Is the CCIE Becoming Irrelevant?

There’s a new story being told in the networking industry. The CCIE isn’t what it used to be, and pursuing it doesn’t make as much sense as in years past. My initial response to this is simple: BALONEY.

My thoughts aren’t based on a formal research study, so please keep that in mind.

Over the last 18 months or so I’ve had more than a couple conversations with friends and acquaintances who believe the CCIE is not as relevant or meaningful in this new age of software defined networking and community-driven technology. The conversation usually centered around trends such as SDN, automation, open standards, and a community-driven networking development model.

The argument I’ve heard has several premises:

First, current trends in networking require network engineers develop new skills other than those found in Cisco certification curricula. Therefore, the CCIE in and of itself is less valuable.

Second, the CCIE certification is more Cisco-centric than it used to be. This means it is intrinsically less valuable as a validation of fundamental networking skills.

Third, we’re fast approaching the 60,000 mark of CCIE numbers making the certification more ubiquitous than it’s ever been.

Fourth, the proliferation of open standards in networking precludes vendor lock-in making any vendor-specific certification obsolete.

Yesterday, I tweeted this:

What I’ve found is that that I’m not the only one who thinks this way. I had a couple good interchanges with folks including this comment from Daniel Dib (@danieldibswe):

I also put the question out there for my CCIE study group and got a variety of responses that centered around a central theme captured succinctly by Nick Russo (@nickrusso42518):

Untitled

Current trends in networking require network engineers develop new non-Cisco skills, but hasn’t that always been the case? The most successful network engineers are those who have solid networking chops but also know a thing or two about Windows Server, Linux, VMware, project management and how to write a paragraph. Today we can add Python and Ansible to the list. For the vast majority of networking jobs, all of these skills are and always have been important; therefore, the need for engineers to develop programming skills doesn’t diminish the value of the CCIE.

Most networks I’ve worked on were Cisco-centric. Even during my short time working on GE’s infrastructure, all I did was work on Cisco gear. Maybe we need more vendors in the mix, but that’s not really the point I’m trying to make. Most networks run Cisco equipment, so it doesn’t bother me that the CCIE exam is Cisco-centric. Furthermore, I feel that I have a reasonable grasp of networking concepts, and most of my formal training has been through certification pathways. Though the CCIE is certainly vendor-specific, studying for it has also helped me learn more deeply the fundamentals of networking apart from specific vendor technology.

I don’t care too much what the current CCIE number is up to. Not all people who’ve earned it are still actually in the workforce, and of those that are, not all are practicing network engineers. Therefore I don’t believe the market is as flooded with CCIEs as some would suggest. This fast growing number of CCIEs is dispersed throughout the entire world which means there is currently little danger of CCIE saturation in a single geographic area. I understand the point that any certification has the potential to become so ubiquitous that it loses its value, but I don’t believe that’s where we are with the CCIE in 2016. Not even close.

Another friend in my CCIE study group, Katherine McNamara (@kmcnam1), explained that “the CCIE number used to crawl because there was only one kind of CCIE in the beginning, fewer testing centers, and fewer seats.”

In the early days of the CCIE certification, there was one track, very few testing centers and even fewer available seats for actual testing. As a result, the number increased slowly. Today there are multiple tracks, more testing centers, and a much greater awareness of the need for strong networking skills. To say that the number is too high or growing too fast is to suggest the climate for networking technology and the need for engineers with strong skills is the same now as it was in 1993.

The proliferation of open standards in networking doesn’t mean the CCIE is less useful and we all need to become developers in order to get a job. This just means that engineers need to adapt and learn some new skills. Logically, the need to learn Python doesn’t undermine the validity or relevance of the CCIE just like the need for a roofer to learn Excel to better manage his business doesn’t undermine his skills as a roofer. Ultimately this is a straw-man argument that presupposes that a CCIE knows little outside routing and switching. Sure, there are specialists who focus in on a specific technology, but generally speaking I believe that great engineers have deep and broad skills.

Vendor lock-in is not necessarily a concern for me. I don’t think people are truly as concerned about it as they say they are. I think the actual argument is more a matter of bitterness than a logical conclusion. For example, in my naive experience, many of those who wax eloquent on vendor lock-in also subtly and sometimes overtly make fun of those not using a Mac. I know they’re not exactly the same thing, but it suggests that they don’t really have a problem with a little vendor lock-in.

