Certification Comfort Food

I’m a big fan of comfort food. Maybe more than I should be. The idea of something simple and tasty just hits the right spot a lot of time, especially when I’m stressed or don’t have time to do something more involved. I know I really need to be better about cooking but you can’t beat a quick meal that uses something simple and gets the job done, right?

Now, before you ask yourself what I’m on about this week, I want you to think about that analogy in terms of certifications and learning. When we’re starting out in the industry or we’re learning a new skill we have to pick up basic ideas. The more advanced or radical the technology the more we need the kinds of explanations that make the concepts simple to understand. We need the equivalent of learning comfort food. Simple, digestible, and easy to prepare.

Climbing the Ladder

As our skills improve we have the choice to continue on and develop our capabilities to greater depths. Perhaps we want to learn everything there is to know about BGP and policies. We could even parlay that networking knowledge into new adjacencies that build on our skill sets. We also have the option of staying in the basic level and honing those skills. Instead of learning VXLAN we could spend a thousand hours practicing all the ways that you can configure a VLAN.

Which way is right? Is there a need to make a choice? People are going to feel more comfortable doing one thing over the other in almost every case. If you’re like me you want to get to the bottom of every mystery and explore every nuance of something. Once you figure it out you’re going to want to move on to the next hard problem to solve. You become a voracious reader and consumer of knowledge and before you know it you’ve run out of things to consume. It’s partially the reason why I’ve been such a prolific writer for the past twelve years. I’ve been creating the content that I wanted to consume so others can benefit.

The other side of the choice is being content with the skills you have. This is in no way a negative thing. Not everyone that cooks needs to be a four star chef that makes perfect risotto and Beef Wellington every time. There is a place for everyone that learns enough to accomplish their goals and decides that is enough for them. If the above option is the “pull” model where one is trying to pull in new knowledge as fast as possible then this is the “push” version where people must be pushed to learn additional things. Your company might move to cloud and that would facilitate a need to pick up cloud operations skills to complement the ones you have for the network or the virtualization cluster. You’re not actively seeking the knowledge until it’s needed.

Boiling the Mudpuddle

It’s all well and good when you can recognize which type of learner you are. It’s also important to know where your resources are aimed. If your top destinations for content are part of the “push” model and aim at a lower level when you’re someone that wants to grow and investigate new areas you’re going to hit a wall eventually and sour on them.

A personal story for me comes when I was racing through my certification journey in the early part of my career. Once I started with Cisco I was consuming books left and right. Every time I went into the book store I picked up a new tome to teach me more about routing or remote access networks or even firewalls. I would consume that content whenever I could and apply those lessons to my job or my certification process. Eventually I knew I was reaching a limit because there were fewer and fewer books in the bookstore that taught me things I wanted to know. It made me realize there is a target market for these resources.

Things like certification guides are aimed at a wide market. They want to teach skills to the widest possible audience. Not everyone needs to know the ins and outs of EVPN but most everyone in networking needs to know how a switch forwards frames. If you want to sell the most books which would you write about? You’d write the one that covers the most people. It’s a reality of the market. Content for the entry level and the broadest group sells the best. In today’s world the book has been replaced by the blog and the YouTube channel.

As mentioned, I started my blogging career because of the above bookstore issue. Once I started learning things that weren’t in every book I wanted to share those ideas. That got me to Tech Field Day and eventually to different things. It also made me realize that while my content may never have hundreds of thousands of readers for every post it would serve people that needed to find those lessons or understand those topics in a depth that was beyond a paragraph or two in a 400-page encyclopedia of terminology.

To me, the certification comfort food is that entry-level content. It’s always going to be there. It’s simple to write about, especially when you have good analogies to frame new concepts for people. It’s tasty when you’re starving. And you can make a very good living doing it. But if you’re the kind of person that wants to try new tastes and break away from the comfort and ease you’re going to need to figure out your own path. You need to experiment and make mistakes and struggle to conceptualize what you’re talking about. You need to expand your horizons and do new things and then tell the world how you did it. Like a recipe blog or TikTok channel for cooking you’re going to need to put your crazy ideas out there and see how it goes.


Tom’s Take

There are a lot of great creators out there that have made a very good place for themselves teaching newcomers the basics of how things work. I applaud them and wish them nothing but success. I also know that’s not for me. I started writing about my CCIE studies and the challenges I was solving the real world. Now I write about the state of the market or the changing of tech or how to build and lead teams. It’s very representative of my journey as well as the journeys of those in the community that I talk to. My very nature won’t let me stay in a little bubble and create the same things in new ways. I’m going to push the envelope and explore new things. It means I might not land in everyone’s top list but it also means I won’t be bored. Why be mac-n-cheese when I really need to be risotto?

Backing Up the Dump Truck

Hello Ellen,

 

I have received a number of these spam messages over the past few weeks and I had hoped they would eventually taper off. However, it doesn’t appear that is the case. So I’ll take the direct approach.

 

I’m a member of the CCIE Advisory Council. Which means I am obligated to report any and all attempts to infringe upon the integrity of the exam. As you have seen fit to continue to email me to link to your site to promote your test dumps I think you should be aware that I will be reporting you to the CCIE team.

 

Good luck in your future endeavors after they shut you down for violating their exam terms and conditions. And do not email me again.

That’s an actual email that I sent TODAY to someone (who probably isn’t really named Ellen) that has been spamming me to link to their CCIE dump site. The spam is all the same. They really enjoy reading a random page on my site, usually some index page picked up by a crawler. They want me to insure a link to their site which is a brain dump site for CCIE materials, judging by the URL I refuse to click on. They say that if I am not interested that I should just ignore it, which I have been doing for the past two months. And that brings us to today.

