Career / Career Progression

Cert Exam Challenge: Vendor's Answer vs. Real-World Answer

by Team Nuggets
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Published on July 25, 2013

In my experience as a technical trainer, I have seen literally dozens of experienced IT professionals fail certification exams, not because they didn't know the subject matter, but because they were unaware of the "vendor's answer" problem.

What do I mean? It's like this: When you take an IT certification exam, you must, to some degree or another, temporarily forget your real-world experience with the product. As crazy as that notion sounds, it's true.

Instead, you must think like the vendor itself. Specifically, you must filter the exam questions through the lens of the vendor's marketing department.

If you're taking a Microsoft exam, the only technology in existence is Microsoft's, and the tech behaves precisely as described on the Microsoft web site and in the TechNet documentation library. Likewise, Cisco. Likewise, VMware. And so on.

Confronting the Truths of IT Certification Programs

You have to understand that certification programs represent a revenue stream for vendors such as Microsoft, Apple, and Cisco. These exams are a for-profit enterprise, and it behooves the technology makers when a certain percentage of the candidate pool flunks and then re-takes the tests.

Another motive for vendors with their certification exams is to creating unwitting product evangelists among the candidate pool. Look at it this way: If I'm studying to pass a Windows Server 2012 IT Pro exam, then by definition, I'm immersed in learning all about what's new and what's changed with that technology. Do you think I will carry that new-found marketing knowledge into my real-world systems administration practice? Of course I will.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not trying to be a Debbie Downer here. IT certifications have tremendous benefits for us as IT professionals. As you know, certifications help us to better ourselves professionally, to improve our quality of life, and to increase our ability to provide for our families. My goal here isn't to bash the vendor but to make you aware of the comprehensive picture of IT certification.

How to Approach IT Certification Exams

Given this new understanding of how IT certification programs work, I suggest that you do your best to supply the "vendor answers" on the exams you take. I've had students tell me "I feel hypocritical giving answers that are contradictory to what I see in the real world." Please relax. Your practical industry experience is ultimately what is most valuable.

IT certification exams can be viewed as a discipline that assists you in staying current with technology. Consider my earlier Windows Server 2012 example: You and I both know that we are far less likely to deep-dive into what's new and what's changed in Server 2012 unless our feet are to the fire with regard to passing a certification exam.

I've found that studying for a cert test gave me just the reason I needed to delve into a vendor's marketing documentation and to figure out what's what. Who knows, perhaps I'll find some of the new and changed functionality directly applicable to my life as a working professional.

As always, please feel free to write to me or leave a comment here if you have any questions. Thanks for reading, and happy studying!



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