Earning Cisco certifications is one of the best ways to move up the IT career ladder and get the attention of prospective employers. In fact, many positions actually require applicants to hold one or more Cisco credentials, and employers often actively encourage their employees to work toward earning higher levels.
If you are new to IT or the certification process, though, making sense of Cisco certifications can be a challenge. With five levels of certification and literally dozens of specializations within those levels, you might find yourself overwhelmed by the choices and unsure about which path to pursue. Ultimately, the decision comes down to your personal career goals and where your skills and interests lie, but in the meantime, it’s important to understand the different certification options.
Cisco Certification Levels
There are five primary levels of Cisco certification, each one building upon the previous level’s knowledge and skills.
Entry: These are the lowest level certifications, and are a starting point for those early in their careers or beginning the path of Cisco certifications. Credentials in this category include the Certified Cisco Entry Network Technician (CCENT) and the Certified Cisco Technician (CCT).
Associate: The second level of certification forms the foundation for specializations, and includes Cisco Certified Network Association (CCNA) in areas including networking, routing and switching, data center, and security.
Professional: The Professional designation includes two main certifications: Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) and Cisco Certified Design Professional (CCDP). The CCNP credential is designed for those who plan, deploy, and manage both local networks and wide area networks. The CCDP is geared toward the design and deployment of scalable networks and multilayer-switched networks.
Expert: Like the Professional designation, the Expert credential includes two main certifications: Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) and the Cisco Certified Design Expert (CCDE). Unlike the Associate and Professional certifications, these credentials do not have any specific prerequisites, but you must pass a rigorous exam to earn the designation. To earn the CCIE, you need expert technical skills and knowledge of Cisco network products and solutions in one of the CCIE technical tracks, which currently include Collaboration, Data Center, Routing and Switching, Security, Service Provider, and Wireless. With a CCDE, you are an expert in infrastructure solutions for large enterprise environments.
Architect. Essentially the Ph.D. of Cisco certifications, the Architect credential is considered the most difficult of all technical certifications to earn. This credential indicates that you can plan and design IT infrastructures based on business strategies.
The path through the levels of Cisco certification is relatively straightforward. However, within each level there are multiple different specializations, and it’s not uncommon to earn certifications in more than one specialty area.
Finding Your Path
When choosing the best certification, most experts recommend choosing the path that you are passionate about, not the one that is predicted to have the most demand or has the highest earning potential. The job market is changing every day and becoming more competitive all the time, so choosing a certification that seems hot today, but that you aren’t truly interested in, isn’t necessarily going to get you ahead – and might even backfire on you when you don’t enjoy your work.
Choosing an interesting path, then, is the top concern, but so is your existing knowledge, ability to commit to a program of study, and overall career goals. Cisco recommends that at minimum you should aim to achieve the CCNA Routing and Switching or CCNP Routing and Switching certifications before moving on to others, since those provide a foundation of knowledge in networking technologies and more insight into which areas you may wish to specialize in going forward.
Regardless of the path you choose, expect to devote significant time to training and preparation for your Cisco examinations. At every level, you must pass at least one exam, with most of the CCNP credentials requiring at least three exams and you need to be prepared. Training for CCNP Routing and Switching or CCNA Routing and Switching certifications can be done at your own speed thanks to online courses. But earning advanced certifications often requires more time — up to a year of study and preparation, so embarking on a certification journey is not something to be considered lightly.
However, regardless of the path you choose, holding Cisco certifications indicates that you have a certain degree of knowledge and experience, and that you value lifelong learning and development, something that many employers are looking for in job candidates. In other words, it’s difficult to go wrong when you follow your passion and put in the effort required for certifications.