Practice: Get Out of the Lab and Into the World

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In order to build a successful career in the IT industry, you have to be able to demonstrate your skills. It doesn’t matter if you’re an entry-level help-desk person, an advanced systems architect or a security specialist. The name of the game is, “Show us what you can do.” That’s part of what certifications are all about. With the increasing prevalence of performance-based testing, it’s easier than ever for potential employers to gauge, using industry standards as a yard stick, whether or not you can perform in the way that they need.

Performance-based certification programs from vendors of all stripes include what Cisco refers to as “proof of concept” labs, simulations and other types of hands-on exercises to enable certification seekers to practice their skills in a safe, risk-free environment. Much like certification, lab work can be an integral piece in building or expanding an IT skill set.

Why Should I Get Into the Lab?
If labs are a key piece in the modern journey toward certification, it only makes sense that savvy IT professionals would want to jump in and get their hands dirty. If you’re not buying the “learning for learning’s sake” bit, consider that in addition to showcasing a candidate’s proficiency within a certification or training environment, labs also are meant to show someone’s proficiency in the real world.

“I could go out there and read a book, and providing we’re smart enough and work diligently enough, we can sit down and take what is usually a multiple-choice examination. Assuming we hit the pass grade, then we’re certified. That seems to be the way for the majority of examinations that are out there right now. One of the things that leaves hanging is practical experience and skill on the job,” said Graham Bird, vice president, The Open Group.

The Open Group, which offers the IT Architect, Common Operating Environment Platform and Common Object Request Broker Architecture certifications, among others, recently introduced its first certification program with a skills and experience requirement as well as a knowledge requirement. Those attempting to earn the Open Group’s IT Architect certification will have to demonstrate how they meet an established set of requirements related to full-lifecycle skills, developing an IT architecture and more.

“We don’t have requirements to understand equipment or be able to do particular tasks,” said James De Raeve, vice president of certification, The Open Group. “We’re looking for an individual who has real experience doing the job in a way that we could feel confident to recommend to other people. We’re looking to go far beyond what you can uncover in a multiple-choice exam. But instead of using a lab, we use peer group reviews. We’re addressing the same issue, but we’re using a technique that’s applicable to our domain. They go through three one-hour interviews on the basis of descriptions of several years of work experience. They go through and discuss the processes they used, techniques they used, the decisions they made, the reasons for those decisions, justifying that and explaining that to an expert in the field, and they’re doing it for three different experts.”

Labs are essential, said Ralph Rodriguez, manager, curriculum, Red Hat Global Learning Services. “Labs are where students actually learn the material. Students need the lecture, they need to be given the overview, they need to be given the vision of what it is they’re trying to accomplish. But until their hands actually touch the keyboard, I don’t think it’s going to be possible for them to really keep in their mind what it is that they’ve been trying to learn.”

Almost every training course offered for Red Hat certifications contains a lab component. “I don’t believe Red Hat offers a single exam currently that has a multiple choice or a written section in it. Every thing is performance based,” said Joe Kirby, RHCE certification manager, Red Hat Global Learning Services.

“After my classes, especially an intense certification course, I always tell my students that ‘I guarantee you 80 percent of the stuff we’ve covered, if you do not go home and work with it, you will not retain it,’” said Brad Smith, instructor, Red Hat Global Learning Services. “You can learn things just by virtue of listening to an instructor and doing a lab in a classroom, but it’s not going to last unless you’re giving yourself real-world practice with the material and go beyond the classroom material. The beautiful thing about free open-source software is that you do not need to have a professional situation in order to gain real-world experience.”

Get Out of the Lab, Volunteer
If you don’t have real-world experience, are not currently employed or are just out of school, you can still get experience a potential employer will find valuable by volunteering for charitable organizations, agencies and community networks. Many churches, schools, daycares and non-for-profits need computer support, and they usually can’t afford to pay an IT consultant what he or she might want. This offers an IT pro with little to no on-the-job or practical experience a way to exercise systems administration and other types of skills.

“My daughter’s daycare, a community-center daycare, was having some problems with the telephone system. I was talking to our guy who works for the company that will be making a bid for some new phone lines about the switch, and I told them to ask about using Asteric, which is an open-source PBX that you can put a machine in for just a few hundred dollars, then use Voice over IP for the telephone service, again Asteric is an open-source PBX that’s freely available. Setting up and managing that, that’s the type of opportunity that’s sitting out there,” Kirby explained. “You get a lot of great experience, and in the case of things like Asteric, it’s a very marketable experience because there are a lot of companies that are interested in things like open-source PBX and Voice over IP.”

Some say that although labs are an important piece to consider when attempting to demonstrate skill and aptitude with a certain technology, they are not necessarily the “it” piece that will guarantee you a job. Lab scenarios should be reflections of real-world problems, not made-up, unrelated scenarios that might or might not relate to situations that come up in a real business environment. IT professionals have to ensure that they’re getting the best training no matter if they’re taking a lab course in order to gain experience or to practice the skills needed to earn a certification.

“It turns out that, and we’ve been working on this for six years so we really understand, often the labs that people do are so non-realistic to make the problems simpler that they actually are not very valuable,” said Alan Paller, director of research, SANS Institute. “We’ve made them realistic, for example, in our hacker class. You actually go to war. It’s a ‘capture the flag’ environment. You’re working, but you’re under attack. We believe that if you’re going to test whether or not somebody can do something, you need to put them pretty close to the real world, not close to a pretend version of the real world. We never differentiate between the two because we think it’s the combination that gives your boss the ability to know that you’ve learned it. Talk to people who’ve been through a program and are now working to find out whether it actually makes a difference. Don’t try to analyze (a lab) by sitting in it or reading a brochure.”

“When we develop our certification programs, we’re making specific claims and inferences about candidates’ capabilities, should they earn that certification,” said Drew Rosen, senior manager, learning and development, Cisco Systems. “Employers aren’t really concerned with, ‘Can you tell me the size of this packet or this protocol?’ They want to know, ‘can you run my busines

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