Virtually all computers in the world are connected to at least one network, and Cisco Systems is a worldwide leading provider of network products and services. Cisco provides certification for Cisco Certified Network Associates (CCNAs) to ensure that firms using Cisco products can hire IT professionals who are familiar with those products. CCNA certification by Cisco is the primary certification method for network administrators (although other network certifications exist).
A CCNA certification is the second level in a five-level pyramid of Cisco network certification.
The first level is Entry – and the levels above CCNA certification are Professional, Expert, and Architect.
Obtaining a CCNA certification means that you have a fundamental knowledge of the foundations of computer networking: installing, maintaining, and troubleshooting wireless, wired, and dial-up networks.
Typically, a professional with a CCNA
If this sounds like a lot to know, it is! Although CCNA certification is not as hard to obtain as some other certifications, it can take as many as six to nine months to prepare for and pass the CCNA certification exam. Typically, the CCNA certification exam is easier to pass if you have a few years of networking experience under your belt. And because networking protocols and technology is one of the fastest-changing areas of information technology, you have to renew your CCNA certification every three years.
Having completed CCNA certification, you can expand your certification by taking exams in one or more of four main concentrations:
- Service Provider Operations
- Voice (also called IP-Telephony)
If you peruse the job listings on the major job Web sites, you’ll see that many of the network-related jobs require CCNA certification. Jobs for people with a CCNA certification may include both desk jobs and physical labor. For example, you may monitor, operate, and troubleshoot a network from a computer terminal and spend most of your time sitting and typing. Or you may hustle about plugging in cables and crawling under desks to install wireless access points.
What Makes a Good CCNA?
Any career requires some qualities that make you good at what you do. Drummers have good rhythm. Truck drivers like seeing new country. Network administrators are no exception—pursuing CCNA certification will be easier if you possess certain personality traits.
- First and foremost, you should do what you love and love what you do—that is, you should enjoy working on networks and becoming intimately familiar with the eccentricities of networking protocols. Otherwise, a networking career has great potential for drudgery and stress.
- Strong IT knowledge is also very important. Although schooling can help prepare you for CCNA certification, generally several years of actual networking experience will serve you better. Hands-on experience with various routers, real-world knowledge of security threats, and personal acquaintance with network management will all help reduce study time for the CCNA exam and make passing more likely.
- Strong ethical standards are a must for those pursuing CCNA certification. Computer networks carry large amounts of sensitive and proprietary data. As a CCNA, you are responsible for the safety and integrity of that data as it moves over the network. If you are not dedicated to maintaining information security, CCNA certification may not be the right career choice for you.
- You might think a computer-networking career would be a good job for lone-wolf types—just hunker down amidst the cables, monitor the network, and fix problems that arise. In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth. To be successful as a CCNA, you should be able to work well with other IT professionals and other employees. The network is used daily by everyone at the firm—from management to the janitor. You should be able to understand others’ concerns, brainstorm for solutions, and collaboratively implement these solutions.
- Awareness of what is going on around you and good attention to detail are also useful traits. Computer networks consist of many interrelated components, any one of which can cause the network to go down if it fails. Good CCNAs are aware of all components, as well of how they work together. For example, if you notice a significant increase in traffic on one part of the network, you may be able to bump up the network bandwidth before the new traffic slows down the rest of the network.
- When networks go down, people want them back up—NOW. The ability to assess a situation quickly and discover either a solution or a work-around is a must for computer network professionals. Quickly patching a situation can sometimes save a company thousands of dollars it would lose if it could not carry out business as usual.
- Very few areas of IT move as quickly as networking technology. Every time you turn around there is a new networking protocol, a new version of an old protocol, a new type of switch or router; the list of changes is endless. Your skill set will quickly become outdated unless you constantly stay on top of the industry by reading, participating in online forums, and attending seminars. Because this can take a great amount of your time, a great CCNA should enjoy the learning process.
