Cisco networking certifications blaze engineer's career path

Cisco networking certifications helped one network engineer blaze a successful career path despite his initial limited knowledge of the technology.

Cory Gray came upon networking certifications and the Cisco Networking Academy almost by chance.

In his sophomore year of high school in Virginia Beach, Gray met with representatives from the Advanced Technology Center (ATC) to examine his options for his junior and senior years. Not sure which direction to take, the uncertain high schooler found that there was something about computing and networking that drew him in.

"At the time, I didn't even know what a network was," Gray said, with a slight chuckle. But the more he looked into the possibilities, the more he realized that a career in networking was just what he was looking for. And, he said, he had finished most of his required high school credits and didn't want to coast through the rest of his high school career.

"Even though I didn't have a computer at the time, I was always interested in technical stuff," Gray said, noting that his lack of a computer and Windows knowledge put him at a slight disadvantage compared with his classmates. But he was never one to back away from a challenge, he said, and his limited resources turned out to be more of a blessing than anything, because "networking is a lot different than computers."

Gray said that he would walk into the classroom and leave two and a half hours later understanding new concepts and techniques.

"I liked the self-paced atmosphere and dynamic learning environment," he said.

The real draw of networking, Gray said, is the logic of it all -- the idea that putting together the pieces to make a full puzzle will make the network run, and the logical process of pinpointing where things go wrong. In an industry like networking, where issues are rarely black and white, Gray's logical thinking and the skills he learned in class helped him jump into networking headfirst.

"It's not always about what you know," he said. "It's about recognizing a problem and breaking it down."

Gray's high school courses were part of the Cisco Certified Networking Associate (CCNA) curriculum. In his junior year, he finished in the top 20 of the class and continued on into his senior year, when most of his classmates bailed out.

In Gray's senior year in Virginia Beach, local Cisco partners came to class and mentored students. Gray also went on to intern at Savant Ltd., a local company that networked local businesses. The internship, coupled with finishing CCNA courses early in his senior year, earned him a full-time slot at Savant after graduation. At Savant, he installed networks for SMBs.

"Once I got my CCNA, I immediately started working toward my CCNP [Cisco Certified Networking Professional]," Gray said. Along the way, he also earned his Cisco Certified Voice Professional (CCVP) certification, because VoIP was an up-and-coming technology and he wanted to have a solid understanding of it.

"There is always something else to do," he said, adding that he will probably pursue security certifications soon.

After a few years with Savant, Gray went on to his current position as a network engineer and consultant in the total implementation services department at Conquest Technologies, a Cisco Silver Partner. He said his position with Conquest is mostly project work, meaning he's not out fighting fires. He's helping companies migrate or building their networks from the ground up. When a customer requests implementation of Cisco technologies, Gray is called in for advanced services projects.

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At Conquest, Gray implements networks for some of the largest corporations in the world. He built a new VoIP system for a major tire manufacturer and is in the process of rebuilding the networks for a national chain of home improvement stores, including not only the company headquarters but all retail locations, each of which has 11 switches of its own. He's upgraded massive government agencies, some of them with 10,000 branches scattered throughout the country. In the past three years, Gray said, his career has taken him to Mexico, Singapore and pretty much every state in the U.S.

"When we go to work, we do VoIP systems and the core infrastructure, and we usually start from scratch," he said. "The most challenging part is when we're not involved from the beginning."

There have been some instances where Gray and his team have had to tweak a network after someone else has started. But since Conquest bills itself as a total implementation service, that doesn't happen often.

Gray is also working toward a Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) certification. He's passed the written portion and now needs to complete the lab. The CCIE is an exhaustive exam, but it vaults networking pros to the top of the heap. Cisco's website states that "less than 3% of all Cisco certified professionals earn their CCIE."

Where Gray finds himself now is a far cry from what he was led to expect as a high school sophomore when networking first appeared on his radar screen. He was told then that he could make $12 an hour managing networks for hospitals. He's created a life and career for himself building some of the largest networks in the country.

Gray is also giving back to the schools that helped him hone his skills. He's become a mentor to networking students, talking to them once a month. He is an active member of the Virginia Beach Public Schools' advisory group and was named volunteer of the year by the Virginia Beach City Public Schools ATC. Gray has become a role model to students because of his success. He also helped one student he mentored obtain a position with Conquest Technologies after graduation.

"My company sees a lot of value in hiring folks that are Cisco-trained," he said. "I help to identify Academy students as potential employees."

And Gray said that when he's in the classroom, he makes sure that students don't get discouraged and uses his own education and career path as a guide for them.

"I tell them, 'You can take this far. If you want it, it's here, no matter what level you get to. I'm just a guy who understands how it works and can follow directions,'" he said. "I tell them it's not as hard as it looks, and it's not anything to be scared of."

Gray tells his students that if they learn how to think logically, put in the time, do the work, and study, they can achieve their goals in networking.

"There were students with me that didn't realize the opportunities in front of them," he said. "I tell the students now to seize those opportunities."

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