I recently decided to sit the A+ exams. That’s partly because it’s always good to boost my CV with extra qualifications, and partly because I wanted to review that qualification: if I was recruiting, would this be valuable for someone else to have?

I bought a study guide by Mike Meyers (not the actor) a few years ago, so as a fringe benefit I’ve now been able to clear that off my stack of unread books. This book was slightly out of date, since I have the 5th edition (based on the 2003 exam objectives) and the 6th edition covers the 2006 objectives, but it was good enough for my purposes. The exams are aimed at people with 6 months experience, and I’ve been doing this for 12 years, so I was pretty confident.

I took the exams yesterday, and I passed both, so that means that I’m now an A+ Certified IT Technician! Actually, I need to wait for five working days until my results show up on the CompTIA website, so I may not officially have that qualification yet, but I think it’s near enough. Both exams were marked out of 900: I scored 810 on the first (passing score was 675) and 865 on the second (passing score was 700), so I think those are respectable results.

Based on the comments I’ve read, I’d say that Meyers’ books are a bit like Marmite: people either love them or hate them. His study guides are quite long, and they include a lot of information which isn’t necessary for the exam. So, if you just want to pass the exam, you could save yourself some time by reading shorter books. However, I found the extra information very interesting, since it was able to fill some gaps in my knowledge. For instance, I know that expansion cards have a range of I/O addresses, and that these have to be unique within a given computer. However, I never really understood what those addresses were for until I read about them in this book. (The idea is that the CPU can use the address bus either to specify an address in RAM or to issue commands to peripherals.)

I went to Synergy Network Systems (in north-west London) to take these exams, and it’s quite a nice facility. (They also offer training.) When I arrived, the first thing I noticed was that they were playing a Backstreet Boys song; since the subsequent songs were from the same group, this was presumably one of their albums. This struck me as a slightly unusual choice, and arguably it’s a bad sign that I recognised the music, but I actually quite like their songs and videos. Mind you, whenever I hear “I want it that way” I always think of Weird Al’s “Ebay” version of that song. (In the context of my exams, his lyrics about “A++” ratings actually seem quite relevant.)

I booked my first exam for 10:30, and the confirmation message said that I should arrive 15 minutes early. I had to sprint for a couple of trains, but I made it, and then waited for half an hour. I didn’t mind, because this gave me an opportunity for last minute revision. (The exams are computer based multiple choice, so the timer started whenever I actually sat down in front of the machine.)

Before I started the exam, I had to show my ID and sign the rules. All the test centres are tightening up on their policies nowadays, the theory being that if they can reduce the levels of cheating then it makes the certifications more valuable. For instance, you’re not allowed to take a pager or a mobile phone into the test area with you; the phone makes sense, although I forgot about my pager when I took my first Microsoft exam (back in 1999), and you couldn’t use one to request particular information. (The BBC reported an ‘exam’ earpiece recently, which would be a similarly one-way cheating method.) A new rule is that you’re not allowed to wear a watch either; mine is analogue, but I think they’re more concerned about digital watches which can store things in their memory. Anyway, I knew about that in advance, so I made sure that my watch and mobile were in my rucksack, then I just had to pester the member of staff by asking him what time it was (for the signing in sheet).

Another new policy said that you’re not allowed to study in the test centre, so I queried that; I’d been reading my book in their reception area for the past half hour, and I didn’t want to be disqualified for that, but that was before I’d actually seen this rule. He said that it didn’t count, so I’m not quite sure how they’re defining “test centre”. The policy mentioned “test area” separately (e.g. “no eating or drinking”), so that would mean the room where you actually sit in front of the computer to take the exam. I would have thought that “test centre” would be the whole building, or at least the part of it that belonged to their company, but maybe there was an arbitrary dividing line at a particular doorway. Ah well, no matter; I sat outside the building to read between the exams, so I think I’m in the clear.