- The IT department may depend on the CCNA to be the point person for all things IT, since most of what an IT department does can’t be done without the network. Good leadership skills, such as the ability to motivate other people, resolve differences of opinion, and foment a sense of camaraderie and team spirit, can make your life easier and your IT department more effective.
- A CCNA needs good communication skills to be able to explain to other IT professionals how to configure the network or how to fix a problem. Sometimes you’ll also need to make networking concepts understandable to non-technical personnel, such as the CEO. For example, he’ll want to know WHY you think upgrading to 802.11n is a good idea, if it’s going to cost more than the current solution. Being able to speak clearly, write memos, and prepare presentations are all useful skills for a CCNA.
- Finally, a CCNA typically must have a high tolerance for stress and be willing to work odd and/or long hours. The computer network never sleeps, and sometimes it may seem like that is true for the CCNA as well. If the network goes down at 3:00 p.m., you will generally be expected to stay until it is fixed, even if that isn’t until 11:00 p.m. If you want to upgrade a router, doing so in the middle of the standard workday would interrupt business too much. So, you’ll probably do it during the middle of the night when network traffic is light.
Professional Networking Associations and Organizations
Joining a professional association can provide several different varieties of benefits that can boost your career, enhance your knowledge, and make your job more enjoyable and rewarding.
Possibly the top advantage of joining a professional organization, which consists of people who do what you do—work in the IT industry, particularly with computer networks—is the chance to network with other people. You can exchange ideas, job leads, frustrations and successes, and relevant news items with people who care about the things that you care about.
Another important benefit of membership in a professional organization is the many avenues it will provide for continuing education. Because you’re going to have to renew your CCNA certifications every three years or go on to higher Cisco or other certifications, you’ll want to explore every continuing-education resource. Most professional organizations provide certification courses, annual conferences, Webinars, online newsfeeds, blogs, podcasts, newsletters, magazines, and other publications to help you keep current—and many of these are offered at a discount not available to non-members. Other discounts may be available as well, such as group rates for health and life insurance policies.
Here are some other potential reasons you may want to join one or more professional organizations:
- Socializing is fun. There is usually a local or regional chapter that holds regular meetings where you get to actually meet other computer-network professionals face to face—a nice change from the usual online dialogue!
- Professional organization memberships look good on your resume. Listing a well-known professional organization on your resume can enhance your professional credibility with potential employers. You might consider taking an active role in the organization, such as running for office or mentoring newbies. Listing these activities on your resume indicates you are dedicated to your profession and are capable of thinking of someone other than yourself.
It is virtually impossible to list all the professional organizations that may be of interest to an IT professional with a CCNA certification—there are many unofficial groups and organizations not listed here. But, the following two professional organizations are the powerhouses of the IT industry, and offer special interest groups (SIGs) specifically geared to those working in the computer-networking area:
- IEEE Computer Society: Founded in 1946, IEEE is a household word among computer professionals. Several IEEE special interest groups (they call them “societies”) may be of interest to you, including the IEEE Antennas and Propagation Society, the IEEE Communications Society, and the IEEE Broadcast Technology Society.
- Association for Computing Machinery : The ACM’s Special Interest Group on Data Communication (SIGCOMM) is a professional forum for discussing communications and computer networks, including meetings, annual conference, awards, travel grants, and a member blog.
Several other professional organizations focus almost exclusively on computer networking, data transfer, and information systems. Therefore, you may also want to consider membership in one of the following:
- Association for Information Technology Professionals: offers an annual conference, ongoing education for members, and broad-based support for student members.
- Network Professional Association: Founded in 1991, this organization claims to be the “leading organization” for network computing professionals. It offers certification programs, career strategy advice, local chapters, and other membership benefits.
- Network and Systems Professionals Association: offers training programs, publications, an educational foundation, and technology conferences and trade shows.
