February 15, 2023

5 min

How Cisco Certifications Have Helped My Career Development

CDW Principal Field Solution Architect Reid Nilson describes his learning journey and the Cisco certifications he’s received in his career.

Reid Nilson

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My journey as a lifelong learner really began in 2005; I was working as a developer/network admin for a small web development company, and I really wanted to transition to something different in the IT world since I had been in the same role for almost three years. The first step was to figure out what I wanted to do – I had a diploma in network engineering and decided to pursue the Cisco CCNA certification, which I completed after a year of study in 2006.

Completing the CCNA provided great satisfaction, but it also gave me the bug to continue learning. Looking at what Cisco was offering for their certification program, and considering what I wanted to do, I settled on the Cisco Certified Security Professional (CCSP) certification; today it's called the CCNP: Security.

This was a significant challenge for someone that was four years out of school and had spent that time working on FreeBSD systems, writing Perl scripts and developing MySQL databases. I set out a goal that I would complete the five certifications in a year, which would require taking one proctored exam every two months.

How the CCSP helped me in my career

The CCSP eventually got me what I was looking for, a consulting role with a company in town. The company was looking to expand their Cisco practice and required an individual with the CCSP and a few other partner-related certifications, which I agreed to complete after I started. These certifications were related to the NAC Framework and the Cisco endpoint solution available at the time; both solutions are no longer around but the fundamentals have been invaluable. Having an understanding of how the industry has changed over the years has been very useful when talking to customers about the latest solutions.

Continuing my journey with the CCIE and CCDE certifications

The Cisco Certified Internetworking Expert (CCIE) and Cisco Certified Design Expert (CCDE) are two certifications that require dedication to complete. Both are eight-hour exams that cover a great deal of topics. I completed the CCIE Security lab exam in the fall of 2008 and the CCDE lab exam in the spring of 2015.

These exams were reflective of the work I was doing at the time, working in both pre-sales and delivery roles. The delivery role was heavily focused on implementation of Cisco security products including firewalls, VPN and NAC but also routing and switching. The pre-sales experience helped me understand the design side that contributed to completing the CCDE.

When I started this journey, I don’t think I realized it would be a career-long endeavour. Cisco certifications need to be renewed on a regular basis, but which ones you renew is up to you. For this renewal cycle I chose to take the Cisco DevNet Professional and Security Automation and Programmability certifications. There were many reasons for selecting these certifications, but the keys for me were that I find the topics interesting, and the subject matter is relevant to the conversations I’m having with customers. While recertifying every two or three years does require a time commitment and effort, it also motivates me to keep learning.

I have found that completing these certifications have added value to the real-world experience that I’ve gained over the years. The CCIE lab exam ensures that you have the hands-on knowledge to complete the eight-hour lab exam, but there is nothing compared to the pressure when you’re in the middle of a change window and some unexpected problem comes up and you need to make the decision as to whether the problem can be fixed or it’s time to back out. It really takes a combination of skills and experience to be able to solve the many challenges we constantly face in the IT industry.

How Cisco certifications help me with projects – and projects help me obtain more Cisco certifications

While I’ve worked with many customers over the years, there are a few that I’ve worked with for more than 15 years through many different projects. The knowledge that I’ve gained through the certification exams and real-world experience has helped me be a better resource for the customers that I work with.

One of my first projects after achieving the CCSP certification was a migration from Cisco PIX firewalls to the cutting-edge ASA firewalls. I’ve worked with that customer through two other migration projects onto new hardware since completing that original migration project in 2007. The experience I’ve gained through completing this work has helped me achieve the more difficult certifications like the CCIE and CCDE, while knowledge I’ve gained while studying for those certifications has been applied back to my work.

Looking at the industry as a whole, and my role as a CDW solution architect, there is sometimes a need to take a step back from a problem and better understand the customer’s needs. In addition to Cisco, I have several certifications from other vendors, including Palo Alto Networks, Fortinet and Splunk, as well as vendor-neutral certifications like the CISSP and GPEN. However, it’s impossible to know everything, so it’s great to have a larger solution architect team with their own wide range of certifications and expertise around to help in assisting customers.

About the Author

Reid Nilson is a Principal Field Solution Architect with CDW and is responsible for pre-sales of security products and services. He has been in the industry for 20 years and has been with CDW since 2015.