January 27, 2012 5:53 PM
Posted by: Ed Tittel
Anybody who reads the Microsoft Born to Learn blog can only go so long before encountering a post from Microsoft’s Psychometrician Program Manager. I regularly mention her in my blogs here (most recently on December 19 in a post entitled “Interesting Changes Coming to MS Cert Exams“). Earlier this week I had the pleasure of interviewing Liberty Munson by phone about exam development issues and how candidates with specific exam issues can bring them to Microsoft Learning’s attention for possible resolution. It was an interesting interview, chock-full of useful and illuminating information about how Microsoft evaluates the quality of their exams and questions, and keeps an eagle eye on them to make sure they stay fresh, useful, and relevant.
Liberty has her own cheerful caricature at Born to Learn
According to Liberty, Microsoft’s over-riding concern is to make sure any exam “…is measuring real-world, relevant information in a valid and fair way.” This requires constant evaluation of how questions work and behave in actual exams. Other than the typical psychometric evaluation of questions, Microsoft also uses information that candidates provide through a variety of channels. For example, candidates can always comment on questions at the end of their exams, but with a portfolio of around 110 active exams right now means only a sample of comments can be read closely for any given exam. Beta exams are a different story: not only does Liberty herself read all beta survey results, that feedback is incorporated into the published (final) version of each exam.
In addition, Liberty and her team track customer satisfaction metrics quarterly, on the lookout for up or down changes in satisfaction levels (so if you’re asked to complete a survey on your exam — please do it — because Microsoft takes this information seriously and it drives changes to exams), as well as exam metrics, on the lookout for trends in results on a question-by-question basis. This involves examining each question to make sure it’s still “performing” — which means distinguishing candidates who know the material as evidenced by overall exam performance, from those who don’t by the same measure. “We want to make sure the right people get it right,” says Liberty, in explaining that an exam’s primary purpose is to separate high performers with strong skills and knowledge from low performers who are only superficially familiar with a test subject and its various ins and outs.
There’s also a fair amount of what Liberty calls “data forensics” work underway on exam results. Her team of crack statisticians looks for what she calls “patterns of anomalous behavior” where unexpected performance on some combination of test items (which could indicate an unusually accurate brain dump or practice test that reproduces items verbatim) or at a specific test center (which could indicate shared information among test-takers at such sites, as has been documented in various test centers outside the USA from time to time) triggers closer investigation (and occasional invalidation of test results).
Based on some recent interaction with an unhappy friend and colleague about a specific MCTS exam, I also discussed Microsoft Learning’s complaint handling process. Liberty explains that when complaints are fielded her team looks for performance of items on the exam from a psychometric perspective to see if anything unusual or out-of-the-ordinary is present. They also work with the product planners who are responsible for the technical content of the exam to make sure items are accurate and relevant to real-world, day-to-day tasks and activities. These product planners “use strong relationships with business groups and SMEs to work out potential item pool issues and get them solved,” says Liberty.
Next, Liberty asked me to remind readers how to take best advantage of the “item challenge process” for Microsoft exams. Test-takers unhappy with specific exam items should do their best to remember as many question details as possible, and to include them when they submit a complaint. Item challenges are discussed on the “Item Challenge” tab on the Microsoft Exam Policies web page, where you’ll find a link to a challenge form download and an email address to which it may be sent (MCPHelp@microsoft.com, with “Exam Item Evaluation” as the subject line, and only one item per each such email, please).
Finally, Liberty also informed me that “2012 is going to be a big year for MS certification” and that readers interested in new exams should stay tuned to the Born to Learn blog to keep an eye out for the numerous beta exams that will be released throughout this year. She also indicated that betas fill up “really fast” these days, and reminded me that the best way for people interested in taking beta exams to get an exam invite is to register themselves in Microsoft’s SME Database. “That’s where most of our invitations go these days,” she adds, and explains why she happily emailed me the registration link after we’d concluded our call.
January 25, 2012 8:12 PM
Posted by: Ed Tittel
Cisco changes update release dates for some data center specialist exams
, Cisco data center exams for network infrastructure and unified computing extended until 5/7/2012
When new certification exams and credentials experience a schedule slip, the old credentials they replace sometimes get a new lease on life in the process. That’s what I believe is behind the announcement in the January 2012 Learning@Cisco newsletter entitled “Data Center Exams End-of-Life Dates Extended.”
