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Be a Cisco kid

A Cisco certification can generate a great opportunity.

If you’re interested in an IT career with long-term potential and an attractive salary, you might want to consider a career that starts with one or more Cisco certifications. Unless you’ve been orbiting the moon for years, you’ve heard of Cisco Systems. What you may not know is how large and how savvy a company it is.

One of the major players in the networking game, Cisco has more than 40,000 employees worldwide–more than 15,000 in the Bay Area alone. It started shipping products in 1986 and today has annual revenues in the neighborhood of $20 billion. It targets three big markets: enterprise (utilities, government organizations, corporations, etc.), service providers (ISPs, telecommunications, cable and wireless companies) and commercial interests (every medium-to-large company on the planet that has a network).

Cisco doesn’t devise standardized sets of hardware and software for customers in each of these target markets. Rather, it focuses on developing a range of options based on industry standards and letting the customer choose one of the options. This means that there is no plug-and-play set of Cisco products and (here’s where the career opportunity lies) this means that Cisco needs an army of skilled employees and contractors to help it stay on top of the game.

Now that you know how big the company is, let me tell you why I think Cisco is such a savvy company. Not only did it manage to get into the Internet and networking game at just the right time (in a sense it defined internetworking), but it also has figured out that to remain a leader, it has to help educate thousands of people to plan, install, and maintain Cisco networks. To that end, over the past few years, the company has put together a comprehensive set of certification programs and has also put together agreements with IT training centers around the world to train people for these certifications.

In addition, the company offers thorough training services via online courses (Remote Labs) for hands-on training accomplished via the Web, as well as CD-ROM based courses. There is even a publishing arm of the company called Cisco Press that produces, among other things, books to help people train themselves on Cisco equipment. Through its Network Academy program, the company has set up training courses in high schools and colleges to help train the up-and-coming generation of network gurus.

Varying certifications

There is no one-size-fits-all Cisco certification, so you have to make sure the certification you want fits you. That means you have to check out all the variations before you choose a certification path.

Each of the certification education programs takes weeks or months to complete and once you’re certified, you’ll have to recertify within two or three years. Some certifications build on other Cisco certifications, but you might not need to take classes to pass the tests for the foundation certifications, particularly if you have passed the foundation certification test before.

Here’s a brief summary of the various Cisco certifications:

Cisco Certified Design Associate (CCDA and CCNA WAN Switching): For those who want to learn how to design and maintain simple (less than 100 nodes) local- and wide-area networks. This certification is suitable for those who want to be a network design engineer, systems engineer or Cisco Channel Partner sales representative

Cisco Certified Design Professional (CCDP and CCDP WAN Switching): This certification builds on the CCDA certification, and is a step up in complexity (networks up to 500 nodes). It is for someone who wants to be a senior network design engineer, senior network consultant or analyst, major account representative or senior sales rep for a Cisco Channel Partner.

Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE): This certification is for people who really want to know all there is to know about complex networking, how networks interact with the Internet and Cisco equipment. If you want to be a Cisco guru (no matter what the business card title is), this is the certification for you. There are four kinds of CCIEs: WAN Switching, SNA/IP Integration, ISP Dial,and Routing and Switching.

CCNP Specializations, including LAN ATM, SNA/IP, Network Management, and Voice Access. These specializations build on the CCNP certification, and equip you to design networks for that particular kind of computing environment.

CCNA Specialization in Security. This specialization used to require a CCNP, but recently Cisco switched the prerequisite to CCNA. This is the certification you need if you want to show people you can save their networks from alien invaders and noxious viruses by using Cisco solutions.

Certifications training

To obtain the CCDA and CCDP certifications, all you have to do is pass the associated written exams. It helps to have certification training and hands-on experience with the equipment, but Cisco stresses that it’s not a requirement. In my opinion, if you already have another computer certification, such as MSCE, you may be able to get by with some CD-ROM- or book-based training.

CCIE certification is a little more complicated–you need at least two years of real-world experience in Cisco networks, in-depth understanding of how the equipment works, and never-ending persistence and patience in troubleshooting. You’re going to need all this because you have to pass a two-hour written exam and satisfactorily complete a two-day hands-on lab exam.

If you’re looking for some live instructor–or classroom-based instruction for the Cisco certifications, take my advice and look no further than the local Cisco Learning Partner (CLP) in your area. Cisco launched the Learning Partner Program in 1993 as part of its plan to educate its army of network technicians and gurus.

In order for an IT training facility to become a CLP, it has to do a lot more than sign a piece of paper and take out an ad in the local phone directory. Cisco certifies each CLP and requires it to use official Cisco training materials. The company also checks out the facility’s ability to deliver on all its educational promises, so a CLP is your best bet for quality, up-to-date Cisco training–and it’s also a good bet that it delivers quality IT training of other kinds. A CLP is also the only source of official Cisco training.

There are more than 100 CLPs around the world, and they train more than 100,000 people each year. To find the CLPs nearest you, visit the Cisco Web site and follow the Education links to the Learning Locator. Tell it what kind of training you want and where you want to take it and it will find a CLP for you. To find out details about a facility it comes up with, follow the link to the training facility’s Web site.

MSCE or Cisco?

If you’re just beginning your search for an IT career and networking is one of the paths you’re investigating, you’ve probably thought about an MSCE certification. If that’s the case, then add a Cisco certification to your list of possibilities. Investigate both before you make your decision. There are even people who opt for both somewhere along the line in their careers.

No matter what you decide to do with your network certification time and dollars, learning about Cisco networks will not be a waste of time or money. This is a company that is already an integral part of the computing world, and it is smart and flexible enough to be around for a long time. It can’t hurt to know a thing or two about how Cisco networks work.

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