Setting the Record Straight

Obviously, the company above is just spamming any and all people with reputable blogs to help build link credibility. It’s not a new scam but one that is pervasive in the industry. It’s one of the reasons why I try to be careful about which links I include in my posts. And I never accept money or sponsorship to link to something. Where appropriate I include information about disclosures and such.

What makes this especially hilarious is that I’m a pretty public member of the CCIE Advisory Council. I’ve been a part of it for almost three years at this point. You would think someone would have a little bit of logic in their system to figure this out. That’s like sending a pirated copy of an ebook to the author. Maybe revenue is down and they need to expand. Maybe they’re looking for popular networking bloggers. Who knows? Maybe they really like poking bears.

What is certain is that I wanted everyone to know that this goes on. And that I’m going to do something about it at the very least. I will report this person’s site, which I will not link to since it won’t be up much longer, and ensure that this crap stops. It’s not just the annoying spam. It’s the fact that they can be this brazen about looking for link karma for a dump site from someone that has the most investment in not having dumps out there.

Don’t buy dumps. You’re not doing yourself any favors. Learn the material. Learn the process. Learn why things work. When you do this you learn how to handle situations and all their permutations. You don’t just think that the answer to a routing protocol redistribution problem is just “B”. You should check out any reputable CCIE training vendor out there first. It’s going to cost you more than the dumps but you’re getting more for your money. Trust me on that.

Moreover, if you get these kinds of emails as a writer or podcaster, don’t accept them. By linking back to these sites you’re adding a portion of your clout and goodwill to them. When (and it’s always when) they get shut down, you take a hit from being associated with them. Don’t even give them the time of day. I had been ignoring this spam for quite a while in the hopes that this group would get the picture, especially based on their text that says ignoring it would make it go away. Alas for them, they pushed one time too many and found themselves on the wrong side of a poked bear.


Tom’s Take

Okay, rant over. This is stuff that just rubs me the wrong way. Not only because they don’t take silence for a hint but because they’re just trading on the good name of other networking bloggers in the hopes of making a few quick bucks before getting shut down and moving on to the next enterprise. I’m going to push back on this one. And the next one and the one after that. It may not amount to much in the long run but maybe it’s the start of something.

A Decade of CCIE Certification

I was notified this week that I’m eligible for the 10-year CCIE plaque. Which means that it’s been a decade since I walked out of Cisco’s Building C in San Jose with a new number and a different outlook on my networking career. The cliche is that “so many things have changed” since that day and it’s absolutely accurate because the only constant in life is change.

Labbing On the Road

I think the first thing that makes me think about the passage of time since my certification is the fact that the lab where I took the exam no longer exists. Building C was sold to the company that owns and operates the San Francisco 49ers stadium just down Tasman drive from the old letter buildings. Those real estate locations were much more valuable to the NFL than to Cisco. I can’t even really go and visit my old stomping grounds any more because the buildings were gutted, renovated, and offered to other operations that aren’t from Cisco.

Now, you don’t even go to San Jose or RTP for the lab. Three years ago the labs in the US moved to Richardson, TX. The central aspect of the location is pretty appealing when you think about it. A part of me wishes I would have had the opportunity to take the lab there since I wouldn’t have to jump on a plane and burn three days of my work schedule. The costs of my lab attempts would have been a lot less if I only had to drive down for one night in a hotel and got to come back and sleep in my bed that same night. I realize that it’s equally inconvenient for people to need to fly to the middle of the country when they used to be closer to the lab when it was on either coast. However, real estate in RTP and San Jose is beyond crazy when it comes to price. Moving the lab to somewhere more reasonable means Cisco is getting value out of their buildings elsewhere.

The mobile lab is another aspect of the changes in the CCIE certification program that are a welcome change. By putting the lab on the road and giving people in countries far away from a lab location the opportunity to get certified the program can continue to be relevant. This is due in large part to the changes in the lab that allow a large part of it to be virtualized or operated remotely from a rack located somewhere else. I remember starting my lab studies and thinking to myself that the rack that I was working on was just across the room. Not that there was much that I could do about it. The idea that there could be something going on that was just out of my reach was an itch I had to get over. Today, you would never even start to believe that you had a hardware issue in your lab because of the streamlining of the process. That can only happen when you optimize your offerings to the point where you can just virtualize the whole thing.

The Next Ten Years

Right now, I still have a year to go on my certification before I have to make the decision to keep it current or go to Emeritus retirement. My role on the CCIE Advisory council doesn’t matter either way. I’m likely going to just go Emeritus when the opportunity presents itself because I don’t use those lab skills every day. I’m not configuring BGP filter lists and port channels like I used to. The technical skills that I honed in Building C serve me more now to understand technology at an architecture level. I can see how people are using tools to solve problems and offer commentary when they are making poor decisions or when a better protocol exists.

The CCIE itself is still a very valuable certification to hold and study for. IT certification on the whole has been trending away from being the gold standard for hiring. Cloud and DevOps focus more on skills instead of papers hanging on a wall. However, operations teams still need ways to differentiate their people. If nothing else the CCIE is a great forcing function for you to figure out how deeply into networking you really want to get. It’s not enough to be curious about BGP or Frame Relay and traffic shaping QoS. You have to understand it at a level that would bore most others to tears. If you’re not prepared to know the minutia of a protocol the way that some people memorize batting averages or random movie trivia than you might not be up for this particular challenge.

The CCIE also isn’t going away any time soon. I remarked to someone the other day that the CCIE is a technology bellweather. I can remember the clamor to introduce the “new” SDN changes into the program so many years ago. I also chuckle when I think about the CCIE OpenFlow that more than a couple of people proposed. The certification program exists to refine and highlight the technology solutions that people are using today. It’s not a sneak peak at things that might be important later on in life. Think about how long it took for them to remove ISDN, ATM, and even frame relay from the test. And even frame relay was debated heavily because more than a few claimed they still used it in production.

