2011 – Looking Forward

I almost wrote an end-of-year recap for this particular blog post.  I thought back to all of the things I’d accomplished over the past year.  It didn’t take me long to realize that I didn’t really keep track of them as well as I should.  The other thing that changed my mind was Greg’s great post about looking forward.  I’ve only been blogging for about 3 months.  I’ve really only had an online presence for about half the year.  So recapping what I’ve done wouldn’t really do much to help me take stock of what’s been going on.  But I’ve been trying to codify some things that I’m looking forward to in 2011 and I thought that putting them down in print would be a great way to make me own up to them.  So, without further ado, here’s what I’m looking forward to for the next 365 days.

1.  Passing the CCIE R&S lab. We are quickly getting to put-up or shut-up time when it comes to my CCIE lab.  I know that I’ve only failed when I decide to quit trying, but the trying is really starting to smart.  I’m in a unique position amongst some of my peers, in that my employer has been very gracious in allowing me to keep attempting the lab.  But I’m starting to feel like I’m imposing on their goodwill.  I’m starting to see a lot of RFPs being released that are requiring CCIE credentials to design what are essentially enhanced layer 2 networks.  I realize that these RFPs have been crafted in some degree to lock my employer out of consideration in the bidding process.  My pride tells me that I want to pass the lab for no other reason that to fly a big middle finger to them, as if to say “Ha! Guess what I did?!?”  In the end, I want to really succeed here because I’ve never let any test beat me, save one.  And I’m not about to let the CCIE become the second.

2.  Upgrade my VCP to version 4. The other thing that I do a lot of at my job that doesn’t revolve around networks concentrates on VMware.  I work with it more than I do with the actual OSes that get loaded to it, and I think it’s about time I made the move to getting certified on the current version.  There are some interesting possibilities that await should I manage to get there, including the idea of getting the VCAP4 – Design.  My job focus is quickly moving on toward building networks and systems on paper rather than physically, so some more designed-focused learning would do me some good.  But first things first.  I’ve got to get with the now.

3.  Start looking at the CCIE Voice. Heh, compared to #1, this one looks kind of silly.  Why start looking at another CCIE track when you aren’t even done with the one you started with?  If the truth be told, I’ve stuck with R&S as long as I have because of my stubborn streak.  I don’t work with BGP or MPLS in my every day job.  I doubt I ever will unless I switch roles and/or employers.  But I deal with voice every day.  It’s not what I started out to do, but I find it interesting.  And so I’m thinking that I might consider looking at some of the Voice courses and whether or not they appeal to me.  Who knows?  Maybe Voice will be an easier lab for me?

4.  Wikify my documentation. I’ve been putting this off for a lot longer than I should.  I need to take all of the information that I’ve gathered that resides on my laptop and put it into a form that other people can use and edit easily.  I want to have all of my knowledge in a place my peers can get to so that they might find the information they need quickly.  I want to clean up my haphazard note-taking style and make it readable.  I also want to be able to disappear for a few days at a time without getting ten phone calls and tons of e-mails.   I want to be able to pass the Bus Test.

5.  Start teaching more. Part of the reason that I started this blog was to collect all the random things that I come across and write them down in a place that I could easily find.  As an ancillary objective, I hope that other people might benefit from my research and study so that they could avoid the mistakes I’ve made.  I’ve considered bringing that into something a little more formal.  Some of my old college professors have talked to me about speaking to student groups.  My boss has discussed having me train user groups and train-the-trainer type scenarios.  I look at it as a two-fold opportunity.  I get to disseminate my knowledge, but I also gain the ability to tighten my presentation skills and put a little polish on my approach.  I don’t want to end up as a curmudgeon that sits behind a keyboard all day and loses all social ability.  I figure that forcing myself to get out and speak to people might just do that.

I figure five things should be a good list to work on.  Especially since  #1 is going to consume a lot of my time.  I hope to look back on this in 52 weeks and check off a few things.  I also hope that I can add a few more items to the list as I go.  Because surprises are always a good way to keep your edge sharp.

