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CCIE exams: Still worth it?

Jedadiah Casey had been studying for the CCIE exams for months when he found himself asking whether the certification is even relevant in the SDN era. His answer: Absolutely.

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I started studying for the CCIE exams shortly after passing the three CCNP exams in 2013. During the past three years, my motivations for obtaining the certification and my methods of studying for it have changed significantly. Over time, I began to wonder, is the end goal of achieving the certification even worth it? Does the CCIE still hold relevance today?

The CCIE is one of the most challenging certification programs available to IT professionals such as network engineers, and has been for more than 20 years. Critics have accused the CCIE of testing on corner-case scenarios to the exclusion of real-world situations. Over the course of a career, you may never even see several CCIE topics in a single production network.

Many in our industry wonder if the CCIE exams are still relevant and worth the enormous effort it takes to pass them. After all, if the network is moving toward a virtual, software-defined state, what is the purpose of learning about things like routers and switches? To answer that question, I always like to keep RFC 1925 Rule 11 in mind, which says that ideas and technologies that have been proposed or used previously will inevitably be proposed again, probably in a new form, whether they worked the first time or not.

What does that mean for the computer networks of today and tomorrow? Software-defined networking may present a new approach to networking, but its underlying principles are the same as traditional, "physical" networking. This means that whether a router or switch is a physical device or just a piece of software, the fundamental operations remain the same. This is one of the reasons the CCIE certification is still relevant and will continue to stay that way.

CCIE journey

When I began studying, I knew the CCIE exams were going to be extremely challenging, but I was not yet prepared for the actual amount of effort it takes to acquire the certification. When you read about other people achieving the certification in only a year, it can be intimidating and ultimately very frustrating when you realize that you're not progressing at the pace you think you should be -- especially after that first year of studying has passed.

At first, I envisioned myself achieving the CCIE, with little regard as to how I was actually going to get there. I read many textbooks, I watched many hours of videos and I did some occasional labs. I did not yet realize just how different studying for the CCIE is compared to studying for the lower-level certifications. I finally reached a point where I understood that by only looking at the end goal, I was missing the entire point of the CCIE, and that is the journey itself.

I finally reached a point where I understood that by only looking at the end goal, I was missing the entire point of the CCIE, and that is the journey itself.

Nobody becomes an expert in anything overnight. All good things take time. Can you go from zero to expert in only a year? It is certainly possible with the right circumstances and personal dedication. Will you have the experience to back up your newfound knowledge? Most likely not. Not too many organizations want to hire a CCIE with no real-world experience. This realization was key to me being able to relax and not punish myself internally anymore because I felt like I wasn't progressing fast enough. The journey itself has become immensely important to me, as I gain more experience as a network engineer working toward the CCIE, while having the benefit of working in a live production enterprise network.

The most important skill this journey has taught me is how to actually learn things. Everybody has a different way of learning. Some learn best from videos or classroom instruction; others learn best from textbooks and documentation or from still other methods. For many years, my method of studying was to read a textbook and take notes. I watched videos as well, but overall didn't find them as useful as textbooks. I eventually came to the conclusion, however, that none of these methods worked particularly well for me.

Study skills

Finally, I discovered the method that works best with the least amount of effort. Now when I study for the CCIE exams, I arrange the topics in a hierarchical manner using outlining/mind-mapping software, and I put my notes into that format. Then, for each topic, I generate a series of flash cards that are based on a simple question-and-answer format. This has the dual benefit of forcing me to examine the topic and formulate questions about it, as well as creating a way to randomly review the material. Formulating the questions is extremely important to the learning process. If you can't explain something in a simplified manner, then you know that you have not yet mastered the topic. This method therefore serves as a simple self-check.

Though I have not yet taken the CCIE exams, the shift in my motivation and learning methods have profoundly impacted my life. The mere process of studying for the CCIE exam has provided me with the answers to many questions that I now get to apply each day at work, which greatly improves my efficiency and value to the company I work for, which in turn solidifies my career. Seeing the topics I have studied at such a deep level being used in a production network reinforces my personal investment in learning. This is why the CCIE is still relevant and worth the effort and will continue to be so.

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This was last published in August 2016

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What advice would you give someone deciding whether to pursue the CCIE certification today?