I don’t live in Silicon Valley, New York City, London, or some other global center of commerce and technology. I live in a small city with very few extremely large companies. Hiring managers in my area are looking for candidates with solid networking skills represented by project experience spelled out on a resume. The vast majority of networks are not webscale infrastructures, so pay attention to the hiring managers of smaller and medium-sized businesses where most networking jobs can be found. Sure – the largest and most progressive companies may thumb their noses at resumes and instead ask to see GitHub contributions as a means of vetting a candidate,  but by and large this is simply not the case.

In the last two years I made a few job changes to increase my income. That means I have a lot of interviewing experience in my recent past. Every company I spoke with except one encouraged if not required I pursue the CCIE, and all but one said they’d pay for it. Never once was I asked for my GitHub information or a portfolio of open source projects. I’m not speaking against that sort of hiring process; I’m simply observing that it’s not the method espoused by the majority of companies. Maybe it will be one day soon, but it isn’t today.

Often, the arguments I’ve heard about the decreasing value of the CCIE were made by current CCIEs. These are people who have reaped incredible rewards for earning their number. This doesn’t logically negate the argument, of course, but it doesn’t sit well with me at all.

My early background is in academia, and I have a deep appreciation for formal, traditional education. I don’t value the CCIE over a college education or over real-world experience, and I’m aware that Cisco has developed vendor-specific certifications in large part to guarantee their strong presence in the marketplace. However, I disagree that the CCIE itself is becoming increasingly irrelevant or meaningless.

For us plebeians living in smaller cities and working on networks serving only a few thousand end-users, it still opens doors, and it still provides a convenient pedagogical framework to learn networking.

The CCIE is not becoming irrelevant.

21 thoughts on “Is the CCIE Becoming Irrelevant?

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  1. I’m one of those people who attempted CCIEv4 back in 2012. I had two shots at the exam, passed configuration and failed troubleshooting both times (by a question on the face of it, gutting). I studied by myself and my company at that time agreed to pay for the exam, but otherwise I had no help. For a lot of personal reasons and lack of equipment as I changed jobs, I had to stop studying, but the technology journey and knowledge I gained from that has helped me no end. From a selfish financial perspective I do as well as the average CCIE.

    Three years ago I had a car accident, which has left me with a permanent brain injury, I’m so lucky in some respects that I still have that knowledge, and can still do my job, but learning new stuff is very tough and I expect my time in industry is limited if I can’t overcome some of the problems. I have thought long and hard about trying to have another go at the CCIE if only to try and beat the physical injury, however, I too am sometimes put off by the new world, should I try learning Python or something else? However I find it quite alien and very hard due to my condition. My customer is not yet embracing the new world and may not for some years, in fact unless you are looking at greenfield deployments I would argue moving from traditional campus/DC networks to new fabrics, SDN and ACI, its actually really hard and very expensive to do so.

    The CCIE has a lot of merit, even if you never pass the exam, the foundation in knowledge you get from it, takes you to another level, and yes I can easily know when someone regardless of qualification is having me on, its been invaluable in so many situations. I’m glad I retain a lot of it, but I do regret not passing it when I was more able to do so, especially when I’m asked if I know what I’m doing by senior managers who see the CCIE (Correctly sometimes) as a badge that puts down in their minds as I don’t have it.

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  2. It is not that CCIE is being irrelevant, it is that the whole of infrastructure is becoming irrelevant. Irrelevant in the sense that as a business you care about implementing business logic as code and you really want your infrastructure to fade away as much as possible.

    In the past (“iron age”) it wasn’t really possible but with cloud computing, it became possible to abstract the infrastructure as a service. There is no need to re-invent wheel or create some snowflake systems. DevOps is for the present and NoOps is for the near future.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s not that it’s irrelevant, it’s just that somebody with a CCIE may be great or useless, just like somebody without one.
    I’ve worked with a few CCIEs who clearly demonstrated networking knowledge and proficiency that was CCNA level or less. But hey, they’ve got a CCIE. Over the many years, I’ve seen similar for many certifications. And it disappoints and saddens me.
    And many of the brightest I’ve work with have no certifications at all.

    Yes, it helps get you hired cause HR can look for that in a stack of resumes.
    But it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be better than somebody without it.

