I’m thinking of doing some video blogging and kicking it off with a series with my thoughts on technical certifications. Are they valuable or just a vendor racket? Should you bother to invest time in them? Why do the questions sometimes seem plain wrong?
Meanwhile, a little Netstalgia about the first technical certification I (almost) attempted: The Apple Certified Server Engineer.
Back in the 1990’s, I worked for a small company doing desktop and network support. When I say small, I mean small. We had 60 employees and 30 of them had computers. Still, it was where I first got into the computer industry, and I learned a surprising amount as networking was just starting to take off.
I administered a single AppleShare file server for the company, and I even set up my very first router, a Dayna Pathfinder. I was looking for more, however, and I didn’t have much of a resume. A year and a half of desktop support for 30 users was not impressing recruiters. I felt I needed some sort of credential to prove my worth.
At the time Microsoft certifications, in particular the MCSE, were a hot commodity. Apple decided to introduce its own program, the ACSE. Bear in mind, this was back before Steve Jobs returned to Apple. In the “beige-box” era of Apple, their products were not particularly popular, especially with corporations. Nonetheless, I saw the ACSE as my ticket out of my pathetic little job. I set to work on preparing for it. If memory serves (and I can find little in the Wayback machine), the certification consisted of four exams covering AppleTalk networking, AppleShare file servers, and Backup.
Apple outsourced the certification development to a company called Network Frontiers, and its colorful leader, Dorian Cougias. I had seen Dorian present at Macworld Expo once, and he clearly was very knowledgeable. (He asked the room “what’s the difference between a switch and a bridge?” and then answered his own question. “Marketing.” Good answer.) Dorian wrote all of the textbooks required for the program. He may have known his stuff, but I found his writing style insufferable. The books were written in an overly conversational tone, and laced with constant bad jokes. (“To remove the jacketing of the cable you need a special tool… I’d call it a ‘stripper’ but my mother is reading this.” Ugh…) A little levity in technical documentation is nice, but this got annoying fast.
This was in the era before Google, and despite my annoyance I did scour the books for scarce information on how networking actually worked. I didn’t really study them, however, which you need to do if you want to pass a test. I downloaded the practice exam on my Powerbook 140 laptop and fired it up. I assumed with my day-to-day work and having read the book, I’d pass the sample exam and be ready for the real deal.
Instead, I scored 40%. I used to be a bit dramatic back in my twenties, and went into a severe depression. “40%??? I know this stuff! I do it every day! I read the book! I’ll never get out of this stupid job!!!” I had my first ocular migraine the next day.
In reality, it doesn’t matter how good or bad, easy or hard an exam is. You’re not going to pass it on the first go without even studying. And this was a practice exam. I should have taken it four or five times, like I learned to do eventually studying Boson exams for my CCNP.
Instead, I gave up. And, very shortly later, Apple cancelled the program due to a lack of interest. Good thing I didn’t waste a lot of time on it. Of course, I managed to get another job, and pass a few tests along the way.
I learned a few things about technical certifications from that. In the first place, they can often involve learning a lot of knowledge that may not be practical. Next, you can’t pass them without studying for them. Also, that the value and long-term viability of the exams are largely up to the whims of the vendors. And finally, don’t trust a certification when the author of the study materials thinks he’s Jerry Seinfeld.