Data Center Specialist certs for network infrastructure and unified computing extended
Because the preceding screen capture from the newsletter lacks live links, here they are for those specific exams:
Also, the availability data for the new versions of this exams (originally scheduled for release this month) have now been changed to February 7, 2012. The old exams will stay live until May 7, so current candidates can decide whether to pursue the old curriculum or the new once February 7 rolls around. Other Cisco Data Center specialist credentials cover application services and storage networking.
January 23, 2012 3:55 PM
Posted by: Ed Tittel
2-day free Private Cloud training class now available for signup
, MS already offering free private cloud Jump Start class online
Last Thursday, I blogged about Microsoft’s new Private Cloud certification, which represents the company’s first “real” cloud-oriented certification credential. Although the two exams that deal with cloud technology in the System Center 2012 environment will have to wait for that platform to be commercially released (Microsoft also announced the System Center 2012 release candidate on January 18 as well), the company is already offering a online Jump Start to help candidates prepare for this certification.
Jump Start training banner
The first scheduled date for this free session is on February 21-22, 2012, from 9:00 am – 5:00 pm PST (UCT -08:00). Visit the registration page for more details, including an outline for this two-day course and capsule bios of the four instructors who will be teaching this two-day online class. If my experience is any indicator, this class will fill up quickly, so sign up soon if you’re interested. If it’s already too late by the time you read this, keep your eyes peeled for the future iterations that will surely follow soon.
January 20, 2012 3:29 PM
Posted by: Ed Tittel
First-time employment claims for week ending 1/14/2012 take a turn for the better
, nice dip in first time unemployment claims
The numbers for first-time unemployment claims for the week ending 1/14/2012 are in, and they tell an interesting story. Although numbers for the previous week moved back above the 400,000 line for the first time since last November to 402,000, the numbers for the current reporting week dropped to 352,000. That’s a dip of 50,000 which is the largest weekly reduction in quite some time.
Many economists peg the “magic number” that separates job growth and economic improvement from job stagnation and recession (or worse!) at 400,000 for this particular benchmark. A drop to around 350,000 shows better than 10 percent improvement, and could be a harbinger of an improving job situation. According to the latest US Department of Labor report, the unadjusted numbers (“the advance number of actual initial claims under state programs, unadjusted”) look even better, at over 124,000 less than the preceding week, and were also better than 28,000 under the same week last year.
We can’t be sure that because this yo-yo went down this week, it’s not going to reverse course next week. But overall, long-term numbers are also trending downward, and speak to continuing, but slow improvement in the employment situation. Given recent economic events in Europe (the debt crisis, a dropping Euro, and a failure to agree on a general EU debt solution) it’s encouraging to see things keep improving for the US economy anyway. Let’s just hope nothing too catastrophic assaults our fragile recovery so that it can keep going and hopefully, start to pick up more speed and momentum.
Keep your fingers crossed!
January 18, 2012 3:33 PM
Posted by: Ed Tittel
New MCITP on Private Clouds announced
, Private Cloud certification is only second MCITP to require 5 exams
Yesterday, Microsoft executive Satya Nadella (President of the Server and Tools Division) laid out the parameters for the company’s so-called private cloud solution, and Erika Cravens posted information about a related certification to the Born to Learn blog (“System Center 2012 is a true ‘private cloud’ builder. Get started on your Private Cloud certification now“).
Microsoft lays out its private cloud cert
The technologies involved include System Center 2012 and Windows Server 2008 (original and R2). This is a five exam certification, two of which exams have not yet been released. These Private Cloud Certification exams include (pending items get an appended asterisk [*]):
- 70-640: Windows Server 2008 Active Directory, Configuring
- 70-642: Windows Server 2008 Network Infrastructure, Configuring
- 70-643: Windows Server 2008 Application Infrastructure, Configuring
- 70-247: Private Cloud Configuration and Deployment with System Center 2012*
- 70-246: Private Cloud Monitoring and Operations with System Center 2012*
Thus, this certification (which is presumably to be part of the MCITP program, though the details haven’t been fully spelled out just yet) includes elements of the MCITP for Server Administrators plus Application Infrastructure and the cloud-related System Center 2012 components. This makes it very, very interesting and another of the MCITP credentials that appears poised to generate some real resonance in the marketplace (like the Enterprise Administrator, which also requires 5 exams, and the Server and Virtualization Administrator, each of which require only 3).
