3 Things I Learned About VARs While Getting My Cisco CCNA Certification

Patrick ObornBy Patrick Oborn

Granted, this isn’t a tale of running 100 miles through the Wasatch mountains in 32 hours. It’s one that – for me – ranks right up there with one of the coolest/hardest things I’ve done in my life. So here you go!

We’ve been hearing about the convergence of the IT and telecom channels for a long time, but that convergence got personal for me when, after 12 years in telecom sales, I decided to cross the river and get Cisco CCNA Switching and Routing and CCNA Security certifications.

Why would a Telarus co-founder and former vice president of marketing want to get a Cisco certification, you ask? Well, it’s like this: When we surveyed our sales partners we found that, by an overwhelming majority, their No. 1 request of Telarus was sales engineering resources for large/complex deals. In fact, I’ve heard countless horror stories from our independent sales partners about them losing (or almost losing) a sale because they just didn’t have enough technical “kung fu” to get past the CIO or CTO during a presentation. This especially holds true for the agent looking to provide impartial “carrier neutral” advice at the early stages of the sales process — you can’t rely on a carrier’s sales engineers if the customer hasn’t yet decided which way to go.

So, it came as no surprise when Telarus management put “Sales Engineering” on its 2014 road map. But who would start up the department? Engineers are expensive and even if you could hire one away from a carrier, at best all they’d know is that one carrier. We were in a pickle trying to figure out how to go about creating this valuable resource for our partners.

And then, somehow, my arm was up and my mouth was saying, “Hey guys, I have a master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering. I know it’s been a few years since I’ve done anything technical (five to be exact), but I’d be willing to give it a shot!” It was like an out-of-body experience. What did I just say!?

That day marked the beginning of the end of my tenure as the vice president of marketing. Although I still love SEO, building websites, branding and helping agents with all things marketing, we have better people here at Telarus (Austin Holverson and his team) who already have an expertise in this area. What we, and our partners, needed was a vice president of sales engineers — and quick.

OK, sign me up.

For years I’ve been hearing telecom providers say things like “Agents are great salespeople, but they’re just not technical enough to sell to the sophisticated customers of tomorrow,” and “You can always teach a technical guy to sell, but you’ll never be able to teach a sales guy how to be an engineer.” So it should come as no surprise that I started this quest for engineering know-how with a tiny bit of a chip on my shoulder.

I searched around the Web for information on the Cisco CCNA certification — since that’s the one everyone seems to bring up when you talk about telecom engineering — and found that it costs around $5,000 and requires more than three months of online classes to get you ready to pass the two exams required to get a CCNA (ICND1 and ICND2). In my mind somehow I expect a slightly cheaper, easier path to CCNA since I know quite a few people who have one.

This is during my first day of Cisco boot camp when I was still in a playful mood.Well, after the sticker shock wore off, I went to find a company/school who would educate me and help me pass those two exams. I found out that the University of Phoenix has a course that lasts around three months, but if you know anything about me you know this — I have very little patience. And Telarus can’t wait until summer to have a sales engineer on staff.

After digging a little deeper I found a company called Training Camp that claimed it could help me pass the exam in just one week. I thought it had to be a typo so I called the toll-free number and spoke to a representative there.

“Yes, that is correct sir. Just one week!” the sales rep told me. Wow — I could hardly believe it. It sounded like getting a shot from the doctor: super painful, but super short.

“Well, shoot. Sign me up for the earliest one you can!” I replied.

Soon everything was all set up. February 16-22, 2014. Location: Washington D.C. Airline tickets booked. Hotel booked.

Let’s do this!

The week before Training Camp – or perhaps I should say Boot Camp – was about to start, I was emailed a packet of information and videos to watch prior to arriving at the class. Needless to say, life, work and church all converged to keep me from touching the pre-training materials prior to leaving for D.C. I was pretty freaked out — not only do I know NOTHING about routing and switching, I didn’t even have time to prepare for the course. I was certain that failure was going to be the last chapter in this story.

But once the airplane door closed, and I was able to access the Delta Airlines GoGo Wireless Internet, I put my head down and my ear buds in, and began the four-hour training to get a baseline for what would be discussed during the week. It started off with foreign concepts like IP address sub-netting, routing protocols (how routers figure out how to build their routing tables), and even frame relay. I felt like a salmon swimming upstream after a huge rain storm.

