Resources to help you become a networking expert

This article is for anyone who wants to start, enhance or switch to a career in computer networking. According to Cisco, there is a growing worldwide need for technical experts who can design and integrate small to large networks, from the simplest to the most complex configurations. Fortunately, there are numerous resources to help you skill-up to increase your employment prospects. Roll up your sleeves; it's time to put your head in the books, your hands on the equipment and your profile on the community social networking sites.

Fred Weiller, director of marketing for Learning@Cisco, the training and certification group within Cisco, says his company did a market study four or five years ago to determine what kind of workers would be needed for the networking industry by 2012. At that time, the study showed that at least 2 million new networking experts would be needed to support the growing demands of business. Even with the global recession putting a damper on growth since the initial study, Weiller still expects the enormous need for workers will easily exceed the number of people who are currently trained to perform this work.

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Weiller points out that routing and switching knowledge and skills are needed everywhere in the world. Moreover, emerging technologies such as telepresence as well as the evolution of the data center are driving demands for new people and skills. The result is that companies such as Cisco, HP and Juniper Networks need to develop the capacity to train and certify all these people who will be working with their networking products and solutions.

Cisco offers a number of resources to reach what the company calls "the next one million" -- that is, another million people worldwide who are fully qualified to fill a variety of technical networking jobs. Weiller says Cisco has 4,000 training locations around the world where students can learn everything from the basics to the most complex networking topics.

In addition to the training centers, Cisco leads the industry with its Cisco Networking Academy, a worldwide program (in 106 countries) that has school districts, universities and labor ministries delivering Cisco's curricula and training. The courses are generally a semester each, and prepare a student to attain a Cisco technical certification. For example, Cypress Creek High School in Houston has a multi-year program where high-school students can take the Cisco Networking Academy courses and graduate with a full Cisco certification that makes them immediately employable. This high school has a fully functional networking lab where the students get in-depth hands-on experience led by a Cisco-certified teacher.

Cisco is currently working with government ministries in Mexico, Brazil and Russia to pilot the Cisco Networking Academy program as a state-sanctioned training program within those countries. For example, the networking vendor is working with the Mexican Ministry of the Economy to provide career training for Mexican citizens. Moreover, Cisco channel partners are encouraged to work with and recruit graduates from the Networking Academy. Occasionally, partners will sponsor a student to attend an academy program and then hire the student after graduation.

Cisco goes to great lengths to build a strong sense of community among its certified professionals. In May 2008, the company launched the Cisco Learning Network, a social learning site that enables its community members to leverage global expert knowledge and personalize professional development. In less than two years, the site has grown to support more than 190,000 registered users from 230 countries.

The community, comprised of seasoned professionals and career starters, provides paths for learning experiences; shared knowledge on training and certification; and access to experts, fellow students and Cisco Learning Partners. Other resources include learning games, podcasts, videos, blogs, exam preparation technical resources, and mentorship through the community. Self-assessments provide students with the ability to assess gaps in their knowledge and skills and to receive training tips and recommendations. Learning games aid students in mastering the concepts necessary for certification.

What's unique about the Cisco Learning Network is that Cisco doesn't own the community; the members do. Cisco has given its certified professionals the medium to share with and learn from each other. The vendor believes that it's the shared learning, co-creation of materials, and peer discussions that provide the personalized learning that professionals need. In addition, global study groups bring internal Cisco engineers, external customers, and partner staff together with the common goal of achieving Cisco certification.

The global study groups are led by Cisco Technical Assistance Center engineers or other experts. The study groups cover a variety of networking topics that range from associate to expert level in complexity and subject matter. Some of the groups use Cisco WebEx to create a collaborative, real-time global classroom. More than 3500 people participate in 13 study groups available on the Cisco Learning Network.

Cisco isn't the only networking vendor working to skill-up its user community. As I write this article, HP and 3Com are finalizing the details of their merger, from which we will see another powerhouse in networking. By combining the products and solutions from ProCurve, 3Com, TippingPoint and H3C, HP's networking portfolio will soon rival Cisco's. On the heels of the merger, HP is gearing up to provide a beefed-up certification program and associated training. The company can't talk about its plans until the merger is finalized, so we'll visit them in a couple of months to get an update on the new resources for people wanting to become HP networking experts.

Meanwhile, HP  is offering accelerated ProCurve certification for people who currently hold professional and expert level Cisco certifications (see here). The offer supports a current Cisco-certified professional or expert with easy, cost-effective access to both the dedicated training and exams required to bridge the competencies between the HP and Cisco platforms. HP estimates that students can save up to $12,000 on the regular cost of training and exams by using this accelerated certification path. This initiative takes into account that a person certified by Cisco already has foundational networking knowledge. By adding the additional information that is unique to HP ProCurve networking solutions, the student can get skilled and certified on both vendors' products.

Juniper Networks is helping its certified professionals obtain jobs or contracts by providing a secure electronic verification of the person's certification status. The Integral7 Credential Verification Service promotes timely, well-informed and confident decision-making about hiring, promoting and compensating staff members. A company can feel good about hiring or contracting an individual whose skills, knowledge and abilities to perform a job have been verified.

If you think you might like to start, enhance or switch to a career in computer networking, there's no time like the present to take advantage of all the resources at your disposal. Many of them are free or low cost and can launch you on a rewarding IT career.

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