 2. If I didn’t know a feature before the test, I sure as heck would afterward.

I’m not going to name the author, because this is his description of thinking through a certification many years ago, rather than his current thinking on certifications—but the example is telling. I know a lot of folks studying for certifications. They mostly spend their time labbing up various protocols and… features. The temptation to focus on features is real because—

  • The test is going to test you on features
  • Learning the features is the fastest way to pass the test

This might sound like a replication, but many certification tests place the candidate on a very tight time leash, which means fast is important. When fast is important, you don’t have time to look up features, or study your options.

So what should we do about all of this?

First, not much can be done. I don’t really know how you write a certification that does not allow someone who has memorized the feature guide to do well. How do you test for protocol theory, and still have a broad enough set of test questions that they cannot be photographed and distributed? The problems here are not as simple as they first seem. The CCDE, I think, comes as close as any test I’ve been involved in to testing theory and concepts, rather than features.

Second, this is why I argue you should get a few certifications, and then go get a college degree. The degree might teach you things you don’t ever think you will need—but this fails to understand the point of a degree. Degree programs should not be designed like a vocational school. They should not be about learning the latest language, but rather about writing skills, thinking skills, and programming skills (in general). A good argument can still be made for a Masters Degree in Computer Science.

Finally, you will get out of certifications what you put into them. If you focus on the features, then you are going to learn the features just fine. If you do this, though, each time a new box comes out your certification will lose a little more value.

Certifications are good, when used right. They can also be “bad,” when used poorly. It’s worth thinking about.

Master of None

Should you be a johnny do-it-all, or so deep that no-one understands what you are saying? It’s time to talk about the shape of knowledge—and how important it is to be intentional about the shape of your knowledge.

Overvaluing Experience

“Sure, great candidate—so long as you just look at the paper. They don’t have any experience.

I wonder how many times I’ve heard this in my networking career—I wonder how many times this has been said about me, in fact, after I’ve walked out of an interview room. We all know the tale of the paper tigers. And we all know how hard it is to land a position without experience, and how hard it is to get experience without landing a job (I have a friend in just this position right now, in fact). But let me tell you a story…

I don’t fish any longer, but I used to fish quite a bit—with my Grandfather. Now, like most Grandfathers, mine was not ordinary. He was, in fact, a County Agent, working for the US Forestry Service. This meant he spent his time blasting ponds, helping farmers figure out how to increase yield on their fields, and growing all sort of odd new types of things on his small plot of land. He also had mules (I’ll tell you about the mules some time later, I’m certain), and an old Forestry Green pickup truck.

Anyway, to return to fishing… He was absolutely no fun to fish with. He would sit down in the chair, cast in, and catch his limit before you could get your first fish on the line. I spent years trying to figure this out. All anyone in my family would tell me was he was a really, really, experience fisherman. I never quite believed this. He would say, “cast in just over there,” and you’d have a hook. Cast anyplace else, and you’d sit there for hours, waiting. I know a lot of experienced fishermen, but his “experience” was something else. In fact, if you ever go out on a lake with a professional or semi-professional fisher-person, you’re going to feel the same way. There’s not just “luck,” and there’s not just “you can case faster and farther than I can.”

Finally, one day I broke down and asked him directly about his fishing abilities. As it turns out, my Grandfather either knew the lay of the land under every lake in the area because he was there before the lake was dammed, or he had actually had a hand in blasting and damming it. In other words, he knew the bottom, the currents, the structure, and all the rest. In the same way, a modern fisher-person will spend hours looking over a map, running around a lake looking at the water temperature in various places, and recording sonar charts to figure out the structure that lays on the bottom of the lake.

Of course, experience matters in fishing. But so does knowledge. And, come to that, so does theory. It’s fine if you have experience fishing, if you don’t know the lake, then you’re not going to get anything on your hook. It’s fine if you know the structure of the lake, but if you don’t understand the way fish act, then you’re still not going to get anything on your hook.

The truth is that it takes all three—experience, knowledge, and theory—to hook a fish. And what’s true of hooking a fish is also true of building a network, or troubleshooting a network, or just about anything else in life. As W. Edwards Deming said—

Experience by itself teaches nothing…Without theory, experience has no meaning. Without theory, one has no questions to ask. Hence without theory there is no learning.

Learn theory, and ask about theory. All the experience in the world isn’t going to teach you anything unless you have a framework from within to ask questions.