CCNA Certification: Overview and Career Path

Introduction

Newcomers in any field usually have many unanswered questions on their minds. Those just entering or transitioning into the networking field want to know where to start, how to progress, and which certifications (if any) to acquire.

In this article, we will explore one of the industry’s most recognized networking certifications, the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) certification. We will consider topics such as the target audience of the certification, the experience needed, whether it’s still worth acquiring, and the ways to train for the exam.

What Is the CCNA Routing and Switching Certification?

People are probably more familiar with the “CCNA” certification than even the “Cisco” name itself. The CCNA Routing and Switching certification is a Cisco entry-level certification for the networking field. While the certification is provided by Cisco and can be Cisco-focused in some areas, it covers general networking fundamentals, routing and switching technologies, wide area networks (WAN), security, and other networking topics.

Note: This certification used to simply be called “CCNA.” However, as more entry-level certifications became available for other fields such as the CCNA Security and CCNA Wireless, Cisco decided to call it CCNA Routing and Switching. Therefore, when we say “CCNA,” we mean the CCNA Routing and Switching certification.

As is evident from the name, the CCNA certification is administered by Cisco. In simple terms, Cisco is a networking equipment vendor that manufactures devices such as routers, switches, and even firewalls. They have been at this for a while (since 1984), have built a strong brand, and are the market leader in areas such as enterprise routing and switching.

Who Should Earn the CCNA?

According to Cisco, the CCNA certification is targeted at people who want to go into job roles such as network support engineer and network administrator. Basically, if you want a career in networking, especially enterprise networking, getting CCNA certified may be a good move for you because Cisco is still the dominant leader in that industry.

However, the CCNA certification is not only for those in the networking field. There are examples of system administrators who are CCNA-certified because they wanted to understand more about the networks that their servers will be running on.

Side note: One may argue that the CompTIA Network+ certification is a better fit for those non-network people since it is more vendor-neutral; however, the CCNA certification also covers networking fundamentals properly.

What Experience Is Needed to Take the Exam?

There are actually no prerequisites for taking the CCNA certification exam. Basically, anyone in any field can take the exam. For example, I became CCNA-certified when I was still an undergraduate.

Note: There are age restrictions for Cisco certification exams. Kids under the age of 13 years cannot take the exam. Teenagers (13-17) can take the exam with parental consent. There are no restrictions for 18+ years.

That being said, it is may be helpful to have one to two years work experience in networking before going for the certification. However, if you don’t have networking experience and you are more interested in the knowledge from the certification than in the certification itself, as you should be, then you need to put in more work than someone who already has networking work/field experience. Thankfully, tools like GNS3 and Packet Tracer reduce the barrier to entry in the networking field, allowing you gain practical experience even without a networking job.

How Does the CCNA Compare to Other Networking Certs?

Over the years, Cisco has built a solid brand and is seen in the eyes of many as the de-facto networking product company. This brand allows the CCNA certification to be viewed more as a certification for generic networking, even though the exam is hugely Cisco-focused in some areas. For this reason, there are not many entry-level networking certifications that can stand beside the CCNA certification for comparison.

However, for the sake of completeness, let us mention a few other entry-level networking certifications. The first on the list is the CompTIA Network+ certification, which benefits from being vendor-neutral. However, the general consensus is that the CCNA is a better and more advanced certification to have than the Network+ even for those who don’t work with Cisco products. Even the CompTIA site does not compare the Network+ to the CCNA certification (scroll down to “How Does CompTIA Network+ Compare?”).

Another entry-level networking certification is the Juniper Networks Certified Associate Junos (JNCIA-Junos). In terms of exam topics and difficulty, this is more similar to the Cisco Certified Entry Networking (CCENT) certification, i.e., ICND1. The next level after the JNCIA-Junos certification is the Juniper Networks Certified Specialist Enterprise Routing and Switching (JNCIS-ENT), which is more advanced than the CCNA (i.e., CCNA plus parts of CCNP).

From my experience and research, the CCNA is more widely recognized than these other certifications, at least for entry-level and generic networking. However, there are other certifications that may be more valuable for specific industries. For example, the AWS certifications may be more valuable for an organization that is big on the cloud.

Is the CCNA Worth the Effort?

