Cisco is trying to bring specialised network skills downstream from senior network engineers to frontline networking professionals.
Cisco certifications are often the first step in the network engineer's career, and the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) provides a good overview. But with new entry-level certification programs in security, voice and wireless, Cisco is trying to bring specialised network skills downstream from senior network engineers to frontline networking professionals.
At its annual user conference, Cisco Live, Cisco added three new specialties to its entry-level line of CCNA certifications: security, voice and wireless. The company also announced the launch of the Cisco Learning Network, a social networking portal where networking pros can exchange information and expertise via blogs, wikis and forums.
Robert Whiteley, principal analyst with Forrester Research, said Cisco has recognized an emerging skills gap in the enterprise IT landscape. Companies are eager to adopt disruptive technologies such as virtualization and enterprise mobility, Whiteley said, but the skills needed to implement these are at a premium. Companies need lower-level network engineers who can handle some of the high-level work, and the new Cisco certifications may begin to bridge the gap.
"Companies are eager to adopt the technology, but what they find is that people with traditional IT skills are challenged to plan it, build it and implement it," Whiteley said. "You certainly have gurus who can go out there and make it happen, but do you really want to be using your top-tier Level 3 talent to do all this? Or do you expect it to be a little more operationalized, to the point where this stuff works and takes fewer integration resources?"
Networking roles are becoming more specialized, and some of the skills associated with top-tier network engineers are migrating down the IT organization, Whiteley said. With rapidly changing technology, those skills need to be moved to lower-level, specialized roles so that implementation can become more operational.
"The CCNA was basically an on-ramp for all Cisco certification," he said. "You became a CCNA, and then you specialized. They've acknowledged that people are coming from other parts of IT or fresh out of university who, from day one, aim to be security specialists or voice specialists or wireless specialists. What they're doing is acknowledging that the CCNA curricula need to be more specialized. I think that is spot-on for what the market is actually asking for."
Recent Forrester research has found that organizations are looking for specialized networking pros in four areas, Whiteley said. Network security is the top need, followed by voice; the third is networking operations center (NOC) management, and the fourth is wireless. "That's pretty good alignment," he said.
The CCNA Security certification will confirm a networking pro's abilities in installing, troubleshooting and monitoring network devices to maintain the integrity, confidentiality and availability of data. It will be helpful to network security specialists, security administrators and network security support engineers.
The CCNA Voice certification will confirm skills in IP PBX, IP telephony, handset, call control and voicemail technology. CCNA candidates will also learn Cisco's unified communications architecture and design for mobility, presence and TelePresence applications. This will be useful to voice administrators, voice engineers and voice managers.
The CCNA Wireless certification will test a networking pro's ability to configure, implement and support Cisco wireless LANs. It will be applicable to networking administrators, wireless support specialists and wireless LAN project managers.
"For my own personal growth, I'm interested in getting certified in the wireless area," said John Carroll, a software specialist with American Express. Carroll works with Cisco's Intelligent Call Management application to route telephone calls in American Express's business travel department. Since wireless and mobility are becoming more and more integrated with Cisco's enterprise voice strategy, he said, a CCNA for wireless would present a great opportunity for him.
"I think it's hard to keep up with skill sets," Carroll said. "Some of us get stuck. I've been working with just one product for 11 years now. I want to get beyond that now."
Abner Germanow, director of enterprise network research at IDC, said the Cisco Learning Network will help networking pros fill in the gaps where traditional certification and learning programs fall short.
"In many cases, by the time I print a book, it's out of date," Germanow said. "The degree to which I can speed up that knowledge evolution and capture it and figure out who has it and who can share it -- social networks are perfect for that. The classic book knowledge and book certification model only gets you so far."
A social network such as Cisco's can, at the same time, help demonstrate the value of high-level certifications, he said.
"If you can make development and expertise [of higher-level certifications] shine a little brighter and get them the recognition that they might not get within their own organizations, then those certifications not only become more valuable but also more efficient," Germanow said. "Because now I know who to go to when I know what I don't know. That's a very powerful thing."
The Cisco Learning Network is wide open to everyone, and anyone can get involved and talk about different aspects of skills and talent and technology, Whiteley said. The social network will not only let certified skills and knowledge shine; soft skills will also be recognized on the site as peers get to evaluate one another's communications and business skills.
"Soft skills are extremely difficult to test," Whiteley said. "One way to do that is peer evaluation. Trial by peer. I know [Cisco does] that on an expert level with a lot of their certifications. I'm looking forward to them using that portal to help with developing and evaluating that talent."
Photo courtesy of Cisco Press, www.ciscopress.com.