I also had to provide two forms of ID, both with signatures and one with a photo. Again, I was prepared for this, but it seemed to be a surprise for the other people who’d turned up for exams. The idea here is to avoid “gunmen”, i.e. people who would sit the exam on your behalf. This isn’t unique to computer exams; back in 2004, the BBC reported on a man who sat 150 driving tests for other people. Microsoft are now taking this a step further, as described on the Prometric site: “As of April 1, 2007, only citizens of India will be permitted to register for exams in our India test centers, and only citizens of China will be permitted to register for exams in our Mainland China test centers.” (According to CertGuard, they will make exceptions, but you then have to provide them with proof that you actually travelled to the relevant country.) Is this an issue with academic exams? I’m guessing that a school would normally recognise their students, but if two kids arranged to swap candidate numbers then would anyone notice?

Moving onto the exam itself, I had to accept the standard NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement), so I can’t repeat specific questions here. However, I think it’s ok to discuss some general principles.

Both exams had the same format, with the 2 hour duration divided into three sections: 15 minutes to read through a description of the way the exam worked, 90 minutes for the actual questions, and 15 minutes for a feedback survey at the end. You don’t get your result until you’ve finished the entire thing, but you can end each section early, and I only needed half of the time for each one.

On a meta level, I think that the test software could be improved. For instance, when you’ve finished the last question you go to a review screen: this shows you any questions which you marked (because you particularly want to go back for another look) and it shows you whether each question is complete or incomplete (i.e. whether you actually chose an answer for it). My standard approach is that I go through the whole exam first, answering every question but marking the ones I’m not sure about. At the end, I go back through the marked questions, unmarking them when I’ve decided that my answer is as good as it will get (even if it’s a complete guess). I then read through all of the questions again, just in case I missed anything obvious. I then click the “End Exam” button, and the software asks for confirmation. That’s all fine, but the warning message is a bit iffy, since it says “If you have any incomplete answers then …” It should know whether I have any incomplete answers, given that it’s displaying the status for each one, and then either skip that part of the message or be more definite about what will happen.

Similarly, the survey at the end doesn’t have any way to enter freeform comments. As I recall, the Microsoft exams did, and I always assumed that this was why they delayed telling you whether you passed or failed (so that you wouldn’t leave rude messages if you were upset). I’m pretty sure that one of the questions had a mistake in it, so I would have liked to report this, but I was unable to. (I asked the staff in the centre, but they weren’t any help.) The survey was basically there to ask about two things: who I am, and how I prepared for this particular exam. I don’t mind repeating the questions about the exam, but it was a bit tedious to provide exactly the same demographic info twice in one day; I think it would make sense to tie this to my candidate number, and then default to my previous answers. As for the exam-specific questions, they had an American bias: they asked me how much I’d spent on exam preparation (e.g. study guides), and the price ranges were all in dollars. I have a rough idea of how much my books cost, but should I base that on the current exchange rate or try to remember all the fluctuations over the last few years? More to the point, why don’t they ask for a price in the local currency and then do their own conversion?

Speaking of bias, CompTIA is theoretically vendor-neutral (unlike the Cisco and Microsoft exams), but there were a lot of questions about Microsoft Windows in these exams. That’s not a problem for me (since it plays to my strengths), and it’s arguably a pragmatic decision based on market share, but it does seem a little odd.

Under the old (2003) objectives, there were two exams: “Core Hardware” and “OS Technologies”. Under the new objectives, you have to choose two exams from four, and there’s a lot of overlap between them; each exam has a mixture of software and hardware questions, and I’m pretty sure that some questions were literally identical. Even with the old objectives, the OS exam was all about Windows, but the advantage of that format would be that you could theoretically substitute in a different exam. For instance, the ECDL has modules for word processing and spreadsheets, and you can choose which programs you want to use; I used Office 2003, but you can also be tested on OpenOffice. In fairness, CompTIA also have a Linux+ qualification, but then that goes to the opposite extreme. Ah well, it’s something to be aware of, whether you agree with it or not.