No word yet on when the two new exams will be released. My guess is that they will coincide with or follow within 30-60 days of the release of Microsoft System Center 2012, currently available as a release candidate from the TechNet Evaluation Center. According to a story published in September, 2011, Mary Jo Foley quotes Nadella as saying System Center 2012 is ” due out in the ‘early part of calendar 2012.’” Best guess as to what this really means? I’m thinking probably sometime later this month or in February, given that this certification announcement has already been made (the Private Cloud Cert page says only “Exams 70-247 and 70-246 are not yet available. Please check back frequently for updated release information.”)
January 17, 2012 3:34 PM
Posted by: Ed Tittel
college degrees and IT certs are very different animals
, employers want both college degrees and IT certs from job applicants
Thanks to a regular correspondent and professional associate of mine, I’ve been involved recently in an interesting discussion about college degrees versus IT certifications. I wrote another blog here last Friday in which I opined the following: “for at least some certifications (most notably, the CCIE, in his case), they are almost analogous to a college degree.” Equivocations aside, my colleague cried foul (using pithier language, often abbreviated as “BS”) on this remark, so of course I immediately leaped to my own defense.
First and foremost, I did equivocate in this remark by using “at least some” and “almost analogous” so I don’t think I can be accused of saying they’re exactly the same. But as I think about it further, and compare the time, cost and effort involved in earning a typical IT certification (NOT the CCIE or other premier credentials), I have to concede that my colleague is right. Even an Associate’s degree usually requires 60 credit hours of classes, each of which costs no less than $60 at local community colleges, plus books, fees, and other costs that probably add up to no less than $5,000, and may easily top $10,000. Then, too, 60 credit hours usually means 720 hours in the classroom and probably as many more in getting back and forth to school, with another 700-1,400 hours for labs and studying. A bachelor’s involves at least double this effort, and private schools usually charge $200 and up per credit hour rather than the bargain basement $60 you might pay at a community college. A master’s degree may involve only 30 hours of classes, but you must pay more for those hours, and usually write a thesis (or take more classes in lieu of same). As for a PhD: three years of classes, plus one to three more years to research, write, and defend a dissertation, for at least three times the nut associated with an Associate’s degree, and very often much more than that.
So yeah, now that I re-think my position and really look at the numbers for the time, money, and activity involved in earning an IT certification versus a college degree, I have to concede my colleague was right. It would have been much more accurate for me to say “For a very few IT certifications, such as the CCIE, the time and effort required to earn the credential might get close to the work required to earn a two-year degree, but otherwise, degrees trump certifications for time, effort, and cost.”
Does this mean that degrees are more important than IT certifications? This is an interesting question, to which the answer must be “It depends on what field the degree is in, the granting institution, and how old the degree is, versus the currency and perceived value of the corresponding IT certification (or more probably, certifications plural) under consideration.” Degrees never expire, they indicate a sustained effort to learn a curriculum and meet specific graduation requirements, and tell employers that candidates could complete such an effort. Certs, on the other hand, do expire, are more narrowly focused, take less time, effort, and money to complete, and are more like the merit badges to which Tom Hollingsworth compared them in his recent blog that provoked my less-than-accurate comparison of these two things last Friday.
And while this doesn’t mean that certs are worthless, it actually helps to explain why employers usually prefer job candidates to have both degrees and current IT certifications: the degree to indicate an ability to raise the money and do the work to complete a sustained and demanding set of activities, and the certifications to indicate some degree of interest and ability in IT-related topics germane to a particular job or job role that the employer wants to fill.
‘Nuff said, I hope!
January 13, 2012 3:48 PM
Posted by: Ed Tittel
certs are like merit badges as ogres are like onions
, important to really learn cert topics
, Packet Pushers and the Network Nerd offer great networking blogs
It’s not every day that I sit down at my desk to read my email, and wind up thanking my lucky stars to have such great friends and colleagues to work and interact with. For me, this was one of those days as I read through a short missive from my friend and colleague Jeff Carrell (the recently-appointed lead author for the fourth edition of my Guide to TCP/IP college textbook, now nearing manuscript completion, and the lead partner in our IPv6 Hands-on Labs) that linked to a couple of IT certification blog posts with this recommendation: “If you haven’t seen these, I really liked them.” I liked them, too, all right–so much, in fact, that I’d like to share them with you! I also liked it very, very much that Jeff took the time to point these excellent blogs out to me.
