Everything You Need to Know About Cisco Certifications and Learning Paths

As more companies turn to the cloud to run their businesses, they become increasingly dependent on vendors like Cisco, which makes the underlying networking hardware and software. If you’re pursuing a career as a network professional, a Cisco certification can help you stand out at your company and in the job market.

But with so many Cisco certifications available, how do you choose the right path? Here’s a look at what you should know about Cisco certifications and training.

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Cisco offers certifications at four levels: entry, associate, professional and expert. Cisco once offered an architect level, but that was retired. In addition to the core levels, a specialist level is available in several areas. Most of the certifications fall into the category of either network infrastructure or software development.

With IT and technical certifications in high demand, Cisco guides you during every step of the process, from reviewing the exam topics to preparing and practicing for each exam to scheduling an exam through third-party provider Pearson VUE.

The entry-level certification is designed for people who want to work as Cisco technicians or field engineers. The associate level prepares you for a career in IT and network technologies. You can pursue one track to cover a range of fundamental skills or focus on software development or cybersecurity.

The professional level helps you progress by concentrating on a core technology, such as software development, enterprise networking, data-center management or security. The expert level certifies you for a more advanced skill set in such areas as wireless networking, data-center administration or security.

Entry-Level Certification

The entry level offers certification as a Cisco Certified Technician, giving you the ability to diagnose, restore, repair and replace Cisco networking and system devices for a Cisco customer. You would also work with the Cisco Technical Assistance Center to resolve support issues. No formal prerequisites are required, but you should have an understanding of the exam topics beforehand.

The CCT certification offers three concentrations. Each requires you pass an exam.

CCT Collaboration. This focuses on the skills needed for you to support and maintain Cisco’s collaboration products, such as phones and video conferencing devices. You should be able to identify the different models, accessories, cables and software required and use the Cisco command-line interface to service products.

At 90 minutes, the exam consists of 65 to 75 multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank questions.

CCT Data Center. This covers the knowledge needed to support and maintain Cisco’s unified data-center computers and services. You would have to identify the various servers, accessories and cables as well as the network operating system and software. You would also be able to use the Cisco graphical user interface to service the different products.

At 90 minutes, the exam consists of 65 to 75 multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank questions.

CCT Routing and Switching. This focuses on the skills required to support and maintain Cisco routers, switches and operating systems. You would have to identify the different Cisco router and switch models and software and be able to use the Cisco Command Line Interface. Cisco considers this the best foundation of the three if you want to support Cisco devices and systems.

The 90-minute exam consists of 55 to 65 multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank questions.

“These certifications are intended for field engineers that work closely with the Cisco Technical Assistance Center to resolve support incidents for those three technology areas,” says Joe Clarke, distinguished services engineer for Cisco Learning & Certifications. “For example, if a field engineer only supports our routers and switches, then they would only need to pass the CCT Routing and Switching concentration.”

Associate-Level Certification

The associate level helps you expand your career in networking through three types of certifications. For any of the three, you must pass one exam to receive the certification.

CCNA. The Cisco Certified Network Associate is geared for people who want a range of skills in networking technology and software development. This certification confirms your knowledge of network fundamentals, network access, IP connectivity, security fundamentals and automation.

At 120 minutes, the exam consists of multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank questions.

DevNet Associate. The Cisco Certified DevNet Associate focuses on software development. There are no prerequisites, though Cisco recommends at least one year of experience developing software and a familiarity with Python programming. This certification tests your skills at developing and maintaining applications built on Cisco platforms.

The 120-minute exam consists of multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank questions.

At 120 minutes, the exam contains 95 to 105 multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank questions.

“The first two associate certifications are more specific but are hot, and the skill sets you learn are in high demand,” says Dave Falco, a sales director with training firm Skyline ATS. “The CCNA certification provides a foundation in case you want to move forward with the following CCNP certifications: enterprise, data center, security, service provider and collaboration.”

Professional-Level Certification

The professional level offers certifications in seven areas, so you can choose your field of interest and expertise. This is ideal if you wish to focus your career on a topic or technology. For each certification, you must pass two exams: one that covers the core technology and another with a concentration of your choice.

CCNP Enterprise. The CCNP Enterprise certification confirms your ability to work with networking technologies at larger organizations or enterprises. The core exam lasts 120 minutes with multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank questions. Each of the six concentration exams lasts 90 minutes.

CCNP Data Center. The CCNP Data Center certification focuses on your skills working with networking technologies within a data center. The core exam runs 120 minutes with multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank questions. Each of the five concentration exams lasts 90 minutes.

CCNP Service Provider. The CCNP Service Provider certification is geared for network engineers and specialists, testing your ability to provide the right type of networking services for Cisco customers. The core exam lasts 120 minutes, while any of the three concentration exams runs 90 minutes.

CCNP Collaboration. The CCNP Collaboration certification judges your skills at working with Cisco’s collaborative tools, such as phones and video conference devices. The core exam runs 120 minutes, and any of the five concentration exams each lasts 90 minutes.

The three most popular certifications at the professional level are CCNP Enterprise, CCNP Security and Cisco Certified DevNet Professional, according to Cisco.

Expert-Level Certification

The expert-level certifications further your career with more challenging exams testing an advanced level of hands-on knowledge and skills. You can pursue any one of seven certifications. For each, you must pass two exams: a qualifying written exam and a practical hands-on lab exam.

CCDE. Aimed at expert-level network design engineers and network team leaders, the Cisco Certified Design Expert certification tests your ability to create network infrastructure for large customer networks. At 120 minutes, the core exam consists of 90 to 110 questions. At eight hours, the hands-on exam challenges you to design and develop a network infrastructure.