The CCIE is a testament to the way that people study for and build networks at a high level. It’s not a cool badge to keep on your list like a hunting trophy. It’s a testament to the commitment that it takes to attain something like that. The JNCIE and the VCDX are much the same. They represent an investment of time and energy into something that proves your capabilities. More than any other certification, the CCIE challenges people. It creates study habits and builds communities. It makes people ask themselves hard questions about desire and commitment and helps the best rise to the occasion. It’s more than just a certification.


Tom’s Take

I wouldn’t change a thing about my CCIE journey. I learned as much from the failures as I did from the success. The opportunities afforded to me because of that number have been immeasurable. But through it all I realized that the process of getting my lab has helped shape me into who I am today. A decade past late night study sessions and soul-crushing failures I know that it was all worth it because it helped me take technology more seriously and form the habits and process that have served me well from then on. I’m happy to get the new plaque that marks me as a veteran of the lab plus ten years. My status as a CCIE might pass into Emeritus but the lessons I learned along the way will always be there.

Iron Chef: Certification Edition

My friend Joshua Williams (@802DotMe) texted me today with a great quote that I wanted to share with you that made me think about certifications:

You’ve probably already thought through this extensively, and maybe even written about it, but after sitting through another 8 hour practical exam yesterday I’m more convinced than ever that expert level exams from technical companies are more analogous to a gimmicky Food Network TV show than real world application of technical acumen. They don’t care so much about my skill level as they do about what kind of meal I can prepare in 30 minutes using Tialapia, grapes, and Dr. Pepper syrup with my salt shaker taken away halfway through.

I laughed because it’s true. And then I thought about it more and realized he’s way more than right. We know for a fact that companies love to increase the level of challenge in their exams from novice to expert. It’s a way to weed out the people that aren’t committed to learning about something. However, as the questions and tasks get harder it becomes much more difficult to get a good sense of how candidates are going to perform.

Boiling Water Isn’t Hard?

When you look at something like the CCNA, they’re trying to make sure you know how networks actually work. The simulations and lab exercises are pretty basic. Can you configure RIP correctly? Do you know the command to enable a switch port? There isn’t a need to get crazy with it. Using Joshua’s analogy from above, it’s not unlike a show like Worst Cooks in America, where the basics are the challenge that needs to be overcome. Not everyone is a superstar chef. Sometimes getting the building blocks right is more than half the battle.

As you move up the ladder, the learning gets harder. You dive deep into protocols and see how technologies build on each other. You need to configure BGP, but you also need to have some kind of other IGP running to distribute the routes. You need to remember that this spice goes in while the dish is cooking and this other goes on at the end so the flavor isn’t destroyed. I would liken this to a “fun” challenge cooking show, where the expert Food Network Chef faces off against someone that isn’t in the food business at a high professional level. Maybe they run a diner or are a short-order cook in a hotel restaurant. They aren’t looking to create their own signature dish. They know enough to cook what tastes good. But ask them to make hollandaise sauce or make pufferfish sashimi and they’re out.

Which brings us to the highest level of learning. The expert certification tracks. These are the crowing achievements of a career. They are the level that you have to be at to prove you know the technology inside and out. How do you test that, exactly? Microsoft had a great way of doing it back in the day with some of the mastery programs. You went to Redmond and you spent a couple of months learning the technology with the people that wrote it. It was very similar to a doctor’s internship in a hospital. You did the work with people that knew what you needed to know. They corrected you and helped you grown your knowledge. Even though you were an expert you understood what needed to be done and how to get there. At the end you took an exam to cover what you had learned and you earned your mastery.

Other certification programs don’t do that. Instead, they try to trip you up with tricky scenarios and make you make mistakes if you’re not paying attention. This is the Iron Chef round. You know your stuff, eh? Face off against this hard challenge. And by the way, here’s your curveball: You have to use this crazy extra ingredient. A show like Chopped does this a lot too. You need to make a meal using chicken, soy sauce, and candy corn. Are they testing your ability to prepare food? Or trying to figure out how creative you can be with a set of constraints that don’t make sense?

Ala Config!

The theory behind this kind of challenge is sound on paper. You never know what you’re going to walk into and what you’ll be forced to fix. I’ve had some real interesting problems that I’ve needed to solve over my career. But in every crazy case I never had to deal with the kinds of constrained setups that you get in lab-based exams. Configure this protocol, but don’t use these options. Make this connection work this way using one of these options but know that picking the wrong one will wreck your configuration in about two hours. Make trout-flavored ice cream. You name it and it’s a huge challenge for no good reason.

In theory, this is a great way to challenge your experts. In practice, it’s silly because you’re putting up barriers they will never see. Worse yet, you force them to start looking for the crazy constraints that don’t exist. One of my favorites is the overarching constraint in the CCIE lab that you are not allowed to use a static route to anything unless explicitly allowed in the question. Why? Because static routes don’t scale? Because they create administrative overhead? Or is it because a single static route fixes the problem and doesn’t require you to spend an hour tagging routes when redistribution happens? Static routes cut the Gordian Knot in the lab. So they can’t be allowed. Because that would make things too easy.


Tom’s Take

We need to move away from trivia and Iron Chef-style certifications. Instead of making our people dependent on silly tricks or restricting them from specific tools in their kit, we need to ensure their knowledge is at the right level. You would never ask a chef to cook an entire meal and not be able to use a saucepan. Why would you take away things like static routes or access lists from a network engineer’s arsenal? Instead of crafting the perfect tricky scenario to trap your candidates, spend the time instead teaching them what they need to know. Because once someone learns that trout is a horrible ice cream flavor we all win.

