Certification Exams… At Home Again.

· clip_image001I should go back and see just how many posts I have written about certifications… if I can count that high. It has long been a topic that I have been passionate about, and that has not changed. When I looked at my Microsoft Learning Transcript the other day I was surprised to see that I did not pass any certification exams in 2021! In the nearly 19 years that I have held industry certifications, 2021 would be the fourth calendar year that I have not taken (and passed) an exam.

A couple of days later I decided to sit a non-Microsoft exam. It was then that I realized that I had been mistaken. I may not have sat a Microsoft exam in 2021, but I did in fact sit (and pass) a CompTIA exam (earning me my first CompTIA certification).* I then went back and did a little bit of research… Indeed, I did not sit any exams in 2013, but in 2015 I did take (and pass) my VMware VCP 5 exam (it was a re-certification, but it counts). In 2016 I did sit for two exams but failed them both. So really, since 2003 (my first successful certification), I have sat an exam in every calendar year except for 2013… and I have passed at least one exam in every year except for 2013 and 2016. I know people who have much better records than I do… and I know many more with worse ones.

I like to think back on how the exam experience has changed over the years. From 2001 (my first attempt at a Microsoft exam) through 2018, not a lot changed. Yes, at a certain point the exam centre started to take your picture… but not much else. As late as 2019, I remember driving to the exam centre, signing in, and being shown by the proctor to my exam station. I do not know when online proctored exams became widely available, but I will bet that the Covid-19 pandemic has made it more the rule than the exception. I know that in 2017 when I delivered a couple of internal training courses at Cistel (where I once did and once again work), I took over a room and set it up as a remote exam station. I also know that even as late as 2019, my personal preference was to sit the exams at a training centre. Even though the option for me to do the exams at home was available to me, it was my choice. I always felt it was safer – less chance of anybody walking in (thus immediately ending the exam), and less chance of things going wrong. Also, when things did go wrong, the testing facility staff could assist. I can remember one time when the exam I was sitting failed on the last question, and the proctor made sure that I was able to retake the exam immediately.

I live in a comfortable one-bedroom apartment. It suits my needs perfectly, but once I decided to sit the exam, I had to give some thought to how I would do that. You cannot have multiple monitors; you cannot have anything on (or around) your workstation. You cannot have a phone (or your watch or anything else) within reach. My workstation is a very used area… two external monitors, plus two shelves full of books above them, plus a couple of port replicators, external hard drives, and piles of folders on the desk itself… to one side is my printer station, to the other is a set of drawers (both within easy reach). It would have been possible to arrange it to be suitable for the exam… but it would not have been practical.

clip_image002Both my bedroom and my kitchen have a space that could have been adapted, and I opted for the kitchen. I brought a rolling desk into it and put it up against the balcony doors. To my left is my refrigerator, and I made sure that there was nothing stuck to the front of it. To the right is a counter with small appliances, all of which were just out of reach, and none of which would have been considered problematic to a proctor. Behind me, the island with the sink and dishwasher; I made sure the countertop was clean. This would do. I brought the laptop I intended to use for the exam and plugged it in. I ran all of the pre-test tests, and everything passed. I left my government-issue photo ID on the desk, knowing that I would need it. I went to bed Monday night knowing that Tuesday morning I was ready to take my exam.

When you take an exam at home, there are fewer issues that you have to worry about. I remember (back in the good old days!) advising candidates to pay to park in the lot, because you would not be allowed to leave the exam room to top up a parking meter. Weather is also not really a concern – unless there are storms which could cut out the power or Internet, but that is beyond our control (and ability to prepare for). What we do need to prepare is simple: Go to the bathroom and void your bladder. In 2005 I had an employee fail an exam because she answered ten questions and then needed to pee. Also, plan ahead… if your appointment is in the morning, make sure you have something reasonable to eat. If you need coffee, make sure to finish it before the exam time because only clear cups with clear liquids are allowed in the exam area. If your appointment is in the afternoon, do not have a lunch that will disrupt your digestive tract. Yes, I know of at least two candidates who had extremely spicy and exotic foods for lunch… and ended up paying the price (during the exam as well as for days afterward in one case). Empty your pockets, and while you are at it remove any jewelry. Last year I was near the end of the exam when the proctor came on and asked if I was wearing a watch. I was, and he told me to remove it and put it out of reach. I have been told by others that had he been in a bad mood he could have ended the exam for it. Wear comfortable clothes! This morning the temperature outside was hovering around -22° Celsius (-8° Fahrenheit), and while that was outside, I do not have the heat on in the apartment often, and I was sitting next to the patio doors… I put on my sweater, just in case I got cold.

In the morning I logged on to the testing site (Pearson Vue). To be safe, I went through the pre-test tests again. All good. I then authenticated my phone (by scanning the QR code on the screen). I had to take a picture of myself (against a clean backdrop, which is easy in my kitchen). I had to take a picture of the front and back of my photo ID, and then a picture of the testing area. Somewhere in its archives, Pearson Vue now has pictures of my kitchen. It was all done… and now I had to wait. According to the exam portal, I was 3rd in line.

The queue did not take very long, but even so there was a reassuring notice on the screen that even if I started the exam after my allotted time, I had gotten into the line on time, and I would not be penalized for it. Within about five minutes I got a notification that the proctor would now call me on the computer. There are three ways the proctor might communicate with you, in order of preference: 1) Computer-based call. 2) Computer-based messaging. 3) Phone call. Part of the pre-test tests was to ensure that my network speed and stability were sufficient to take the exam, and that my speakers, microphone, and camera were all in working order. With that known, the only reasons they might have to resort to the second or third option would be in the event of a network outage or bottleneck, neither of which are totally out of the ordinary.

