Hands-On Certification: Lab-Based Expertise

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The past couple of years have brought certification and other credentialing programs into the foreground as the market for IT jobs has become far more competitive. In addition to undergraduate and graduate degrees, project lists and job histories, employers often require certifications for a given IT discipline. Even as the economy and job growth in IT have suffered, the number of professionals seeking certification has continued to expand.

Not only have certification programs become a standard measuring stick for IT professionals, but the areas where certification is critical have expanded beyond networking and systems administration to databases and application development, especially for sophisticated technologies like network storage and Enterprise JavaBeans (EJB) development. The developer community is increasingly embracing certification as a requirement to receive job consideration. The explosion of project outsourcing has also increased the need for certification as a means to quickly identify qualified individuals to work on a project.

Unfortunately, the certification industry faces a credibility gap when trying to identify qualified professionals. Certification tests remain primarily “knowledge-centered,” meaning that they test what you know, not necessarily what you can do. As a result, most certification tests can only identify which candidates have a minimal level of knowledge about a subject, not whether they are able to use that knowledge to help identify and solve real-world problems.

In many ways, taking a certification exam is the equivalent of giving someone an automobile driver’s license without making them take a road test. The candidate might be a very good driver, or they might be a danger to every pedestrian and car on the road. Just because I can recognize a stop sign during the sign test doesn’t mean that I’ll stop the car when I see one. Likewise, I may be familiar with how to properly configure OSPF protocols on a router, but utterly unable to troubleshoot problems in the resulting router tables.

Over the next two years, most industry-leading certification programs will evolve past testing raw knowledge competencies to covering the ability of candidates to adapt and apply technologies in a business context to solve problems and create results. The emphasis of the exams will shift to packaging knowledge, skills and experience together to create whole candidates who are not only technically prepared, but also functionally prepared to deploy solutions using the technologies they are certified in. Certifications will support this shift through ever-increasing focus on skills and experience-based objectives and questions.

From Lab-Based Learning to Lab-Based Certification
For years the preferred method of preparation for working with new technologies was hands-on practice with the tools or applications. Options included hands-on lab exercises as part of a classroom training program, live or simulated labs in e-learning and tinkering with the hardware and software at your desk or in your basement during off hours. Yet many certification programs veered dangerously away from this model, substituting raw knowledge and data for familiarity with operating the tool in the business context. The result can be seen in the cacophony of certification preparation tools with questionable correlation to real skills development: boot camps (one actually markets itself this way: “We won’t waste your time with any hands-on!”), test preparation software packages and, worst of all, brain dumps.

Certification programs have unwittingly supported this approach through the use of testing formats that encourage “gaming” the test. Our industry is not any different in this regard from many others. For example, similar techniques are used to teach students how to prepare for tests like the SAT. Interestingly, the same credibility issues also appear. Few colleges are comfortable choosing a student based on SAT scores alone. Knowledge of their grades, essays, recommendations, interviews or even their ability to shoot a basketball can be more important.

The IT certification industry will help us move past this by implementing next-generation lab-based testing. In the next two years, both performance-based testing and simulation/live online lab segments will grow exponentially as a job candidate’s need to stand out from the pack increases.

What Is Lab-Based Certification?
Today, lab-based certification typically means hands-on tests, where exam candidates are required to install, configure, manage and troubleshoot live equipment to test their ability to perform on the job. The most respected certifications in the industry, including the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) and the Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE), among others, require this in-person, hands-on approach. Hands-on or performance-based testing will continue to expand its influence over the next year. In addition to being available for the highest-level certifications, third-party vendors are making performance-based exams that will provide a similar type of hands-on certification for entry-level and mid-level credentials as well. Combined with the vendor certification, the hands-on lab exams will provide job candidates a terrific opportunity to “prove” their skills. Many of these lab-based tests will be available in the next year for the most popular certifications, including CompTIA’s A+, Network+ and Security+, the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) and Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP), the Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA) and the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), the Oracle Certified Professional (OCP) and many others. When you sign up for training programs or e-learning packages, you’ll want to ask if the training center will be including preparation for and administration of the hands-on exams as well as the traditional ones.

Skills for Success: What More Should We Be Testing?
Imagine that you are a hiring manager or program manager who needs to staff a key project. What skills will you look for in putting together a winning team that will deliver results on-time and on-budget?



  • User Requirements Analysis: How well can this person interview customers (internal or external), ask detailed questions and capture answers clearly and accurately?
  • Project Management: How well can this person manage competing priorities and deadlines and coordinate responsibilities?
  • Problem-Solving: How well does this person anticipate, identify and resolve problems? Does he understand the impact of system downtime on company productivity, and does he plan troubleshooting with an emphasis on restoring business functionality as quickly as possible?
  • Technical Skills: Does this person have the best available technical skills for my available budget?
  • Team Play: Can this person work and play well with others to achieve larger results than she could deliver alone?
  • Experience: Has this person successfully completed similar projects? Note that you don’t ask what projects they’ve worked on (which often include world-class disasters), but which were completed successfully.


How Will Certifications Change to Encompass These Requirements?
Certifications today make few attempts to address the key points above, yet most of us would agree that these are many of the critical issues that will determine the success or failure of a new employee. The next generation of certification will begin to address this by:



  • Moving past multiple-guess to scenario management.
    Let’s face it: We’ve made fun of multiple-choice exams since we were kids. Even the least qualified of us can guess, and test-taking techniques provide even completely unqualified candidates far too good a cha
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