Thanks to Josh Williams for this great post idea!

The Certification Ladder

Are you climbing the certification ladder? If you’re in IT the odds are good that you are. Some people are just starting out and see certifications as a way to get the knowledge they need to do their job. Others see certs as a way to get out of a job they don’t like. Still others have plenty of certifications but want to get the ones at the top of their field. This last group are the ones that I want to spend some time talking about.

Pushing The Limit

Expert-level certifications aren’t easy on purpose. They’re supposed to represent the gap between being good at something and going above and beyond. For some that involves some kind of practical test of skills like the CCIE. For others it involves a board interview process like the VCDX. Or it could even involve a combination of things like the CWNE does with board review and documentation submissions.

Expert certifications aren’t designed to be powered through in a short amount of time. That’s because it’s difficult to become an expert at something without putting in the practice time. For some tests, that means meeting some minimum requirements. You can only attempt your VCDX when you have already passed the VCAP-DCA and VCAP-DCD test, for example. Or you may have a minimum requirement of time in the industry, such as the CISSP requirement of four years in the security industry.

But, more importantly, the requirement is that you truly are an expert. How many times have you bumped into someone that has a certification that you think to yourself, “How on earth did they pass that?” It should be fairly uncommon to run into a CCIE that you feel that way about. The test is rigorous and requires everyone to pass a very similar version of the practical exam. Sure, you still run into people that say the old 2-day exam was harder. But by and large, most CCIEs have had to endure the same kind of certification requirements.

Now, what people do after they get there is an entirely different matter altogether. There are a lot of people that get to the pinnacle of their certification journey and sit there on top of their mountain. They take time to survey the lands that they now watch over and they relax. They don’t see any need in going any further. They’ve done what they came to do. And for many that’s the way to go. Congratulations on your ride.

Still others use this opportunity negatively. They expect people to kiss the brass certificate and pay deference to them because of it. This can affect almost anyone. I remember years ago back to a time when I had just gotten my CCIE lab out of the way. I was working on a proposal for a customer. We had just gotten an email from the customer asking why we didn’t include a particular switch in the design. I told our team that we didn’t need it because the requirements of the design didn’t need something that cost three times over what we recommended. The customer’s response was, “Well, this other partner guy is a CCIE and he says we need that switch.” I replied back with, “Well, I’m a CCIE too, so let’s cut that crap and talk about the hardware.”

I’m not sure how many times that person had used the “I’m a CCIE” justification for their recommendations, but it shows me that some people believe a piece of paper speaks louder than their track record. Those people are usually the ones that fall back into the pattern of “listen to me because I passed tests” not “listen to me because I did the studying”. It’s important to ascribe value to passing a test, but remember that the test is a way to prove you have knowledge. It reminds me of this scene from Tommy Boy:

Throwing up a certification as justification for a recommendation is no different that just tossing a worthless guarantee on a box. Prove you know what you’re talking about instead of just saying you do.

Exceeding Your Reach

The last type of person that climbs the certification ladder is like the one in this tweet from my friend Hank Yeomans:

He looks at the ascent to the top of his certification ladder as a chance to do more. To build more. It’s not the end of the journey. It’s not bad to stop and look around at the new view from the top of your ladder when you’ve climbed it. But if you look at the journey as the start of something that you need to finish, you’re going to start immediately looking around to find the next thing that you need to do. Perhaps it’s learning a new technology related to the one that you just finished. Or maybe it’s that you want to figure out how to get even better at what you do.

People that never rest in their attempts to be better at the ones that ultimately change the way things are done. They don’t just accept that this is the way that things need to be. Instead, they use the top of their ladder to stretch out and see what they can reach. They realize that everything we do in life it just building on something else we’ve already done. We use Crawl, Walk, Run as a metaphor for building through a project or a process all the time. That’s because we know that you have to make steps all the time to progress. But what if someone just said, “You know what, I’ve mastered walking. I don’t need to run. All you people who only crawl listen to me because I’m better than you!” It would show how short-sighted they are when it comes to continuing the journey.


Tom’s Take

Many times, I’ve talked about the fact that I relaxed after I passed my CCIE and enjoyed not studying into the wee hours of the night. But after a while I started getting uncomfortable around 8-9pm. Because there was a little voice in the back of my head that kept telling me “You should be studying for something.” Instinctively, that voice knew that I needed to continue my journey. I would never be content resting on my laurels and I could never bring myself to use my certification as a crutch to make myself look important to others. Instead, I needed to push myself to build on what I’ve already done and make myself better. As Hank said, it’s just a foothill on a greater journey. Once you’ve learned how to use your ladder to increase your reach, even the sky isn’t the limit any longer.

The CCIE Times Are A Changing

Today is the day that the CCIE changes. A little, at least. The news hit just a little while ago that there are some changes to the way the CCIE certification and recertification process happens. Some of these are positive. Some of these are going to cause some insightful discussion. Let’s take a quick look at what’s changing and how it affects you. Note that these changes are not taking effect until February 24, 2020, which is in about 8 months.

Starting Your Engines

The first big change comes from the test that you take to get yourself ready for the lab. Historically, this has been a CCIE written exam. It’s a test of knowledge designed to make sure you’re ready to take the big lab. It’s also the test that has been used to recertify your CCIE status.

With the new change on Feb. 24th, the old CCIE written will go away. The test that is going to be used to qualify candidates to take the CCIE lab exam is the Core Technology exam from the CCNP track. The Core Technology exam in each CCNP track serves a dual purpose in the new Cisco certification program. If you’re going for your CCNP you need the Core Technology exam and one other exam from a specific list. That Core Technology exam also qualifies you to schedule a CCIE lab attempt within 18 months.

