At what point in your career do you stop working towards new certifications?

Daniel Dibb’s recent post on his blog is, I think, an excellent starting point, but I wanted to add a few additional thoughts to the answer he gives there.

Daniel’s first question is how do you learn? Certifications often represent a body of knowledge people who have a lot of experience believe is important, so they often represent a good guided path to holistically approaching a new body of knowledge. In the professional learning world this would be called a ready-made mental map. There is a counterargument here—certifications are often created by vendors as a marketing tool, rather than as something purely designed for the betterment of the community, or the dissemination of knowledge. This doesn’t mean, however, that certifications are “evil.” It just means you need to evaluate each certification on its own merits.

As an aside, I’ve been trying to start a non-vendor-specific certification for the last two years but have been struggling to find a group of people with the energy and excitement required to make it happen. To some degree, the reason certifications are vendor-based is because we, as a community, don’t do a good job at building them.

The second series of questions relate to your position—would a certification give you a bonus, help you get a new position, or give credibility to the company you work for? These are all valid questions requiring self-reflection around what you hope to achieve materially by working through the certification.

The final set of questions Daniel poses relate to whether a certification would give you what might be called authority in the network engineering world. Certifications, seen in this way, are a form of transitive trust. There are two components here—the certification blueprint tells you about the body of knowledge, and the certifying authority tells you about the credibility of the process. Given these two things, someone with a certification is saying “someone you trust has said I have this knowledge, so you should trust I have this knowledge as well.” The certification acts as a transit between you and the certified person, transferring some amount of your trust in the certifying organization to the person you are talking to.

There are other ways to build this kind of trust, of course. For instance, if you blog, or run a podcast, or are a frequent guest contributor, or have a lot of code on git, or have written some books, etc. In these cases, the trust is no longer transitive but direct—you can see a person has a body of knowledge because they have (at least to some degree) exposed that knowledge publicly.

All of these reasons are fine and good—but I think there is another point to think about in this discussion: what are you saying to the community? Once you stop “doing” certifications, you can be saying one of two things. The first is certifications are useless. If all the reasons for getting a certification above are true, then telling someone “certifications are useless” is not a good thing. Those who don’t care about certifications should rather take the position first, do no harm.

A stronger position would be to carefully evaluate existing certifications and help guide folks desiring a certification down a good path rather than a bad one. Which certifications are primarily vendor marketing programs? Which are technically sound? If you are at the point where you are no longer going to pursue certifications, these are questions you should be able to answer.

An even stronger position would be—if you’re at the point where you do not think you need to be certified, where you have a “body of knowledge” that allows people to directly trust your work, then perhaps you should also be at a point where you are helping guide the development of certifications in some way.

Certifications—whether to get them or not, and when to stop caring about them—are rather more nuanced than many in the networking world make out. There are valid reasons for, and valid reasons against—and in general, I think we need to do better a developing and policing certifications in order to build a stronger community.

Over at the ECI blog, Jonathan Homa has a nice article about the importance of network planning–

In the classic movie, The Graduate (1967), the protagonist is advised on career choices, “In one word – plastics.” If you were asked by a young person today, graduating with an engineering or similar degree about a career choice in telecommunications, would you think of responding, “network planning”? Well, probably not.

Jonathan describes why this is so–traffic is constantly increasing, and the choice of tools we have to support the traffic loads of today and tomorrow can be classified in two ways: slim and none (as I remember a weather forecaster saying when I “wore a younger man’s shoes”). The problem, however, is not just tools. The network is increasingly seen as a commodity, “pure bandwidth that should be replaceable like memory,” made up of entirely interchangeable parts and pieces, primarily driven by the cost to move a bit across a given distance.

This situation is driving several different reactions in the network engineering world, none of which are really healthy. There is a sense of resignation among people who work on networks. If commodities are driven by price, then the entire life of a network operator or engineer is driven by speed, and speed alone. All that matters is how you can build ever larger networks with ever fewer people–so long as you get the bandwidth you need, nothing else matters.

This is compounded by a simple reality–network world has driven itself into the corner of focusing on the appliance–the entire network is appliances running customized software, with little thought about the entire system. Regardless of whether this is because of the way we educate engineers through our college programs and our certifications, this is the reality on the ground level of network engineering. When your skill set is primarily built around configuring and managing appliances, and the world is increasingly making those appliances into commodities, you find yourself in a rather depressing place.

Further, there is a belief that there is no more real innovation to be had–the end of the road is nigh, and things are going to look pretty much like they look right now for the rest of … well, forever.

I want you, as a network engineer, operator, or whatever you call yourself, to look these beliefs in the eye and call them what they are: nonsense on stilts.

The real situation is this: the current “networking industry,” such as it is, has backed itself into a corner. The emphasis on planning Jonathan brings out is valid, but it is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. There is a hint in this direction in Jonathan’s article in the list of suggestions (or requirements). Thinking across layers, thinking about failure, continuous optimization… these are all… system level thinking, To put this another way, a railway boxcar might be a commodity, but the railroad system is not. The individual over-the-road truck might be a commodity, and the individual road might not be all that remarkable, but the road system is definitely not a commodity.

The sooner we start thinking outside the appliance as network engineers or operators (or whatever you call yourself), the sooner we will start adding value to the business. This means thinking about algorithms, protocols, and systems–all that “theory stuff” we typically decry as being less than usefl–rather than how to configure x on device y. This means thinking about security across the network, rather than as how you configure a firewall. This means thinking about the tradeoffs with implementing security, including what systemic risk looks like, and when the risks are acceptable when trying to accomplish as specific goal, rather than thinking about how to route traffic through a firewall.

If demand is growing, why is the networking world such a depressing place right now? Why do I see lots of people saying things like “there will be no network engineers in enterprises in five years?” Rather than blaming the world, maybe we should start looking at how we are trying to solve the problems in front of us.

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.