ICYMI: Certifications: Demonstration or Decoy?

(“In Case You Missed It Monday” is my chance to showcase something that I wrote and published in another venue, but is still relevant. This week’s post originally appeared on DataCenterJournal.com)

Recently, I was discussing certifications with my colleague and fellow Head Geek Destiny Bertucci (@Dez_Sayz) on Twitter. We were batting around ideas about ways to get certified, why you should pursue a certification and more. Our back-and-forth made me realize that it’s often a rarely discussed area of data center management.

So I want to dig into this topic and share a few related experiences. My goal is to help IT professionals of all experience levels make informed choices regarding certifications, including which ones to pursue, how to go about studying and what expectations to set for the benefits of certifying. And I’ll even provide tricks for preparing for and taking the exams.

For this installment, I’ll start at the beginning and take you for a walk down Certification Lane. We’ll look at my certs, when I got them and why I pursued them. To be clear, I don’t mean to #humblebrag in any way. I simply want to show you the decision-making process that led me to where I am.

I earned my first tech certification at the behest of my boss. I was working at a training company that specialized—as many did in the late 80s—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:

  1. It would establish my credibility as a trainer.
  2. If I didn’t know a feature before the test, I sure as heck would afterward.

It wasn’t your typical certification test. WordPerfect shipped you a disk (a 5.25″ floppy, no less) containing the test. You had up to 80 hours to complete it and it was 100% open book. That’s right, you could use any available resources to finish the test—because it measured execution. Instead of just asking, “What three-keystroke combination takes you to the bottom of the document?” the exam would open a document and ask that you do it. A key logger ensured you performed the proper keystrokes.

(If you’re scratching your head, it’s home-home-down arrow. I can also still perfectly recall the four-color F-key template that was nearly ubiquitous at the time.)

certifications

© 1987 WordPerfect Corporation. All rights reserved.

My boss was right. I knew precious little about things such as macros before I cracked the seal on that exam disk. But I had definitely learned a lot about them by the time I mailed it back. Looking back, the WPCE was like a kinder, gentler version of the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) practical exam. I remain grateful that the WPCE was my first foray into the world of IT certs.

Seven years passed before I earned my second certification. 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 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 (as you do when you’re in your twenties.) I decided I would take all the classes first, 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 rearview mirror of life, but I still hadn’t ginned up the courage to start taking the test. I did, however, have a lot more experience with servers (by then, the desktop-support team was asked to do rotations in the help desk, where we administered almost everything, anyway). When I finally got around to actually taking the test, it involved spending many evenings after work reviewing the class books late into the night. Eighteen months after taking the classes, I passed the test.

That process introduced me to the nightmare that is adaptive exams. These tests give you a medium-level question, and if you answer correctly, you get a harder question. This process continues until you miss a question, at which point the difficulty drops. And that pattern continues.

On a multi-topic exam like the Certified Novell Engineer track, several question categories come at you like a game of whack-a-mole, where the moles, armed with nunchakus, try to whack you back. The exam ends not when you answer all the questions, but when it’s mathematically impossible to fail (or pass). In my experience, it led to a heart-stopping moment on question 46 (out of 90) when the test abruptly stopped and said, “Please wait for results.” Sixty gut-churning seconds later, the screen flashed a message announcing I’d passed.

When I took the second Novell exam, I was prepared for the whole adaptive thing. But it turned out this exam wasn’tadaptive, which prompted my heart to start palpitating. On question 46 I waited for the message. Nothing. 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.

Now that I had three certifications under my belt, I knew to ask the testing center what kind of test I’d be taking before sitting down to take the next one. By this point, I was the owner of a shiny new CNE 4.0, no less!

I changed jobs about three 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 that simply fell out of the sky. It was the late 90s, so that’s exactly what happened. A local headhunter cold-called my house. He had a job for a server administrator at a higher salary than what I was making. Ah, the 90s. The job involved Windows servers.

By this time, I’d been using Windows since it came for free on twelve 5.25″ floppies with Excel 1.0. For most 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 to be a capable alternative.

As a result, for several months in 1999, I found myself spending my evening hours studying for and taking the five exams that made up the MCSE, along with the rest of my small team of server admins. I wasn’t required to earn that certification, but a perk of the job was that the company offered to pay for the class and the exam. Ah, the 90s. Therefore, we all took advantage of their generosity. This time I wasn’t taking the test because I was told to, or because I had 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 five years before I needed to take another certification test.

In 2004, I was part of a company that was renewing its Cisco Gold Partner status when the powers that be discovered they needed a few more certified employees. They asked for volunteers and I raised my hand, figuring it would be the same deal as last time: study at night for a few weeks, take a test and everybody’s happy.

It turns out my company needed five certifications: Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA), Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE), MCSE+Messaging, Cisco Unity and Cisco Interactive Voice Response (IVR). To earn these five I would have to take a total of 10 tests. 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. I could go away to a three-week “boot camp” that would cover all the MCSE material and administer the exams. Then I could go straight from that boot camp to a one-week boot camp for the CCNA. The rest I could finish at home. It is a testament to my wife’s strength of character that not only did she not kill me outright, but she wholly supported the idea. 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 having to pass 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 paper-tigery thing to do. Much of the material—like the MCSE—included things I knew well and used daily. But some—like the IVR—were technologies I had never used and never intended to use. But that wasn’t the point, and I wasn’t planning to go out and promote those certifications anyway. But taking all those tests in such short order was also—and please don’t judge me for this—fun. Test anxiety plagues many people, but I’m not one of them. For me, the rush of adrenaline and the sense of accomplishment at the end are 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. Or at least it was it until this year when Destiny and I double-dog-dared each other to go on a certification marathon. This time, I think I’ll be more able to merge the best of all my certification-exam experiences. I’m taking a lot of tests in a short time, but I’m only taking ones 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 compared with the average day of an IT professional.

So that’s where things stand right now. Tell me where you are in your own certification journey in the comments below, or let me know if there are topics or areas of the certification process that you want me to explore deeper in the future. And stay tuned for my next post, in which I’ll share concrete skills and tricks I learned for taking IT exams.

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