People starting out ask questions like “Is going for the CCNA certification is really worth it?” and “Should I go for another certification all together?” Some even go as far as arguing that certifications are not worth it. My answer to all these is “it depends.”

To certify or not?

First, I want to address the question of whether it is worth it to even get certified at all (any certification). While people argue that the focus should be more on what you can do versus the certification (which I strongly agree with), I believe a certification gives you a foot in the door and, in many cases, will give you a better chance than someone who doesn’t have one. If you were hiring for the role of a network engineer and you got two resumes with similar work experiences but one with a CCNA certificate, who will you rather invite for an interview?

Note: On the other hand, I do not think certifications are relevant in all fields. I will hardly pay attention to any certification a software developer has; rather, I will focus on their portfolio.

Location

When I first got into the networking industry about 2008, there were only about 31 Nigerian CCIEs in total, many of whom were not resident in Nigeria. Getting a CCIE at that time was a really big deal. The lab exam was sufficiently difficult and CCIEs were compensated heavily in the industry.

Unfortunately, things changed within a couple of years, as more CCIEs flooded the market, which was not as hungry for the “advanced” technology that CCIEs could provide. Also, there were many half-baked engineers passing the CCIE lab exam using dumps, who, when put on the job, could not back up their certification with technical know-how.

As you can imagine, if organizations lost faith in an 8-hour CCIE lab exam, they definitely did not value a mostly written exam like the CCNA. It was more about what the engineer could do; certification was an add-on.

This story of Nigeria is not necessarily reflective of the world at large. Cisco certifications (including the CCNA) are still held in high regard in many other countries, including the UK, Canada, and the US. Again, the organizations in those places are more interested in what you can do versus what you say you can do; however, a certification will give you a foot in the door.

Side note: For those in Nigeria reading this article, the networking industry is now growing very fast, especially with the advent of cloud services and data centers. So there’s hope.

Organization/Company

Cisco certifications tend to be very Cisco-specific. This may or may not be a problem, depending on the organization you are working at (or intend working at). If that organization uses a lot of Cisco products (and many do!), then a Cisco certification is well worth it. However, if your job requires you to use devices from other vendors, you may want to give it some extra thought.

Note 1: The CCNA certification, being an entry-level certification, is actually very good for understanding the basics of networking, knowledge that is applicable to networking products from other vendors.

Note 2: Cisco certifications seem to be introducing more vendor-neutral topics. especially in areas like network programmability.

Differentiation

Many people are CCNA-certified, so you need to differentiate yourself from the large pool of CCNAs. Usually, this means knowing (and being able to show) exactly what you say you know. Also, you can use the CCNA certification as a stepping stone to higher-level Cisco certifications, many of which have the CCNA as a prerequisite.

If you need more convincing, there is a Cisco article here that lists ten reasons why you should become CCNA certified.

What Is the Best Way to Train for the CCNA?

The CCNA certification exam itself is 60-70 questions in 90 minutes. However, the knowledge you can potentially gain from the certification cannot be measured by that amount of time. Personally, I think you should spend time getting very familiar with the technologies tested in the exam for the sake of knowledge.

The first thing you will want to do is go through the list of topics for the CCNA exam. It is divided into seven sections and each section has a varying number of sub-topics. Next, you can visit the Cisco page that lists the study materials for the exam. This list can be very scary because of its length, but closer inspection reveals that many items are repeated between sections.

CCNA Quad Instant Pricing – Intense

So how do you make sure that you cover the content required for the exam? Like any other exam, there are various ways to prepare, including self-study, in-person boot camps, live online training, self-paced training courses, and so on. Of course, the method you choose will be dependent on a couple of factors, such as learning style, availability of funds, location, and time.

Generally speaking, in-person boot camps will be the quickest way to learn a lot in a short amount of time but it will also be the most expensive study method. Complete self-study will be the least expensive but the task may be an uphill one.

Note: Regardless of the study method, you will still need some level of self-study. In fact, it is advisable to have done a lot of self-study before going for a boot camp.

Tip 1: If the Cisco certification exam you are writing has an Official Certification Guide, get it! The one for the CCNA certification exam at the time of this writing can be found here.

Tip 2: There are some very good videos to help in your CCNA preparation, filed under “CCNA R&S Study Sessions.”

Be Safe

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