This means that the CCNP is going to get just a little harder now. Instead of taking multiple tests over routing, switching, or voice you’re going to have all those technologies lumped together into one long exam. There’s also going to be more practical questions on the Core Technologies exam. That’s great if you’re good at configuring devices. But the amount of content on the individual exam is going to increase.

Keeping The Home Fires Burning

Now that we’ve talked about qualification to take the lab exam, let’s discuss the changes to recertification. The really good news is that the Continuing Education program is expanding and giving more options for recertification.

The CCIE has always required you to recertify every two years. But if you miss your recertification date you have a one year “grace period”. Your CCIE status is suspended but you don’t lose your number until the end of the one-year period. This grace period has informally been called the “penalty box” by several people in the industry. Think of it like a time out to focus on getting your certification current.

Starting February 24, 2020, this grace period is now formalized as an extra year of certification. The CCIE will now be valid for 3 years instead of just 2. However, if you do not recertified by the end of the 3rd year, you lose your number. There is no grace period any longer. This means you need to recertify within the 3-year period.

As far as how to recertify, you now have some additional options. You can still recertify using CE credits. The amount has gone up from 100 to 120 credits to reflect the additional year that CCIEs get to recertify now. There is also a new way to recertify using a combination of CE credits and tests. You can take the Core Technologies exam and use 40 CE credits to recertify. You can also pass two Specialist exams and use 40 CE credits to recertify. This is a great way to pick up skills in a new discipline and learn new technologies. You can choose to pass a single Specialist exam and use 80 CE credits to recertify within the three-year period. This change is huge for those of us that need to recertify. It’s a great option that we don’t have today. They hybrid model offers great flexibility for those that are taking tests but also taking e-learning or classroom training.

The biggest change, however, is in the test-only option. Historically, all you needed to do is pass the CCIE written every two years to recertify. With the changes to the written exam used to qualify you to take the lab, that is no longer an option. As listed above, simply taking the Core Technologies exam is not enough. You must also take 40 CE credits.

So, what tests will recertify you? The first is the CCIE lab. If you take and pass a lab exam within the recertification period you’ll be recertified. You can also take three Specialist exams. The combination of three will qualify you for recertification. You can also take the Core Technologies exam and another professional exam to recertify. This means that passing the test required for the CCNP will recertify your CCIE. There is still one Expert-level exam that will work to recertify your CCIE – the CCDE written. Because no changes were made to the CCDE program in this project, the CCDE written exam will still recertify your CCIE.

Also, your recertification date is no longer dependent on your lab date. Historically your recert date was based on the date you took your lab. Now, it’s going to be whatever date you pass your exam or submit your CEs. The good news is this means that all your certifications are going to line up. Because your CCNA and CCNP dates have always been 3 years as well, recertifying your CCIE will sync up all your certifications to the date you recertify your CCIE. It’s a very welcome quality of life change.

Another welcome change is that there will no longer be a program fee when submitting your CE credits. As soon as you have amassed the right combination you just submit them and you’re good to go. No $300 fee. There’s also a great change for anyone that has been a CCIE for 20 years or more. If you choose to “retire” to Emeritus status you no longer have to pay the program fee. You will be a CCIE forever. Even if you are an active CCIE and you choose not to recertify after 20 years you will be automatically enrolled in the Emeritus program.

Managing Change

So, this is a big change. A single test will no longer recertify your number. You’re going to have to expand your horizons by investing in continuing education. You’re going to have to take a class or do some outside study on a new topic like wireless or security. That’s the encouragement from Cisco going forward. You’re not going to be able to just keep learning the same BGP and OSPF-related topics over and over again and hope to keep your certification relevant.

This is going to work out in favor of the people that complain the CCIE isn’t relevant to the IT world of today. Because you can learn about things like network automation and programmability and such from Cisco DevNet and have it count for CCIE recertification, you have no excuse not to bring yourself current to modern network architecture. You also have every opportunity to learn about new technologies like SD-WAN, ACI, and many other things. Increasing your knowledge takes care of keeping your CCIE status current.

Yes, you’re going to lose the ability to panic after two and a half years and cram to take a single test one or two times to reset for the next three years. You also need to be on top of your CCIE CE credits and your recert date. This means you can’t be lazy any longer and just assume you need to recertify every odd or even year. It means that your life will be easier without tons of cramming. But it means that the way things used to be aren’t going to be like that any longer.


Tom’s Take

Change is hard. But it’s inevitable. The CCIE is the most venerable certification in the networking world and one of the longest-lived certifications in the IT space. But that doesn’t mean it’s carved in stone as only being a certain way forever. The CCIE must change to stay relevant. And that means forcing CCIEs to stay relevant. The addition of the continuing education piece a couple of years ago is the biggest and best thing to happen in years. Expanding the ability for us to learn new technologies and making them eligible for us to recertify is a huge gift. What we need to do is embrace it and keep the CCIE relevant. We need to keep the people who hold those certifications relevant. Because the fastest way to fade into obscurity is to keep things the way they’ve always been.

You can find more information about all the changes in the Cisco Certification Program at http://Cisco.com/nextlevel

Home on the Palo Alto Networks Cyber Range

You’ve probably heard many horror stories by now about the crazy interviews that companies in Silicon Valley put you though. Sure, some of the questions are downright silly. How would I know how to weigh the moon? But the most insidious are the ones designed to look like skills tests. You may have to spend an hour optimizing a bubble sort or writing some crazy code that honestly won’t have much impact on the outcome of what you’ll be doing for the company.