The first is from a group of network engineers that run a Website called Packet Pushers; you can get a good sense of where these guys live from their site’s tagline: “Where Too Much Networking Would NEVER Be Enough.” In a post entitled “Certification — Earn It, Don’t Just Pass It!“, regular contributor Kurt Bales (a network engineer based out of Sydney, Australia, where he works as the CTO of eintellego Pty Ltd) makes some very valid points about the real meaning and value of IT certification, as he stresses the importance of real learning and skills development rather than rote memorization just to pass a certification exam. As I’ve often said myself here in this very blog: It’s not just what you know that counts, it’s what you can DO with your skills and knowledge that matters most. I also really liked reading about somebody lucky enough to work for a company where they valued their people, and were willing to invest in their professional development.
[To run the gamut of Packet Pushers blogs, check out their home page where you'll find links to their latest postings at the top center column of that page, as wel as blogs on Data Center, Switching, IPv6, Security, Routing, and Work Life. Please check them out! ]
The next site is even more hard-core: it’s called The Networking Nerd and its tagline reads “Come for the Networking Stay For the Snark.” The logo features the word “nerd” right below the Cisco bridge logo. Hilarious! This site is the brainchild of network engineer Tom Hollingsworth, a “major certification holder” based in Oklahoma who already has over 20 certs from vendors and organizations that include Cisco, CompTIA, HP, ISC-squared, Microsoft, Novell, and VMware (I listed them in alphabetical order). He also confesses that while it took him SEVEN TRIES to pass the CCIE lab exam, he’s got one of those, too (CCIE #29213).
His blog is entitled “Certification Merit Badges” and it’s based on Tom’s recent Twitter exchange with Fernando Montenegro in response to another Twitter post that reads “…my boss told me today that certifications aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.” This is a widely held opinion that corresponds to reality in varying degrees, often depending on how well people follow the admonition stated in the preceding Packet Pushers blog post. Nevertheless, Tom does an excellent job of observing how, for at least some certifications (most notably, the CCIE, in his case), they are almost analogous to a college degree. They both take a serious investment of time, effort, and money, and both are universally recognized as representing something meaningful and worthwhile by their holders, and by those who know about them.
His “merit badge” observation (and blog title) recognizes something else I’ve observed in IT since I first started working in and around certification in the mid-1990s — namely, that for a certain segment of the IT workforce, collecting certifications becomes something between a hobby and an obsession. Hollingsworth further observes that these credentials announce to the world that their possessor claims basic competence with various specific areas of knowledge, so that employers and colleagues can assume they are aware of various tools and technologies, simply because of the certs they hold. Next, he does a good job of explaining why some employers might opine the way that “the boss” mentioned in the tweet that provoked his posting (they don’t always see the value of official marks of technical competence, though they do want their workers to know their stuff). He even does justice to the sometimes very valid fears that employers have about losing highly skilled and trained employees to poachers (and competitors) after they’ve invested huge amounts in training them up, and gives credence to the common practice of making employees agree to repay training costs if they leave an organization within some time period (usually, one to three years) after employer-funded training has been received. Good stuff, and worth reading.
[Hollingsworth's Networking Nerd site is a WordPress creation, so all you have to do to access all of his blogs, which cover a broad and interesting range of topics, is to visit the home page and start poking around. Or, you can access his blogs through the "Recent Posts" and "Archives" links in the right-hand column there. ]
January 11, 2012 10:56 PM
Posted by: Ed Tittel
MS matching questions on cert exams can offer 15 to 16 options!
, new MS question types pose interesting challenges
I just exchanged some Google+ interaction with an old friend and colleague who’s busily engaged in retooling himself from the role of SharePoint to Exchange guru. He’s let me know that the new question item types that Microsoft has added to its exams are becoming pretty prevalent (I blogged about this last December 19 in a post entitled “Interesting Changes Coming to MS Cert Exams“) and that the type described as “matching questions” can be both persnickety and confusing. A “matching question” is like a multiple choice, but instead of offering 4 or 5 answer options, it may offer as many as 15 or 16 choices.
