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Network pros need SDN training, not CCIE status

Network pros will need to look further than traditional vendor certifications if they want to build and manage SDN and programmable infrastructure.

The Cisco certification ladder is no longer a foolproof career path.

In fact, career-level networking certifications from most hardware vendors don't offer the SDN and programming skills that network engineers will inevitably need, according to a group of experts who spoke on a certs panel at Interop NYC last week.

Instead of plodding through every level of a vendor certification program, engineers should take the lower-level classes for networking basics, and then chart their own course in learning programming and management for automated, software-driven networks.

"You have to fundamentally understand how to route packets and use protocols to use equipment," said Lori MacVittie, principal technical evangelist at F5 Networks. "But things are changing and it's going to be more important to understand APIs and the tool sets around them than it is to know how to interact with particular devices."

Network engineers are changing from "consumers of network technology to creators of network technology" as they move away from using CLI and GUI for proprietary, static infrastructure, said Colin McNamara, chief cloud architect at Nexus IS, a Dimension Data company. Now that networks are being abstracted and virtualized, engineers will need programming skills and the ability to interact with SDN controllers and orchestration systems to provision networking resources as an integrated part of IT, he said.

As networking becomes an integrated part of IT resource provisioning, it's no longer feasible for network vendors to train engineers to solely specialize in their technology, McNamara explained.

Meanwhile, it could be years before hardware vendors like Cisco include network programmability concepts even for their own systems in career-level certification programs, said Wendell Odom, a CCIE, longtime Cisco Press author and well-known certifications expert.

Is it too soon to say the CCIE is dead?

The panels experts disagreed on how quickly traditional networking certifications would fall out of fashion.

McNamara, who is part of the Silicon Valley SDN research vanguard, believes CCIE status is already worthless -- he doesn't even include his own CCIE status on his presentations anymore.

"There are a bunch of certified individuals who don't know how to do crap," said McNamara. "What I want to know when I am hiring is: Can you write code? … Are you smart?"

But that may not be the case in all regions or vertical industries, said MacVittie.

"Colin is on the bleeding edge," said McVittie. "I am from the Midwest and we have a lot of very conservative insurance companies and manufacturers and that CCIE is still very important."

Beyond that, employers still need a way to gauge the experience of potential employees and the CCIE serves that purpose, said Natalie Timms, an independent consultant who once developed and managed Cisco certification programs. Cisco certifications have been somewhat tarnished due to cheats and brain dumps, but most CCIEs still endure tough training that forces them to resolve important technical challenges, she said.

Start with basic programming and scripting skills now

Regardless of what level of certification engineers seek from Cisco or other hardware vendors, they must also start learning programming basics -- and Python is the first step.

"Python allows you to start moving in your mind between procedural programming to object-oriented programming," said McNamara. "Switching into that mind of a software developer allows you start working with SDN controllers like OpenDaylight, as well as OpenStack and, to a point, NSX."

Along those same lines, network engineers should learn Linux, and begin playing with APIs. "You will need those basic interaction skills," McNamara said.

MacVittie advises engineers to seek training that is relevant to IT management, such as Project Management Professional or ScrumMaster certifications.

Odom suggests that admins start their career path with a vendor's basic routing and switching certification. Then they should learn data center virtualization, and finally move on to OpenStack Neutron.

From there, network engineers should pick an SDN focus. Each of the vendors and open source organizations are now differentiated enough in their strategies that engineers will have to pick a road, he said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Rivka Gewirtz Little, or follow her on Twitter.

Next Steps

The ONF unveils vendor-neutral SDN certs

VMware says its NSX cert is the next CCIE

Brocade has an SDN certification

The skinny on vendor SDN training

Dig Deeper on Networking careers and certifications

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The CCIE certification will continue to carry value, but in a way in which it was always intended. CCIE skillsets include advanced manipualtion of CLI commands, specifically to Cisco gear. In the 90s, 00s and even today, that skillset is in high demand. But when a company is paying a CCIE $200 per hour salary burdened with benefits, knowledge of a specific language is over-priced. Those of lesser certifications (and labor rate) _could_ perform these same tasks. But legions of tech-savvy engineers would grab the certification, knowing that the CLI language skillset was (and still is) in high demand. What changes the picture is not SDN or NFV, it is the abstraction of CLI into a form in which frequent workflows may be performed with significantly less labor rate burden. Perhaps 80-90% of all networking workflows fall into this category. So, companies like glue networks build graphical workflow environments which impedance match the skillsets of lower labor rate technicians. The value of the individual CCIE to an organization is therefore INCREASED, in that their talents are used more strategically - planning, designing, implementing, rather than the maintenance tasks with which they are frequently employed today. So, its not about SDN or NFV or virtualization or any other technology. Its about impedance matching skillset labor rates to a workflow environment.
Great article. We are definitely seeing a shift in corporate IT thinking when it comes to Cisco certs. As much as the CCIE is a great designation and still very much in demand, there is an obvious shift coming to more vendor neutral SDN, NFV, and OpenStack training programs. Even Cisco itself is pushing their internal staff to attend OpenStack training classes.

At TrainingCity, we have seen a 500% increase in SDN Training inquiries over the past 12 months, a sure sign that enterprise IT departments and carrier staff are shifting their focus away from vendor specific solutions and certifications.