(This originally appeared on GeekSpeak)
Recently, Head Geek Destiny Bertucci ( Dez ) and I talked about certifications on an episode of SolarWinds Lab. For almost an hour we dug into the whys and hows of certifications. But, of course, the topic is too big to cover in just one episode.
Which is why I wanted to dig in a little deeper today. This conversation is one that you can expect I’ll be coming back to at various points through the year. This dialogue will be informed by my experiences both past and present, as well as the feedback you provide as we go on. I want this to be a roundtable discussion, so at the end we’ll all have something closer to a 360-degree view. My goal is to help IT professionals of all experience levels make an informed choice about certs: which ones to pursue, how to go about studying, where to set expectations about the benefits of certifying, and even tricks for preparing for and taking the exams.
For today’s installment, I thought it might make sense to start at the beginning, meaning a bit of a walk down Certification Lane to look at the certs I already have, when I got them, and why.
To be clear, I don’t mean this to be a #humblebrag in any way. Let’s face it. If you watched the episode, you know that there are other Geeks with WAY more certifications than me. My point in recounting this is to offer a window into my decision-making process and, as I said, to get the conversation started.
My first tech certification was required by my boss. I was working at a training company that specialized (as many did at the time) in helping people move from the typing pool where they used sturdy IBM selectrics to the data processing center where WordPerfect was king. My boss advised me that getting my WPCE (WordPerfect Certified Resource) cert would accomplish two things:
- it would establish my credibility as a trainer
- if I didn’t know a feature before the test, I sure as heck would after.
This was not your typical certification test. WordPerfect shipped you out a disk (A 5.25″ floppy, no less) and the test was on it. You had up to 80 hours to complete it and it was 100% open book. That’s right, you could use any resources you had to finish the test. Because at the end of the day, the test measured execution. Instead of just asking “what 3-keystroke combination takes you to the bottom of the document” the exam would open a document and ask that you DO it. A keylogger ensured the proper keystrokes were performed.
(For those who are scratching their heads, it’s “Home-Home-DownArrow”, by the way. I can also still perfectly recall the 4-color F-key template that was nearly ubiquitous at the time.)
And my boss was right. I knew precious little about things like macros before I cracked open the seal on that exam disk. But I sure knew a ton about them (and much more) when I mailed it back in. Looking back, the WPCE was like a kinder, gentler version of the CCIE practical exam. And I’m grateful that was my first foray into the world of IT certs.
My second certification didn’t come until 7 years later. By that time I had worked my way up the IT food chain, from classroom instructor to desktop support, but I wanted to break into server administration. The manager of that department was open to the idea, but needed some proof that I had the aptitude. The company was willing to pay for the classes and the exams, so I began a months-long journey into the world of Novell networking.
At the time, I had my own ideas about how to do things (ah, life in your 20’s when you are omniscient!). I decided I would take ALL the classes and once I had a complete overview of Novell, I’d start taking exams.
A year later, the classes were a distant dot in the rear view mirror of life but I still hadn’t screwed up my courage to start taking the test. What I did have, however, was a lot more experience with servers (by then the desktop support was asked to do rotations in the helpdesk, where we administered almost everything anyway). In the end, I spend many, many nights after work and late into the night reviewing the class books and ended up taking the tests almost 18 months after the classes.
I ended up passing, but I also discovered the horrific nightmare landscape that is “adaptive exams” – tests that give you a medium level question on a topic and if you pass it, you get a harder question. This continues until you miss a question, at which point the level of difficulty drops down. And that pattern continues until you complete all the questions for that topic. On a multi-topic exam like the Certified Novell Engineer track, that means several categories of questions that come at you like a game of whack-a-mole where the mole’s are armed and trying to whack you back. And the exam ends NOT when you answer all the questions, but when it is mathematically impossible to fail (or pass). Which led to a heart-stopping moment on question 46 (out of 90) when the test abruptly stopped and said “Please wait for results”.
But it turns out I had passed.
