Going steady

Time for some more [long] introspection.

I hold interests in many different facets of Information Technology, mostly within the larger umbrella of networking. I am learning enterprise networking at a deeper level, because that’s where I’m currently positioned in life, but I hold interests in service provider networks, data center networks, and storage area networks. Each of those is an umbrella of networking in their own right, though enterprise networking is the foundation. Luckily, with my current job, I get to touch on each of those areas (even if some of it is only in a very slight way).

Often, I find it difficult to steer myself directly toward any specific discipline, and I find myself being pulled in different directions internally. There is so much that I want to learn, and while I spend a good portion of every day either learning new things or reviewing things I already know, I often feel torn, worrying that I am not balancing everything well enough. I worry sometimes about spending too much time on any particular subject. To top it off, I read reports daily about how the world of networking is changing dramatically (even though it has apparently been stagnant for the past 15 years or so) and that I should be learning Python and OpenStack at a minimum to keep myself current.

If you read this blog, you know that I have been studying for the CCIE R&S pretty much since I got the CCNP almost three years ago. Things have changed so much for me in the last three years, and my motivations have changed. My viewpoints of both my career and the industry as a whole have changed. Originally, just saying I was studying for the CCIE felt like something great. It felt important. I am positive nearly everyone that says they are studying for the CCIE feels the same way.

Over time, though, it loses its meaning. I am sure people get tired of hearing it. One problem is that most of the people that hear you say that really have no idea how much work it takes to acquire the CCIE legitimately. The other problem, as I found out, is that people studying for the CCIE often really have no idea how much work it takes to acquire the CCIE legitimately.

A few years ago, I had read that it takes an average of 250 hours of study time to become a CCNP. That is probably not true; I know I spent a lot more time than that when I was studying for it. When all of the concepts are new (and especially if you are coming from a place of having no experience), it takes awhile for things to sink in and start to make sense.

The same statistic also said that it takes about 1,000 hours of study time to become a CCIE. That’s 125 eight-hour days. If you could quit your job for 1/3 of a year and do nothing but study for the CCIE, it could be done as long as you followed a strict study plan. Would you get burned out? Probably. Is that method practical in any reasonable way? Absolutely not. A more realistic statistic I have seen is that the CCIE is meant for someone with five to seven years of industry experience. From where I am standing now in my career, this makes much more sense to me.

I still study under the CCIE R&S framework. It has been extremely beneficial to me in a number of different ways. It’s really quite ironic, but studying for the CCIE has taught me how to learn and organize information in a way that I never really had to in college. The amount of information that must be retained and recalled to legitimately pass both the written and lab exams is extraordinary, and that’s why the CCIE used to be called “The Ph.D. of the Internet”. It’s unfortunate that people can put in the same amount of effort into getting the CCIE as a Ph.D., but never have the same level of recognition outside of their field. On the other hand, both the CCIE certification and a Ph.D. could be seen as just the trophy you receive at the end, but it’s the journey itself that is important.

For me, the journey is the part that I find changes occasionally. When I started taking networking seriously about five years ago, the CCIE represented the peak of a mountain I wanted to climb. That’s no longer the case. I still desire the CCIE certification, and I do believe I will get there at some point. However, I’ve realized I need to adjust my timeframe. The CCIE now represents a milestone, not the peak of a mountain.

The CCIE really does require dedication unto itself, due to the material covered on the exams. This is because it is not a real-world exam. It is not an industry best-practices exam. It is an exam that covers arcane details and validates that you know every aspect of the covered protocols (you know what every “nerd knob” does and when/why you would use it, even though in real life you would probably never actually encounter it in production). The CCNP-level exams are generally not like that. They essentially cover the general realm of a particular product or technology. There is some amount of arcane knowledge required, but not to the extent of CCIE.

