illustration by Mark Smith

True Grit

A computer networking expert at Janelia Farm took a last minute trip to Brussels and came back a Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert.

When Jorge Martinez took a couple of days off work last summer, his colleagues in Janelia Farm’s information technology department assumed he was celebrating his recent engagement. In fact, he did take a whirlwind trip to Europe—but without his fiancée, Jessica.

“She wanted to come, but we decided together that she shouldn’t,” says Martinez. The reason? He was on a single-minded mission that fewer than 1 percent of computer networking experts worldwide complete: becoming a Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE).

Nearly everyone who seeks the certification—largely considered the highest and most prestigious networking certificate worldwide—takes the test multiple times before passing. Martinez had taken the exam recently in San Jose, California. The all-day test requires solving 10 trouble-shooting tickets on a fully-built Cisco network in just two hours as well as building a network from scratch in six hours.

Martinez, 32, was well prepared. Colleagues recall seeing him at his desk until 9 or 10 p.m., immersed in test preparation. Before coming to Janelia Farm in 2006, he’d logged thousands of hours working on computers and networks. While earning a bachelor’s degree in computer science and a master’s degree in telecommunications at George Mason University, he worked full time at the university to fund his education, first at the information technology help desk and then as a network engineer.

During the CCIE test in San Jose, Martinez cracked all the trouble-shooting tickets save one, which he suspected involved a “ghost” issue, meaning the problem appeared to be part of the exam but was actually due to a server malfunction. He complained to the proctor but got nowhere—and failed the exam because of that single ticket.

Frustrated but undaunted, he wanted to take the exam again as soon as possible. “It was now or never,” says Martinez, who knew he was at the top of his game and that waiting too long would mean he’d have to learn more new technology. But the next opportunity in the U.S. was six months away. He searched worldwide and discovered only one site offering the test within the next month—in Brussels, Belgium.

Without telling anyone but Jessica, he signed up for the test and bought a plane ticket. He flew to Brussels on a Friday, staying in a hotel near the exam site to save money. “It was in an industrial area and had no restaurant. I had to walk about a mile to a gas station to buy sandwiches,” recalls Martinez. He took the exam Monday and learned he’d passed before flying home on Tuesday. Anticipating disbelief from his colleagues, he took a photo of himself next to a local highway sign and e-mailed it to his Janelia coworkers along with his passing score.

“We were gobsmacked,” says Vijay Samalam, senior director of scientific computing and information technology at Janelia. “First of all, we know how difficult it is to pass that exam. But taking that gamble and putting up his own money? That shows true grit and determination,” he says.

To recognize Martinez and his achievement, Samalam nominated him for an Outstanding Janelian award, an honor that’s granted on an ad hoc basis to employees in operations who go beyond the call of duty. Martinez received the award last fall, on November 16. Cisco came through as well: They acknowledged their error on the earlier exam and reimbursed the testing fee for the Brussels exam. Soon afterward, Martinez and Jessica took a real vacation together—a cruise to Mexico, Belize, and Costa Rica—and are planning their wedding next summer.