On Tuesday this week I finally accomplished something that I had been trying to accomplish for more or less 4 years: I got my Cisco Certified Networking Associate certification.

When I was starting out in tech, I was always working either as a repair technician, help-desk, or some combination of the two. I didn’t know anything about networking or systems administration. I knew a few tech people who were system administrators (sysadmins) and they seemed miserable. Whenever you asked them about their job, they’d have some fresh story about how much they hated people and how over worked/over stressed they were. Their stories really put me off of wanting to do anything with networking or systems administration.

My first three jobs in tech introduced me to three distinct branches of technology work: education, small business, and medium business. Over the course of working in a public school system, a small family owned repair store, and at a 200 person law firm, I eventually developed a sense of how high you could climb (in terms of things you learn and in terms of how much money you could make) in each branch.

From my perspective, things look like this:

  • The public sector was plagued with bureaucracy and abysmal pay
  • The small business sector was full of these little computer repair stores whose customer base consisted of an elderly, computer illiterate population. Not surprisingly, many of these small shops were failing.
  • The medium business sector is where I really got a taste for the possibilities of growth, both in terms of knowledge and income, that was available in the corporate technology side of things.

For the first time, while working at this law firm, I met some tech professionals who knew some specialized technologies, worked on interesting projects, and made a nice paycheck while doing it. I realized that if I ever wanted to go anywhere in this technology field, or make any money, I was going to have to teach myself the skills I’d need to land a job above just help desk or repair technician.

But what should I focus on?

The tech field is huge. I could focus on storage, security, virtualization, programming, databases, you name it. All I knew was that I didn’t want to be forever repairing outlook installs, or fixing excel spreadsheets.

The obvious big money maker now is programming. I’ve always been hesitant about programming. When I was in school, I remember a teacher discouraging us from focusing on programming by saying “anyone can hire a bunch of code-monkeys to sit there and just write code!” This evoked images of just dime-a-dozen programmer kids all sitting in a stuffy room, slaving away in some kind of Office Space style company. That really gave me an aversion to programming from a young age and I really resent that teacher for it. I’ve tried, unsuccessfully, to get into programming several times. I just can’t wrap my head around it yet and it doesn’t really jive with me. That might change though, so we’ll see.

I somehow ended up gravitating towards networking, though I was initially reluctant to do so. It had the major obvious downside that “the network” is one of those live-bomb like things where you have to be very careful messing with it or you could make it explode and then everyone is screaming at you while the business is bleeding money. On the other hand, networking seemed fairly approachable, had a bunch of cool sounding terms and technology, had the possibility of eventually making decent money, and would help me move away from having to crawl under desks to plug in computers.

I started to do some research and learned that the biggest vendor of networking equipment and software, Cisco, had a very structured certification program that would teach you networking concepts and Cisco technology at the same time. The levels went from Cisco Certified (CC) Entry Networking Technician (CCENT), to CC Networking Associate (CCNA), to CC Networking Professional (CCNP), to CC Internetworking Expert (CCIE).

The CCNA is actually split into two exams, the CCENT/CCNA. I got the book for the CCENT, downloaded some lectures, and began studying.

I think I studied for a few months before I went and tried to take the exam. The exams aren’t just multiple choice, they also include simulations where you have to click on the network devices to open up a text based command line interface and enter commands to perform actions and gather information on how the devices are configured.

I failed my first time. Cost me $150 for the privilege too.

I kept at it and a month or so later I took it again and this time passed. I think I stayed up all weekend studying, breaking for 30 minutes at a time for a power nap.

I was getting ready to take the 2nd part of the CCNA test when my life got really crazy and studying was put on hold. I ended up moving to Germany and never bothered to finish the certification.

Nonetheless, it was always there, haunting me, and I couldn’t help but feel that getting my CCNA would be the gateway into greater things.

I must say though, there’s a lot of discussion about certifications and their worth. By far, experience beats certs any day. You can get certs and not have experience, which is an issue I’m facing at the moment. I’ve got my CCNA, but outside of my home lab, I don’t really have an opportunity to work on networks.

Then why am I getting the cert? Well, the way I look at it, it’s a structured approach to concepts that I find interesting. I’m hoping that by demonstrating my interest and understanding of a concept by getting certified, that will open doors for me to start to get the experience I need.

So I’ve got the CCNA, now what?

Every now and then I stop and wonder what I’m doing. What am I working towards? What do I want to be doing? Lately my biggest focus has been my career, but I’d really like to end up working on some project that I believe in.

One of the things that attracted me to networking was internet technologies and their importance in our world today in relation to free speech and the flow of information in democratic societies.

I’d like to eventually end up working with people on something like building a 2nd internet free from the kind of corporate and governmental control the current internet is subject to.

To learn the technologies I’ll need to work on a project like that, I’m going to start with the CCNP as a foundation and then branch out from there.