Back in March of 2018 I wrote the blog “How Do I Get Started Learning Network Programmability?” to help answer, well that question.  It was (and still is) one of the most common questions I get asked.  It’s been a wicked ride this last year and half in network automation, I figured it was time to revisit the question and see what has changed, and what has stayed the same.

You wanna learn about automation?
You wanna learn about automation?

Stay wide and balanced… but selective

For starters, my general advice on learning hasn’t changed much.  I still firmly believe that you need a wide foundation of knowledge across key topics to be successful.  I’ve seen engineers get laser focused on a single topic or tool to the detriment of understanding the larger picture and context. There is a reason you’ll find routing, switching, policy, quality of service, security, and so on to be part of Associate, Professional, and Expert levels of Cisco Certifications.  It’s important to level up all these skills every step along the way, rather than trying to become an expert in just one of them at a time.

However, network automation is a new field, and the number of tools, languages, strategies, and so on available and in discussion is huge, changing everyday, and can definitely be a bit overwhelming.  I’ve seen engineers take the opposite approach to being laser focused on one tool, they feel that they need to knew EVERY tool they run across.  This leads to constantly starting back from the start, never gaining mastery (or at least comfort) with a tool, and always feeling like you are behind and will never catch up.

Unfortunately there is no perfect and clear advice I can give on deciding what to spend time studying on, but I can let you know the approach I have taken.

  1. For any type of tool to topic, I do a bit of looking to find 2-3 examples that seem to be popular in the community and spend some time learning the fundamentals of each.
  2. Now that I have built a subject opinion on which I prefer, I dedicate time to really dig in and learn enough to be proficient in that tool.
  3. With a little bit of knowledge and comfort, I ask myself if this tool will meet my needs.
    • If so I stick with it and drive myself to mastery by using it to solve some real problems
    • If not, I repeat with one of the other tools.
  4. Now the hard part, I move onto another type of tool or topic and start over.
  5. I keep an eye/ear open for changes in the landscape of tools in this category. As time goes on, new tools will be created, old tools will be abandoned, and what is “hot” will change.  It is important to be aware of these changes, even if you aren’t actively “in the market” for a new tool.
  6. And the hardest part… I occasionally ask myself, “Is my selected tool still right for me?”.  This is a hard question to answer because it is totally subjective and your own opinion.  Some of the reasons a tool may no longer be right are
    • Your use cases no longer fit into the strengths of the tool
    • The tool you chose is no longer being maintained or updated
    • A new and amazing tool has come out that changes the game completely
  7. If I find myself in a situation where I think it’s time to pick a new tool to put in my tool chest, I start back over at step 1.

By combining these two pieces of advice (a wide foundation across key topics with selectively chosen tools) you will find your abilities in network automation grow very rapidly.

What about certifications?

The whole certification topic is a hotly debated topic these days across IT, but I’ve been a bit shocked at the divisive nature of opinions I’m seeing across the community today.  While everyone of us must decide for ourselves, I believe certifications continue to offer a huge value to engineers looking to learn and prove new skills.

The first bit about certifications that I think we all need to remember is that while updating your resume with a new certification is definitely rewarding, that shouldn’t be the number one goal. The goal of the certification should be the knowledge and skills you gain while preparing for and earning the certification. With this in mind, if there is alignment between a certification and a domain of knowledge you are interested in then I say “go for it!” At the end of the process you’ll have both knowledge and a new certification logo to be proud of.

Secondly, there is an advantage of using certifications as part of your learning process that I think is sometimes not appreciated enough.  Remember above when we talked about how there are so many different tools it can be overwhelming?  There is a similar problem when it comes to learning materials and resources to use in your studies on a topic.  Today there is a never-ending amount of books, blogs, videos, learning courses, etc available for just about any topic.  Deciding what resources to use can be very difficult and overwhelming on its own.  However, one thing most certifications offer are a curated set of training materials that will help you gain the skills necessary to earn the certification.  Assuming the certification aligns with topics you are wanting to learn anyway, this can help you narrow down the resources you may want to leverage in your preparation.  But this is no means implying that the ONLY resources you should use are the “official ones”.  If you have a favorite trainer or platform, look for materials from them that target the certification as well.

One last thought on the value of certifications…

At Cisco Live this year I was chatting with my friend Wendell Odom (and I can’t tell you how stoked it makes me to call Wendell a friend) about the announced changes to the Cisco Certification program.  One point that Wendell made about certifications that I hadn’t thought about was how certifications are used by everyone involved in filling jobs.  From job seekers to hiring managers, from HR departments building job descriptions to recruiters searching for qualified candidates, certifications are used to match up people and jobs.  Whether you personally value having a certification or not, it’s hard to argue with the fact that for some jobs having earned a particular certification can have an impact on whether or not you are even given an opportunity to interview for a position, let alone be offered a job.  Certifications are seen as an early litmus test for understanding what a candidate knows.  They are certainly not perfect, but certifications definitely have a part in the selection and filling of many jobs.

Speaking of certifications… what about the new DevNet Certifications?

For the last several years, I’d often been asked “Can I get certified by DevNet?”.  And my answer was always, DevNet can help you learn and skill up in network automation, but for certifications you can checkout one of the two network programmability tracks from Cisco Learning.  Well, after Cisco Live 2019 in San Diego the answer is a resounding “YES, You can definitely get certified by DevNet and Cisco Learning!” Along with the core changes to the networking certification track announced, a whole new set of DevNet Certified Associate, Specialist, Professional, and Expert certifications were announced as well. (Note: DevNet Expert Certification will be available as a Future Offering but was announced as part of the track.)

Chuck announces DevNet Certs
Cisco CEO, Chuck Robbins, announces the DevNet certifications during his keynote at Cisco Live 2019 in San Diego, CA.

These new DevNet Certifications provide all the value that every certification offers that we discussed above.  If you are reading this blog, you are likely interested in learning network automation, and are working on skilling yourself up.  If you are doing that anyway, these new certifications can help you shape and plan your own journey into learning.  As you explore the different details on the tracks across enterprise networking, data center, DevOps, security, etc, you may find yourself finding one or more that directly align to your personal interests and goals.  When you do, rejoice, you can now look forward to a shiny new DevNet Certified logo to show off your knowledge!

Furthermore, there are many many many people and teams working on curating available content, as well as generating new content to help learners prepare for these exams.  In addition to the work I know is going on inside of DevNet and Cisco Learning, I’ve been awed by the number of folks working independently on creating content in all forms.

And let’s talk about the DevNet community.  DevNet has always been about building and nurturing a community of developers interested in pushing the limits of what is possible when building on the Cisco platform.  Almost as soon as they were announced, I started seeing study groups being formed and organized.

So what next?

“How do you get started learning network automation?”… Well, you start today!

Learning anything can be challenging, but it is always valuable and rewarding. The new DevNet Certification paths offer network engineers a new tool to help guide your learning. Going back to my original point of learning in a balanced but selective approach, if you’re struggling to work through that, take a look at the exam topics for one of the certification tests. For example, this one for the DevNet Associate Exam can help you get started by building a foundation in programming and API fundamentals, Cisco platforms and their APIs, and infrastructure automation.

And be sure to keep an eye on developer.cisco.com/certifications for the latest information on material and updates.  You can even sign-up to be notified!

Which new certification are you most interested in? What resources are you using to study? Have a study group to share? Leave a comment on the blog, or let me know over on Twitter or LinkedIn.  We’re all in this together!


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Hank Preston

Principal Engineer

Learning and Certifications