Practical skills tests have always been the joy and the bane of people the world over. Many disciplines require you to have a practical examination before you can be certified. Doctors are one. The Cisco CCIE is probably the most well-known in IT. But what is the test really quizzing you on? Most people will admit that the CCIE is an imperfect representation of a network at best. It’s a test designed to get people to think about networks in different ways. But what about other disciplines? What about the ones where time is even more of the essence than it was in CCIE lab?

Red Team Go!

I was at Palo Alto Networks Ignite19 this past week and I got a chance to sit down with Pamela Warren. She’s the Director of Government and Industry Initiatives at Palo Alto Networks. She and her team have built a very interesting concept that I loved to see in action. They call it the Cyber Range.

The idea is simple enough on the surface. You take a classroom setting with some workstations and some security devices racked up in the back. You have your students log into a dashboard to a sandbox environment. Then you have your instructors at the front start throwing everything they can at the students. And you see how they respond.

The idea for the Cyber Range came out of military exercises that NATO used to run for their members. They wanted to teach their cyberwarfare people how to stop sophisticated attacks and see what their skill levels were with regards to stopping the people that could do potential harm to nation state infrastructure or worse to critical military assets during a war. Palo Alto Networks get involved in helping years ago and Pamela grew the idea into something that could be offered as a class.

Cyber Range has a couple of different levels of interaction. Level 1 is basic stuff. It’s designed to teach people how to respond to incidents and stop common exploits from happening. The students play the role of a security operations team member from a fictitious company that’s having a very bad week. You learn how to see the log files, collect forensics data, and ultimately how to identify and stop attackers across a wide range of exploits.

If Level 1 is the undergrad work, Cyber Range Level 2 is postgrad in spades. You dig into some very specific and complicated exploits, some of which have only recently been discovered. During my visit the instructors were teaching everyone about the exploits used by OilRig, a persistent group of criminals that love to steal data through things like DNS exfiltration tunnels. Level 2 of the Cyber Range takes you deep down the rabbit hole to see inside specific attacks and learn how to combat them. It’s a great way to keep up with current trends in malware and exploitive behavior.

Putting Your Money Where Your Firewall Is

To me, the most impressive part of this whole endeavor is how Palo Alto Networks realizes that security isn’t just about sitting back and watching an alert screen. It’s about knowing how to recognize the signs that something isn’t right. And it’s about putting an action plan into place as soon as that happens.

We talk a lot about automation of alerts and automated incident response. But at the end of the day we still need a human being to take a look at the information and make a decision. We can winnow that decision down to a simple Yes or No with all the software in the world but we need a brain doing the hard work after the automation and data analytics pieces give you all the information they can find.

More importantly, this kind of pressure cooker testing is a great way to learn how to spot the important things without failing in reality. Sure, we’ve heard all the horror stories about CCIE candidates that typed in debug IP packet detail on core switch in production and watched it melt down. But what about watching an attacker recon your entire enterprise and start exfiltrating data. And you being unable to stop them because you either don’t recognize the attack vector or you don’t know where to find the right info to lock everything down? That’s the value of training like the Cyber Range.

The best part for me? Palo Alto Networks will bring a Cyber Range to your facility to do the experience for your group! There are details on the page above about how to set this up, but I got a great pic of everything that’s involved here (sans tables to sit at):

How can you turn down something like this? I would have loved to put something like this on for some of my education customers back in the day!


Tom’s Take

I really wish I would have had something like the Cyber Range for myself back when I was fighting virus outbreaks and trying to tame Conficker infections. Because having a sandbox to test myself against scripted scenarios with variations run by live people beats watching a video about how to “easily” fix a problem you may never see in that form. I applaud Palo Alto Networks for their approach to teaching security to folks and I can’t wait to see how Pamela grows the Cyber Range program!

For more information about Palo Alto Networks and Cyber Range, make sure to visit http://Paloaltonetworks.com/CyberRange/

Certifications Are About Support

You may have seen this week that VMware has announced they are removing the mandatory recertification requirement for their certification program. This is a huge step from VMware. The VCP, VCAP, and VCDX are huge certifications in the virtualization and server industry. VMware has always wanted their partners and support personnel to be up-to-date on the latest and greatest software. But, as I will explain, the move to remove the mandatory recertification requirement says more about the fact that certifications are less about selling and more about supporting.

The Paper Escalator

Recertification is a big money maker for companies. Sure, you’re spending a lot money on things like tests and books. But those aren’t usually tied to the company offering the certification. Instead, the testing fees are given to the testing center, like Pearson, and the book fees go to the publisher.

The real money maker for companies is the first-party training. If the company developing the certification is also offering the training courses you can bet they’re raking in the cash. VMware has done this for years with the classroom requirement for the VCP. Cisco has also started doing in with their first-party CCIE training. Cisco’s example also shows how quality first-party content can drive out the third parties in the industry by not even suggesting to prospective candidates that this is another option to get their classroom materials.

I’ve railed against the VCP classroom requirement before. I think forcing your candidates to take an in-person class as a requirement for certification is silly and feels like it’s designed to make money and not make good engineers. Thankfully, VMware seems to agree with me in the latest release of info. They’re allowing the upgrade path to be used for their recertification process, which doesn’t necessarily require attendance in a classroom offering. I’d argue that it’s important to do so, especially if you’re really out of date with the training. But not needing it for certification is a really nice touch.

Keeping the Lights On

The other big shift with this certification change from VMware is the tacit acknowledgement that people aren’t in any kind of rush to upgrade their software right after the newest version is released. Ask any system administrator out there and they’ll tell you to wait for a service pack before you upgrade anything. System admins for VMware are as cautious as anyone, if not moreso. Too often, new software updates break existing functionality or cause issues that can’t be fixed without a huge time investment.