Melanie was my proctor, and she asked me to use my computer camera to show her my workspace. She verified that the tissues next to the computer were only that (you are not allowed to take paper notes). She told me that because I am not in a completely enclosed room, should anyone walk in at any time, the exam would be immediately ended. That was not a likelihood in my apartment. I then asked her about Princess Sophie, who usually leaves me alone when I’m working, but has been known to come to say hello. She told me that dogs were okay, as long as they did not speak (which does bring up an interesting question with Siberian huskies). It was at that very moment that PS sauntered up to me, and I asked permission to get her a treat before starting the exam. Not a problem, and that happened. She wished me luck and released the exam.

The particular exam that I was sitting this time around gave me 90 minutes to answer between 65 and 90 questions**. I had slightly over one minute per question. This would be nearly impossible for a Microsoft exam, but for CompTIA it is not terrible. You cannot dawdle of course, but if you read reasonably well this should be sufficient. I have never tried it, but I remember that if you have certain reasons – learning disabilities, second (or third or fourth) language, and the like – you can request extra time. I am not a terribly quick reader, but I have never run out of time on an exam (although I know some people who have).

They say that fortune favours the prepared, but I will not lie… I thought I was properly prepared for this exam right up until about the seventh question. From then through about the thirty-fifth question, I thought I might fail. From then until the end, I was certain of it. I got through the 65-90th question and clicked END. I went through the Review (I had marked a couple of questions to review in case an acronym that I wasn’t sure of were to reveal itself in a later question; one of them did!), and was then asked to take a survey that was longer than I would have expected… and if I thought I might be close to passing or failing the exam would have been maddening, but since I was certain I was failing it, I took my time.

I once said that the longest wait in the exam room is between the time you click END to the time you get the result. I once waited nearly two minutes, and I am reasonably certain it felt like a week and a half. I do not know if they have fixed that, or if my certain failure meant that I was not anticipating anything, but the results came in pretty quick. I was almost disappointed that I passed the exam. I did not get top marks (I almost said A+, but anyone familiar with CompTIA exams will understand why that could cause confusion), but I also did not get the minimum passing grade. I I have now been waiting all day to receive an email from CompTIA saying ‘PSYCHE! HAHAHAHA You thought you passed? NOT EVEN CLOSE! BWAHAHAHA!!’ That email has not yet arrived, but neither has the one that reads ‘Congratulations on successfully completing the requirements to earn a CompTIA Security+ CE certification.’ There was a time that these emails would take up to two weeks to arrive… that system has certainly gotten more efficient, but it might still take a day or two. Either way, I will receive it before this article is published, and I will include the badge/logo.

It is 10:15pm, roughly thirteen hours after I started the exam, which is to say, about 11.5 hours after I pressed END EXAM. As I said earlier, it usually takes time to receive the confirmation, and although it can take as little as a few hours or as long as a few days, I am at the point where I am starting to wonder… did I read it right? Is it possible that it read ‘You did NOT pass the exam’?? That’s what I get for taking an exam without at least having a cup of coffee first… and for not having Jolly Ranchers on the desk (see article).

I got a good night’s sleep. When I awoke in the middle of the night to answer nature’s call, I resisted the temptation to look at my phone; I almost never do anyways, because it is easier to get straight back to sleep when I don’t. I woke up late (no morning appointments, and Princess Sophie did not seem to mind) so when I looked at the screen, I saw that it had come in at 6:33am.

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I went about my usual morning routine. Around lunchtime I took a few moments to download the logo to add to my CV. There was a time when I might have considered adding it to my e-mail signature, but I have taken to keeping that as clean as possible (and with the exception of when I was with Microsoft, graphics-free).

So now I can relax. I have what I need (for now), and I can take my time preparing for my next exam, which will also be an at-home exam. In the meantime, I am going to make a mental note that the next time I plan to take an exam, I spend a little more time preparing for it. Yes, I knew the material for this exam… but that is not the same thing as being prepared. For those of you who are interested, for both the Network+ and Security+ exams I recommend you spend several hours simply memorizing the myriad acronyms required – there were several questions where the answers list looked like this:

  • A. ABC
  • B. QDO
  • C. RYS
  • D. ROFL

On a Microsoft exam, every acronym in every question will be enumerated (i.e.: QdO (Quai d’Orsay)). Not so with CompTIA. I am not sure which is a better system – after all, we do work in a field where people live, breathe, and speak acronyms. ‘Can you get me the projected ROI for the RFQ PDQ?’ Maybe having to memorize every acronym should be important. I don’t know… but I do know that the next time I prepare for a CompTIA exam I will spend several hours memorizing every acronym that I don’t use on a regular basis.

Conclusion

I have said for nearly two decades that certifications are not only how you demonstrate what you know, but that you had the respect for your profession to learn it properly. How we take exams has certainly changed, as have so many of the certifications offered. The importance of certifications has not changed to this professional, although I do know of some unfortunate cheaters who continue to dilute their value. I won’t let that get to me… I know that I will continue to get certified for years to come.

—–

*During the calendar year 2021 I was required to renew two Microsoft certifications, but this is not done through proctored exams, so I do not count them.

**I do not know if it is still the case, but there was a time when we were instructed that it was against policy to even reveal the number of questions on a certification exam. Just to be safe, I am revealing a very broad range, which should satisfy anyone that I am not actually revealing anything.

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