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Cisco certs mirror a changing industry

Cisco has made a number of changes to its certification exams, including reducing its popular two-day exam down to one day.

If it's been a while since you thought much about Cisco's certification exams, you've likely missed a lot.

Over the past year, Cisco has made numerous changes to the certification exams it offers. Several of the changes affected the actual test-taking experience for some exams. Others saw brand-new specialized examinations being offered in areas like security, content networking and IP telephony.

The changes began with a bang last summer, when Cisco rather quietly informed candidates it would soon begin offering the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) lab exam as a one-day event, replacing the traditional two-day format.

At the time, Cisco explained that the new format would eliminate redundancies that exist over the two-day exam, and would remove fundamental tasks like basic addressing and cabling.

The news was met with strong reaction, particularly from CCIEs themselves -- many of whom were concerned Cisco might be watering down the prestigious exam in order to squeeze in more candidates.

Those fears turned out to be unwarranted, according to an executive with the one of the world's largest independent IT training providers.

Chuck Terrien, Global Knowledge's vice president of Cisco training worldwide, says eliminating basic addressing and cabling was Cisco's way of saying it assumes CCIE candidates already possessed those fundamental skills. The CCIE instructors with which Terrien works tell him it's still a tough exam.

"The instructors say the new format is just as difficult as the old one," said Terrien. Cisco is just assuming a certain skill level of its CCIE candidates, he said.

Ed Tittel, president of IT training and consulting company LANWrights, Inc., said by its very nature, the one-day format makes things tougher on the test takers.

"Everybody who I've talked to, who's taken the new exam, says it's half-again as hard," said Tittle. "With the old format, candidates had the night in between to recharge the batteries. Now, there's no room for mistakes or for time to think, you just have to know your stuff, and do everything without stopping for a breath."

But the CCIE format switch was just the beginning of the changes Cisco has made to its certification program in recent months In January, the company announced it was launching the Cisco IP Telephony Support Specialist, a brand new certification focusing on planning, implementing and supporting Cisco's advanced IP telephony offerings.

One month later, Cisco announced two new security certifications -- CCIE Security and Cisco Security Specialist 1.

And, in March, the company began yet another new certification, this one focusing on content networking.

"I think it's a good move on Cisco's part, particularly the security exams, said Tittel. "There is such a huge appetite for security stuff right now."

All of the new certifications show that Cisco is making sure its customers are being well serviced by the Channel Partners (Cisco resellers and system integrators), according to Terrien.

"What it means is, a guy can sell routers and switches, but if he wants to sell telephony equipment, he's going to need to have specialists on board," said Terrien.

"It raises the bar a bit, and will force smaller companies to make strategic decisions about which area it wants to have its people trained in," Terrien said. Larger companies will have to make new decisions about which people are assigned to which certifications, he said.

It also makes good business sense for Cisco to create new certification standards in the areas of the industry it is most heavily pursuing. "Generally, you can assume that any major Cisco initiative will have some sort of certification for the channel -- in other words, creating new benchmarks for the channel," he said.

Another major examination change recently announced by Cisco involves the CCNA network associate's exam. What was once strictly a multiple-choice exam now contains sections that require a candidate to enter commands into a simulator.

Terrien, whose company is Cisco's largest learning solution partner, feels this is a great change.

"We're really excited about it, because it puts more emphasis on having additional practical hands-on skills. And that's exactly what we do in our training.

The use of a simulator during the exam also raises the bar, Terrien says, by making it unlikely a candidate could pass the test having only studied from a book. "If it were easy, what would be the point?" he asked.

"It's not quite a practical exam, but for a computer-based test, it's pretty close," he said.

As for predicting future changes to Cisco certification exams, Terrien says the best way is to look at what's hot in the industry. If over the next year or so Cisco increases its efforts in wireless, for example, some form of wireless certification could well appear on the horizon.

About the author:
Jack Pickell writes from his home in Beverly, Mass.

Read more about certification in our Featured Topic "Making sense of certs."

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