The choice to begin pursuing an expert-level certification is often made lightly. After experiencing the training, study and testing process of the associate-level and the professional-level certifications, it is understandable to expect that the expert level is more of the same; more advanced, but essentially a logical progression. This is a fair conclusion and is more accurate than it sounds, but it’s important to consider that the ‘more advanced’ aspect goes beyond the topics. The process itself is more involved… and that changes everything.
It’s not news to anyone that the expert-level certifications, have two components to them; the written test and the lab exam. The first of these is standard fare for anyone who has pursued certification, though somewhat more intense. It is the successful negotiation of the second that defines an expert in terms of certification, but that’s just an acknowledgement. What truly defines an expert in terms of his or her essential attributes is less the successful negotiation of the lab exam and more the process by which that success was achieved.
cru·ci·ble noun \ˈkrü-sə-bəl\ 
: a pot in which metals or other substances are heated to a very high temperature or melted
: a difficult test or challenge
: a place or situation that forces people to change or make difficult decisions
When study first begins and the commitment required dawns on the candidate, the real testing has already begun. Life needs to be re-prioritized to make room for everything on top of study. This can be easy at first, but becomes much more of a challenge as the depth of required knowledge and skill becomes clear. Finding room for everything becomes almost impossible and difficult decisions have to be made. On average, expert-level candidates can take anywhere from six months to three years in pursuit of their studies; and the decisions don’t get easier as time goes on. The candidate’s constant management of this encourages an ability to effectively manage time and to effectively prioritize based on relative importance and urgency.
Speaking in terms of a specific expert-level certification, the Cisco Certified Inter-networking Expert (CCIE), it is said that two to three attempts are required by the typical candidate in order to successfully pass the lab exam. At more than $1,500 per attempt, it would be understandable for a candidate to give up after one or two failures. This doesn’t appear to be the case with most. If the average number is two to three, then we know that a fair number are succeeding in four or more. In a successful candidate, there is a habit of persistence entrenched as a result of unwillingness to accept failure.
chrys·a·lis noun \ˈkri-sə-ləs\ 
: a sheltered state or stage of being or growth
Stretching the metaphor, it doesn’t take long in the crucible to realize that a purity of focus is essential to study. Isolation with minimal distraction, even if only for a few hours at a time, creates an environment where the mind works unimpeded. This creates not only a focus for study, but a habit of knowing when such concentration is needed for a task.
The best way to understand a technology is to work with it. Given the breadth of expert-level curricula, very few will have the opportunity to work in a real-world environment with everything needed to successfully negotiate the lab. Most will create study networks either with rented or purchased lab equipment in order to conduct in-depth functional explorations of each technology or to explore design approaches. When asked questions surrounding the specifics of a technology, many instructors will respond by asking if the candidate has set it up in a lab environment to see what will happen. This behaviour creates a habit of testing out new functionality in order to understand how it works. When certification has been achieved and the intense study period is ostensibly over, this habit remains as the preferred method to establish an in-depth understanding how new technologies and designs work.
An expert-level certification in and of itself has prestige, but it is best understood as confirmation of a transformation that began when the decision was first made to begin.
In the end, the holder of that certification has been transformed into a highly-focused individual who prioritizes well, understands the value of persistence, has a habit of engaging current and new technologies and ideas, and establishing a deep understanding of their effective implementation. Whether “new” or “old” in their certifications, successful candidates have become, through testing and ingrained habit, experts in their field.
The personal value of an expert-level certification is by no means the mere acknowledgement of success, but the overall process that tried and transformed the candidate along the way. Those who have come through the fire are not the same people they were when they began.
(Originally published at Cisco Blog - Perspectives.)