This article is the first one in a series of blog posts about how to prepare for and pass Microsoft certification exams. The information provided here is based mostly on Windows server and client operating system exams, but the general principles also apply to exams on other major Microsoft products.
A company looking to hire an IT specialist often requires candidates to be vendor-certified in specific fields. Some potential employers might give the candidate a brief technical quiz in the course of the interviewing process. But it is difficult for an employer to develop tests that would simultaneously meet the criteria of being sufficiently comprehensive, meaningful, and tailored to the company’s specific environment. Not to mention that creating good tests costs good money. It’s a lot easier for employers to rely on vendor certifications instead. For example, a company that needs someone who can deploy and manage new servers running the latest version of Windows Server could look for an MCSA, MCSE, MCP, MCITP, or MC-whatever, depending on what other acronyms Microsoft might come up with in the future. These vendor certifications and the company requirements make job hunting better for IT professionals as well as the companies looking for new employees. As if job searching were not stressful enough, just imagine having to cram for exams in all sorts of IT-related fields before each job interview.
But if you work in a certain field, isn’t your know-how supposed to be permanently embedded into your fingertips? Shouldn’t you be expected to pass real-life exams every day as part of your work routine? Well, yes … and, no. Yes, in the sense that you do need to know something about what you are doing. No, because no one can know everything and also because the ability to tackle real-life problems is significantly different from the ability to pass formal exams, regardless of how credible—Microsoft claims—its exams are. In real life, you usually don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time you encounter a technical problem. If it’s something you’ve never seen before, you can always go to the Internet and search for an already known solution—someone else may have had the same problem and may have already discovered all the necessary pieces to make the wheel work. Or, in many cases, simply reading the product documentation is likely to provide the necessary answers.
It’s an entirely different story if the same technical problem comes up on a formal exam. You don’t have the luxury of accessing the eternal wisdom accumulated by Microsoft and shared with us mortals through the Internet. And your choice of solutions is limited to the ones that Microsoft wants you to choose from. Of course, your real-life experience is a crucial part of your expertise, but it is nowhere near enough. Exams are usually far broader than what any single person is likely to encounter in his or her professional capacity. Another problem with formal exams is that they are developed by other humans who are, just like us, not perfect. They, too, can make mistakes, and those mistakes have the potential to cost us our jobs or even entire professional careers. Microsoft certifications are overwhelmingly dynamic; unlike graduating from college, you can’t just pass a fixed set of exams and then proudly wear your Microsoft cap and gown for the rest of your life. Once you’ve decided to become a Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP), you are permanently wedded to Microsoft’s exams. Every few years, or sometimes even months, you need to pass exams on new versions of Windows and whatever applications you specialize in. The bottom line is that, in addition to learning the Microsoft technologies relevant to your job duties, you need to learn and constantly sharpen a separate and very special skill—the ability to pass Microsoft certification exams.
The value of Microsoft certifications has been fluctuating ever since the beginning of time. At the dawn of the Windows era, when anything important was running anything but Windows, being an MCP didn’t count for much. Later on, at the height of Windows NT and then with the advent of Active Directory, the MCSE designation became like a half-way to Olympus. A couple of decades ago, the conventional wisdom was that Microsoft certifications were the only kind that were impossible to attain without having hands-on experience. Other vendors’ certifications were quite often scoffed at for being mostly paper certifications.
Then, some bad guys learned how to steal exam questions and started publishing them on the Internet. Microsoft fought hard against the pirates, but they spread like a cancer. Each time Microsoft succeeded in shutting down one source of cheaters, a dozen new ones emerged in its place. To preserve the value of its certifications, Microsoft came up with a strategy that over the last few years has proved to be quite smart and, more importantly, effective.
Over its life cycle, each exam has to be exposed to so many people that sooner or later its content inevitably starts leaking out, despite all the security measures put in place by Microsoft and the exam providers. Rather than trying to plug all the leaks dry, Microsoft started focusing on transforming its exams in such a way that passing them requires serious knowledge of the subject matter and cannot be attained through cramming.
