Brain Dumps, Study Guides and Certifications

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There is an awful lot of talk about how illegal brain dumps are—how they devalue the certification, how they lessen the respect for those who have spent the time working and studying for the actual certification. The idea is that someone could buy a series of questions from one of more than 250 “vendors,” which claim to have the “actual” test questions, and for a small fee could pass the exam on the first try. How in the world can the certification industry actually survive this onslaught of “paper” certified technicians?

First we need to define the term “brain dump.” This is the term to describe the transfer of test material to a written format, after completing the actual exam. There are more than 2,000 Web sites devoted to this type of study approach, and here’s what wrong with that. First, all certifications require the signing of an NDA (non-disclosure agreement), which strictly prohibits the reproduction of any and all testing material in any format whatsoever. Second, the brain dumps on these Web sites have trouble, since more than 90 percent of the questions are incomplete, incoherent or just plain incorrect. I even found a Web site that had no answers; you had to do all the work. That seems a little redundant since this is why you are visiting the site in the first place—to find the answers.

Second, we have to look at the fact that brain dumps, for the most part, are what people “think” they remember from the actual exam. If you have no idea whether the question was answered correctly, how can you possibly tell someone else the answer? Another thing to keep in mind is that since the inception of the brain dump, more and more companies have popped up selling certification exam material. They come in two flavors: software and study guides. Now we have to decide whether they are selling study material or simply the brain dump.

Let me start off by saying that while brain dumps are illegal because they simply give you the answers to the test, all material used in the certification process is “technically” a brain dump if you think about it. What separates the winners (those that do not violate the NDA) from the losers (those that do) is the way the material is presented to the buying public. Companies like Sybex, McGraw-Hill, Prentice Hall, Syngress, Que, Charles River Media, O’Reilly, Course Technology, Microsoft, Cisco Press, John Wiley, TotalRecallPublications, Sam’s and others have avoided the death trap of producing brain dumps. They try to find industry experts to write books relating to the certification, thus allowing you the consumer to buy and study the material in depth.

People like Mike Meyers, Todd Lammle, Richard Deal, Stephen Bigelow, TCAT Houser, Mark Minasi and Trevor Kay are but a few of the “real” writers of certification study material. They spend literally hundreds of hours writing and rewriting manuscripts in hopes that what they finish with will, in fact, help those who are truly trying to pass the exam on the merits of studying and working in the field to gain experience. Companies like Transcender, Self Test Software, Prep Logic, Beach Front, Boson, Equizware, MeasureUp and Exam Essentials produce certification study applications that are worth using to “aid” in the study process, not to replace it. These companies do a great service to the IT community by producing exam materials that make the student work to gain the certification.

The companies listed simply produce products for each certification category. Are there any companies that produce study guides that are more than the actual exam? Yes, Certification Corner and BrainBuzz immediately come to mind. Both have an excellent reputation for producing high-quality PDFs used to help you study for the exam. Along those same lines come two other companies I found helpful in certification preparation. ( and ( require a payment for the use of their sites, but it is a small price to pay to have a chance at passing the certification and gaining employment.

We have all heard the horror stories about TroyTech (aka TestKiller) and (aka and how they found themselves locked in a battle that has led to closure and serious legal troubles. But wait; there are so many other companies, too many to list here, that produce study guides that have “actual” exam questions. So why not just use them and avoid the study time?

First, you are cheating yourself. While it may be easier to know the questions than to have to study, you are doing a huge disservice to yourself and the certification obtained. Second, and far more important, is the employment you are trying to get. Most employers can distinguish a real technician from a “paper” one in a heartbeat. If you somehow manage to get past the interview and actually get the job, the challenge of performing the tasks related to the certification will be self-evident to those who spent the time learning the material and trying to understand the concepts—the latter make excellent technicians. Those who spend a few hours memorizing the answers just to pass might very well spend an eternity looking for the company they can fool.

So what certifications are worth getting? According to a report I read there are 150 applicants for every 75 jobs, a 2-to-1 ratio. What will separate those who know the material well from those who only passed an exam? In my opinion, employers are looking for more and more from the employee, so diversity may be the key. Also, I see more and more jobs requiring candidates qualified on Oracle, SQL and .NET. I also see more and more ads for people with more than five years of experience and the following certifications: A+, Network+, Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA), Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA), Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) and Linux credentials. I also think that wireless networking and security are quickly becoming the certifications to obtain. The Certified Wireless Network Administrator (CWNA) from Planet3 Wireless and the Security+ from CompTIA are two of the newest certifications in these areas. Also, Cisco, Check Point and SANS GIAC are major players in the security certification game.

Finally, let me say that as a free-lance reviewer and technical trainer, I have spent more than 14 years working toward one certification or another. I am no longer amazed at what I see and hear from people throughout this industry. I was wide-eyed over a decade ago and since then have had to work very hard to get what I have or will get. I think it is high time we recognize those who do the same. It is time to stop trying to get certified only by memorization and get certified the old-fashioned way—by earning it.

Mike Woznicki has more than 14 years of experience in the IT industry, holding positions such as network analyst, network administrator, IT manager and certified technical trainer. Woznicki was the technical editor for the TotalRecallPublications Security+ series of books and is authoring books on i-Net+ and Server+.


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