Cisco’s certification pyramid strategy allows you to step your way up the career ladder by upgrading lower-tiered certifications to higher ones as your skills and knowledge increase. At the bottom of that pyramid–at least until Feb. 24, 2020–is the Entry level, represented by the Cisco Certified Entry Networking Technician (CCENT) credential. A step up from that is the Associate level, or Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA). Certification candidates can start their journeys at the Entry level and graduate to the Associate level by first taking the Interconnecting Cisco Network Devices 1 (ICND1) exam and then taking ICND2. Or, candidates can skip the Entry level completely and hop straight to the Associate level by taking the CCNA exam. Therefore, Cisco has no prerequisite for obtaining the Associate-level credential.
Such is not the case for a Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) candidate, at least until Feb. 24, 2020. Currently, to step up to the Professional level of the pyramid, you need to first climb to the Associate level. You can also achieve CCNP if you already hold a Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) designation. Like CCENT and CCNA, CCIE has never had formal prerequisites. Following Cisco’s introduction of CCNA and CCNP in the late 1990s, most candidates first climbed from the Associate level to the Professional level before attempting CCIE, which is second only to Cisco Certified Architect (CCAr) at the top of the pyramid. The tiers in Cisco’s pyramid are supposed to naturally reflect the candidate’s level of expertise, which in the real world of business is supposed to translate to pay grade.
As of Feb. 24, 2020, CCENT is going away completely, officially making CCNA the lowest Cisco credential tier. However, and perhaps surprisingly, Cisco is also removing prerequisite barriers to obtaining CCNP credentials. If you feel comfortable that your current skills and experience rise above the Associate level and fit more with the Professional grade of the pyramid, you will as of February be able to skip the Associate level entirely and focus instead on directly achieving the new Cisco Certified Specialist credentials that ultimately comprise a CCNP credential. The core CCNP Enterprise exam, CCNP 300-401 Enterprise Core (ENCOR), gets you the Cisco Certified Specialist – Enterprise Core credential. You can then complete the CCNP Enterprise credential by passing one of a choice of Professional-level concentration exams.
Not only that but taking and passing the CCNP 300-401 (ENCOR) exam also qualifies you to immediately pursue the CCIE Enterprise Infrastructure credential even if you don’t complete the CCNP Enterprise credential by taking a concentration exam. In place of the current CCIE path that requires you to pass both the CCIE written exam and the lab exam, passing the 300-401 exam after Feb. 24, 2020, qualifies you to take the CCIE Enterprise Infrastructure v1.0 lab exam (an eight-hour hands-on exam that completes the CCIE Enterprise Infrastructure credential). Therefore, after Feb. 24, 2020, only the highest of Cisco credentials–Cisco Certified Architect (CCAr)–has a formal prerequisite. To obtain CCAr, Cisco recommends that you first have a valid Cisco Certified Design Expert (CCDE) credential.
Do the changes to Cisco’s exam tracks and prerequisites mean that the pyramid is going away? Not really. It’s just remodeled. So, with the CCNP prerequisite barrier removed and the potential for snagging better employment with a higher starting salary, why might a new Cisco certification candidate bother achieving the Associate level at all? The answer to that question resides squarely in the world of business. Just like obtaining a university degree does not guarantee you a job or a lifestyle commensurate with your field of study, obtaining a CCNP certification does not guarantee you a CCNP-level position and pay grade with any old company that relies on Cisco technologies. If you are a newly certified CCNP who lacks related experience on your resume or CV, you will most likely lose out to another more experienced Professional-level candidate. If you do happen to win employment in place of a more experienced candidate, your lack of experience could result in a salary lower than what the credential deserves. There’s also a supply and demand issue that comes with bypassing the Associate level. If most of the companies to which you’re applying are seeking Associate-level candidates, those candidates might be given priority over you and your Professional-level credential because the Associate-level candidates do not require Professional-level pay. In addition, the company might have no immediate business need for someone with Professional-level skills and knowledge. In other words, you can over-qualify yourself for a position within the company for which you want to work.
By first obtaining an Associate-level credential and growing your work experience, you can broaden your opportunities as well as grow your position and pay grade over time. When you’ve proven yourself at the Associate level with both your experience and your achievement of Associate-level credentials is the time you’re most likely to benefit from transitioning to the Professional level. That doesn’t mean you should allow your ambitions to stagnate while you’re working away at your Associate-level job. As you make your living, you can gain the experience and knowledge you need to go ahead and obtain a Cisco Certified Specialist concentration credential that corresponds to the work you’re doing. For example, if your primary job is implementing and maintaining your company’s wireless network, you might choose to use that experience (along with some solid study tools) to take the CCNP 300-430 Implementing Cisco Enterprise Wireless Networks (ENWLSI) exam. Passing that exam gets you a Cisco Certified Specialist – Enterprise Wireless Networks credential and halfway to your CCNP Enterprise credential. Then, when you’re ready to complete your move to the Professional level, you can obtain the CCNP Enterprise certification by passing only the CCNP 300-401 (ENCOR) exam.
Finally, the above primarily applies if you end up pursuing your Cisco credential after Feb. 24, 2020. If you’ve already started the Associate-level journey with an eye toward the Professional level, Cisco’s advice (and Boson’s) is to keep working. As of this writing, you have more than six months to complete the Associate-level journey and start working toward the Professional level. Cisco has migration paths in place for candidates who complete or partially complete certification before the Feb. 24, 2020, deadline, so any time and money you’ve already spent studying are not lost. In addition, study materials for all of Cisco’s current exam tracks are widely available. There’s no good reason to wait.