Monday, July 6, 2009

Thoughts on the Cisco Certified Architect Announcement

Now that I've had a few days to investigate and digest the announcement, I have a few thoughts. First, the lack of an acronym is going to be frustrating. According to Cisco, 'CCA' is used by other Cisco products, so it would be confusing. In addition, CCA is the abbreviation for the Citrix Architect certification program. I guess we'll get over it. Perhaps Cisco can purchase Citrix (which I actually think would be a great idea for business reasons) to settle this!


Format


The board format is very interesting. As I understand the program at this time, the candidate will receive a packet of information, including an RFP, in the mail several weeks prior to the board meeting. On his/her own time, the candidate will prepare the necessary documentation to respond to the RFP. The RFP is then submitted, and the board meeting is conducted. The candidate will be judged on the RFP response itself, his/her ability to defend the response, and the candidate's ability to incorporate a last-minute change to the RFP.

This sounds rigorous, which is appropriate for a certification at this level. Because the RFP response is to be prepared off-site, I am certain it will be held to a high standard. This is very similar to my experience as a consultant, except that the deadline doesn't seem quite as tight as I recall in the real world. :) Cheating on this part of the process is possible, but because of the need to defend the RFP and incorporate a change during the board exam, it clearly would lead to failure.


Skills


The hard skills required for this certification closely mirror the CCDE. This is very much a test of soft skills, such as documentation ability, presentation skills, and ability to withstand the scrutiny and pressure of a board exam. It is highly unlikely that candidates for this exam will fail due to technical deficiencies.


Prerequisites


The two prerequisites are an active CCDE, and 10 years of experience. I agree with the need for a CCDE, as the new certification builds on the skills required for the CCDE. I don't agree with point of view that the CCIE should be a prerequisite, as the Cisco Certified Architect doesn't require any of the hard skills that the CCIE tests. That said, for the foreseeable future, all candidates for the Cisco Certified Architect program will have CCIEs anyway, so it's basically a moot point. While I don't know of all the CCDE candidates, the ones I am aware of all have their CCIEs.


The Cost


The published cost of this exam is $15,000. My initial reaction is that this will limit the exam to employees of consulting companies, as they have the most benefit to gain from advertising their employees' certifications. Eventually, this certification will be pursued and paid for by engineers who work directly for large companies. Like most other expensive educational pursuits, candidates need to see a payoff (nearly always financial) before they will be willing to spend money. Once the Cisco Certified Architect program receives significant market awareness, that payoff will exist in the form of higher salary and better job opportunities.

The Cisco Certified Architect program is being positioned as a MBA-equivalent, but there are three significant differences:

- An MBA program is education, with the by-product of a 'certification', in the form of a Master's degree. The Cisco Certified Architect program does not have an educational component, it is only a certification.

- MBA candidates have a very reasonable expectation of achieving their Master's degree when they commit to a program. Success in the Cisco Certified Architect program is far less certain, especially for the early applicants. It will be very interesting to see the success rate of the first wave, if that information is made public.

- Employers are quite willing to contribute to an MBA program, due to the educational component. It's a harder sell to ask them to pay for a certification.


How Does This Affect the CCIE Program?


There is a spirited discussion of the new cert on the Cisco Learning Network. The major point of contention there (and at the CCIE NetVet reception at Cisco Live, so I've heard) is that the cert is positioned 'above' the CCIE, but doesn't require the certification. The general complaint is that this devalues the CCIE program. It has been eleven years since I earned my CCIE in Routing & Switching. In that time, I believe the CCIE program has become marginally less valuable. It is simple economics: The rate of new CCIEs has exceeded the growth of the networking industry since approximately 1997. From 1997 to 2001, it didn't matter, as we started that era with so few CCIEs that even the large growth (over 1000 per year, where the rate was several hundred per year prior) did not soak up market demand. In 2001, the stock market crash finally affected CCIE employment to the point that CCIEs had difficulty finding work. Since then, the rate of CCIE generation has remained high, and probably slightly above the rate of CCIE job creation. Do you know any CCIEs that are unemployed or underemployed? That's anecdotal evidence of my theory.

Does this argue for making the CCIE more difficult, or reducing the rate of new CCIEs? My opinion is no. The CCIE program administrators have tried to keep the level of difficulty the same, so the cert would not be cheapened in any way. I don't see any reason why good engineers should be made to jump higher hurdles than I did to achieve their CCIEs.

Does the Cisco Certified Architect program devalue the CCIE? Perhaps slightly. Up to this point, employers have used CCIE numbers as a proxy for architecture ability. The lower the number, the more 'seasoned' the engineer. Coupled with a strong resume, this defined the engineer as an architect. If the CCDE and Cisco Certified Architect programs become well recognized in the industry, this will likely change. The irony is that the CCIE program never made any claims about an engineer's ability to design a network. From what I remember of my lab, I would not have classified it as even remotely well designed, with four routing protocols on eight devices! :) Without a specific standard, the industry found it necessary to identify network architects via this and other means. Cisco is now trying to rectify this situation, while at the same time solidifying its position as the thought leader in network architecture. This should eventually reduce bad hires for companies that require architects.


Overall Impression


This is a great step forward for Network Architects. It'll be a bumpy ride for the next few years, but eventually we'll wonder how we did without this differentiator.
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