The Recertification Treadmill

I like tests.  Probably a lot more than I should.  Oh, it wasn’t always like this.  I dreaded test days in college.  Cramming chapters worth of information into my brain so that it could just be regurgitated later and forgotten shortly after than.  In fact, I can distinctly remember studying the OSI model for one of my IT infrastructure classes and thinking, “I only need to remember this for the exam.  After that, I’ll never see it again.”  Of course, that same OSI model is now permanently tattooed on the insides of my eyelids.

Then I entered the Real World.  I found out about certification tests and all they entail.  You mean I can take one test proving my mastery of a subject and you guys send me a certificate and a little wallet card?  Sign me up!  It also helped that my employer is a partner with multiple vendors and needed me to take as many tests as I could to keep their partner status up-to-date.  So I set off on my odyssey of test taking.  I’ve got certifications from Novell, Microsoft, CompTIA, Cisco, HP, (ISC)2, and many more.  I’ve taken enough tests that the test administrator at my local testing center recognizes me in the street.  I know more about the ins and outs of testing procedure than most people should.  And, I’ve been handsomely rewarded for my test taking prowess.  And, for the most part, I’ve enjoyed every second of my learning.  Except for recert day.

Yes, every once in a while one of the vendors sends me a note that says I’m due for renewal.  My professional title is now in jeopardy if I don’t study some new information and go see my local Pearson/Prometric guru.  So I start pouring over material in an effort to not need new business cards.  I cram all that new information in my stuffed head and run out to take the test again.  And I pass.  And for a while, I’m a golden boy again.  Until recert day comes up again.

Some vendors tell  you that you can keep your certification for ever and ever.  Like my MCSE.  Of course, I’m not technically “current” with that one, especially now that the new title is MCITP (or something like that).  So, while I’m a whiz when it comes to Windows 2000, I’m not really authorized on the new hotness of Server 2008.  Oh well.  Other vendors, like Cisco, keep the same certification title, but they change the tests around from time to time.  Like my CCVP.  I originally certified on CUCM 4.1.  Back when there was a separate test for those gatekeeper thingies.  And then Cisco went and released a new CCVP track about CUCM 6.x.  I didn’t have to recertify because my CCVP was still good.  But now, they have eliminated the CCVP and changed the voice certification track to the CCNP: Voice.  You can still take the CCVP tests and get grandfathered in before the change to the new CUCM 8.x material if you want.  And that’s what I found myself doing about 2 months ago.  I figured since I worked with voice everyday it shouldn’t be too rough to just jump in and take the tests.  My reasoning was that the partner requirements for Advanced Unified Communications would change after the CCVP –> CCNP: Voice move, so I wanted to get out in front of this change before I was forced to.  I managed to stumble through the troubleshooting test and both CallManager tests in fairly short order.  As I brushed up on my CVOICE basics, I remembered that a previous visit to the Certification Tracker showed that I hadn’t taken the QoS exam, even though I distinctly remembered the pain and agony of that one.  I wrote in to Cisco Cert Support, hoping that I didn’t have to go through it all over again.  While I kept studying for my CVOICE test, I got the response.  It seems that those tests expire after 3 years, and I would need to retake it again for it to be valid.  However, according to Cisco, I was already a CCNP: Voice, so I wouldn’t need to retake it.  Huh?  When did that happen?

Cisco’s recertification policy for professional level exams says that taking any professional test with a ‘642’ prefix will recertify your CCxP.  Little did I know at the time that my first test, Troubleshooting Unified Communications, had recertified my CCVP and triggered the upgrade to a CCNP:Voice.  So, the CUCM tests were for naught.  The CVOICE test did give me a CCNA: Voice tag, so I’ve got that going for me now.  The Cisco recert cycle is nothing new to me.  I’ve been taking the CCIE written exam every year because it’s the only way to keep my specialist designations current.  In order to keep my employer in the good partner graces, I have to keep remembering OSPF and MPLS trivia and take the CCIE written at least every two years.  It’s the only way for me to keep my certifications current without devoting all my time to studying and taking tests instead of doing the job I was hired for.  I was confused in this particular instance with the CCNP: Voice because the certification website never said anything about there being an upgrade path from my 4.2 CCVP to the 8.x CCNP: Voice.  I’m happy nonetheless, but I started thinking about the whole recertification process and why it bothers me somewhat.

