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Life After the CCNA - What it Took

Life After the CCNA

If you’ve spent any time looking at options in getting into the Tech industry, specifically: System Engineer, Network Engineer, System Administrator, Network Administrator, Network Architect, System Architect or similar roles within this field. You would run into certification tracks as a great way to start. If you type into Google search you will find the following certifications as being the top 3: Comptia A+, Cisco Certified Network Associate, and Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate.

If you are like anyone I know within this industry, you will search this and find that Comptia A+ is rated as the entry of the entry-level of certifications, Microsoft and Cisco being a more complex and higher valued certification. They are also reviewed as more difficult. This is not the way you should look at these certification tracks. Instead, think of them as “Why am I studying this certification” and “What skills is this teaching me and how will it benefit my career”. I will give you my experience in obtaining the Cisco Certified Network Associate certification.


My Background:

Aside from programming HTML and bash scripting in high school, I started my IT career track at DeVry University where they used Cisco’s Platform to teach Network Engineering. There I learned Network Security, Administration, and Management. Naturally, Cisco was always the goal since I started my degree path back in 2012.

If you research the CCNA, you will find many videos and training tips online. No one talks about why or how it benefited them, if at all. The CCNA meant more to me than my degree, cost much less to obtain as well. You can take this exam in two ways: two separate exams or take a combination exam. I have heard different opinions while I was on the track of taking it, I will give you my two cents after taking both methods.

The CCNA is split into two tests, if you passed the first you will obtain the Cisco Certified Entry Network Technician (CCENT) and if you complete the second, you will obtain the full Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) certification. There is also a combination option, which means that if you pass it you will obtain the CCNA (One Exam). At the time of this blog post (09/29/2019), there is still an option of taking the CCENT. This will go away after February 2020.

I failed the CCENT and the combination exam a grand total of three times. Let’s give you some context. This was within a year of starting my college program, and up until 2012, I didn’t see college as an option for me. I didn’t have the confidence to take on that challenge. It was not until I started a warehouse job where I decided to take a stab at school (warehouse work really sucks). During my first year, I spent it taking one class at a time, all math courses because I struggled with math. After that year I began my Network core classes. At DeVry, you work on 4 consecutive classes and then they advise you to take the CCNA exam right after. I took a week off work to go into a boot camp (provided by DeVry) with my professor and my other classmates. When completed I scheduled my exam. When I walked into the exam room I had nothing but negativity in mind. At this point in my life, I still believed that I was not smart enough nor could I EVER pass the certification of this level. I, of course, failed it. I then gave up on the certification for the rest of my Associate degree program.

I left my warehouse job after obtaining my Associates Degree and proceeded to take on a new role as a Helpdesk Technician for a small Managed Service Provider. After taking on this position I began to “study” for the test. What I mean by the study is an hour a week or so. I did not take it seriously. This was a mental battle for me. The reason I didn’t study as hard as I could have was because if I didn’t study too hard it wouldn’t suck so badly if I failed it (I still had a negative mindset). This time I took the harder of two options, the 200-120 combination exam, I failed it. I stopped studying and concentrated on my degree and work. I later left that Company and started at another as a Tier 1 IT Technician. After a year I began to study again. This time I actually took the time to study. I worked full time and working on my bachelor’s degree full time. I put an enormous amount of pressure on myself on this attempt. I again took the more difficult exam 200-125 and failed it again. I remember going into the exam feeling like I needed more time. I did feel the pressure, as soon as the exam began and I read the first question, I gave up quickly and began to guess. This was the worst score I ever got out of all the exams I took. I scored in the 500 level. The Exam scores you out of 1,000. It looked as though I didn’t even study for the exam. It was because I didn’t try IN the exam.

After that failure, I decided to wait until I completed my degree to take the exam. I later started a new position at another company after I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree. This is when I spent money that I didn’t need to spend on training courses and other materials. I spent more money on materials because I felt that was the reason why I kept failing, in reality it was because I didn’t believe that I could pass and didn’t put in the effort to succeed. This attempt I changed my mindset and differently. I studied every day but this time I took my time on each chapter and tested myself using the chapter review questions. I took my time; I can’t emphasize that enough. I took the CCENT exam (100-105) on February 2019 and passed it with a 907 out of 1,000. That’s about three to four questions wrong. I later took the CCNA exam (200-105) part 2 and passed with a score of 835 out of 1,000.


Why am I Studying this certification?

My goal was to become a Network Architect. I love networking technologies because it’s the backbone that enables all our devices to communicate. It’s a stable skill that will never go away. I wanted to become the best possible network engineer and architect that I can possibly be (as corny as that sounds).

After all the mental challenges I had to go through to finally pass this exam, it meant more to me than just knowledge and potential job opportunities. It meant that I was able to defeat my mental barriers and complete something that I felt was too difficult for me to accomplish. My insecurities were the reasons that prevented me from passing these exams. I took this exam to prove to myself that I could study and accomplish a well-respected certification and that I belong in this industry.


