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Is The CCIE Relevant In The SDN Era?

In the networking industry, the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) certification is widely viewed as a badge of success and a way to open up career opportunities. But with software-defined networking promising more automated networks, is the CCIE or other traditional networking certifications still valuable to a networking professional?

That was the question debated Wednesday by a panel of networking experts, most of them CCIEs, at Interop New York. Several argued that the vendor certifications like the CCIE and CCNP still have value, but that networking pros will need to expand their skillsets as SDN moves into the mainstream.

"Ports are still ports. VLANs are still VLANS. There's base networking knowledge that goes into these certs," said Lori MacVittie, principal technical evangelist at F5 Networks. "They're still relevant in that respect. But things are changing, and it's going to be more important to understand the APIs and toolsets around them than it is to interface with these particular devices."

Wendell Odom, who writes about certifications on his website, CertSkills, agreed that traditional certifications are relevant as a foundational material for networking basics -- which are needed to understand SDN. Networking pros, however, need to track emerging SDN certifications, such as those from Cisco, if that's the direction they want to go, he said.

But Colin McNamara, chief cloud architect at Nexus IS, a division of Dimension Data, said the perception of the CCIE -- customarily seen as the highest level of engineering excellence -- is changing. New technologies, combined with the problem of people with a CCIE who are "lab rats who haven't touched a production system," have devalued the certification.

"As someone who hires, I don't look at it, especially on cloud side," he said. "Most of CCIE isn't relevant to building cloud or SDN apps. I wish my cert would retain more value, but it doesn't for me."

MacVittie said the value of a CCIE depends on where someone is located geographically and that person's industry. For example, in the Midwest, the CCIE is still very important.

"There has to be some measure that this person has made an effort to prove they know something about networking... It will be more [valuable] than some guy off the street who says he knows some networking," she said. "So, yes, it's still relevant."

Natalie Timms, an independent consultant and former CCIE program manager at Cisco, said she still gets asked about her CCIE by prospective employers in her consulting work.

"Maybe it's just a checkbox to some people, but it says you went to trouble to learn something," she said.

Career future-proofing
Whether or not they agreed about the value of the CCIE, panelists said networking pros need to expand their knowledge to keep up with new technologies.

Understand the fundamentals -- those will never go away -- but also delve into some basic programming, Timms advised. "Python right now is all the rage."

Odom referred audience members to his blog post offering a study plan for software-defined networking. The plan starts with traditional networking certifications and OpenStack Neutron. It also includes learning about OpenFlow, trying out command-line options with Mininet, and working with a few SDN controllers.

He advised networking pros to pick an SDN vendor and look at the certification program it offers to use as a guide for future studies. He also advised looking into the new SDN certifications being developed by the Open Networking Foundation.

Noting that developers rely on experience, rather than certifications, McNamara advised networking pros to gain software development skills by working on a software development team. Learn how to work with different policy models, and work on an open source project like OpenStack.

"Last thing: Get a GitHub account. Contribute code. That's your resume now. That's what guys like me will look at," he said.

However, MacVittie, noted that McNamara's work with large technology companies puts him ahead of the curve. She told audience members: "You guys aren't going to become programmers. That's not what you wanted to do. Scripting is a skill you want to look at. Look at Python. Will you be doing full-on software development? Probably not. Scripting? Probably."

Networking pros also need to understand APIs and how they're built, she advised. Debugging skills are also critical. She also recommended learning about DevOps and tools like Puppet and Chef.

No matter what, Odom said, SDN is a revolutionary technology that highly impacts established networking professionals and how they think about networks. For learning, it's "going to be fantastic."