    As always, YMMV.
    …karl

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  4. 3 Things :

    1stly : When it comes to new technologies vs a CCIE , i always tell people to picture a fighter jet pilot being given a Next generation plane. First, having been in the thick of the things and confidence gained from that, ensures the guy can pick up the challenge. The curve is not so steep.

    2ndly : As we talk about new technologies like cloud, virtualization, SDN etc, you have to realize that majority of the current networks are actually hardware and more hardware. Cisco still makes good margins, same case with Juniper, Huawei and the likes on hardware. These new technologies have evolved to the point of being able to run a DC network in the cloud but it is yet to reach a point of carry TDM traffic from remote areas and MPLS traffic engineering in some advanced service providers cores. In addition, ISPs and the rest are yet to embrace the part of entrusting the logic of their network to some controller and software . Single points of failures is any CIO’s biggest headache. Same applies to having to justify for Forklift projects into uncharted waters

    3rdly : Being a CCIE is not really about Cisco. It is about delving deep into the mucky waters of networking and understanding concepts in a deeper way. I for one, I have been faced with Huawei boxes, Juniper firewalls and now am deploying Fortigates and Perl Altos. All i have always looked for is the 10 page or so pdf manual of how to log in 🙂 🙂 and being able to do “?” on the command prompt. The rest falls in very comfortably.

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  5. I think the CCIE certification is as relevant as it used to be. Even automation requires someone to make the decisions of what has to be automated and when things break, someone still has to understand how things really work and be able to troubleshoot.

    I actually see a risk in too much automation. I see younger engineers which are stuck when things break or can’t really explain how things work under the hood.

    Network engineering is not about someone configuring 100 access switches for a campus network. That’s what automation is for. Network engineering is about selecting the right type of switch and which features are required in the specific business environment and what would be the right approach of making it work.

    I’ve worked on the CCDE certification, where one of the principles was to try and keep to the general technology and avoid, at least to a degree, vendor specific stuff. I think it made CCDE very relevant in the industry. I have a feeling that CCIE, to a degree, would follow this path and will be a relevant way for young engineers to prove their worth in the market.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Arie. I’m 100% on board with the network automation trend but I totally agree that though it’s a great tool, it’s doesn’t supplant foundational networking knowledge

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  6. Cisco is doing their part too, with emerging technologies coming into the exams and heck Data Center has some ACI also. I actually had the opportunity to work in Cloud Services at Cisco. While I ended up spending a fair bit of time working on RHEL boxes, troubleshooting openstack issues, never did I once feel like the knowledge gained from the CCIE wasn’t helpful. I’ve always felt a good engineer understands the process well enough he or she can apply it, regardless of the technology. Did I have to spend a couple days learning to work with Neutron and OVS? Of course, but it took me a matter days (not months) to be considered a strong resource on team. I think that’s the true value of the IE.

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    1. Thanks for the comment! I completely agree. I just spent the last few months working on curriculum for network automation training, and I saw first hand how Cisco, though certainly proprietary in some emerging technology, is also absolutely embracing open source. I’m not necessarily a Cisco fanboy, but I can’t deny what I observe which is simply that this new tech (which I don’t believe is new at all) is awesome but doesn’t invalidate networking skills.

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    2. This is probably the most important comment here.

      I have a background in Voice (I’m a collab CCIE), but found myself in a similar situation. In chasing the CCIE, I over-specialized in VoIP. Therefore, my routing and switching knowledge is relatively poor, considering my IE status. However, I also managed to transition to Linux networking pretty easily and have also had zero issues in picking up any SIP-based VoIP system – days, not months as you said.

      My advice therefore to any aspirant is to focus less on the clunky command line configs. I prepped for three years for the lab and spent two and a half of those three years learning the underlying protocols. I focused rather on RFC documents and reference material that focused on protocols, stacks/queues and hardware/software interactions. If you view what Cisco does as just a wrapper for the actual skill set that you need to acquire to become a strong network engineer, your skills become easily transferable. This way the qualification becomes a by-product of acquiring valuable knowledge.

      As an aside, it is also a hell of a lot cheaper to learn these skills in open source than paying an instructor to teach you an antiquated interface that (oops, soapbox) will becoming largely irrelevant in the next 5 years.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ll start by saying that I do not have a CCIE, but have thought long and hard about whether or not to pursue it.

    I think, today, the CCIE still holds a lot of value. It will retain that value for a while; however, the its worth is being undermined by a number of things.

