Welcome to our blog series on the people behind Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) at Cisco. Each blog in this series will highlight a different Cisco employee who works closely with CSR initiatives across the company.
The global Cisco Networking Academy program educates people in critical technology skills like computer networking, cybersecurity, and programming. We license the program for free to learning institutions worldwide. Networking Academy is our biggest and longest-running Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) program, with more than 12 million students participating since 1997. Last year alone, more than 2.3 million students participated in 180 countries.
Jeremy Creech describes himself as a Servant Leader for the Networking Academy’s Learning Engineering team. As a child he dreamed of becoming an FBI agent or technical diver, but he ended up having a bigger impact on people’s lives pursuing the confluence of technology, education, and business.
I recently sat down with Jeremy to learn more about his passion for helping to create more opportunities for students.
Tell me about your education and professional background.
I grew up in Alaska, and winter is long. I was often inside in the wintertime, and I found that I really enjoyed games and then naturally got into video and computer-based games. My parents were able to purchase a computer and allowed my propensity for tinkering. I took apart computers to better understand and modify them at an early age, and during that process I developed competency and comfort with technology.
After I completed high school, I immediately joined the United States Army as an infantry soldier. I was deployed to Kuwait and operated in the desert with a Tactical Operations Center, a command center where they connect a lot of different command vehicles. Only a few had the skill set to connect these vehicles and my previous experience tinkering with computers enabled me to step into a technology role. As a result, I was reassigned to work in a systems administration role for the command center.
It was the mid-nineties, and the dot.com bubble was growing, so the opportunity to take that skill set into the civilian sector was significant. Around that time, I also started a family, and providing for them was my number-one priority. I eventually landed a permanent position as a systems administrator for a school district. This school district was trying to develop its computer systems and labs. But, it didn’t have the physical infrastructure necessary to support its technology aspirations, the skillset to do it, nor could it afford to outsource the job.
Serendipitously, while attending a conference, I learned about the Cisco Networking Academy, which provided IT curriculum and assessments to help people develop computer networking skills. Working with my superintendent and one of the high school principals, I got permission to offer a Networking Academy course. I became trained and taught a cohort of students and then hired them that summer as a contingent workforce. They helped me build the entire school district’s network infrastructure, which was awesome.
I eventually transitioned to a network administrator role for a local community college and working as an IT consultant. I also started teaching CCNP content, and in this path, had taken my own certifications. Not long after that, I was approached if I’d be interested in participating inside the assessment team for content. This side gig with the Networking Academy was fun, and I loved working on the assessments.
In terms of formal education, at this point, I didn’t have any. I started a few courses, but it’s just by being at the right place at the right time, having prepared myself with the right skills, and having obtained the right certifications that led to my employment. I eventually pursued my undergraduate degree in business because I had a solid understanding of technology and education but wanted to learn more about the business aspect. This has helped me develop a broader perspective in my role as a Learning Engineer and contribute back to society, locally and globally.
Can you tell me more about what it is like to work in Learning Engineering for Cisco Networking Academy?
How rewarding the work is honestly caught me off guard. I experienced the greatest reward from actually teaching the content I helped to create. There is nothing quite like being a part of an entire solution that has changed the quality of someone’s life. I have a story about two former students. I was teaching a course, and there was a couple who were expecting. The gentleman was working at a local pizza store, and the lady was working at a call center. They were trying to figure out what the rest of their life would look like because they had a baby on the way. The same content that the couple was learning was the content I had helped to develop. We are creating content for people starting at a base level, and they’re looking at how to change the quality of their lives. We grapple with the best way to provide that instruction, create feedback, and partner with the instructors and academic institutions trying to help people in their communities. Having been a part of that whole process, and then being able to go into the community college and teach the content that my respective teams have done a fantastic job of creating, is incredible. You are giving hope to people and seeing them grab onto that, and instead of looking at their future in fear, they start looking at their future with anticipation and start to develop their ambitions. That’s exciting, but then the course comes to a close, and you assign grades and say goodbye and don’t often get to stay connected. But sometimes you do.
I encountered the young man a few years later. The couple had gotten married, had their first baby, and had another on the way. He stopped and got emotional, expressing gratitude toward me for this education, which enabled the entrepreneurial endeavors he was pursuing, the new job that he had, and the new job that his wife had. For me, that’s humbling. As soon as you have an experience like that, you get hooked. Inside Learning Engineering, I am constantly scanning for ways to create opportunities. I look at the jobs that are out there, the skills needed to fill them, and examine how we can create a path to learn and develop those skills.
What differentiates the Cisco Networking Academy curriculum from other IT education offerings?
Networking Academy facilitates learner feedback through our assessments and offers practice learning opportunities through labs and our proprietary network simulation tool, Packet Tracer. And now we are looking to enhance the leaner experience by combining feedback and practice with the introduction of adaptive learning. You can learn more about Packet Tracer in this video:
Adaptive learning provides feedback elements to help people understand, “Do I know it?” or “Have I learned it?” because that feedback loop is one of the most critical components inside of a learning experience.
We believe so strongly in providing feedback that our partnerships with academic institutions is focused on how to help instructors get time back so they can focus on where they offer the greatest value, instructing and engaging their students supported by content that is anchored in assessments and practice.
Can you tell me more about the new Skills for All initiative?
The Skills for All initiative is about creating opportunities for everyone by building skills for the future. A lot of our success has been through partnerships with our academic institutions, which will persist because that is absolutely necessary. Still, we’ve recognized an opportunity to engage with people who aren’t connected to an academic institution. Regardless of where people live, we want them to be able to engage with technical content, to pursue and explore their interests in a way that can lead to life changes, and to develop employable skills. Whether they’re already pursuing something in the technology space or whether it’s something they think they might be interested in, at the end of the day, it’s really about presenting them with options. Our team is looking at ways that a student who is learning content on their own can develop self-efficacy around it, build their self-confidence, and feel empowered and encouraged. After taking courses through Skills for All, we want them to feel excited about entering the workforce and continuing to learn.
As a Learning Engineer, can you explain how Cisco Networking Academy plays an essential role in creating an inclusive future for all?
When you create content, you need to think about the intended audience. For the Learning Engineering team, we take that seriously. We think about eliminating language as a barrier to entry for somebody to gain knowledge. We think about accessibility, and people who have various levels of disability, and how we can make sure that we can create more opportunities for all of them. We’re constantly considering how we deliver the content where people don’t have an internet connection, where people don’t have high-powered PCs. We want to create an equitable experience as much as possible to help people everywhere develop employable skills.
The last year of the pandemic has undoubtedly changed education – what do you think are some of the positive outcomes of it that might be here to stay?
We’ve been able to show evidence that remote learning works. When I think about the pandemic in general, I think it’s forced people to try it out and realize they can do this. For many instructors, they thought there was no way they could teach outside of the classroom, in a distance learning context. Now many teachers have learned that they can and they also developed the skills to do it well. What is unique and yet to unfold is this hybrid environment, and we can start to take the best of both worlds and blend it together. It is about creating opportunities for people to be able to exercise more agency over their learning experience. Now they don’t have to wait to be in a classroom to learn and to gain new skills.
If you’re interested in learning more about Cisco Networking Academy, please visit our Networking Academy webpage.