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The case for multi-vendor certifications

For information technology professionals, obtaining certifications have become an important way to demonstrate their knowledge, experience and qualifications. Although certification programs are often fostered or supervised by certifying agencies or professional associations, some major computer software and hardware vendors provide a certification program for installers of their product, such as Cisco’s Certified Internetwork Professional. In this guest post, Chris Crotteau, manager of customer engineering at Santa Barbara, Calif.-based IT infrastructure and services provider Curvature, says that while vendor-specific certifications such as the ones offered by Cisco are still beneficial, networking professionals should consider multi-vendor certifications to build their skills and further their career path.

The case for multi-vendor certifications
Chris Crotteau

There was a time when Cisco certifications were the best bet for networking professionals seeking to get ahead or just snag a great job. In fact, obtaining Cisco certifications often were considered the fastest route up the corporate ladder for aspiring network operations leaders. Times are changing, though. IT management increasingly is looking beyond just Cisco technical skills when assessing a candidate’s capabilities to build and nurture a modern enterprise network.

Having a Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP), CCIE (Cisco Certified Internetwork Engineer), or CCAr (Cisco Certified Architect) after your name still carries a lot of weight, but so do a growing list of vendor-neutral IT certifications from organizations such as (ISC)2 or CWNP.

This is true because multi-vendor networks are growing quickly, for a number of reasons. Customers are looking for ways to save money, avoid vendor lock-in or find the best-of-breed products for their needs. The truth is, the networking space is now a competitive market in many areas, and Cisco’s product options sometimes come with significant compromises or reinforce an uncomfortable degree of vendor lock-in.

Recently, I experienced this point when a customer’s CCIE-level engineer was so heavily biased toward Cisco that he was unwilling to look at a solution from Arista Networks that would have eliminated some significant compromises in the proposed network’s routing design. This lack of knowledge and comfort with the world of networking beyond Cisco managed to create a situation where a substantial amount of additional complexity was introduced for no good technical reason.

Chris Crotteau

Chris Crotteau

The experience above really demonstrated the problem with leaning too hard on Cisco certifications. While they prove strong expertise in a pivotal area, those certifications can also foster a degree of closed-mindedness and over-reliance on Cisco proprietary technologies — to the detriment of a broader array of knowledge and skills in the networking world. This, of course, raises another issue: While organizations like CompTIA offer entry-level certifications, there is a real lack of professional and expert level certificates to prove broader knowledge of industry-standard, open networking principles. Such certifications would be vendor-agnostic and far-sweeping. Let’s hope some forward-thinking organization will step up to take this challenge.

In the meantime, network professionals intent on building their skills and career paths should attain other certifications such as Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) and those offered by (ISC)2. Beyond the technical realm, it’s equally important to understand the necessity of core project and overall organizational management skills, which can be formalized by certifications such as Project Management Professional (PMP), Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM) and ITIL.

The steady rise of these certifications demonstrates that operational prowess is gaining ground as IT management looks to groom both business and technology leaders. And while CCIE status won’t lose its luster anytime soon, there’s a multitude of reasons why it shouldn’t be considered the end-all, be-all.

Don’t get me wrong, a CCIE certification is still the pinnacle of Cisco networking expertise because it means passing arguably the toughest test for any senior-level engineer. That said, it should really be more of a jumping-off point for developing broader business skills and understanding other networking technologies and systems.

In the future, CIOs will be looking for smart, savvy engineers with more than just serious technical understanding. They’ll assign equal or maybe even more clout to business acumen and multi-vendor knowledge that helps drive IT innovation and the company forward.

Chris Crotteau is manager of customer engineering at Curvature, where he leads development of customer-focused network hardware and maintenance solutions. He joined the company in January 2004 as an operations technician. Prior to his latest position, Crotteau served as a sales engineer responsible for providing technical solutions and training on new products from Cisco and Curvature’s OEM partners. Crotteau earned a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from University of California, Berkeley.