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New Cisco certification redefines network engineer career path

With its new Cisco Certified Architect program, Cisco has introduced a new pinnacle Cisco certification for network engineers. With the new certification on their resumes, networking professionals will demonstrate that they understand the business requirements just as thoroughly as they understand the technical specifications for complex networks.

With a new top-level network certification, Cisco could open a network engineer's career path straight into the executive boardroom.

At Cisco Live in San Francisco this week, Cisco Systems unveiled its Cisco Certified Architect program, a new pinnacle certification that sits atop Cisco's most elite career certifications, the Cisco Certified Internetworking Expert (CCIE) and Cisco Certified Design Expert (CCDE).

The Cisco Certified Architect certification is about translating business requirements into technical specifications, according to Sanjay Mehta, product manager for Learning@Cisco. Cisco Certified Architect candidates must go beyond demonstrating expertise with network architecture and show that they can communicate with C-level executives to understand business objectives and translate them into technological blueprints.

"An architect must be able to communicate and advocate proposed architecture," Mehta said. "They must have strong verbal communications and presentation skills. They must be able to demonstrate strong business knowledge, especially in finance and risk management. They must be able to operate on the fly, because they're coming across different market adjacencies that need to be linked and incorporated into an enterprise architecture."

Based on recent market research, Cisco estimates that companies will spend more than $100 billion buying the wrong networking technologies and services over the next five years, Mehta said, because of an emerging skills gap in the networking profession. The day-to-day operations of switching and routing are still critical functions in the networking profession, but Mehta said enterprises will increasingly need network architects who can look at "the big picture" and who can work with teams of engineers to make sure that different components of the network come together to serve business requirements.

Zeus Kerravala, group vice president for the Yankee Group, said the Cisco Certified Architect certification will produce network architects who can help enterprises bridge the divide between IT and the rest of the business, which should help cut down Cisco's estimates for wasted spending.

"Historically, [Cisco's] certifications have revolved around technical understanding and technical prowess," Kerravala said. "With [Cisco Certified Architect certification], that's only half the challenge. The other half of the certification is to be able to articulate the technology in business terms. I do think that helps the traditional engineer bridge that gap between IT and the business world much more easily."

But Kerravala said the Cisco Certified Architect certification will also open up new career opportunities for network engineers.

"It's interesting," he said. "When you think of most corporate leaders, they usually come out of all areas of their senior leadership but IT. You'll often hear a CFO turned CEO or a COO turned CEO, but you never really hear that a CIO turned CEO. [Cisco Certified Architect] should help create a career path for those people on the technology track who want to move more into a line-of-business world."

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Mehta said Cisco expects fewer than 100 people to attain Cisco Certified Architect status within the first few years of the program's existence, making it an elite program that could redefine a network engineer's career.

Heavy requirements set the Cisco Certified Architect bar high

Candidates for the Cisco Certified Architect program must have about 10 years of networking experience and must have attained CCDE certification. To be considered for the certification, a candidate must also submit a resume and a summary of a project in which he was a lead network architect or part of an architecture team that built a global, large-scale network. A panel of three judges, subject matter experts from both inside and outside Cisco, will review the candidate's application and conduct a phone interview with him to determine whether he has the experience to try for the certification.

If the judges decide that an applicant has the right experience, they will issue "an architectural challenge" to the candidate, Mehta said.

"It is … something like an RFP [request for proposals] process," he said, "where the individual would receive an assignment and have to come back with the technical specifications based on the challenge."

The candidate will essentially draft high-level architectural diagrams that specifically address the business requirements laid out in the challenge. Mehta said the candidates must demonstrate their technical expertise as well as their understanding of business requirements. The candidates will then have to present their written proposals to the panel of judges, much as a Ph.D. candidate would defend a doctoral dissertation.

"What [Cisco is] trying to do is replicate real-life environments," Kerravala said. "An almost Ph.D. dissertation defense is an interesting approach. That's the kind of thing [networking professionals] are going to have to prepare for if they want to bridge the gap between IT and the business world."

The panel of judges will start evaluating candidates in January. At $15,000, the Cisco Certified Architect certification is far more expensive than the CCIE and CCDE certifications, which cost about $1,725. Some networking professionals may wonder whether the new certification is worth the hefty price tag.

"Considering that the CCIE itself normally carried with it a six-figure salary, this is almost guaranteed to be more than that," Kerravala said. "Considering that those who pass will be among the top 1% in their field, it's well worth $15,000 to be able to prove that."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor

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