- International Federation of Information Processing: includes 13 “technical communities” that specialize in specific areas of computer networking, such as information security and systems modeling.
- American Society for Information Science and Technology: focuses on how information is “stored, retrieved, analyzed, managed, archived, and disseminated.”
- International Association for Computer Information Systems : focuses on information systems, management sciences, computer science, and applied education technology.
- Advanced Computing Systems Association: Perhaps better known to those who have been in IT for a while as USENIX, this organization’s members include engineers, system administrators, scientists, and technicians. Among the various technical conferences available, few are a better source of information about cutting-edge advances in computer technology than the annual USENIX technical conference.
If you are among the 6% of CCNA certification holders that are female (source: PayScale Index), you may find membership in one of the following organizations beneficial:
- Women in Technology International: is specifically for women pursuing careers in technology. Members hail from all over the world and form a support network for success.
- Association for Women in Computing : is a constituent society member of the Institute for Certification of Computer Professionals (ICCP). It provides education and networking opportunities for women in all types of computer careers.
- If you are an independent consultant with a CCNA certification, you may also want to check out membership in the Independent Computer Consultant Association.
History of Networking and How CCNAs Came to Be
Musing about how people are connected to each other, John Donne (1572-1631) wrote “no man is an island.” Three hundred years later, he may just as easily have written, “no computer is an island.” Virtually every computer in the world (millions of them) are connected to each other by networks—wireless networks, wired networks, telephone networks, data networks, satellite networks, local networks, and global networks. Someone has to manage all these networks—hence the existence of network administrators, and in particular, Cisco Certified Network Associates (CCNAs).
The telegraph, invented in 1840 by Samuel Morse, was the first “modern” network—sending information to a remote location without a human messenger. The telephone followed quickly on the heels of the telegraph (1876). Soon, wires and poles crisscrossed the nation, enabling communication on a scale unimagined 100 years earlier.
From these humble, but important beginnings, computer network technology grew steadily. Concepts such as data compression and data-transmission error detection were being explored by the middle of the 20th century. But it was the 1960s—those years so fondly remembered in other ways—when computer networks really began to take shape. This decade saw improved modems, ARPANET (the prototype of the modern Internet), and the very first wide-area network (WAN).
During the 1970s and 1980s, various networking protocols, such as Ethernet, IEEE 802.3, and TCP/IP (transmission-control protocol/Internet protocol) were standardized, leading to the development of local-area networks (LANs). Within another ten years, networking technology had expanded to include virtual private networks (VPNs) and networks capable of carrying voice, data, and video.
Today, well into the 21st century, computer networking continues to evolve, with better cables that can carry data accurately over longer distances, improved protocols such as Ethernet 10GbE (10 gigabit Ethernet) and IEEE 802.11n, and new types of switches and routers that enhance the reliability of networks.
Whereas the first WAN connected only a few computers, today’s computer networks can tie together thousands and even tens of thousands of computers, depending on the size of the company. It only makes sense that, as computer networks grew, so did the need for people to build networks—network engineers or network architects—as well as people to manage the networks—network administrators.
Right in the middle of the exploding growth of computer networks, Cisco Systems was founded in 1984, and has grown to be a leading supplier of computer network products and services. From a husband-and- wife team, Cisco has grown to more than 25,000 employees and billions of dollars in sales ($12.5 billion in 1999).
Cisco Academies were established in the early 1990s to provide training on Cisco equipment. Since then, thousands of IT professionals have studied for and passed the CCNA certification exam. The CCNA certification has also spawned an entire industry centered around helping people prepare for the exam. Hundreds of online and classroom-based training companies offer courses, books, and practice tests. A quick Google search for “CCNA exam preparation” turns up more than 200,000 results, and there are 11 Cisco Learning Partner training companies in the United States.
As the computer-network industry continues to evolve, so will Cisco equipment. And the number of people trained to work with that equipment—including those who have obtained CCNA certification—will continue to grow.