You have to provide CompTIA with your name and email address before you can download the exam objectives, but I think it’s ok for me to quote from them. In the case of the A+ exams (601 and 602), objective 8 is “Communication and Professionalism”, which is divided into two sub-objectives:
8.1 Use good communication skills including listening and tact / discretion, when communicating with customers and colleagues
8.2 Use job-related professional behavior including notation of privacy, confidentiality and respect for the customer and customers’ property

Those were the questions that I found most difficult in the exam, and I know that I got a couple of them wrong. (Unlike Microsoft exams, my exam report didn’t include a detailed breakdown by section, but it did list the objectives where I lost marks.) This may be because they weren’t covered in my study guide (since they’re new to the 2006 exams), but I’d like to think that I’ve picked these skills up from my various jobs. There’s probably some truth in the stereotype about computer geeks with limited social skills, although I’d say that my voluntary work has helped me there. (My first aid training also came in handy for the questions about manual handling principles.) Again, I can’t go into specifics about the questions, but they involved scenarios such as dealing with an angry customer or finding porn on a home PC. To some extent, I think that the correct responses depend on your job role. If you’re working on a helpdesk then there are times when you need to escalate a problem to someone else, whereas I’m now in a position (IT Manager) where problems get escalated to me.

Overall, I’d say that the exams aimed for breadth of knowledge rather than depth. It’s certainly useful to have experience; I thought that some of the questions were ridiculously easy, but they may not have been so easy for someone else. This makes it a bit tricky as an entry level qualification, since I don’t think you’d get the relevant skills just by poking at your home PC; you really need access to a network so that you can figure out why DHCP isn’t working. Still, I think it’s a good qualification to have (particularly when combined with the MCDST), so if I ever need to hire a new tech support person then I’ll ask for it.

I’m booked in for a Microsoft exam next Monday (24th): that’s 70-621, upgrading my MCDST qualification from Windows XP to Windows Vista. Normally I’d have a longer gap between exams, but there’s a 40% discount if I take it by the end of September.

After that, I’d like to go back to CompTIA for the Network+. I’ve got another of Mike Meyers’ books (3rd edition) for this exam; I bought it at the same time as the A+ book, but this one covers the latest objectives (revised in 2005). I also have Computer Networks by Andrew Tanenbaum, which I bought for one of my undergrad courses; it’s not exactly light reading, but I know a lot of people regard it highly, and it should give me a thorough grasp of the OSI 7 layer model. Actually, I have the 2nd edition, and the 4th edition is now out, but my copy should be ok for now. Anyway, that should all serve as a nice warm-up for the Cisco certifications, starting with the new CCENT.

The CompTIA qualifications last forever, although they revise the objectives every so often. However, the Cisco qualifications have to be renewed every 2-3 years, and so do the new Microsoft qualifications. I think that’s a good idea; I passed my Visual Basic 5 exam in 1999, and that qualification is still valid, but I haven’t used that version of the language in years. To clarify this, Microsoft’s new approach is that you keep the exam history on your transcript, so when you pass an exam that’s a fact that never changes, but you don’t stay as an MCITP (or whatever) unless you re-take the exam periodically.

I wonder whether it would make sense to do the same thing for school exams, e.g. GCSEs. For instance, I have a GCSE in French (grade A), and when I was 16 I was pretty fluent in the language. However, that was 17 years ago, and I’m now pretty rusty. Arguably this doesn’t matter: I don’t need to speak French at the moment, and if you just treat it as a generic result (“I need someone with 5 Cs”) then it’s been superceded by my university degrees. If those results expired then you could reasonably expect someone with an active language GCSE to understand that language.

I’m not sure whether this would help to resolve the perennial debate about whether exams are getting easier. You’d have 40 year olds sitting the exact same exams as teenagers, and in theory this would give a fairer comparison than comparing results from two different exams. On the other hand, it would probably be a self-selecting sample of adults from the lower end of the academic spectrum, which would probably skew the results. Cisco say that you can renew your qualifications by taking a higher level exam, e.g. the CCNP will renew the CCNA, so there might be scope for that here; if you get a Maths degree then that automatically renews your Maths GCSE at the highest grade? Anyway, I think the idea has potential.

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