I can take any 642 level Cisco exam and recertify all my CCxA and CCxP titles.  I can take the CCIE written and do the same, including my specialist tags.  VMware makes me take a new test and sit through 5 days of training to get a VCP4.  Microsoft wants me to take a whole new set of tests to become a new MCSE/MCITP.  Novell just keeps certifying me on Linux stuff even though I haven’t taken Novell test in years.  And we won’t talk about HP.  Ethan has a great post about recerting his CCIE that hits on a lot of good points.  Normally, we have to either shut down our productivity for a few weeks to get into the recertification groove, or try and find time outside of work to study.  Either way, it seems like a colossal waste of time. It’s almost like being elected to the House of Representatives.  You need to start campaigning for re-election right after you’ve been elected.  It’s just annoying that I have to take time out of my schedule to relearn things I’m already doing.  Is there any way to fix this?

Find a lawyer.  Any lawyer.  If you’re having trouble, check behind the nearest ambulance.  Now, ask them how many times they’ve retaken the bar exam.  Odds are good they’ll stare at you and tell you that you’ve lost your mind.  Lawyers don’t have to resit the bar exam every time they need to renew their fancy degree.  They are allowed to use Continuing Professional Education credits.  All they have to do is take a class or attend a conference and they can count that learning toward recertifying their degree and certification requirements.  IT people are the same.  We spend a lot of our time watching webcasts and going to trade shows.  I go to Cisco Live Networkers almost every year.  When I’m there, I take the opportunity to learn about technologies I don’t encounter in my every day job, like TRiLL or FabricPath.  I’m doing an awful lot to keep current with trends and technology in the industry, and it feels like it’s all for my own edification.  It doesn’t really count toward anything.  Except in one case – my CISSP.  Because (ISC)2 uses a CPEs too.

The vendor-neutral certification bodies have it right, in my opinion.  (ISC)2, BICSI, and CWNP all have a CPE policy.  They say that you can go to conferences or read books and count that learning toward your certification.  They want you to prove that you’re staying current, and in return they’ll make sure you are current when it comes to certifications.  Sure, in the case of the CISSP, most of the learning needs to be focused on security, but that’s how it should be.  I can count some amount of general education credits toward my CISSP, but the bulk of the education needs to be focused on the subject matter of the certification.  I think something like this would be a great addition to Cisco’s arsenal.  Give your certified professionals a chance to apply the learning they do every day toward recertification.  You’d sell more Cisco Press books if I knew I could read one and count 5 points toward my CCSP.  There’d be even more attendees at Networkers if it counted for 40 CPEs every year.  But, there also need to be some restrictions.

Some vendors don’t like the idea that one test can recertify all your titles.  Juniper doesn’t.  So make sure that the education credits only count toward a specific area of knowledge.  The Migrating CUCM class from Brandon Ta that I go to every year could count toward my CCVP, but not my CCSP.  My TRiLL webcasts could count for points to recertify my CCIE R&S or SP, but not the CCIE Wireless.  If you marry the education to a specific certification, you’ll see much higher attendance for those kinds of things.  For people like us that spend time writing about things on the Interwebs, authoring articles for places like Network World or Information Week could count as well, since you are disseminating the knowledge you’ve obtained to the masses.  Even teaching could count toward recertifying.

This idea is not without issue, though.  The first argument is that allowing certified individuals to use CPEs might cause problems with the cottage industry that has sprung up around teaching these subjects to people.  Ask yourself, How many people would go to VMware classroom learning if it wasn’t required to obtain the VCP?  I’m sure the answer would be “A whole lot less.”  It’s no secret that Cisco and HP and Microsoft make a lot of money offering classes to people in order to get the certified on technology.  Companies can specialize in just teaching certification coursework and turn a tidy profit.  And these same companies might not be too keen on the idea of a revenue stream drying up because Cisco or Novell decided to be noble and not require everyone to take a new test every 2 years.