How is this affected by certification? Well, if I spent all my time learning VMware 5.x and I got my VCP on it because my company was using it you can better believe that my skill set is based around VCP5. If my company doesn’t decide to upgrade to 6.x or even 7.x for several years, my VCP is still based on 5.x technology. It shouldn’t expire just because I never upgraded to 6.x. The skills that I have are focused on what I do, not what I’m studying. If my company finally does decide to move to 6.x, then I can study for and receive my VCP on that version. Not before.

Companies love to make sure their evangelists and resellers are all on the latest version of their certifications because they see certifications as a sales tool. People certified in a technology will pick that solution over any others because they are familiar with it. Likewise, the sales process benefits from knowledgable sales people that understand the details behind your solution. It’s a win-win for both sides.

What this picture really ignores is the fact that a larger number of non-reseller professionals are actually using the certification as a study guide to support their organization. Perhaps they get certified as a way to get better support terms or a quicker response to support calls. Maybe they just learned so much about the product along the way that they want to show off what they’ve been doing. No matter what the reason, it’s very true that these folks are not in a sales role. They’re the support team keeping the lights on.

Support doesn’t care about upgrading at the drop of a hat. Instead, they are focused on keeping the existing stuff running as long as possible. Keeping users happy. Keeping executives happy. Keeping people from asking questions about availability or services. That’s not something that looks good on a bill of materials. But it’s what we all expect. Likewise, support isn’t focused on new things if the old things keep running. Certification, for them, is more about proving you know something instead of proving you can sell something.


Tom’s Take

I’ve had so many certifications that I don’t even remember them all. I got some of them because we needed it to sell a solution to a customer. I got others to prove I knew some esoteric command in a forgotten platform. But, no matter what else came up, I was certified on that platform. Windows 2000, NetWare 6.x, you name it. I was certified on that collection of software. I never rushed to get my certification upgraded because I knew what the reality of things really was. I got certified to keep the lights on for my customers. I got certified to help the people that believed in my skills. That’s the real value of a certification to me. Not sales. Just keeping things running another month.

The Magic of the CCIE

I stumbled across a great Reddit thread this week: Is the CCIE as impossible as it seems? There are a lot of great replies on that thread about people passing and the “good old days” of Banyan Vines, Appletalk, and more. It’s also a fascinating look into how the rest of the networking industry sees exams like the CCIE and JNCIE. Because those of us that have the numbers seem to be magicians to some.

Sleight of CLI Hand

Have you ever seen the cups and balls magic trick? Here’s an excellent example of it from the recently departed Ricky Jay:

Impressive, right? It’s amazing to behold a master craftsman at work. Every time I watch that video I’m amazed. I know he’s doing sleight of hand. But I can’t catch it. Now, watch this same video but with annotations turned on. SPOILER ALERT – The annotations will tell you EXACTLY where the tricks are done:

Is it more impressive now that you know how the tricks are done? Check out this demonstration from Penn and Teller that shows you exactly how they do the tricks as well:

Okay, so it’s a little less mystifying now that you’ve seen how all the sleight of hand happens. But it’s still impressive because, as a professional, you can appreciate how the execute their tradecraft. Knowing that it’s not magic doesn’t mean it’s not an impressive feat. It must means you appreciate something different about the performance.

Let’s apply that to the CCIE. When you’re just starting out in networking, every piece of knowledge is new. Everything you learn is something you didn’t know before. Subnet masks, routing tables, and even just addressing an interface are new skills that you acquire and try to understand. It’s like learning how to take a coin from someone’s ear. It’s simple but it provides the building blocks for future tricks.

When you reach the level of studying for the CCIE lab, it does look like a daunting task. If you’ve followed Cisco’s guidelines you probably have your CCNP or equivalent knowledge. However, there is still a lot you don’t know. If you don’t believe that, go pick up Jeff Doyle’s Routing TCP/IP Volume 1 book. That book taught me I still had a lot to learn about networking.

But, as I slogged through the CCIE, I realized that I was acquiring skills. Just like the magicians that practice the cups and balls every day to get it right, I was picking up the ability to address interfaces quickly and see potential routing loops before I made them like I did in my first lab attempt. Each thing I learned and practiced not only made me a better engineer but also made the CCIE seem less like a mountain and more like a hill that could be climbed.

And I truly realized this when I was thumbing through a copy of the CCIE Official Exam guide. Someone had given me a copy to take a look at and I was happy with the depth of knowledge that I found. I wanted to pass it along to another junior engineer because, as I said to myself, “If only I had this book when I started! I could have skipped over all those other books!”

Practice, Practice, Practice!

That’s where I went wrong. Because I jumped right to the end goal instead of realizing the process. Magicians don’t start out making the Statue of Liberty disappear. They start out pulling coins from your ear and finding your card in a deck. They build their basic skills and then move on to harder things. But they most grand tricks in the magician’s top hat all still use the basic skills: sleight of hand, misdirection, and preparation. To neglect those is to court folly on stage.

CCIEs are no different. Every person that asks me about the test asks “How hard is it to pass?” I usually respond with something like “Not hard if you study.” Some of the people I talk to pick up on the “not hard” part and get crushed by the lab their first time out. They even end up with a $1,500 soda for their efforts. The other people, the ones that focus on “study” in my answer, they are the people who pass on the first attempt or the ones that get it right pretty quickly thereafter.

The CCIE isn’t a test. It’s a course in studying. It’s the culmination of teaching yourself the minutia of protocols and how they interact. The exam itself is almost perfunctory. It tests specific combinations of things you might see in the real world. And if you ask any CCIE, the real world is often ten time stranger than the lab. But the lab makes you think about the things you’ve already learned in new ways and apply that knowledge to find ways to solve problems. The lab isn’t hard because it’s easy. The lab becomes easier when you practice enough to not think the knowledge is hard any longer. I think Bruce Lee said it best:

I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.

