I recently was involved in a focus group comprised of 20 senior IT managers. All worked for large and leading companies in their industry. (You’d recognize the names.) All had 10 to 20 years of experience. All were long-time certification holders—from Cisco and a wealth of other training providers. And all were responsible for directing the development and hiring of technology workers inside and outside of the IT organization.
The group’s conversation covered a wide array of pressing technology-related topics—from business demands to technical advancements to worker talents and skills. I can tell you that the exchanges were thought-provoking and eye-opening for all. One final question I put to the group was, “What is the one piece of advice you have for the CCNA-certified worker with just a few years of work experience?” The following list offers the top 10 pieces of advice that drew the most agreement and passion from this expert and experienced group:
1. Keep current/relevant. Technology and business will pass you by… and quickly! Keep up with the latest advancements and trends. Always evaluate relevant new products—even if you’re not buying just yet. Put the advanced and newly released features to work for your company ASAP. And in this age of digital business, it is becoming even more relevant to understand how new technology drives new business improvements and opportunities.
2. Be diverse. The more you know, the more use (and value) you are to more projects. Here, the group does not advise you to know a little about a lot. Rather, the group advises you to continue to build in-depth technical knowledge in one or two critical areas, while also developing a strong sense for the language, demands, technologies, information, threats, and so on that drive technology and business projects to success.
3. Know the big picture. Know what impacts your area. Know what your area impacts. What is the effect of deploying that new networking device? What is the effect of activating that new networking service? What is the effect of establishing that new networking policy? Understand desired business outcomes and end-user experiences. Understand the entire network and all networked resources (for example, systems, data, applications, cloud services, etc.).
4. Always learn. Carve out the time to advance your skills, expertise, and experience. Offered the chance to break ground in technology or business? Take it. Offered the chance to work on a new complex and critical project? Accept it. Offered the chance to consult with groups beyond your usual suspects? Step up. Offered the chance to develop deeper or broader technology knowledge? Jump at it. Offered the chance to access a new learning tool (for example, collaboration, digital workplace, learning management)? Use it to full effect.
5. Build knowledge. Don’t just memorize. The real world is never quite the same as the classroom (or the e-learning course). Compound this challenge with the fact that no two organizations and their respective applied technologies are alike and one sees very quickly how knowledge trumps memorization. You’ll need to operate “off the page” when you’re on the job. When you need to deploy a device or activate a service or turn up a site, you’ll be defining the correct steps to take for your environment. When you need to diagnose a problem, you’ll need to determine the correct course of action for your environment. As one manager put it quite cleverly, “Know the job—not the knobs!"
6. Expand conceptual thinking. Literally, think outside of the box, the network. In digital business, success is based on the whole—not the sum of its parts. Traditional networking job focal points such as device deployments, network uptime, and user/site connectivity are table stakes these days. Increasingly, knowledge of enterprise design, network optimization, and service integration and integrity separate the great from the good. It’s concept over configuration as business demands and technology capabilities accelerate. The network is moving from needing to be up and running… to be up and racing… to be up and winning!
7. Don’t Rest on Your CCNA. CCNA is just the beginning—not the end. All managers in the focus group indicated that they had ample money to spend on training and certification. They also all expressed frustration with their workers for not taking advantage of this money. The money is there. The management commitment is there. The need for advanced knowledge and skills is there. And the multitude of courses and delivery methods is there. Take advantage of this perfect storm in learning and development. Heighten your expertise in your primary area of interest in technology. Broaden your exposure to related areas of technology. Whatever your chosen development path, always move forward.
8. Take your time to excel. Focus on quality of knowledge—not quantity of badges. We seem to live in an age where everyone gets a trophy. And there’s a trophy for everything. Make your efforts and achievements matter most! Align your learning and development efforts to your career goals. Assign value to your targeted training efforts and professional certifications by examining organizational priorities, management perceptions, industry benchmarks, and expert/peer reviews. Know the potential impact of your investment (and your company’s investment) before you take a training course or certification exam. And don’t rush your decision or your development. Building knowledge is a marathon—not a sprint.
9. Align to business. Know what to accomplish with technology. Drive the greatest value for your organization and yourself. You’ve got your CCNA. You’ve got some experience deploying networking devices, operating an enterprise network, and keeping end users and management mostly happy. Now, it’s time to assert yourself beyond the network—and even beyond IT. Build your interactions with people in marketing, operations, finance, customer care, etc. Extend to customer interactions wherever possible. Build your presence in high-impact, front-line digital business projects. Think about how your network can serve these clients and projects in the best way possible. Move from technical contributor to business consultant.
10. Differentiate yourself as communicator and collaborator. You’ve taken at least one step in differentiating yourself from tens of millions of other technology workers in the world by attaining your CCNA certification. The managers participating in this focus group do indeed see the CCNA as a sign of commitment and achievement on the part of the employee—or potential employee. But as many of the above pieces of advice highlight, CCNA holders need to further differentiate themselves—in technology, in business, in projects, in concepts, and, last but not least, as communicators and collaborators. As you build technology and business “hard” skills, do not ignore the value of critical soft skills such as listening, presenting, debating, brainstorming, and teaming. Given the complexity and criticality of technology and business projects and programs in this digital age, success is the result of great teamwork—not the solitary work of a lone guru. You differentiate yourself into the future by excelling as a team contributor—not an individual contributor. The better team member you are, the more project invitations you receive. The more program consultations you execute, the more your credibility builds, the more your visibility builds, and the more your value builds.
Remember, all of the managers offering these words of advice sat in your seat 10, 15, or 20 years ago. All are looking to develop their current workers along the above lines. And all are looking to hire people with the above skills and mindset.
At the beginning of this new year, I wish you good listening, good learning, and good living.
Learning@Cisco analyst Mark Leary has more than 30 years of experience in the networking industry. Over that time, he has functioned as software developer, consulting engineer, enterprise architect, and industry analyst. Currently, he executes research, analysis, and consulting projects that guide the development, delivery, and evolution of Cisco's courseware and certifications. Mark’s primary areas of focus include technology trends, digital transformation, education practices, IT organizations, talent requirements, and worker learning and development movements.