Another consequence, though one for the better, would be the contraction of the “braindump” market.  A lot of people talk about the braindump market catering to those who want a fast track to the CCNA or other entry-level cert.  I’m of the opinion that a larger portion of the dumping population consists of already-certified individuals that have neither the time nor the energy to study for a recertification exam.  These people are facing a deadline of needing to stay current with whatever alphabet soup comes after their name, except now that they have a steady job they don’t have the time to devote to studying all night to pass.  Faced with the option of letting their certification expire, or paying money to someone for the answers to the test, they swallow their pride and take the easy way out.  In their mind, no harm is done because they were already a CCxA in the first place.  They know the material, they just don’t have time to remember what the “vendor answer” is on the test.  Now, give these same people the opportunity to apply a webcast or vendor presentation that they’d sit through anyway to that CCxA.  I bet that more than half the dumping sites would go away within a year.  When the market starts drying up, it’s time to move on.

I really hope that the vendors out there take the time in 2011 to reassess their recertification strategies.  Giving certified professionals more options when it comes to proving they know their material can only build goodwill in the future.  Because the current method feels way too much like a treadmill right now.  I keep running in place as fast as I can just to stay where I’m at.  I think things need to change in order to make the education and learning that I do have a tangible impact on my certification progress.  Because sooner or later I’m not going to be able to keep up with the recertification treadmill.  And we all know what the result is when that happens…

Nerds on Film

I’m a visual learner.  I’ve known this for quite a while now.  While I can find a location with printed directions from Google or Mapquest, once I’ve been to a place and seen how to get there I won’t get lost again.  Network diagrams convey information much more clearly to me than spreadsheets.  Even the act of my watching the information being written on a whiteboard is enough visual stimulation for it to stick with me.  I think in pictures.  And, for the majority of my career this has served me well.

That is, until I started doing site walkthroughs.  Part of my job as a consultant requires me to walk around customer sites and observe things.  I need to figure out what kind of electrical power is available.  I need to know if the racks in the location will support a small UPS or a large rack-mount server.  I need to know how many patch panels are installed.  In short, I need to build a picture of your equipment and network so I can start figuring out what you need.  In the past, I’ve always taken notes in my handy notepad.  I jot down what I’m thinking at the time and what I’m seeing.  Which works great as long as I can provide some context.  Some notes, like “needs power” make sense if you remember to tag which rack you are talking about.  Or you can remember which order you went through if you forgot to provide locations.  Other notes, like “messy” or “I don’t want to ever come back here” tend to get lost in the shuffle.  And so I found myself looking at my notebook days after my walkthrough wondering exactly what I was thinking when I jotted down a particular entry.  That is, after I combed through the the 5 notebooks and legal pads I keep on my desk and in my car where notes may or may not be written down.  Even moving to an electronic device for taking notes didn’t alleviate all my note-taking challenges.  All that changed last year thanks in part to Cisco.

When I was at Cisco Live Networkers 2009 in San Francisco, I was fortunate enough to win one of these:

For those of you not familiar, this is the Flip Video camera that Cisco now offers after their purchase of Pure Digital in 2009.  This particular one was won by playing the Mind Share game at the Cisco Learning Lounge.  When I won it, I first thought “Great!” Then I realized that I never really take pictures of anything, let alone video.  When John Chambers was sitting on stage during the keynote talking about the revolution of video and how it was going to become a real game-changer, it didn’t really sink in.

Not until I was back home and working on the drudgery of my regular, non-nerdy non-convention life did the reality of video truly hit me.  All of the problems I had experienced with notes could be solved with video!  No longer did I have to remember to write down some key piece of information before it was forgotten.  No longer would I have to make several trips to a site to answer a question about port counts or rack types.  I could be free to conduct site surveys in a much more informal and meaningful manner.

Now, instead of flipping out my notebook or iPad or papyrus and quill, I take my Flip camera out of my backpack and just turn it on.  Then I talk.  I describe what I’m seeing.  I talk about rack types and punch downs.  I sweep the camera all around the area, noting anything of interest I might find.  And when I’m done with my video note, I save it to my computer for future reference.  In six months when an account manager asks me what kind of power is available in the room, I don’t have to make another trip to the site or spend half a day pouring over notebooks.  I simply fire up my video record of my walkthrough and give them the answer they’re looking for.