Here’s how my buddy describes what he’s seen recently on the 70-662 Configuring Exchange 2010 exam: There are “screen shots of a configuration screen with 16 tabs where you are asked under which tab a particular setting is located.” He also reports that even though he “can work with the product just fine” he’s having difficulty figuring out how to find and master the information necessary to pass this particular exam. This puts a pretty heavy onus on exam candidates to really dig into and learn the user interface and the operational details necessary to install, configure, and maintain the products and platforms on which they’re being tested. It also raises the very interesting question of when questions step over the line from “testing useful knowledge” to “testing meaningless administrivia.”
That’s a case where the beauty (or value) of the question lies in the eye of the test developers. MS is keen to point out its profound attention to psychometrics and to finding questions that separate people who really know their stuff from those who just memorize a bunch of technical details long enough to pass an exam. But gosh, I find it troubling that somebody I know well, with a deep and broad technical background, considerable smarts, and day-to-day working experience with the platform on which he’s being tested, is struggling to figure out where to find the information to learn the answers to questions on that platform, so he can get past the exam!
I’ve recommended my usual fallback strategy to him in the case where you can’t use self-study to get over a particular exam hump: it may be time to take the Microsoft Official Curriculum (MOC) version of the training recommended for this exam to see exactly what it covers. And of course, that will give him an opportunity to beat up his instructor to make sure he’s fully primed for the exam the next time he sits for it. In fact, this is the kind of case where it’s worth checking the schedule for the training center on the Microsoft campus in Redmond where he’ll not only get access to a premier instructor who works for the company, but can also communicate his difficulties and issues as directly to their possible cause as possible.
January 9, 2012 4:48 PM
Posted by: Ed Tittel
if you pay your own way self-study is the way to go
, self-study vs classroom/online cert training is often a matter of money
In the past three or four months, I’ve gotten at least half-a-dozen e-mails from IT professionals (some entry-level, some unemployed, and some already beavering away at IT jobs) asking for my advice on laying out serious cash for training and exam support for various certifications. Let me provide a couple of cases in point to illustrate what I’m talking about here — $1,695 for a CompTIA A+ prep class that didn’t include exam vouchers (which cost about $500 for both exams these days, except for those who work for a CompTIA member organization), and $2,995 for a pair of Microsoft Windows 7 exams that did include vouchers (which cost $300 for the both of them at list price, though occasional discounts for the general public pop up all the time, and students can almost always get them for $120-125).
The bottom line is this: If you’re paying for this kind of thing out of your own pocket, I urge candidates to first go the self-study route and see how they do. In most cases, you can cover the preparation costs for under $500 per exam, including a study guide, an Exam Cram, and a couple of practice tests, after which you need only pick up the cost of the exam to get over your particular hump (or humps, as A+ requires two exams, and the Windows 7 example covered two exams as well). For many Microsoft topics, in fact — including both of the Windows 7 exams involved here (70-680 and 70-681) — non-exam costs seldom exceed $250 or so. Then, if you look around for online study groups or active online forums that cover exam topics, you can reach out to the community to get help, insight, and other perspectives on problems or points of confusion as you need them.
Particularly for those still in school, or those who aren’t working right now, stretching dollars is very important. That’s why I have to repeat my exhortation to try self-study first and foremost if you’re trying to break into IT, be it as a fresh-out-of-school newbie or somebody with some experience who’s changing fields, or as an experienced IT professional who wants to change subject areas from one IT specialization to another. Even if you decide you need to take a class later on down the road because you can’t hack the do-it-yourself route, you still won’t be out that much money. And if you succeed on this path — and my research teaches me that at least half of all certification holders take the self-study approach — you will save a LOT of green on your way to certification.
On the other hand, if you are lucky enough to work for an employer who provides education support that includes training costs, by all means look into the level of support that’s offered and how it works in your case. Some employers pay a percentage based on exam scores (and don’t pay if you don’t pass the exam or earn the related cert), while others simply offer annual dollars that you can use to boost your career in whatever way you choose. Either way, it’s still worth weighing the self-study vs. classroom/online training paths you can take to certification, but cost doesn’t have to be the sole deciding factor any more. Count yourself blessed for being able to make such choices, too!