Sumiko Yamamoto: Overcoming Barriers with Certifications
After graduating from university with a degree in industrial design, Sumiko Yamamoto did general office work and was then a housewife. In her thirties, she wanted to restart her career. In a slump and unable to find opportunities to use her skills in her field of expertise, she decided to get a CCNA certification on the advice of a contract recruitment agency. After later earning a CCNP, Ms. Yamamoto's career as a network engineer took off, and it really changed her life.
Question: When you first graduated from university, what kind of job did you take?
Yamamoto: I took a job doing administrative work. Although I majored in industrial design, at that time the field of study was not really considered important for female students. I was not especially dissatisfied and I accepted that reality, so I didn't find a job in my field. Administrative work certainly wasn't a job that utilized my expertise, but there were ways I was able to improve my engineering methods and my own skills, and the work itself was interesting enough.
Question: While working as an office assistant, how did you stay motivated to constantly improve yourself?
Yamamoto: Whatever I do, I want to do it well. I enjoy various kinds of work and if I am able to produce positive results, I enjoy that. The turning point was when I got married. I took that opportunity to stay at home for a while. However, I later got divorced and was forced into a situation where I had to be independent. I looked for a job in Tokyo, but there was almost no one looking to hire a woman over 30 to be a general office assistant. I was happy to do contract work, but the market was very competitive at the time and there was no work coming my way.
Question: At that time, did you think of making use of your industrial design university major? Were those special technical skills in demand?
Yamamoto: If I had built a career around my major after I graduated, things may have been different. But I had been working in a different field for 7-8 years and as IT was making momentous advances; people in my field were not seen as immediately ready to step in. Since I had to live somehow, I delivered packages to people at companies, helped out in the moving business, and I even cleaned. At the time there was no choice but to take work I was offered.
Question: You probably wouldn’t have imagined then that you'd be flourishing as a network engineer now, right?
Yamamoto: As a working adult, it was somewhat shocking that I was not needed or valued by companies. Because I was a woman over 30, my prospects were not bright at all. On the other hand, I find any work I do interesting and I am able to learn. Now that I have a CCNA and a CCNP, I am doing the work that I want. That period in my life was for experiencing various types of work.
Question: While working at various jobs, what were you aiming for in terms of career advancement?
Yamamoto: I didn't know specifically, but as there was a boom in IT at that time and I realized that I was passionate about it and that it was a good line of work for me. During that time, all companies were expanding and building needed resources to deal with the Year 2000. I felt that I should change my reality through my own efforts. I was even able to get a programming job because people with little familiarity or background in systems were first hired and then trained in the required technology.
Question: How has your work experience as a programmer been useful?
Yamamoto: In the work I do now, there are some situations when I use my knowledge as a programmer. However, after I worked as a programmer for about 5 years, I again found myself stuck in the bottleneck of being a woman over 30. Even at contract recruitment agencies, I couldn't register as an IT resource. I was disappointed that after having invested so much effort in a career in a specialty field, the situation was largely the same as before. But facing this reality forced me to search for work in conditions where age and gender were less important. English was not my forte and I was limited by my preference to work only in Japanese companies where there is a
perception that older female staff members are difficult to work with for young male leaders.
Question: How did you then find out about Cisco Career Certifications?
Yamamoto: I heard about them by chance from a contact at a recruitment agency. While looking at my resume, the person said "It would make a difference if you got a Cisco CCNA certification." But the comment was made with the nuance that ‘since this is a difficult certification to achieve, it's pointless to get it now at your age. It's better to give up hope of contract work in this field.’ This comment fired my ambition. I thought to myself: Is that so? If that's the case, then I'm going to go get that certification. What was clear was that if I didn't do anything then nothing would change. I am grateful to the person at the agency. Up until then, I wasn't really aware of certifications, but with their help I saw the light.
Question: In what ways did you study to prepare for your CCNA exams?
Yamamoto: It’s difficult to get a certification by studying only on your own. I went to school and studied on my own. When I started, I discovered a world of certifications from many vendors, including Cisco. Studying for multiple certifications while working is tough, but because I was motivated, I think I enjoyed the process more.
Question: As you were studying for your certification, what did you discover about this new career path?
Yamamoto: When I first began working with Cisco routers and switches, I learned quickly and had a feeling about Cisco products that I did not feel toward other companies’ products. I enjoyed and liked the work an immediately knew that "With Cisco technology, something can change!" I was an instant fan, which is not to say that studying wasn’t challenging. It took me three tries before I was able to pass my CCNA exams. The whole process took about six months.
Question: After you were CCNA certified, what changed in your work?
Yamamoto: The situation didn't change as much as I thought it would. When I got the CCNA, I rewrote my resume and starting looking for a job. There were people who didn't know about the CCNA. But from those who knew the value of it, I heard things like, "I would be interested if you were a man with a CCNA." After all I’d worked for, that was extremely discouraging. But I also believed this way of thinking was unique to Japanese companies. There were also other concerns including the fact that engineering work required night shifts, overtime and that IT-related work is done by teams whose harmony would be disrupted by the presence of just one older woman.
Luckily, I was able to find contract work as a tester and in technical support. It's a shame that it was almost unrelated to the CCNA, but the CAD certification I earned in parallel with the CCNA was useful. I did a lot of different things. My industrial design degree was not seen as having any value at all.
Question: How did you plan your next steps while you were working in testing and technical support?
Yamamoto: My work in testing and support was fulfilling and after several years I saw increasing demand in routers and switches and in the number of people who had a CCNA. I was about to renew my CCNA and instead decided to take on the challenge of the CCNP which would automatically update my CCNA. Within six months I passed all four parts of the CCNP. Even though it was more difficult than the CCNA, this time I passed all exams on the first try. I was successful and my purpose was now clear. I had conquered barriers that I once thought were too high.
Question: How did having a CCNP certification change your situation?
Yamamoto: Introductions to contracting companies increased. Since getting my CCNP four years ago, I’ve built my career solidly. There aren’t many people with a CCNP and it gives me a competitive strength. Also the number of companies and people who recognize the potential in women has increased. Being a woman is still a disadvantage, but not as strongly as it used to be. I am happy to report that there are many opportunities and that my efforts are finally being recognized.
Question: What other skills would you encourage those aspiring to work in IT to develop?
Yamamoto: If you are going to make full use of the value of your certification, you have to have strong English skills. Also, the stereotype about technical people in IT is an image of one person continuously staring at a screen. In reality there is a lot of teamwork and a lot of contact with customers; interpersonal skills are very important. No matter how highly valued a certification is, it doesn't mean that you are good at only that one thing. There is a synergistic effect with other things, making it possible to increase the overall quality of your work.
Question: What are your plans for your career path now?
Yamamoto: I am currently doing contract work as a network engineer, but I think the advantages of contracting are being able to choose the type of work I do and to experience a variety of workplaces. The future also looks bright, but I always want to improve myself by absorbing new knowledge and skills, and earning new certifications when needed. Since I'll have to renew my CCNP in three years, I think I'll take on the challenge of getting a CCIE. Getting a CCIE is a high hurdle and I don't yet know how it will go. The CCIE exam requires not only knowledge and skills but strength in English so it is a big challenge. I believe in challenging myself to set my sights even higher once I’ve reached a goal. I will always want to associate myself with Cisco Career Certifications.
Translated from an original version in Japanese. Read the original Japanese version.