It also helps to jog my memory when I look at a map of the building or I’m asked about a specific closet.  I can go back and relive my time there to get the answers I need.  And others can watch my videos and see the same things I’ve seen.  That way, I can provide as much info as possible for as many people as I can in the shortest amount of time.  That, in essence is the power of video.  And for visual learners like me, it’s a really powerful way to demonstrate what I’ve seen to myself and to others.

And, thankfully, since I’m the producer I never have to be in front of the camera.  I let the visuals speak for themselves.  Because the last thing my customers and co-workers need to see is another nerd on film.

God Help Us, We’re In the Hands of Engineers

A comment over on Jeremy Stretch’s wonderful site touched off a bit of a discussion today about the proper use of the term ‘engineer’.  It appears that the “real” engineers in the world have gotten into a bit of a tiff with us computer nerds about why we aren’t allowed to call ourselves engineers.  A little background:

According to the font of all knowledge, an engineer is:

...a professional practitioner of engineering, concerned with applying scientific knowledge, mathematics and ingenuity to develop solutions for technical problems. Engineers design materials, structures, machines and systems while considering the limitations imposed by practicality, safety and cost. The word engineer is derived from the Latin root ingenium, meaning "cleverness".
Engineers are grounded in applied sciences and are distinguished from scientists who perform research and artists who create with a focus on aesthetics. The work of engineers forms the link between scientific discoveries and the applications that meet the needs of society.

(COPIED FROM HERE)

Hmm, okay.  So, that sounds like it could be a lot of things.

– applying scientific knowledge (check)

– Mathematic knowledge (check)

– Developing solutions and systems (check)

– Considering limitations of cost and practicality (double check)

Okay, so far it looks like myself and my brethren are engineers for sure.  Ah, but wait…here come the scientists:

According to multiple sources, the “real” engineer is distinguished by holding a 4-year Bachelor of Science degree in an engineering discipline, having 6 years experience, and taking one or more tests.  This appears to be the most common set of requirements (more on this later).  So, because I didn’t put down civil engineering as my major in college, I’m out.  Because I don’t have six or more years experience building sewers or roads or bridges, I’m disqualified.  And because I haven’t forked over $1000 or more to the state licensing board, I’m just a lowly technician worthy of engineer nerd scorn.

What I have done, though, is spend my career building complex systems relying on specific scientific and mathematic principles.  Knowledge that not everyone who’s ever hit the power button on their laptop has.  I make the magical packets flow so you can watch Youtube videos and download dirty pictures.  I make your e-mail work so you can get blueprints and site updates.  I keep the QoS flowing so your emergency need to check Google Earth to make sure no one built a subdivision in the way of your highway.  I do things with my knowedge that would make you cringe and look the other way because you don’t understand them.

I took industry-specific tests from Novell, Microsoft, Cisco, HP, and Symantec to prove my knowledge.  Those governing bodies granted me the right to use the titles MCNE, MCSE, ASE, and SCSE (all have the word ‘engineer’).  And, for the record, these are the same tests no matter if you take them in Texas or Thailand.  I know of engineers that took their tests in other states because they were ‘easier’ and used comity to be licensed in their home state. So, in a sense, I am an engineer for all those reasons.  Yet, the professional engineers (P. Eng) get all huffy about it.  For the record, I thought P. Eng was Sean Combs’ name this week…

In the US, you are a P. Eng if you take the classes and tests and have enough experience and get signed off upon by other engineers.  But you can still use the title “engineer” through the use of a industrial exemption.  This means that if I work in industry providing engineering services, I’m exempt from getting licensed.  This exemption is pissing P. Eng’s off left and right.  Why, might you ask?  Because civil, mechnical, and electrical engineers are using it to get past taking the tests.  The IEEE is having kittens because they think anyone involved in engineering services that directly impact public safety should be required to be licensed before they use the term.  I can see that insofar as it impacts the safety of other people.  But yelling at lowly computer nerds because they claim to be “engineers”?  Tilting at windmills, in my opinion.  And heaven help you if you claim to be an engineer in Canada without a license.  I think they dispatch the Mounties to shoot you in the street like a common horse thief.

