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Weekly Column

It Beats Flipping Burgers: How Cisco Systems is Using High School Students to Dominate the Internet

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely
bob@cringely.com

A few weeks ago, I was giving a speech in Denmark — one of those blessed countries where the kid salting fries at McDonalds speaks better English than I do — and met another speaker, Stan Davis, who lives in Boston. Stan is one of these guys who thinks deep thoughts about the future of business and society and then writes books about it all. Stan Davis thinks for a living. His most recent book is BLUR: The Speed of Change in the Connected Economy, and that's the book he seemed to be pushing to the Danes. I liked Stan's speech a lot, not just because he is a good and entertaining speaker, but because he made me start to think for a change, too.

For a guy like me who occasionally writes books, the most amazing aspect of BLURis that it is printed double-spaced. Why didn't I think of that? Counting words then lines then pages and doing a little arithmetic told me that BLURis about 55,000 words long, while my book Accidental Empiresis 113,000 words. I felt a bit like the lady who called the publisher to ask, "How long is a novel?"

"Well most of ours are around 80,000 words," said the publisher.

"Thank God," said the woman, "my book is finished."

For all its white space, BLURdoes a good job of explaining how businesspeople are hosed if they don't get on the Internet and become virtual. It's a good book. But it doesn't contain one of the most interesting insights about the evolution of education from Stan's speech to the Danes. Stan talked about how we had gone from a 100,000-year hunting and gathering economy to a 10,000-year agrarian economy to a 200-year industrial economy to an 80-year information economy, and out past the horizon lies a biotech economy of indeterminate length. He said that responsibility for education in those economies had gone from roam to home to the state and now, in the second half of the information economy, was becoming lodged in the workplace. It's an idea that stuck in my brain.

For the most part, Stan's correct if we preface that assertion by admitting that every economy has an education baseline that must be met by all participants. Back in the hunting and gathering days, this baseline might have been just knowing to watch out for bears, while today the baseline is probably a high school education. Beyond that base, most of us have learned on the job what we know, and in high tech most of what we know becomes obsolete every five years. So if employers want to keep us on the job for more than half a decade, they'd better help us upgrade our skills.

This could be a recipe for coping or maybe managing, but since we make a business of everything in this country, we've even turned job training into a selling proposition with the topic of this column: product-specific technical training. In the PC industry, this phenomenon started with Novell and its Certified Netware Engineers. What a concept! The CNE concept appeared in the late 1980s at a time when Novell had dominant market share in office networks, and knowing how to compsurf a network drive was a valuable skill. By offering standardized training and testing, Novell simultaneously created a profit center, lowered its service cost, and trained whole armies of unpaid sales associates in the form of CNEs. It worked so well, in fact, that Microsoft copied the CNE with its nearly identical Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer program training "engineers" in as little as 20 days to run Windows NT and Backoffice shops. Every big high tech software company has the same sort of operation — Oracle, SAP, even Cisco Systems, which tends to make software that's shipped inside hardware.

The states got a little huffy about each company's use of the word "engineer," and at one time Oregon actually sued Novell saying there were no certified engineers in Oregon unless the state said they were certified engineers, dammit. I knew some non-engineers in Oregon back then who ought to have been certified and weren't, but that's a very different concept. Vendor-sponsored continuing education took off like crazy. And why not? A few weeks of study and a couple tests virtually guaranteed employment for the CNE or MCSE just coming out of school. It was a time when the industry needed some standardization of skills and a way to give customers some confidence in their network installers.

The beauty of the CNE and MCSE programs is they only last a few weeks or months, so workers can become experts on a particular technology (and not at all on competitors to that technology) without having to take years of college-level training. MCSEs and CNEs don't have to go to college at all. They just have to pass the tests. This sounded great until I remembered my days 20 years ago investigating the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. One of the underlying reasons for that fiasco was that the reactor operators were trained not to run the reactor as much as to pass the test.

Where one company innovates, there is always another company that will take that innovation to the next level. In this case that company is Cisco Systems, the big router maker. Cisco took the concept of a certified engineer in whole new directions that promise the end result of making Cisco the dominant network vendor as long as there is a network. Cisco has made training the heart of its long-term strategy. This isn't a new idea. Remember when Apple was giving thousands of free computers to schools? If anything got Apple through its darkest days it was the students, now grown-up, who took their Mac expertise into the workplace.

Cisco took the CNE concept and turned it into something like — don't take this the wrong way please — Hitler Youth.

Welcome to the Cisco Systems Networking Academy, a two-year (not 20-hour) program that teaches high school kids how to design, build, and maintain digital networks. Cisco pays for this operation, which has quietly set up shop in more than half of the U.S. states and several foreign countries. My mentioning states is not coincidental, since Cisco requires a buy-in at the state level before any money or equipment begins to move.

The result is phenomenal — thousands of kids graduating from high school with $50,000+ annual salaries waiting for them, all for running the networks that make Stan's world of BLUReven possible. There is a chronic labor shortage in this area and an even more chronic labor shortage at a reasonable price: Cisco's Networking Academy addresses both problems. And it does so in a way that generates thousands of young experts who know Cisco technology and ONLY Cisco.

This is a brilliant strategy that has support in every political party and level of education. Cisco is pouring tens of millions into the operation, but even if it were billions, the Networking Academy would still be a bargain. Because like Apple did in the 1980s, Cisco is buying its place in the future. But what Cisco is doing goes beyond anything these other companies — even Microsoft — can imagine. They've turned an offhand remark from Stan Davis into world domination. And there is literally no stopping them from what is, at heart, a really good thing.

All I say is, no uniforms!

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