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How Cisco Certifications Landed Me the Coolest Job in South Florida; Literally

- March 2, 2015 - 12 Comments

When I started with my first Cisco router back in 1995, I never would have imagined I would someday be the technology lead for an ice arena of an NHL team. I also would never have predicted the impact that having a Cisco certification would have on being recruited to that position.

Most of my career up until now was spent working in the small and medium business space, primarily on ISP and telecom space working with voice and networks with some software and infrastructure design in the middle. Cisco was a large part of everything that I did from routing and switching to voice over frame relay followed by voice over IP, with a large emphasis on small bandwidth efficiency and signalling. I’m even the lead inventor on an issued patent relating to intelligent rerouting of fax traffic on VoIP systems.

I never thought much about certifications. I have a BA in Economics which has served me well as a business owner and largely found all my work via word of mouth. There were not a lot of people who understood VoIP payload and signalling tuning, starting from the MC3810 and up through the as5300/as5800 series. This was primarily in international carrier / wholesale VoIP traffic and engineering.

As VoIP became more of a commodity good and the cost of equipment came down, this market dried up. In hindsight, I should have paid more attention to Cisco exiting that market, which proved to be a good decision. As my clients and partners moved on to other ventures and I was forced to begin prospecting.

Suddenly, here I was with 30 years since I’d written my first program and roughly 20 years of internet and Cisco experience and I was struggling. I had a lot of experience, but didn’t have a portfolio of work that included any big names, mostly small businesses that no one had heard of. I needed a way to give new clients the confidence to call me. I knew that once I started the conversation, I could close the deal. Before that, however, I needed to actually get that call or email.

The Decision to Start

In early 2013, I decided that I was going to aggressively pursue a CCIE RS certification and blocked out a few hours per day for study. I decided I needed to work my way in via CCNA and other certifications to learn more about how the tests worked. I had learned everything on my own and the CCNA turned out to be harder for me than the CCNP tests that followed, in some cases because I thought about things a different way and in other cases because I had simply forgotten how some of things I did as habits actually worked.

I studied hard and by mid summer had passed the CCNP exams and by the fall, even the CCIE written exam with a lot of help from Cisco Press and INE self study training materials. Posting these results on social media and sharing it on my profiles started to get me some calls and this encouraged me. I realized that the process of reading all the Cisco Press books and tests had given me a much better common framework to talk to other engineers.

All this lead up to the day before Thanksgiving 2013, when I failed my CCIE RS lab exam attempt. It was brutal both as an exercise and as a blow to my ego, but after a few weeks I went back to my plan and passed my CCDA a month later.

Then IT Happened

This was when I got the call; out of the blue. Actually, it was two calls, the first of which I ignored. I’ll be honest, a fair number of the calls I got were fishy, recruiters who wanted me to pay them a retainer to help find work, so I ignored the first call, it sounded too good.

When I got the second call from someone else for the same opportunity, I decided to follow up. Local job, IT related, large facility, Cisco experience required. How did they find me? CCNP posted on dice.com. They asked me more about my experience, it sounded like I was a match, I sent my resume.

IMG_0375That’s when I found out that this was for technology lead at The BB&T Center and the (NHL) Florida Panthers and I really wanted the job. It was going to require a diverse set of technology experience and I knew that I could get the job if I could get the interview. I actually had never been to the facility, so I started to snoop around by attendeding a Panthers game, taking pictures, and accumulating notes. I wrote some reports and sent them to the recruiter. Those reports got the interest of the ownership group and I was brought to NYC for an interview in February of 2014.

I got the job on the spot and in March it will have been a full year since I started, though it seems a lot longer with the hours required to support concerts and NHL hockey. The concerts and games may be in the evening, but the preparation for those events can take days or weeks and the day of an event is typically a half day (twelve hours).  I love it though, the job is amazing and the team of people I work with are great.

Technology at a Professional Hockey Rink

We only have a few hundred users but the facility is like a small campus with 21 closets spread out around 900,000 square feet of building plus the practice facility. It’s like four buildings with six stories joined by a 10gbe star. We have a small datacenter in the facility that is primarily virtualized. We support about 30 ‘servers’, 180 workstations, and 170 POS terminals.

john-spade-selfy-1796

There are about 35 Cisco switches and routers, a very small (for the size of the facility) wireless deployment of 25 Cisco 3602s. We have a brand new CUCM 10.5 thanks to a lot of help from CDW. When I took the position, the phone system was still the original from 1998 construction and the layer 2 root was on a spur on the 5th floor. There has been a lot to do. We also converted the practice facility over to Cisco routers and switches with some hand me downs.

It’s All About that Base Certification

Here’s the thing; I never would have got the call if I didn’t have the Cisco certs. Yes, I had the experience and knowledge, but the recruiter never would have found me based on those alone and it goes beyond that. The process of studying for the exams gave me a much stronger common framework with which to communicate to my team and vendors. I learned better ways to do things. I learned many things I was doing wrong or at least not optimally. I learned how much more I needed to learn.

For the time being, I’ve given up my CCIE aspirations, I simply do not have the spare time to build the technology at work, manage daily IT operations, and add the intensive study I need to pass the lab exam. While I may have slowed down my studies, I have not stopped. I just finished the CCDP book from Cisco Press and am still stunned by the things I am learning. If you have not looked at the CCDx certification track, it has been well worthwhile for me and I wish I had finished my CCDP before attempting the CCIE lab.

At the end of the day, it really is a ‘cool’ job in all senses of the word. My office is next to the ice rink and on game days I really do not mind wearing a suit to be a part of a professional sports team, but mostly because the jacket keeps me warm.

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12 Comments

  1. Well done and rest assured with Cisco Certifications you are bound to go places! Keep up the good work and I wish you best for the future!

  2. You are right about getting your certifications as fast as possible - unfortunately the clock got me on a few of them. I have a hard time reading information quickly maybe as par of my Hispanic upbringing. Or is the way my brain interprets things, many times I make things harder for myself than what they really are. So I get very uncomfortable during testing almost like I make myself thing that I don't really know what the question is) so I get very undecided while time gets the best of me; But on my labs I am very much excited and full of confidence - why is that?

  3. Congratz!. Many like us have gone through hard time like yours but still unable to get job. Hope one day we will write our own good story too. Congrats one more time.

  4. the myth of income inequality... ANYONE can get into this and make six figures a year... Go Cisco !!!

  5. What a great story - I hope you get the time to get to the CCIE certification in the future - colleagues tell me the respect that comes with that cert is beyond outstanding!

    • Colleagues with CCIEs have always had my admiration, but that only increased after I made the attempt. The things I learned in the process improved everything I do in networking.

  6. this is great it also helped me here in africa kenya

  7. What an article! Its so inspiring and encouraging.Thank you very much for this. Is there any one who can help me out? Im a congolese living here in. South Africa. I always dream studying cisco but i cant afford the school fees. I really need help. Pyandja4@gmail.com

  8. What an awesome article! Shows how your hard work studying and climbing can get you the job of your dreams! Thanks for the motivation John!

  9. Ahh. Until I saw the subhead, I didn't get the "literally." :) I'm gonna tweet this for peeps who aren't on utilizing the Net for job hunting.

    • There are not very many days here when it is colder outside :)

  10. Thank you so much, for that very inspirational article. :)