    1. Dumps. The fact that people are now able to dump the lab is discouraging.

    2. A**holes. It’s anecdotal, but about half of the CCIEs I have dealt with have been incredible sources of knowledge and network-fu. The other half have been mediocre at networking and total a**holes. I’ve had this cert shoved in my face as the only proof that I was wrong (I wasn’t). It’s happened several times, and makes me dislike all of you.

    3. Evolving network landscape. Cisco is losing market share, and as they do, the value of the CCIE decreases. There is still value in learning the ins and outs of the different protocols, but even that is becoming less necessary. Example: Meraki VPN configuration. I don’t have to know anything about how or why VPNs work to configure a Meraki VPN. This sort of point-and-click configuration is coming and will reduce the need for highly skilled CLI jockeys. The need will always be there, but it won’t be what it is today.

    The days of relying on your only marketable skill being that you passed the CCIE are coming to an end. It’s almost sure to net you an interview, but you better be able to back up that number with some knowledge, and you better be diversifying at least a little.

    Personally, I’ve decided that, at this time, my time is better spent getting a Master’s degree. Who knows – maybe I’ll pursue the CCIE when I’m done.

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    1. Thanks for the comment. I agree that any engineer planning to develop a serious career these days absolutely needs to acquire other technical skills. I also agree that dumps are an issue. Hopefully those types of people can get weeded out in the interview process, but I certainly hear you on that one. I don’t have a CCIE, by the way – I’m still studying for it.

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  8. I would suggest that most people do not just get a CCIE and stop, since you have to develop a study habit and disipline you just move on to the next thing. After I got mine, I got MCSE, a couple of VCPs, VCIX-NV, firewall, citrix even project management, working on AWS now. The original slow uptake in numbers was because it was not as much of a ‘thing’. In 1998 cisco press published its first book and career certifications were announced when I was taking the lab (yes it used to be ONLY jump right to CCIE).
    Fred P. Baker #3555

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    1. Awesome input, Fred. Thanks very much. I agree completely with that. It seems logical to me that someone dedicated enough to their trade to achieve the CCIE would also be a lifelong learner to some reasonable capacity.

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  9. Hi Phil,

    Excellent post. I enjoyed reading it. I agree with Nick Russo on his points completely. If you didn’t have the underlying network protocols down, how could you script or automate a network? Katherine’s point about there being more CCIE tests and test center is right on also. They even have mobile CCIE labs at one point and may still have. As someone who got my CCIE RS three years ago in this heavy SDN moving network world, it has done wonders for my career and skills. I think one that thing has has hampered the CCIE is people who passed it but can’t live up to the expectations that come with an exam of this level. I have heard from people who have interviewed CCIEs that did lousy in the interview and now this has jaded the interviewers in future interviews. There are other vendors than Cisco and IE level tests from Juniper, Brocade, Hauwai and others have gained grown in the industry. I got my JNCIE two years ago and this really helped balance my skill sets. With SDN, we are being forced to learn new skills and my fear is that if we don’t learn these new skills, it will be harder to find the right job. Either we adapt to the market or the market forces us into places we don’t want.

    Again, great post and enjoyed it.

    Kyle

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    1. Thanks Kyle! I think that over time new skills such as competent programming abilities will absolutely be more a part of a network engineer’s life, so naturally it will be considered more of an expectation for a job. But I just don’t feel it’s an all or nothing proposition.

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  10. “I’m simply observing that it’s not the method espoused by the majority of companies. Maybe it will be one day soon, but it isn’t today.”

    Agree 100%, the social media feeds of today are full of buzz regarding SDN, devops, OpenFlow, etc etc because they’re hot topics today. Like you said though when you add up the numbers the majority of companies (enterprises at least, dev-shops are another game) are running traditional networks. There seems to be a very vocal minority of engineers who wave the death flag of the CCIE and traditional networking.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Robert. I believe that they’re more than hot topics – trends like automation and intent-driven networking are awesome, and they’re here now. I just don’t think it causes the CCIE to lose any value, and I don’t think engineers should abandon certification pathways altogether as a result. I really believe you’re right when you say that most networks are still traditional networks. That’s why I think the skills associated with the CCIE are still totally relevant. But also consider that network automation skills and even simple scripting skills can still be a huge benefit to traditional network engineers. That’s why I just can’t see one or the other – instead I see it as one *and* the other.

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