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!