Hempology

Certifiable

MCP LogoMy
mother has been telling me this for as long as I can remember, but now Microsoft has
joined the ranks of those who believe that I am "certifiable". How do I
know? Well, like most of my posts, it’s a painfully long story.

Throughout my career I’ve had opportunities to work directly and indirectly with a
number of very impressive developers and developer managers. Of course, along the
way there have also been those who were; well, less impressive. One thing that seemed
surprising to me at first was that the possession of a certification did not appear
in practice to be a good indicator of whether someone would fit best in the very
impressive
or less impressive category. That realization was my first
clue that perhaps this certification business was just that, business, and had little
to do with actual development skill or quality of experience.

Skepticism comes easily to me, so that bit of anecdotal evidence was enough to turn
me off of certifications entirely. More recently it began to negatively skew my evaluation
of job applicants who have multiple certifications due to suspicion that they spend
more time reading and memorizing than they do applying what they’ve read. That suspicion
plays off an assumption that certification exams only do one thing: evaluate how well
a person has memorized the study material targeted for the exam. Here’s the problem,
without having ever studied for or taken one of these exams, that was a pretty big
assumption to make.

Enter Tech•Ed. As recently
mentioned
, I was given the opportunity by my employer to attend this year’s Microsoft
Tech•Ed Developers conference. All in all it was a very enjoyable and personally
beneficial experience. What’s interesting for this story is that included in the materials
emailed to me in preparation for the conference was a coupon to take a Microsoft Certification
exam on site for only $50. Normally those exams will set you back $125 so that’s a
60% discount. Definitely a good deal, if you’re into that kind of thing.

At first I just archived the message (perhaps there’s a future post in me on why I’ve
stopped deleting) and ignored it. A few days later, though, as I was trying to think
of things I could do on airplanes and in airports while traveling just about as far
across the continental
United States
as you can travel, I remembered that email. "Hey, I could study
for an exam on the plane, then take the exam at the conference." But if I thought
those certifications were so silly, why bother taking an exam?

Simple, really. I needed to validate my assumptions. It has never sat right with me
that I criticize certifications while knowing that I don’t have any first hand experience
at trying to earn one. From everything I had heard, the tests were quite difficult
– and I believed it. So the only thing I needed to validate was that they don’t prove
anything beyond your ability to memorize (short-term) the specific subject material
on the exam. Beyond that, it also gave me a specific goal for my time on the plane
which I knew would be needed or I’d fall into my typical trap of reading valueless
articles in whatever magazines I happened to bring along (seriously, when am I ever
going to build
new storage under my stairs
? Our house doesn’t even have stairs! Thank you, Popular
Mechanics.)

Off to Microsoft.com I went to decide
which test
I should take. Then off to Buy.com to purchase the
study kit
. I did study on the plane for a few hours (though I underestimated how
challenging that would be) and for a few more hours Monday and Tuesday evening after
the conference sessions ended. In total, though, I would guess it was no more than
6 hours studying and some of that was likely through osmosis while my head lay prone
on the open book.

The test I took (and passed) was 70-536:
Microsoft .NET Framework, Application Development Foundation. It took me a little
over an hour, and it was fairly challenging. What does passing that test get me? In
day-to-day tangible items: absolutely nothing. In grander terms, it indicates that
I’m eligible to pursue a variety of MCTS certifications by taking any number of additional
exams (e.g. becoming a "MCTS: .NET Framework 3.5, Windows Presentation Foundation
Applications" requires that I also take and pass 70-502.)
Since I’m not actually certified without taking more exams, when someone asks me "what
do you get for passing the test?" My best answer is, "it means I’m certifiable!"

Now that I’ve actually gone through the experience of studying (sort of), taking,
and passing a Microsoft Certification exam, I feel better about applying my biases
toward the program. There were some positive takeaways, though, such as the realization
that in preparation for the test I studied a very broad array of topics (within the
specific subject matter of the exam.) So although I still believe these certifications
only prove a person’s ability to memorize (short-term) the study material, at least
I know that the material has exposed them to a fairly wide range of information. Whether
or not I think they can effectively apply that knowledge in a real world environment,
however, will remain strictly on a "show me" basis.

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