You wanna complain about me using the title “network engineer”.  Okay, let’s switch spots for a week.  I’ll spend all day staring at blueprints trying to figure out which way the road is supposed to go.  You can head back to my desk and keep the network running and figure out why the boss’s e-mail isn’t lightning fast.  You can unclog the tubes and carry my pager to respond to network outages at 3:30 in the morning on a Sunday.  You can put up with me calling you asking why I can’t get to Youtube today to watch some cat playing the drums.  And if you don’t run screaming back to me within a day loudly proclaiming that I am truly an engineer, I promise I’ll start calling myself something totally different.  Like Network Rock Star.  Since nobody needs any talent to be one of those.

What a RIP-off!

A few days ago, there were a couple of tweets in my stream about RIP. Yes, the much-maligned, older-than-the-hills Routing Information Protocol. These particular tweets came from a couple of people that are in the study process for their CCIE lab exam. Having had a couple of shots at the lab myself, I found it prudent to mention that while RIP was indeed on the exam, don’t believe for one second that it’s going to be easy. While I can’t and won’t discuss specifics about what I’ve seen, I think I can speak with generality about why RIP is still very much a topic on the now version 4 of the venerable CCIE exam.

Every entry-level networking student learns about RIP. It was the very first routing protocol, and as such serves as a prototype for beginners to learn about topics like hop counts, routing tables, and other more esoteric subjects. RIP was designed to do one thing and do it well. Because of that, it doesn’t take long before he complexity of RIP is exhausted and students move on to bigger and better routing topics. In fact, the only purpose that RIP serves past the very early point is as a yardstick, a way of measuring how much better something is at its job than RIP.  Students quickly learn why EIGRP is much better as an advanced distance vector routing protocol.  Or why link-state is much better for larger networks.  Because of this, CCNAs and JNCIAs all over quickly develop the idea that “RIP sucks”.

I’m not a RIP apologist by any stretch of the imagination.  But I also have a healthy respect for the fact that while RIP may not be the most impressive routing protocol by today’s lofty standards, its place in history is secure by it’s longevity and due to the fact that we wouldn’t have EIGRP and OSPF today if RIP hadn’t paved the way for them.  So, why then would a 22-year old protocol that has been eclipsed in almost every conceivable way still show up in the blueprint for the granddaddy of all routing and switching exams? In short, to screw with your head.

Anyone with a driver’s license can probably cite traffic laws.  And any of them can’t most likely describe the procedure to parallel park.  Or park on a hill.  But the second half of the US drivers test doesn’t quiz you on your knowledge of how to parallel park.  They make you go out and do it.  And often, you don’t get to parallel park in perfect conditions like you practiced for weeks and months before your test.  No, if the driving instructor is particularly insidious, they might make you parallel park on a hill in a school zone.  In much the same way, RIP is on the test to mess with you.  You know RIP inside and out.  If you’ve read Jeff Doyle’s Routing TCP/IP volume 1 you can likely diagram a RIP update packet with some toothpicks and a pencil.  But, the devious-minded proctors and test writers aren’t going to ask you CCNA-level RIP questions.  No, much like the driving instructor, they are going to make you apply your RIP knowledge to situations you might not have encountered in practice.  Like establishing RIP neighbor relationships across 4 routers with no tunnels allowed.  Or, more likely, they will give you a very simple setup followed by the most infamous of all CCIE candidate 4-letter words: redistribution.  Most people know how RIP ticks, but when you start injecting RIP into a perfectly stable OSPF topology, that’s when the rubber hits the road and most things start falling apart.  Knowing how to pick up the pieces after RIP trashes your orderly link-state protocol is one of the things that shows you are a RIP genius and aren’t scared to get your hands dirty.

You might ask yourself, “Well, anyone can write evil RIP questions all day long.  Why is it still on the exam.  Who even still uses RIP?” Good question? Who still uses frame relay?  Or dial up modems?  Or bridges?  Being a CCIE means that you aren’t phased when you run into something old and (relatively) complicated.  It means you understand why RIP and frame relay and bridges paid their dues so that today we could have OSPF and MPLS and TrILL.  And as long as there is still a mainframe out there that only speaks routed or a network that has two routers that were made during the Carter administration, you are still going to encounter RIP.  And if you think outside the box on that stressful day in a dark lab somewhere, you don’t have to worry about being RIPed off by your grandfather’s routing protocol.