ICYMI: Improving Certification Certainty, part 1

(“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)

Last time, I dove into the topic of technology certifications by recounting my certification journey and my reasons for taking all those tests. This month, I want to get more concrete and talk about techniques to help you select, prepare for and take a certification exam.

In my experience, people can be confident in their daily work, be well versed in both current tech and future trends, and be able to execute or even teach others. But you say the words test, exam or quiz and for many folks (but certainly not all), everything goes out the window. Much of it has to do with the emotion we attach to these vile little exercises early in life. So much importance and pressure rides on test performance that shaking the feeling later on becomes difficult.

But if you grew up as a carefree spirit who thought “C is a fine letter and it does stand for cookie, after all” and who planned to get a degree in theater, you—which is to say I—were able to discern certain patterns about tests—patterns that other folks who were more amped up on NoDoz, and trying to remember everything they crammed the night before, might have missed.

My willingness to step outside the testing box and observe the mechanics around me continued after graduation. What I found is that if you know just a little about how tests (and IT certifications in particular) are designed and run, you can reduce much of the anxiety up front and focus on actually passing the test. So that’s what I want to share with you today: tricks and techniques I’ve discovered along the way for passing certifications.

Which Cert Is Right for You?

As I described last month, some certifications are mandatory as part of your job (or as part of the job you want to have). But in many cases, IT professionals find themselves with an embarrassment of riches, having the potential opportunity to pursue certifications in multiple subdisciplines (networking, systems administration, storage and security), vendor-specific certs (Cisco, Juniper and SolarWinds) or certifications that cover a broader range of topics (A+, Net+ and so on.).

In that case, the first, easiest answer is to select a certification that’s relevant to your field. That’s where you’ll have the greatest chance of success because you’ll be familiar with the terms, trends and technologies.

The second and almost as easy an answer is to select a certification relevant to the work you want to do. It will undoubtedly be a bigger stretch, but that’s the point, right? I also find that when considering a career shift in IT, studying for a certification in that new area is a low-risk way to determine whether the work will be satisfying before committing to a full-on job change.

The third answer is slightly murkier than the first two: look for a certification that hits an area where your job or your field of specialization is going. In this age of hybrid IT, it absolutely includes cloud-centric topics and technologies. But it could just as easily take you toward certifications in on-premises virtualization, monitoring or information security.

How to Prepare

Once you’ve selected a goal, the next step is finding the best way to prepare. Let me get two wrong options out of the way:

  • Buy brain dumps
  • Take the exam cold

With regard to brain dumps, the answer should be obvious. If you can’t pass without cribbing the answers, do you really deserve the cert? Would you want to work with others who passed their exams the same way? As for taking it cold, the reason is that—in most cases—a certification exam isn’t a practical test. It doesn’t present you with a stack of gear, or 100 lines of code, or a misbehaving application and ask you to get to work fixing it. Therefore, the questions must be formulated in a way that’s less than obvious. Is it really testing your ability to do the work? Maybe not. But what it is doing is testing your ability to suss out a correct answer in the middle of potentially confusing background noise. Kind of like how we do at work. In any case, answering these types of questions takes a bit of practice.

In addition, our daily job rarely puts us in contact with every aspect of a technology. You may be the king of server builds but rarely get into group-policy objects. Or you may be a PowerShell wizard but never do unattended installs. Whatever the case, expect that your subject knowledge is less than complete and do a little studying first.

So, with those two points out of the way, what options do you have?

First, there’s the long road. Pick up a class at a local college or private educational center and spend weeks studying the topic, digging into practical exercises and immersing yourself in the technology. Since most of these types of courses are designed with the certification exam in mind, you’ll have the most complete view when you are done.

Your next option is self-paced online courses. Here you can take your time, review a lesson as many times as necessary and do extra research. Many of these online systems have labs that you can use to test your knowledge and explore.

Practice tests—which differ from brain dumps in that they use questions similar to those on the exam but not the actual questions—are yet another great option. You can experience an exam-like environment, and find your areas of weakness faster than you might by just reading the material or watching videos. Tracking your improvement is also easier.

Another option is online forums. Here you can talk to other folks who are also preparing for their certification or have passed theirs and want to help out the next wave. You even find course instructors on these forums from time to time. Along with discussions, people will post their sample setups, practical exercises they’ve used and more.

Finally are boot camps. A boot camp is a particular kind of training option that compresses all the material into a matter of days, and students spend long hours hyper-focused on that material with the intent of taking the exam at the end of the course. The quick turnaround is offset by the fact that nobody could be expected to learn that volume of material in such a short time. Boot camps are best when you already have the hands-on knowledge but must either get up to speed quickly on a small subset of topics or do final walk-through before taking the exam.

Check back next month for Improving Certification Certainty Part 2: how you know when you’re ready to pursue your cert, the mechanics of actually taking the test and, finally, course correcting if you hit a small speed bump in testing.

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