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CCIE turns 20: How Cisco transformed itself and the IT world

Cisco Certified Internetworking Engineer (CCIE) a high-level, elite certification for networking professionals, celebrates its 20th anniversary.

Let’s roll back the clock 20 years and remember what was happening. Mark Zuckerberg was nine years old and learning to code on an Atari computer. Incidentally, I was a big Atari buff, but didn’t monetize it quite like the future Facebook founder. Whitney Houston held the No. 1 spot on the Billboard music charts with “I will always love you,” and Schindler’s List won the Oscar for best picture.

In tech, Cisco dropped a little under $100 million to acquire Crescendo Communications, which gave Cisco its Catalyst 5000 switching line as well as executives Luca Cafiero, Prem Jain, Mario Mazzola, Randy Pond and Jayshree Ullal. Also in 1993, Cisco introduced its Cisco Certified Internetworking Engineer (CCIE) certification to the world to create a high-level, elite certification for networking professionals. In many ways, it was the acquisition of Crescendo that transformed Cisco from a niche router company into a broad enterprise networking vendor. However, it was the creation of the certification program, and most notably the CCIE, that created the dominant network vendor that we know today.

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I remember many years ago a reporter asked my why customers pay the premium for Cisco hardware. He made the point that any customer can read a Cisco 10K and see the “healthy” margins that Cisco gets compared to other network vendors, and he didn’t really understand why customers paid up for Cisco. I countered that the certification program Cisco put together, particularly the CCIE, created an army of networking engineers who know how to build networks the Cisco way. When the decision is left up to a Cisco-certified engineer of any level, there’s a certain safety in using Cisco.

Make no mistake - the CCIE is among the toughest and most elite certifications in the industry to get. Prior to being an analyst, I worked for a consulting firm that put so much stock in the CCIE (because they could be billed out for far more than any other engineer) that the company offered a $25K bonus to anyone who passed the CCIE exam. For those who aren’t familiar with the exam process, it starts with a written test that covers almost every element of networking and then an eight-hour, hands-on lab. I know many engineers who passed the written part but couldn’t get past the lab portion.

It’s this “elitism” that drives the Cisco preference within corporate IT. Many engineers I know consider “Cisco” to be a career path rather than networking. What I mean by this is that they start with one of the lower-level certifications, such as a CCNA, and then move up in responsibility and certifications along the way. Changing network vendors would derail this career path. A few years ago, I remember a discussion with a CTO at a university regarding the network upgrade. He had considered migrating to a competing vendor, but the amount of work it would take to retrain made it cost-prohibitive. The broad, almost de facto standard knowledge base is one of the reasons so many competitors copy Cisco’s CLI.

For the CIO, the decision to use Cisco gave the organization a broad base of engineers from which to find talent. Go to Monster.com and search for Cisco Certified Engineers, and you’ll literally get hundreds of hits. Now put in a ProCurve or Junos Certified engineer, and the pool will be significantly smaller.

Today, Cisco offers over 45 different network certifications, of which 8 are CCIE class. Considering the trend in IT is moving toward network-centric compute paradigms, such as mobile and cloud computing, the role of the networking professional will only become more important, which should make the CCIE even more elite over the next decade.

Happy Birthday to the CCIE. Enjoy your adulthood.

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