What distinguishes cheaters from proper IT professionals? The latter are just that— professionals; they learn—and know—their stuff because they are proud of their ability to do something that is necessary as part of their jobs, something that not everybody can do. The cheaters, on the other hand, want to pass for professionals without actually being ones. They don’t know their stuff and don’t really want to know; all they want is for others to believe that they know. In their twisted minds, studying equals cramming. It’s easy, you know: you memorize a few dozen questions along with their answers and simply click the choices that someone else said were correct. But most games involve at least two parties; what one side can do, the other side can do too. If it’s easy to “pass” an exam in this manner, it’s also relatively easy to cheat the cheaters. All Microsoft needed to do to make cheating a bit harder was to randomize the choices: present them in a different order each time a question appeared on the exam. That forced the cheaters to cram harder; instead of memorizing a single correct-answer letter, they had to memorize the actual answer—several words or sometimes sentences. The next logical step for Microsoft was to tweak a couple of minor details in a question so that a different choice became the answer. This technique requires a more intelligent approach to designing the questions and their choices. In the past, exam developers could provide one correct answer and come up with three or four irrelevant distracters. Now the questions have to be designed in such a way that, under certain circumstances, with very minor modifications, any of the choices, or at least some of them, can be correct. Exam question pools have now become full of very similar questions—twins, triplets, quadruplets, etc.—with very different answers, just to confuse potential cheaters. Thus one thing led to another, and now Microsoft exams have become so confusing—and tough too, just like once upon a time—that even knowledgeable IT professionals quite often have a hard time passing them.
As for the cheaters, some of them are incorrigible; despite everything, they still believe it’s easier to cheat than to learn. But now cramming alone is never enough. They now have to actually read the exam questions and answers and—brace yourselves; this is really funny—to understand them. Of course, this doesn’t mean that Microsoft has already won the battle. As long as there are exams, there will always be unscrupulous individuals trying to cut corners. In an edificatory twist of irony, some cheaters have started to study so that they can cheat better. They try to research the stolen Microsoft exam questions and provide what they believe to be the correct answers. But lacking the proper technical or organizational skills, they have inundated the underground market of “practice exams” with even more variations of exam questions than Microsoft could ever hope to produce. Each such “product” is replete with distorted questions, wrong “correct” answers, and technically flawed or outright gibberish “explanations.”
As one of its anti-cheating measures, Microsoft can now decertify and ban for life anyone whom it suspects of being a cheater. Isn’t it a good thing, letting the bad guys get what they deserve? Well, don’t rush in with the obvious answer; it’s not as simple and straightforward as it might seem. The tricky part is that Microsoft claims it can definitively identify cheaters by using statistical analysis of the data it generates while monitoring our exam-taking sessions. In some specific cases, cheating might indeed be quite obvious, let’s say, if someone provided exactly the same answers, including all the mistakes, as the ones that appear in a known pirated question set. The practice-exam “products” that contain real exam questions are commonly known as braindumps. (The dump part is probably okay, but it’s hard to imagine the thing has much to do with a brain.) Well, if that’s indeed the case, then no statistical analysis is really needed to conclude that the person is almost certainly a cheater, even if he or she did not know that the “practice questions” were, in fact, from the real exam. However, there are way too many braindumps for Microsoft to be able to always find the one that a particular candidate may have used. So, clearly, that cannot be a solution. Then what? Microsoft is not likely to divulge its methods; it just claims that the analysis techniques it uses are so reliable that no false positives are even possible. Really? After all, it’s just statistics, you know, that very same area of mathematics that is, by definition, the opposite of being deterministic…
Anyway, let’s leave Microsoft’s policies to Microsoft and focus on the things that we can control. What is the best way to prepare for a Microsoft exam? How should you choose the right prep tools? How can you distinguish good materials from bad ones and legitimate products from pirated braindumps? We’ll explore those questions as well as a few others in future blog posts. Please stay tuned.
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