What’s hot in network certifications

As organizations look to next-gen architectures like multi-cloud and SDN, network professionals are getting a leg up with software-fluent certifications. Are they worth it?

programmer abstract code glasses devops certification skills kevin unsplash
Kevin modified by IDG Comm. (CC0)

Network certifications typically serve as a litmus test of a network professional’s knowledge of technologies that most company already use. Increasingly, however, network professionals are looking beyond what is, and they’re getting a leg up on certifications that will set them apart from their peers in the near future.

Take the push toward digital transformation. As companies shift toward deploying software-defined networks or programmable networks, analysts tout the need for network engineers to become software fluent, including learning to make API calls, write basic scripts and have basic programming skills. In response, more than 13,000 network professionals have already pursued certifications in these areas – even when SDN and virtualization aren’t currently being used in their organizations.

“I see networking undergoing what I would call a northward shift,” says Dr. James Stanger, chief technology evangelist at industry association CompTIA. “Skills being expected of a network professional are more than just learning a few Cisco commands and a couple of routing protocols – you’re being asked to do more things, and SDN is one of them,” he says. “Right now, SDN is still a differentiator. In a few years, it will have to be part of your vocabulary.”

Vendors in the SDN and network virtualization space, such as VMware, Cisco and Juniper Networks, have jumped on the certification bandwagon, while traditional credentialing bodies, such as CompTIA, are waiting until a critical mass is reached in demand for virtualization and SDN credentials before unveiling its own certification. Should network professionals jump on the bandwagon now? Here’s what certification and hiring professionals have to say.

Network certifications target next-gen architecture

For a networking person that historically focused on hardware, moving toward a multi-cloud strategy is more about changing their mindset, says Chris McCain, VMware director of product management, networking and security. “This is a new generation of networking because it’s done in software,” where the network is easier to manage and update, McCain says. “The tough part here is that those are characteristics that networking people typically don’t have.”

VMware launched NSX, its network virtualization platform, in 2013. A year later it began offering three levels of network virtualization certifications – for beginners, implementation experts and network designers. So far about 13,000 network professionals have earned these certifications. Still, hiring managers aren’t demanding these skills quite yet, and that’s likely because the demand for network professionals is so hot right now that hiring managers can’t afford to be so specific.

When it comes to virtualization or SDN certifications, “I wouldn’t put it in my top 10-15 [most requested certifications] at this point,” says Jim Johnson, senior vice president at recruiting firm Robert Half Technology. “In a market like this, having those certifications is never a bad thing, but IT managers are trying to be as creative as they can to fill some of these roles.” Right now, they’re hiring on aptitude rather than paper certifications, he says.

The most requested network certifications by hiring managers remain fairly consistent, Johnson says. They include Cisco’s CCNP and CCNA, and security certifications. In the cloud world, Microsoft NCSE and AWS certifications are moving up the ladder, “but they’re less required and more ‘nice to have,’” he says.

Certifications ease the transition to automation

At a recent Cisco Live user event, Cisco's distinguished services engineer Joe Clarke spoke to one network professional who said he got into networking so he wouldn’t have to be a software programmer. But as today’s networks manage more data and must scale in hours or minutes versus days or weeks, network professionals must get comfortable with automation and software that makes it happen, Clarke says. Cisco is trying to ease this transition with its network programmability specialist certifications, which it began offering in 2016.

NP Design and Implementation for Engineers (NPDESI) builds on traditional CCNP skills and covers Linux, network programmability fundamentals such as programming in Python, APIs and automation protocols, data models, operations using configuration management tools like Ansible, Puppet and Chef, and controllers. Online courses also get users up to speed on these technologies.

Cisco also offers a certification for software developers looking to focus on the network application layer. The Network Programmability Developer Specialist (NPDEV) certification helps network professionals get the foundational skills needed to develop network applications in Cisco’s programmable environments.

“The training has gained a lot of popularity for people who say this is where my job role might be going,” Clarke says. The typical network professional who has received the NPDESI certification has three to five years of Cisco experience, he adds. Cisco would not disclose how many people have earned NP certifications since they became available.

Juniper Networks offers an Automation and DevOps, Specialist (JNCIS-DevOps) certification designed for networking professionals with intermediate knowledge of automation tools and best practices. The exam verifies the candidate's understanding of the application of scripting tools such as PyEZ, Python and Ansible to Junos devices and networks.

Will network certifications deliver a pay bump?

The average pay premium for VMware network virtualization certifications was 8.5% above base salary in Q3 2018, according to IT pay and certifications research firm Foote Partners. But when it comes to some of the other new network certifications, the research firm says it’s too early to tell whether they will lead to premium pay. Foote Partners, which reports on 1,003 certified and non-certified IT skills, hasn’t seen Cisco PM certifications on its list just yet, and VMware NSX certifications have become measurable only in the last few months.

nw vmware certifications median pay table Network World

“[The fact that] we don’t have many of these in the mix means we have not collected enough data to meet our validation hurdles,” says David Foote, co-founder and CEO. “The implication could be that not enough employers are willing to pay extra for these certifications.”

Enterprise Strategy Group interviewed 35 VMware network virtualization certification holders as part of a study sponsored by VMware. It found that in some cases the network virtualization certification did translate into more lucrative recruiting offers or higher compensation, but more received “softer benefits,” such as enhanced visibility within the organization or a seat at the table on strategic discussions around SDN and network security.

“That’s an important distinction that has helped move these individuals that were formerly limited to being ‘the network guy’ to having a higher-level strategic conversation, which has much better long-term career implications,” says Bob Laliberte, ESG senior analyst.

Some companies willing to pay for virtualization certs

In a tight hiring market, some companies are willing to hire less experienced network professionals and use the path to a certification as a retention tool, Johnson says. They’ll pay for the certification, “and hopefully that candidate will stay,” knowing that the certification makes them marketable to other companies.

When it comes to the value of having an SDN or virtualization certification, “it is never going to hurt you,” Johnson says. “In a hot hiring market, these things become required at some point, so don’t wait until you need it to get it. If the opportunity exists, go get it. While it may not benefit you immediately, it will in your long-term investment in your career,” he says.

“As an employer, don’t let it be a crutch that you can’t fill a job because you can’t find anyone certified,” Johnson adds. “It’s a tight market for anyone with virtualization and cloud skills. Don’t make the market even tighter,” he says. “If you’re willing to be flexible and bring somebody in who has the aptitude and knowledge and you have to certify them, that might be a good hire.”

This story, "What’s hot in network certifications" was originally published by Network World.