This is why I have decided to stop beating myself up inside for not dedicating myself to the CCIE. When you’re studying for the CCIE, especially toward the beginning, it is very easy to compare yourself with others in attempt to gauge where you’re at and where you’re going. You hear about others getting their CCIE in only a year, and people that do nothing but eat, sleep and breathe studying for the CCIE. At first, these kinds of stories can be inspiring. After awhile, they seem very impractical. They seem like trophy-seeking stories. I had to realize that I am not in this for the trophy; I am in this for the knowledge and to become a better network engineer.

Ivan Pepelnjak (and others) have commented on this as well. There is the idea of the strict generalist (which I used to be), who knows just a little bit about a very wide range of things. Then there is the strict expert, who knows a lot about a very specific topic, but is unable to branch out into other realms. That sounds very much, to me, like someone who dedicates themselves to passing the CCIE exam and nothing else. I realized that is not the person I want to be. I want to fit more into the middle of these two extremes, where I have a very deep level of knowledge of a few different realms, but not necessarily strive for a single discipline, as that can be limiting. This very much fits within me currently having a deep level of enterprise networking knowledge, but wanting to learn more about Service Provider and Data Center technologies, yet not strive for retaining older sysadmin knowledge (such as Microsoft-related stuff).

Even though I have been in one facet or another of IT for my entire adult life, I really didn’t start taking it seriously as a “career” until just a few years ago. I worked in the realm of small business until two years ago. I’ve been learning about enterprise networks for the past five. I don’t really count college because most of my A.S. degree was centered around systems administration, not really networking, and my B.S. degree was very generalized and didn’t strictly adhere to any specific discipline. The college degrees, ultimately, served to pass the H.R. filters of companies.

Originally, this was my thought behind the certifications, as well. Deciding to become more “career-oriented” a few years ago, but not having any upper-level experience or industry connections, I thought that certifications were everything. I thought that certifications served as a way to bypass my lack of experience. People selling certification training material (and even college degrees [or maybe ESPECIALLY college degrees]) have no problem perpetuating that myth. I eventually discovered that it is indeed a myth.

There are many people in my industry that I look up to, both those with and without certifications (and sometimes even college degrees). I finally realized there is one thing that connects all of these people together: they have lots of industry experience, which I have learned really does matter above all else.

This means that it doesn’t matter that I am 36 and have been working with computers since I was a kid. I still have, for all intents and purposes, about two years of enterprise level experience. Sure, my experiences in small business networking allow me to occasionally bring unique perspectives to the table that other people might not be able to do, but I am still considered to be at the beginning of a career in networking. This means that even if I held the CCIE right now, I would still not be taken as seriously as someone who had many years of enterprise experience. In fact, unless I worked for a Cisco VAR, having the CCIE could even be detrimental, as most people would probably assume I cheated to get the CCIE with having so little comparative experience. This is why I have learned that experience trumps the CCIE. However, experience plus the CCIE is golden.

I had it in my mind that I was going to take (and of course hopefully pass) the CCIE written exam before the end of July. Then I would have another 18 months to take and pass the lab exam. I feel like I could do that. But only if I dedicated myself completely to the CCIE and nothing else.

I don’t want to do that. I’m not ready to do that. I am not going to stop studying for it, but I am no longer going to beat myself up for not progressing with it as fast as I think I should be. There is a lot of other networking knowledge not directly related to the CCIE R&S that I wish to acquire, and that takes time.

There is experience that I also wish to acquire, which of course also takes time. My job with the school system gave me the absolute tiniest taste of what I wanted to do in networking, but I wanted more, which is why I left. The job I am at now is helping me build a strong foundation of networking skills. I have gained foundational troubleshooting and operational knowledge and experience that I know will stay with me for the rest of my career. Additionally, the experience keeps growing as I help out with non-routine aspects of networking, such as the logical and physical process of moving an entire data center to a new location. This job also pays well enough for my wife and I to live comfortably.

