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Necessity is the mother of invention, and also -- for network architect Brett Lykins -- of network automation. Over the past 11 years of his career, as he's graduated to working in bigger and bigger networks, Lykins said he's needed to learn programming skills to work faster with fewer resources.
"My job has evolved from focusing on how to get packets from Point A to B, to how to manage the infrastructure that's doing the actual networking," said Lykins, who currently works on the network security team at managed hosting provider Rackspace, in San Antonio. "The technology itself is so complex now that to get things done, you almost have to leverage what automation gives you -- the ability to do things more programmatically, repeatedly and reliably."
Lykins said he has spent many thousands of hours learning Python and GoLang. While the skills he's acquired have served him well at work, he couldn't find an industry-recognized networking certification that reflected his professional growth and career trajectory.
"There are certifications from Juniper and Palo Alto, but at this point, people still look for Cisco certifications. It is what it is," Lykins said. "A number of people in my situation have moved into automation, and there hasn't been a CCIE-equivalent certification."
Until now. On Feb. 24, 2020, Cisco plans to launch its updated professional certification exam suite, which includes three DevNet tracks focusing on network automation and software development skills at the associate, professional and specialist levels. Cisco will also update the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA), Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) and Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) exams to include automation and programming.
Susie Wee, senior vice president and CTO of Cisco's broader DevNet initiative, has publicly called it the certification program's biggest shift in 26 years. Some network pros welcomed the move as long overdue.
Robert SchneiderNetwork engineer, Rollins College
"My initial reaction was, 'Finally!'" said Robert Schneider, a network engineer at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla.
He added that Cisco has long urged networking professionals to learn programming skills, but without offering a clear path for doing so.
"Put your money where your mouth is," he said. "If you're saying automation is the future, what certifications are you going to offer to help individuals who want to learn and grow?"
Bob Laliberte, practice director and senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group, said Cisco's DevNet initiative has emerged as a major strategic priority for the vendor.
"They recognize highly distributed and complex modern environments require much higher levels of automation and programmability," Laliberte said. "To get there, however, they also recognize that IT people need to upgrade their skills."
Are Cisco certs still worth it?
But some network analysts now question the value of Cisco certifications -- once the undisputed industry gold standard -- given today's more diverse, multivendor environments.
"While Cisco is still an important vendor, it isn't the most important vendor in all areas," Kevin Tolly, founder of The Tolly Group, recently wrote for SearchNetworking. "Thus, a CCIE certification inherently becomes less valuable, as it covers less of what is deployed in the network."
In a recent discussion on Reddit, anonymous users similarly wondered if the new Cisco DevNet certification track would focus too heavily on Cisco DNA Center and other branded technologies. Schneider said he initially shared those concerns but changed his mind after reviewing the training materials, which became available to the public in June 2019.
"They're teaching YAML, Python and Docker -- all of these open source protocols. There's no Cisco XML," he said. "I think their intention is just to show people what's out there currently and how that relates to Cisco technologies."
Lykins has also pored over the Cisco DevNet certification and training literature, agreeing it seems to strike a good balance between vendor-agnostic and vendor-specific information.
"It's a Cisco certification, so it's obviously going to be about Cisco products -- that's what it's there for," he said. "But I think they walked that line very well."
Laliberte said the network pros he's talked to still find significant value in Cisco's professional certifications but acknowledged the program might not make sense for someone who neither works in a Cisco environment nor plans to. Generally, however, he said organizations should encourage employees to pursue as much training as possible.
"The investment typically always pays dividends in more efficient management and greater productivity, regardless of the vendor," Laliberte said. "I actually know some companies that send their employees to training and certification courses prior to purchasing the technology."
'Skate to where the puck is going'
Ultimately, Laliberte said he strongly recommends network pros research the new DevNet and updated CCIE, CCNA and CCNP courses to see how they could help them succeed in their jobs and advance in their careers.
"To quote Wayne Gretzky, 'Skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been,'" he said. "I think the key is finding training and certifications that provide skills that get you to where the puck is going to be -- automation and programmability -- rather than where it was -- command-line interface."
Schneider said he's noticed that job postings for network engineering positions increasingly seek candidates who have familiarity with either Python or Ansible. He predicts those who don't embrace such tools will eventually get left behind.
"It's going to be really important in the coming years to think about automation, not just as a time-saver, but as a way of doing things the right way and creating more reliability," Schneider said. "So, when you're troubleshooting, you're not like, 'Oh, I mistyped that config four months ago when I set it up, because I was tired or I wasn't paying attention.'"
Schneider also noted that the Cisco DevNet certification track targets software developers with an interest in networking, while the updated CCNA, CCNP and CCIE exams will tackle automation from a network engineer's perspective.
"Someone who is a route-switch person isn't necessarily going to want all of the full-on developer stuff, whereas someone who is a developer wanting to get into networking doesn't want to know the ins and outs of routing protocols," he said. "I think that was a good move -- it gives people more options."
Schneider, who already has his CCNA, said he plans to pursue the new CCNP.
Lykins, who has a CCNP, anticipates earning a Cisco DevNet certification. "I'm very excited," Lykins said. "It fills a need."