In the Trenches: Reflections on Becoming Certified

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It’s 9:50 on a gloomy Thursday morning. I am sitting at my desk, hands cupping my forehead as I lean towards my monitor. The screen is almost completely white, interrupted by an exam question written in a very small font. Beneath this sentence appear four multiple choice answers. At the top of the screen is a small video feed of my webcam overlaid with a red circle and the word “Recording.” I have been advised by Pearson Vue, the company running this assessment, that an unseen proctor is watching my every move. If I get up out of my chair, if someone enters the frame behind me, or if I look otherwise suspicious this invisible observer will surely reach out through the screen like Samara from The Ring to exact punishment. Or maybe I just fail the test on suspicion of cheating—an equally cheerful thought.

But I can’t dwell on vengeful ghosts now. I’m focused on the exam questions for Microsoft’s Azure Data Fundamentals certification exam. So far the questions have been challenging. In fact, many are far more difficult than the preparation materials led me to anticipate. While a multiple choice-style “knowledge check” bookends the study materials for each “learning path” in the prep materials, they often depended more on my ability to reason than my understanding of data. And this question is a doozy. I can’t remember it even remotely from the prep materials. “Maybe this is why Microsoft sells a practice test,” I reflect. “Maybe if I had spent the $99 for this study aid I wouldn’t be sweating right now.” Things can get expensive quickly in the certification space, but perhaps it is worthwhile to spend the money—especially for folks like me who seriously doubt their ability to pass.

While this particular question has me wracking my brain, it won’t be the last. Some difficulties reflect my own inadequate preparation. For instance, I realized only midway through the test that the definitions of each word in the ACID acronym had become jumbled in my memory (aren’t atomicity and isolation the same thing??). Mea culpa.

But there are other keywords I don’t recognize at all. Although legally I can’t distribute details about the exam (another dire warning from the folks at Pearson Vue), I think I can safely share one general example. In order to identify common database objects the study materials prepared me to define an index. Fair enough. However, the exam requires knowledge concerning the difference between clustered and non-clustered indexes, a distinction which does not appear anywhere in the materials that I saw. Add to this, one section in the study guide was altogether absent from the Azure Data Fundamentals self-paced materials. The study guide advises test takers that they will need to:

Describe capabilities of Azure storage

  • Describe Azure Blob storage
  • Describe Azure File storage
  • Describe Azure Table storage

For the life of me I was unable to find this information covered in the prep materials. Yet, the intricacies of this aspect of relational data on Azure absolutely appeared on the exam. Finally (but equally maddening): the Microsoft Power BI learning path requires “a computer running Microsoft Windows”—a no-go for someone studying on a Macbook.

Incongruities like these between the study materials Microsoft provides and the exam ostensibly intended to test how well I absorbed these lessons left me frustrated and panicked. I dislike taking tests already (who doesn’t?), but I particularly dislike depending upon educated guesses.

But I am jumping ahead. Back in my exam room I parse this question by weighing the importance of the keywords and narrowing the pool of multiple choice answers through the process of elimination. I doubtfully select the radio button beside the best answer and hit next. Only 40 more questions to go.

This story has a happy ending: I passed. But my test taking experience wasn’t pretty, nor was it trivial.

I am not going to use the rest of this post to list my complaints about this experience (although I have plenty more thoughts If you want to hear them, Pearson Vue and Microsoft). Instead, this post is intended as an exercise in empathy. Empathy for certification test-takers and test-providers.


Empathy for Test Takers

Although many hiring managers continue to denigrate certifications as incongruous with the difficulties of the job (a subject I’ve been interrogating in my RedMonk research on IT and Developer certifications), these tests are stressful and difficult. Full stop.

While the nature of the challenges these exams pose are not always tied to the skills they purport to teach, exams are nevertheless challenging. In the age of remote testing which the Covid-19 pandemic hath wrought—a shift that accelerated the industry-wide move from in-person to at-home exams—test takers now have to worry about their environment.

Let’s look at a few hurdles that managing the test-takers environment can cause.

  • Childcare: For parents, remote everything can be a nightmare. The background music of one father’s test might be the screams of his teething 15-month-old in the next room. Today might be the day a mother’s increasingly wily three-year-old decides to outsmart the door lock on mommy’s office. This type of mental load is unwelcome, unfair, and may result in disqualification when parents are unable to keep their children out of the testing space.
  • Sub-optimal Tech: Remote testing poses difficulties for folks with technological handicaps. Poor internet connectivity, older computers, and glitchy web cameras are all detriments to the success of the test taker.
  • $$$: The cost of becoming certified is significant. I mentioned the optional $99 practice test above, a type of supplemental aid which may be the thing standing between success and failure, but the exam itself isn’t cheap. Although I received a free voucher to take this certification, typically it is priced at $99 so you can believe I wasn’t in a hurry to retake this assessment in the event I failed. And Microsoft’s certifications are on the relatively inexpensive side. Indeed, some certifications are priced in the thousands of dollars. This is particularly noteworthy for individuals using certifications as a means to enter a career in tech (something I will address in a forthcoming post on what I call the Greenfield problem for IT and developer upskilling initiatives). Certifications can be pricey, so the question of who should absorb this cost is contentious. While employers often foot the bill for tests and study materials as a part of partner programs, and I received a free voucher, most aspirants engaged in self-directed learning must pay out of pocket.


Empathy for Test Providers

As a former instructor, I know how difficult it is to do pedagogy right. For this reason I don’t envy the folks tasked with maintaining educational portfolios associated with technology products. Here are just a few of the challenges both vendor (e.g. Red Hat, Microsoft, AWS) and non-vendor specific (e.g. Linux Foundation, CNCF) certification providers must overcome:

  • Evolving material: Test creators have little to no say in the material being assessed and must teach the products handed down to them as best they can. These products are always shifting and updating, which means there can be a lag between product roll out and certification exam and test prep updates.
  • $$$: It is expensive to create learning materials (videos, tutorials, quizzes). Although I relied on Microsoft’s self-paced learning path materials, I also attended a pre-recorded two-day “Virtual Training,” which took the form of videos. Offering multimodal means for learning is a boon for students, but doesn’t come cheap. The Data Fundamentals video sessions in my training were interesting and well produced. Although I was unable to absorb the information flying past me in this format, I am grateful to the folks at Microsoft for providing learners with two ways to experience the material.


Becoming Certified

While certifications in the tech industry continue to have issues (I’ve noted just a few above), jumping into the trenches by becoming Microsoft certified has reminded me of the importance of empathy when it comes to education. Knowledge is deeply personal. It draws out ideas of privilege, experience, and luck. More than anything this experience hit home the importance of what my colleague Rachel Stephens terms “Introspection Gaps.” Learning and assessing knowledge is always burdensome, and because it is a struggle for test takers and providers alike we must acknowledge and celebrate the drive for self-betterment. Certifications may not be the panacea of the upskilling movement, but they demonstrate a willingness to do better.

I learned a lot about the fundamentals of data from this experience, which has been a real boon for this former frontend engineer. When I was a practitioner I blithely left data management to the backend folks. During the past year that I have worked as a RedMonk analyst I have come to realize just how much I don’t know about a lot of things, and data in particular. I benefited much from the chance to upskill, and, quibbling aside, can warmly recommend the process to the certification-curious.

Disclosure: Microsoft, Red Hat, and AWS are RedMonk clients.

Illustration partially created using DALL-E

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