Most people would agree that Bruce Lee was one of the best martial artists of all times. And even he practiced until his fingers bled and he body was exhausted. Because he knew that being the best wasn’t about passing an exam for a belt or about showing off for people. It was about knowing what you needed to know and practicing it until it was second nature.


Tom’s Take

The CCIE has a certain magical aura for sure. But it’s not magical in and of itself. It’s a test designed to ensure that the people that pass know their skills at a deep level. It’s a test designed to make you look deeper at a problem and exhaust all your options before throwing in the towel. The CCIE isn’t impossible any more than sawing someone in half is impossible. It’s all about how your practice and prepare for the show that makes the trick seem impressive.

Why Is The CCIE Lab Moving?

Cisco confirmed big CCIE rumor this week that the RTP lab was going to be moved to Richardson, TX.

The language Cisco used is pretty neutral. San Jose and RTP are being shut down as full time lab locations and everyone is moving to Richardson. We knew about this thanks to the detective work of Jeff Fry, who managed to figure this out over a week ago. Now that we know what is happening, why is it coming to pass?

They Don’t Build Them Like They Used To

Real estate is expensive. Anyone that’s ever bought a house will tell you that. Now, imagine that on a commercial scale. Many companies will get the minimum amount of building that they need to get by. Sometimes they’re bursting at the seams before they upgrade to a new facility.

Other companies are big about having lots of area. These are the companies that have giant campuses. Companies like Cisco, Dell EMC, Intel, and NetApp have multiple buildings spread across a wide area. It makes sense to do this when you’re a large company that needs the room to spread out. In Cisco’s case, each business unit had their own real estate. Wireless was in one building. Firewalls in another. Each part of the company had their own area to play in.

Cisco was a real estate maven for a while. They built out in anticipation of business. There was a story years ago of a buried concrete slab foundation in Richardson that was just waiting for the next big Cisco product to be developed so they could clear away the dirt and start construction. But, why not just build the building and be done with it?

Remember how I said that real estate is expensive? That expense doesn’t come completely from purchases. It comes from operations. You need to have utilities for the building. You need to have services for the building. You need to pay taxes on the building. And those things happen all the time. Even if you never have anyone in the building the electricity is still running. That’s one of the reasons why Cisco shuts down their offices between Christmas and New Year’s every year. And the taxes are still due. Hence the reason why the foundation in Richardson was buried.

Real estate is also not an infinite resource. Anyone that’s been to Silicon Valley knows that. They’re running out of room in the South Bay. And building the new 49ers stadium on the corner of Tasman Drive and Great America Parkway didn’t help either. Sports teams are as hungry for real estate as tech companies. The support structures that cropped up for the stadium ended up buying the Letter Buildings from Cisco, which is why the lab was moved from Building C to Building L years ago.

Home Is Where The Work Is

The other shifting demographic is that more workers are remote in today’s environment. A combination of factors have led people to be just as productive from their home office as their open-plan cubicle. Increased collaboration software coupled with changing job requirements means that people don’t have to go to their desk every day to be productive.

This is especially true now that companies like Cisco are putting more of a focus on software instead of hardware. In the good old days of hardware dominance you needed to go into the office to work on your chipset diagrams. You needed your desktop CAD program to draw the silicon traces on a switch. And you needed to visit the assembly lines and warehouses to see that everything was in order.

Today? It’s all code. Everything is written in an IDE and stored on a powerful laptop. You can work from anywhere. A green space outside your office window. A coffee shop. Your living room. The possibilities are endless. But that also means that you don’t need a permanent office desk. And if you don’t need a desk that means your company doesn’t need to pay for you to have one.

Now, instead of bustling buildings full of people working in their shared offices there are acres of empty open-plan cubicle farms lying fallow. People would rather work from Starbucks than go to the office. People would rather work in their pajamas than toil away in a cube. And so companies like Cisco are paying taxes and utilities for open spaces that don’t have anyone while the offices around the perimeter are filled with managers that are leading people that they don’t see.

CCIE Real Estate

But what does this all mean for the lab? Well, Cisco needs to downsize their big buildings in high-value real estate markets. They’re selling off buildings in San Jose as fast as the NFL will buy them. They are downsizing the workforce in RTP as well. The first hint of the CCIE move was David Blair trying to find a new job. As real estate becomes more and more costly to obtain, Cisco is going to need to expand in less expensive markets. The Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) area is still one of the cheapest in the country.

DFW is also right in the middle of the country. It’s pretty much the same distance from everything. So people that don’t want to schedule a mobile lab can fly to Richardson and take the test there. RTP and San Jose are being transitioned to mobile lab facilities, which means people that live close to those areas can still take the test, just not on the schedule they may like. This allows Cisco to free up the space in those buildings for other purposes and consolidate their workforce down to areas that require less maintenance. They can also sell off unneeded buildings to other companies and take the profits for reinvestment in other places. Cutting costs and making money is what real estate is all about, even if you aren’t a real estate developer.


Tom’s Take

I’m sad to see the labs moving out of RTP and San Jose. Cisco has said they are going to frame the famous Wall of Pain in RTP as a tribute to the lab takers there. I have some fond memories of San Jose as well, but even those memories are from a building that Cisco doesn’t own any longer. The new reality of a software defined Cisco is that there isn’t as much of a need for real estate any more. People want to work remotely and not live in a cube farm. And when people don’t want an office, you don’t need to keep paying for them to have one. Cisco won’t be shutting everything down any time soon, but the CCIE labs are just the first part of a bigger strategy.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this post accidentally referred to David Mallory instead of David Blair. This error has been corrected.