Of course, I was prepared for this on the second test. Which is why the fact that it WASN’T adaptive caused yet more heart palpitations. On question 46 I waited for the message. Nothing. So I figured I had a few more questions to answer. Question 50 passed me by and I started to sweat. By question 60 I was in panic mode. At question 77 (out of 77), I was on the verge of tears.
But it turns out I passed that one, as well.
And 2 more exams later (where I knew to ASK the testing center what kind of test it would be before sitting down) I was the owner of a shiny new CNE (4.0, no less!).
And, as things often turn out, I changed jobs about 3 months later. It turns out that in addition to showing aptitude, the manager also needed an open req. My option was to wait for someone on the team to leave, or take a job which fell out of the sky. A local headhunter cold-called my house and the job he had was for a server administration job at a significant amount more than what I was making.
It also involved Windows servers.
By this time I’d been using Windows since it came for free on 12 5.25″ floppies with Excel 1.0. For a large part of my career, “NT” was short for “Not There (yet)”. But in 1998 when I switched jobs, NT 4.0 had been out for a while and proven itself a capable alternative.
Which is why, in 1999, I found myself NOT as chief engineer of the moon as it traveled through space but instead spending a few months of my evening hours studying for and taking the 5 exams that made up the MCSE along with the rest of my small team of server admins.
Getting our MCSE wasn’t required, but the company once again offered to pay for both the class and the exam as a perk of the job (ah, those pre-bubble glory days!) so we all took advantage of it. This time I wasn’t taking the test because I was told to, or to meet someone else’s standard. I was doing it purely for me. It felt different, and not in a bad way.
By that point, taking tests had become old hat. I hadn’t passed every single one, but my batting average was good enough that I was comfortable when I sat down and clicked “begin exam”.
Ironically, it would be another 5 years before I needed to take a certification test.
In 2004, I was part of a company that was renewing their Cisco Gold Partner status, when the powers-that-be discovered they needed a few more certified employees. They asked for volunteers and I readily raised my hand, figuring this would be the same deal as the last time – night study for a few weeks, take a test, and everybody is happy.
It turns out that my company needed 5 certifications – CCNA (1 exam), MCSE (6 exams), MCSE+Messaging (add one more exam to the 6 for MCSE), Cisco Unity (1 exam), and Cisco Interactive Voice Response (1 exam). Oh, and they needed it by the end of the quarter. “I’m good,” I told them, “but I’m not THAT good”.
After a little digging, I discovered a unique option: Go away to a 3 week “boot camp” where they would cover all the MCSE material *and* administer the exams. Go straight from that boot camp to a 1 week boot camp for the CCNA. Then come home and finish up on my own.
It is a testament to my wife’s strength of character that not only did she not kill me outright for the idea but supported the idea. And so off I went.
The weeks passed in a blur of training material, independent study, exams passed, exams failed, and the ticking of the clock. And then it was home and back to the “regular” work day, but with the added pressure of passing two more exams on my own. In the end, it was the IVR exam (of all things) that gave me the most trouble. After two stupendously failed attempts, I passed.
Looking back, I know it was all a very paper tiger-y thing to do. A lot of the material – like the MCSE – were things I knew well and used daily. But some (like the IVR) were technologies I had never used and never really intended to use. But that wasn’t the point and I wasn’t planning to go out and promote those certifications in any case.
But taking all those tests in such short order was also – and please don’t judge me for this – fun. As much as some people experience test anxiety, but the rush of adrenaline and the sense of accomplishment at the end is hard to beat. In the end I found the whole experience rewarding.
And that, believe it or not, was the end of my testing adventure (well, if you don’t count my SCP, but that’s a post for another day) – at least it WAS it until this year when Destiny and I double-dog-dared each other to go on this certification marathon.
This time out, I think I’m able to merge the best of all those experiences. It is a lot of tests in a short period, but I’m only taking exams that prove the skills I’ve built up over my 30 year career. I’m not doing it to get a promotion or satisfy my boss or meet a deadline. It’s all for me this time.
And it’s also refreshingly simple. The idea that there is ONE correct answer to every question is a wonderful fiction, when compared to the average day of an IT professional.