I never wanted my career to be “just” about money, but being able to live comfortably makes an incredible difference with perspective and attitude. As I said, I spend the majority of my days studying and learning new things, so I have no fear of becoming complacent, but at the same time, being in my current position has allowed me to have this introspection that I would not have allowed myself to have previously. It made me realize that I will get both the experience and knowledge in time as long as I keep working for it. Yet, I don’t need to beat myself up for not progressing as fast as I think I should. That is a very easy thing to do when you’re beginning on the trail, and you’re not yet in a very comfortable position in life.

My CCNP expires in August. Some people in this industry brag about not having any certifications and attribute to being where they are purely due to experience. I spent a lot of time and my own money to achieve the CCNP, and to renew it for another three years only costs $200 to take a single exam. An exam I know I could take right now and pass due to my continual study of the same topics at a more advanced level. Unless I change my mind and decide the attempt the CCIE written exam before then, I intend to take the single exam to renew my CCNP, just because the effort vs. reward is very much in balance right now.

I have other certifications that are either expired, or will expire soon. I have different feelings about these. For example, I will not be renewing my Microsoft certifications. It may sound silly, but after acquiring them, I realized they were purely sysadmin-oriented, and I realized I have no desire to be a sysadmin. Networking is where I want to be, and I can’t imagine any other facet of IT that I would want to be in.

I have a Juniper certification that expires in September. I am not sure if I will be renewing this one right now or not, but I do intend to renew it eventually. The certification (JNCIA-Junos) has been revised since I took the exam, and it is only $50 to take it. I hold a strong interest in Juniper because of its ties to Service Provider networking, which I want to steer my career toward eventually. However, because it is only $50, I will probably just wait until I am ready instead of pushing myself toward it. This certification serves as the foundation for all other Juniper certifications, and I could probably pass it by brushing up on Juniper-specific things for a few days.

Then, there is the VMware VCP certification, which expires in December. I feel like I just got this certification, and yet, it is going to expire soon, because VMware only has a two-year cycle on their certifications. This certification is quite unique, with requirements that force me to strongly consider whether or not I want to recertify. The VCP requires passing a VMware-approved course. That is the major hurdle of this certification. You can take the course any time you like through VMware themselves, but it costs about $3500. If you’re paying out of your own pocket, like me, that is hardly an option. Then there was the route I took: a community college offered the course online for about $300. The only problem with that: there was a six month waiting period! So having jumped through that hoop, there is a strong incentive to maintain this certification. The downside is that even though I work with many of the things covered under this certification on a daily basis, it also covers much more sysadmin-type stuff that I do not deal with (nor have the desire to).

However, there is an alternative that I may end up doing, but I have not yet decided for sure. VMware introduced a VCP certification for Network Virtualization, which covers their NSX product. I do not work with this product (and never would at my current job), but I do have an interest in it as it is all about networking. This certification also requires taking a class, but since my VCP has not expired, I can skip the class and just take the exam. Sometime in the near future, I will being studying for that exam, and I will decide then if it will be worth it to me to actually pursue it or not.

One of the nice things about being in the position I am now in, and getting the experience I have been receiving, is that this blog doesn’t feel as much like a game of chess as it used to. I have had many thoughts over the years that I did not publish for fear of a future employer seeing it and taking it the wrong way (meaning, revealing a weakness in myself). For example, before this post, I would have been afraid to truly reveal my current level of enterprise experience. Until this job, my resume contained things that were really not relevant to the present (such as sysadmin work, even though I was applying for a networking job) just because I was afraid of looking too “green”. Since getting this job, those worries are slipping away, and it is a really great feeling.

I have greater confidence in myself and my abilities than ever, and I feel like the future is becoming clearer all the time. At the same time, I do my very best to remain humble and never be cocky. I have already seen at my present job an example of somebody thinking they know more than they do, and being abrasive about it. They lasted a little over a week before being canned. I know that that will never be me. I have a very strong appreciation for where I am at, and where I am going. I very much look forward to the process of learning new things at a deeper level, without putting the mental pressure on myself like I used to. I used to be afraid of stagnation, but because I do spend most of my time each day learning, I know that won’t be the case.

Knowledge and experience both take time. It can definitely be a struggle to realize this.