What skills is this teaching me and how will it benefit my career?

Above all else, this certification is taught me mental strength and proper study habits. I have two degrees and the hardest exams I ever took were these Cisco Certification Exams. There is a lot of hands-on and theory you need to memorize/understand. Cisco exams are built in such a way that you can’t memorize these questions and take the test with a passing score. You MUST understand concepts, as they throw questions in there that you don’t cover in the study material but you can come up with the right answer if you understood the concepts that were covered in the exam topics.

I thought at the time that If I completed this certification, I will have all types of Network Administrator and Engineering roles offered to me as soon as I pass this exam and began to apply for such positions. I also believed that I would have the knowledge needed to properly administer and engineer network systems. This certification would take me from technician to full-on engineer and administrator.


The Outcome

I now have my CCNA, it feels great and my confidence increased tremendously. The way I look at network systems after my experience and completing this certification is different. It's the core understanding of how things communicate, I am no longer second-guessing myself, I am sure when I give my opinion on how to approach a network problem. This attitude is key when you’re interviewing and proposing ideas to CTOs and clients.

After this exam, I feel like I have a Cisco mindset regarding how to approach network related issues. Yes, there is the right way, wrong way, and the Cisco way. The way I see it, Cisco’s way is best unless you are from Google, Amazon, or Microsoft. A small medium-sized IT company that says the Cisco way is wrong is just ignorant. That’s just the way I see it.

Since I obtained my Cisco Certification, I have had nothing but System Administrator Roles, Junior, and Senior level Admin/Engineering Roles and positions that require the Cisco Certified Network Professional certification as well. I do not think that the reason why I am getting these interviews Is solely on my success at obtaining this certification, it is also my professional experiences coupled with my degrees as well as certification success. However, I did go from Technician roles and Admin roles to Senior Level interviews rather quickly after I obtained my CCNA.

Interviews for me have changed. I no longer get hit with network questions. What I mean by that is, no one asks me questions like port numbers and what is a router or a switch. Usually, I am told, “I am not going to waste time on network-related questions because you have a CCNA”. I do get a lot of System-related questions. IT is a combination of several concentrations: System, Network, Cloud and Security. Because of this, I get more questions on the system than anything else, like “what is a GPO?” or “what are the FSMO roles in a Windows Domain environment?”. Network related is usually brushed off. So that’s a plus, I trust my instincts in the Network Topics so I have less to review for interviews.

After about 6 years’ experience in this industry, I feel that I waited too long for this certification and was a bit overqualified to see the results when compared to someone with one or two years’ experience or even someone with no experience would get after successfully passing the CCNA. What this certification really did for me was instill confidence in myself and gave me respect among my peers. Many who interview me don’t have the certification themselves, usually, they are impressed that I have this certification. For me, I should have been studying for the CCNP (next level above the CCNA) as I feel that’s where I am in my career. I knew the basic ideas and how data goes across the wire but not at the level I needed to obtain my CCNA. Cisco wants you to know this information like you know the back of your hand, it’s got to be second nature to you.


Do I recommend this exam?

Nothing is absolute, except for the fact that anyone can do anything they are willing to sacrifice for 😊. It depends where you are at in your career. If you know what a MAC address is, subnetting IP networks by heart, know how to implement spanning-tree, understand VLAN tagging and un-tagging packets, know the basics of routing protocols and VPN technologies, don’t take the test. If you have no idea what these things are, take the certification. If you know all those things very well, wait until after February 2020 and study for the Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) certification.

The reality of it is, you won’t use the commands you memorized in the CCNA. Most Small to Medium and even large companies will not have Cisco as their network devices, Cisco devices are too expensive and engineers/admins who specialize in the devices are also expensive to pay. Many popular network technologies consist of NetGear, HP, and Dell (SonicWall) will be seen in these small to medium-sized businesses. All these companies based their network commands and how they process data across their devices off Cisco technologies. Cisco’s contributions many best practices to the network community. Juniper’s command syntax is similar to Cisco’s and so are HP switches. Unless you get hired by Cisco or by an all Cisco shop you won’t use the commands you’ve learned, you will, however, use the concepts of Networking in all roles within IT.

The CCNA gave me confidence in my ability that I am a Network Administrator and after using the skills I learned on products that were not Cisco but other vendors. I would say that the time I invested to finally obtain this certification was worth it. The interviewees respect this certification and real-world interview questions do apply directly to what I learned in the CCNA exam topics. This certification is only the beginning, don’t think that after this associate-level certification you can stop learning. In this industry, you have to keep up with the advancements. After the CCNA many professionals in the field say that the CCNP should be the next step or: Linux, Security, and Python. I would agree with them, as those skills will help you in advancements within the IT industry. Don’t let failures stop you from achieving, they are stories you will tell after you completed your goal.

- Jose Rene Alvarado

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