Devaluing Experts – A Response

I was recently reading a blog post from Chris Jones (@IPv6Freely) about the certification process from the perspective of Juniper and Cisco. He talks about his view of the value of a certification that allows you to recertify from a dissimilar track, such as the CCIE, as opposed to a certification program that requires you to use the same recertification test to maintain your credentials, such as the JNCIE. I figured that any comment I had would run much longer than the allowed length, so I decided to write it down here.

I do understand where Chris is coming from when he talks about the potential loss of knowledge in allowing CCIEs to recert from a dissimilar certification track. At the time of this writing, there are six distinct tracks, not to mention the retired tracks, such as Voice, Storage, and many others. Chris’s contention is that allowing a Routing and Switching CCIE to continue to recertify from the Data Center or Wireless track causes them to lose their edge when it comes to R&S knowledge. The counterpoint to that argument is that the method of using the same (or updated) test in the certified track as the singular recertification option is superior because it ensures the engineer is always up on current knowledge in their field.

My counter argument to that post is two fold. The first point that I would debate is that the world of IT doesn’t exist in a vacuum. When I started in IT, I was a desktop repair technician. As I gradually migrated my skill set to server-based skills and then to networking, I found that my previous knowledge was important to continue forward but that not all of it was necessary. There are core concepts that are critical to any IT person, such as the operation of a CPU or the function of RAM. But beyond the requirement to answer a test question is it really crucial that I remember the hex address of COM4 in DOS 5.0? My skill set grew and changed as a VAR engineer to include topics such as storage, voice, security, and even returning to servers by way of virtualization. I was spending my time working with new technology while still utilizing my old skills. Does that mean that I needed stop what I was working on every 1.5 years to start studying the old CCIE R&S curriculum to ensure that I remembered what OSPF LSA types are present in a totally stubby area? Or is it more important to understand how SDN is impacting the future of networking while not having any significant concrete configuration examples from which to generate test questions?

I would argue that giving an engineer an option to maintain existing knowledge badges by allowing new technology to refresh those badges is a great idea for vendors that want to keep fresh technology flowing into their organization. The risk of forcing your engineers into a track without an incentive to stay current comes in when you have a really smart engineer that is not capable of thinking beyond their certification area. Think about the old telecommunications engineers that have spent years upon years in their wiring closets working with SS7 or 66-blocks. They didn’t have an incentive or need to learn how voice over IP (VoIP) worked. Now that their job function has been replaced by something they don’t understand many of them are scrambling to retrain or face being left behind in the market. As Steven Tyler once sang, “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”

Continuous Learning

The second part of my counterpoint is that the only true way to maintain the level of knowledge required for certification shouldn’t rely on 50-100 multiple choice questions. Any expert-level program should allow for the use of continuing education to recertify the credential on a yearly basis. This is how the legal bar system works. It’s also how (ISC)2’s CISSP program works. By demonstrating that you are acquiring new knowledge continually and contributing to the greater knowledge base you are automatically put into a position that allows you to continue to hold your certification. It’s a smart concept that creates information and ensures that the holders of those certifications stay current on new knowledge. Think for moment about changing the topics of an exam. If the exam is changed every two years there is a potential for a gap in knowledge to occur. If someone were recertified on the last day of the CCIE version 3 exam, it would have been almost two years before they had to take an exam that required any knowledge of MPLS, which is becoming an increasingly common enterprise core protocol. Is it fair that the person that took the written exam the next day was required to know about MPLS? What happens if that CCIEv3 gets a job working with MPLS a few months later. According to the current version 4 curriculum they CCIE should know about MPLS. Within the confines of the certification program the user has failed to demonstrate familiarity with the topic.

Instead, if we ensure that the current certification holders are studying new topics such as MPLS or SDN or any manner of networking-related discussions we can be reasonably sure they are conversant with what the current state of the industry looks like. There is no knowledge gap because new topics can be introduced quickly as they become relevant. There is no fear that someone following the letter of the certification law and recertifying on the same material will run into something they haven’t seen before because of a timing issue. Continuous improvement is a much better method in my mind.


Tom’s Take

Recertification is going to be a sticky topic no matter how it’s sliced. Some will favor allowing engineers to spread their wings and become conversant in many enterprise and service provider topics. Still others will insist that the only way to truly be an expert in a field is to study those topics exclusively. Still others will say that a melding of the two approaches is needed, either through continuous improvement or true lab recertification. I think the end result is the same no matter the case. What’s needed is an agile group of engineers that is capable of not only being an expert at their field but is also encouraged to do things outside their comfort zone without fear of losing that which they have worked so hard to accomplish. That’s valuable no matter how you frame it.

Note that this post was not intended to be an attack against any person or any company listed herein. It is intended as a counterpoint discussion of the topics.