Real-World Experience Aids Certification Preparation

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When it comes to preparing for modern certification exams—particularly those that simulate or present real system interfaces, tools and utilities as part of their testing approach—obtaining hands-on experience during the preparation process can be critical in ensuring exam success. There are many different ways to gain experience and lots of different approaches you can take to make sure you’re ready to navigate and drive the various interfaces (and sometimes, devices) you’re likely to encounter when taking such exams.

Although the majority of certification exams still use the same old content-based, text-only, multiple-choice question formats and styles, an increasing number of the most popular programs are becoming more interactive. Because this includes exams from companies like Cisco, Novell and Microsoft, obtaining a basic level of hands-on proficiency and knowledge should be an important focus during your exam preparation process. Some of the most difficult certification exams around are entirely based on interacting with real or simulated systems (for example, the CCIE laboratory and the Novell Certified Directory Engineer “practicum” exams). In such cases, it’s impossible to pass without obtaining substantial hands-on experience beforehand.

The Avenues of Experience
As a certification expert of sorts, I deal with questions about experience and certification all the time. Probably the most poignant question I’m asked regularly is “How can I get some experience when nobody wants to hire someone with no experience?” The short answer to this question is “By hook and by crook.” A longer answer makes up the rest of this column.

When experience isn’t available directly on the job, don’t let it stop you from garnering experience through other means, including the following:



  • Well-equipped classrooms: Many instructor-led certification training classes tout the access they provide to live systems and services, not to mention access to expert hand-holding from instructors and proctors. Although high-dollar courses routinely include such facilities, so do many low-dollar courses at local community colleges and trade schools.
    If you look around for courses that include labs and fit your budget, you can get quite a bit of experience in such classroom situations. A little begging and pleading is usually enough to get instructors or proctors to give you extra time in these environments, but a strong show of interest or enthusiasm in the topics and technologies being covered works even better and will probably provide more learning opportunities.
  • Teaching laboratories: High schools, colleges, universities, trade schools and commercial training centers all include student laboratories of one kind or another. These facilities are scheduled pretty heavily, but if you take courses that provide access, you’ll be on that schedule yourself. Likewise, such facilities are always looking for low-paid, part-time workers. What better way to learn the ins and outs of the equipment in a lab than to become responsible for its care and feeding?
  • Virtual laboratories: More and more Web sites are popping up that offer access to either simulated or real systems, devices, tools, utilities and all the other accoutrement that certification candidates need to work with to get the hands-on experience they need. None of these sites are totally free, but not all of them are prohibitively expensive, either. And most of them offer one-, two- or three-hour time slots on systems and equipment that might otherwise be unavailable. Your needs will vary according to the certification you’re chasing.
    My “Learning Tools” column for August 2002 was titled “Garnering Experience with Labs and Simulations” and deals in much more detail with this topic and the one covered in the next bullet as well. (See
  • Simulators: If pilots can learn to fly multimillion dollar planes using simulators, why can’t IT professionals learn to drive interfaces with similar tools (albeit much cheaper ones)? Couple this phenomenon with the realization that simulators can look like far more than the systems they run on, and this explains why testing skills and hands-on knowledge depends as much or more on simulators as it does on real systems and devices. In fact, most of the exams that are including bits and pieces of interactivity do so through simulators, simply because they can be integrated with standard test engines in testing centers worldwide without a great deal of muss or fuss. That said, accessing simulators before walking into a testing center becomes pretty darn important if you can be sure you’re going to encounter simulations during your exams. This explains why numerous outlets for simulators are now available for exam topics where they’re needed, in every kind of preparation material from practice exams (where they’re integrated in much the same way as they appear on the real exams) to Web- or CD-based simulators (where they put you through paces highly similar to those you’ll step through in real exams). Many study guide publishers—including the likes of MS Press, Sybex Books, Que Certification, Cisco Press, Osborne/McGraw-Hill, and Syngress, to name just a few—also routinely bundle simulators with their printed materials.
  • “Do-it-yourself” labs: With the costs of adequate PCs running under $500 and the requisite network interfaces and so forth costing under $50 per machine, a minimal networked home laboratory is well within most people’s budgets these days. In the wake of the dot-com bust, even specialized devices like Cisco routers are available on eBay at ridiculously low prices. I’ve heard from numerous readers who’ve put together their own test labs at home, complete with routers, switches, exotic interfaces and PCs, for less than $3,000. A more modest setup (two networked PCs that can even share a single keyboard, mouse and monitor with an A-B switch) that’s perfectly suitable for prepping for Microsoft, Novell or Linux certifications seldom costs more than $1,000.
    If you’re going to go through the time, expense and trouble of building a home lab, be sure to keep a log of your learning and activities. Also, be sure to stay legal on the software you use in your lab.(Tip: MS Press and other official vendor outlets often include limited-use or evaluation versions of software as part of their training kits or study guides. This is one cheap and excellent way to stock your home lab with the right stuff to get you ready for your exams.)




  • Volunteer: Whether you help a local school install and run its networks or tag along with a friend who’s installing or operating somebody’s network on the job, there are lots of ways to gain useful experience without necessarily obtaining a paycheck along with it. Trust me: If you get good experience, the paycheck will come later. Look into local school networking initiatives and talk to local churches, charities and nonprofits to see if they can use some willing but untutored IT assistance. Most of these organizations are used to doing things by hook and by crook too, so you can count on a sympathetic hearing at the very least—if not an opportunity to roll up your sleeves and do some good for others while gaining some experience for yourself.


The Importance of Documentation
Remember the complaint that I voiced at the head of the previous section? With tongue in cheek, I summarize it as: “How can I get any experience when I don’t have any experience?” As you study for the latest generation of certification exams, you will be obtaining genuine, relevant experience as part of your studies. Beyond helping you pass the exams, it might even help you find your w

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