It was hard work, but in the end I somehow made it. Kudos to my awesome instructor Bryan DeAndrea for making it possible.When class started on Monday, no time was wasted getting right into the meat of the subject matter. In the span of three days we went through 385 pages of a text book and 288 PowerPoint slides, with two-hour take-home practice tests each night. Oh – my – gosh! It was just so much information to absorb in such a short period of time. There were several times I could see the steam coming out of my ears due to brain overload! It was the fire hose of fire hoses.

During the week, my classmates and I began to bond, which is typical of any environment when all participants are pushed to their limits. My peers were all from the IT world. One was a data center tech, one was the IT director for the Washington D.C. area metro service, one worked for a network design shop and another worked for a company that operates the cockpit Wi-Fi systems for more than 20 airlines around the world. They were a great group of guys who didn’t get mad at me for repeatedly stopping our instructor when I didn’t understand something completely (which was a lot!). In all, they represented a really good cross section of IT as we know it.

During the last day we had a lunch break and I asked them how this certification was going to help their careers. “I’m going to get a small raise,” answered one. “I need to keep this certification to work on government contracts,” said another.

Then I let loose on them.

“Do you know how valuable you guys are to the telecom companies?” I asked. One of them responded, “What do you mean? We all are, for the most part, just techs. That’s all we’ll ever be and we are all just grateful to have jobs at this point. This cert, that cert — everyone in our industry has a cert!”

That blew me away. Into to preacher mode I went.

“What if I told you that you could sign a contract with me and within a few minutes you could be selling Comcast — without any type of certification. What would you say? Yes, that’s right. In my world (telecom sales), you can sell Comcast — or any number of 40 different providers — without any type of certification whatsoever. People with any certifications in my world are rock stars. People ask them for advice and, most importantly, they are what we call ‘trusted advisers.’. Businesses buy more and more telecom and cloud services from people who they know and trust, not the off-the-street circuit slingers. You guys have dozens, if not hundreds of people who trust you with their most important asset — their data and the networks they use to move it where it needs to go. Never, ever, ever, lose sight of that. You don’t have to sell a customer the gear to be valuable to them. The fact you know how it all works and can fix it when it breaks is your value. So invite the carriers into your world, leverage their gear and data centers as your infrastructure, and keep your customers in your own back pocket. Don’t think that their moving to cloud applications is your pink slip. Your customers don’t care if you have to log on to a local Cisco management interface or on to a Windstream website to program a new hunt group for their phone system. They just want it to work and you are the people who can still make that happen.”

After that sermon I thought they’d think I was from another planet, or worse. But to my surprise almost all of them wanted more information after they’d thought it through. At the very least, they didn’t see big telco as the enemy, but a potential ally. (The key word there is “potential.”)

So, what did I learn from this whole ordeal? A few things:

  1. VARs and MSPs are even smarter than I had originally thought. They are even smarter than they give themselves credit for! It’s unfortunate that many of them see managed services (offered by the huge phone companies, which they called “big telco”) as a threat — like they are the little guy getting stepped on by the big bully. They need to realize that this is NOT the end for them, that there is an opportunity here for them to capitalize on this huge transition taking place. They own the coveted role of “trusted adviser,” even though many of them don’t realize it (yet).
  2. The telecom channel could use some “real” certifications, not just the kind you can pass with two hours of study. After getting pushed to my very limits on just the entry-level Cisco CCNA certification, I now see the logic in making people actually understand a product before allowing them to propose it to customers. Granted, telecom WAN sales are not as complex as setting up and troubleshooting Cisco switches and routers, but carriers won’t want Joe Blow off the street misrepresenting their brand or capabilities too much longer, not to mention it’s a great way to weed out the folks who don’t really want to focus on their brand.
  3. People from the telecom world can learn to be more technical. Just because you didn’t get an engineering degree in college does not mean you can’t learn how the cloud works or how to configure a Cisco switch. If the world is changing and you want to find success in it, there is hope. As I’ve demonstrated here, hopefully, there are very good companies out there that specialize in teaching people, even un-technical ones, how things work on the surface. Make the investment in yourself.

When I left the testing room and went to the exam administrator’s office to collect my final score, I was sure that I’d completely messed up the CCNA ICND2 exam. The nice lady took the paper off the printer, handed it to me and smiled. “Congratulations Patrick, you’re a Cisco CCNA!”

And if I can do it, anyone can.

Patrick Oborn is the co-founder and new vice president of sales engineers for Telarus, a full-service national master agent/VAR that caters to the needs of independent commercial telecom sales agencies. Telarus specializes in medium-to-large enterprise solutions, including managed cloud services, SIP, MPLS, Ethernet and hosted voice (PBX), which is sold through its network of 1,200 full-time agents.

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