CCIE Enterprise Wireless. The CCIE Enterprise Wireless certification tests your experience working with wireless network tools and services. The core exam runs 120 minutes. The hands-on exam lasts eight hours and asks you to plan, design and set up an enterprise-level wireless network.

CCIE Data Center. The CCIE Data Center certification confirms your skill set at developing complex network services for a data center. The core exam lasts 120 minutes. At eight hours, the hands-on exam asks you to plan, design and set up a complex network within a data center.

CCIE Security. The CCIE Security certification confirms your ability to design security environments for a network. The core exam lasts 120 minutes. The eight-hour hands-on exam requires you to design and deploy security tools and technologies for an entire network.

CCIE Service Provider. The CCIE Service Provider certification tests your ability to design the right type of networking services for a Cisco customer. The core exam lasts 120 minutes. The hands-on exam runs eight hours.

CCIE Collaboration. The CCIE Collaboration certification covers your experience with Cisco’s collaborative tools and technologies. The core exam lasts 120 minutes. The hands-on exam runs eight hours and challenges you to design and deploy collaboration services for an enterprise customer.

The three most popular certifications at this level are CCIE Enterprise Infrastructure, CCIE Security and CCIE Data Center, according to Cisco.

Architect-Level Certification

Now retired, this level offered certification as a Cisco Certified Architect. Cisco is no longer accepting new CCAr applicants, according to a company spokesperson. However, existing CCArs will be provided with CCAr Lifetime Emeritus status to recognize their achievement.

Specialist Certifications

The specialist certifications are available for people who want to focus on a specific area, such as collaboration, the data center or network architecture. This level offers seven certifications:

None of the certifications have a prerequisite. You must pass two exams to gain the Cisco Unified Contact Center Enterprise Specialist certification; the others require one exam.

The learning paths for Cisco certification vary by level, concentration, and your existing knowledge and experience. As one example, someone who wants a job working with networks in a data center might start with the entry-level CCT Data Center certification, potentially move to the professional-level CCNP Data Center certification as a core focus and finish with the expert-level CCIE Data Center certification. But you don’t have to follow a path from one level to the next.

“Individuals can become certified in any level without needing to be certified in any lower-level certification,” says Brad Haynes, a client solutions specialist at training firm Global Knowledge. “If candidates feel they have the suggested prerequisites, they can enter at any level for certification.”

Many companies, especially large ones, use Cisco products in their technology infrastructure, says Art Zeile, CEO of DHI Group, parent company of career site Dice. Technologists who earn Cisco certifications show that they have the skills to work with these products, giving them an advantage when competing for jobs in a crowded field.

“As we’ve seen repeatedly, specialization can be an important component in unlocking higher salaries and other benefits,” says Zeile. “Employers don’t want to lose technologists who have highly valuable knowledge that can take years (and an enormous amount of effort) to learn.”

Haynes cites a 2020 report from his organization that found IT professionals who obtained a certification saw their salaries increase by almost $13,000. In North America, someone with six or more certifications earns $13,000 more than someone with one certification.

Beyond the salary boost, those who were surveyed for the report pointed to three benefits as a result of certification: The quality of their work improved, they were more engaged in their work and they were faster at performing their jobs.

Hiring people with Cisco certifications won’t necessarily help the average business become more profitable. But it will minimize the downtime and other side effects that an organization experiences when network problems occur, says Zeile.

“The Cisco training program validates that the engineer really understands networking principles and isn’t just showing up trying to fix a problem on the fly by reading the user’s manual,” says Zeile. “You cannot fake your way through the certifications – you have to know the material cold.”

How Much Does Certification Cost?

Entry-level CCT exam: $125.
Associate-level exam: $300.
Professional core exam: $400.
Professional concentration exam: $300.
Specialist exam: $300 each.
Expert-level written exam: $450.
Expert-level practical exam: $1,600.

Beyond the exams, other costs include time in and outside of work, training preparation courses, practice exams, and recertification every three years, says Haynes. The cost of the prep courses varies. You can opt for instructor-led classes offered online or try self-study courses.

How Will Certification Improve My Salary?

Relatively few jobs on ZipRecruiter explicitly list the entry-level certification as a requirement, and those that do tend to offer an average salary of around $74,000, according to ZipRecruiter labor economist Julia Pollak.

Many more jobs list the associate and professional certifications as requirements, with salaries of $90,000 and $116,000, respectively. Fewer jobs call for the expert-level certification, Pollak adds, but those specialists get a huge bump in pay, earning an average of around $135,000.

Is Certification Worth It?

Courses, study materials and exam fees for the more-advanced certifications can be pricey, up to several thousand dollars, Pollak says. But the biggest cost in pursuing these certifications is your time. Studying for the professional and expert certifications can be demanding and take up to several hours a day for as long as a year in each case.

Do your research to determine whether certification is right for you. Figure out where you want to go with your career, and see what’s in demand.

Are These Skills in High Demand?

For certain types of jobs, Cisco skills and certifications have become increasingly vital. Cisco-related skills are requested by 26% of network engineer and architect jobs, 16% of network/systems administrator jobs, and 8% of cybersecurity and information-security engineer jobs, according to Zeile.

Over the next 10 years, jobs involving Cisco skills are expected to grow by more than 32%, Zeile adds.

How to Start Preparing for Certification Exams

The actual exams are offered by trainer Pearson VUE. To complete a voucher form to register for an exam, follow the steps on Pearson VUE’s Cisco voucher pricing page.

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