Not Studying for a Certification Exam

computer roomRecently, I saw a tweet from Mitch Garvis (@MGarvis) about having completed three certification exams in one day. It got me thinking - how could he possibly have time to study for not one, not two, but three exams all at once all while still working full time? I’m sure the thought of certification has crossed your mind at one point or another and was then quickly dismissed due to time constraints. 

Determined to figure out what his secret was, I reached out to Mitch and asked him the simple question, “How do you make time to study for three exams at the same time as working full time?” The answer was simple – don’t study. Surprised by this answer, I asked him to elaborate.

In order to answer the actual question, Mitch thought it was important to understand what certification is and how it differs from a degree. He explained:

One of my best friends, the best man at my wedding has a degree in Computer Science, but every time something goes wrong with his computer, he calls me. Because of his degree, he can talk binary, he can talk math, he can talk architecture, but his degree is not relevant [to the problem at hand at that point in time]. Likewise, my Windows 2000 certifications are no longer relevant. Certification is an on-going validation, “I am familiar with”, or “I’m up to date with” the technologies with which I’m working.

If certifications are an on-going validation, there presumably would be a lot of studying involved to make sure that you know the relevant technology for which you’re going to be certified. So how does one find the time to do all of this studying? Is there a magic recipe for studying to maximize the little time there is available for studying?

I’m going to tell you my secret, that as an MCT, I’ve told hundreds, if not thousands of students over the years – don’t study for certification exams! People look at me and say “how can you say that?”.

Know the product. I just did an MCTS exam on Active Directory. I didn’t study for that exam. I live in Windows and Windows Server and I know Active Directory. All of the questions on the exam, sure they may be scenario based, saying “You are the __________ [fill in the blank]”, well I am the “fill in the blank", I have been the “fill in the blank”, the people that I speak to every day are that, and I have to know that (the fill in the blank). So that’s like saying “Mitch, can you please study how to make a cup of coffee?” It’s where I live. Likewise, if you don’t live there, you shouldn’t be taking the exam yet.

When you’re a developer and code for a living, as Mitch says, you live there – in the code, platforms, tools, etc. You may know a lot, but a the exams cover specific areas in depth. How do you know if you have the depth required to be able to answer the questions?

When looking at the exam that you want to do, look at the objective domains, the outline of what they say is required, and fill in the blanks. “I do this all the time, I do that all the time, but you know what, I’m weak on this”. Focus on that and don’t cram, but review it. If you’re smart, you’re going to go back and implement it before because you can read the words on the paper as many times as you want, do you know what happens when you press the Next button? Sometimes the exam says what happens when you press that Next button. “You’re in this situation. What should you do first?” Well beyond sitting at the computer and turning on your screen, you have to know where to go first and books don’t always tell you that. Experience always tell you that. Experience is what you get a minute after you really needed it. Experience is what is going to make the difference between stressing over taking exams and going to exams and saying “You know what, I have free time today, let me take an exam.”

In summary, Mitch’s view on exams is that you take them as validation that you have studied, implemented, and experienced what it is that you will be examined on:

If you’re looking for a new job, new field, you need to study as you wouldn’t have that experience. If you’re in the job, [a certification is] validation that you’ve learned [book or experience, or both] the material.

Whenever I talk to people about certifications, both with those who have certifications and those who don’t, I get a different answer. Certifications mean different things to different people. As you read last week, Susan (@HockeyGeekGirl) posted her views on certification. Here are Mitch’s thoughts:

Certifications is not just about getting them done, they are a necessity. We live in a world that is highly competitive. I’m no competing with all of the IT professionals in Oakville for the same jobs. I’m competing with professionals in Oakville, and Toronto, and Scarborough, and Vancouver, and India, and China who all want to come to this great place to work. I have credentials as far as experience goes, but certification is the proof that I have the respect from my profession to not only learn to do something the right way but also demonstrate and quantify that I’ve taken the time to do that.

Certifications differentiate the IT professional or the dev from the computer guy hacker who sits in his basement and probably does it well, don’t get me wrong, and I know many great computer guys who don’t have certifications, but if we are going to be a profession, we don’t have a BAR association, we don’t have a Charter of Accountants, we don’t have a medical board. We are a self-governing, or not even self-governing – we are an industry that doesn’t have that self-governing or globally governing body that gives me this “hey I’m a doctor”, “I’m a lawyer”, “I’m an accountant”, that doesn’t mean that we’re not professionals. Certifications do that.

Now It’s Your Turn

What’s your take on certification? What do certifications mean to you? Share your thoughts on LinkedIn. If you have a certification story that you’d like to share, tips and tricks, etc, please send me an email. I’d love to be able to share it here on the blog.

Conversation Continued

In a future post, I’ll share with you the discussion I had with Mitch around exam results – how to learn from passed exams, and more importantly, how to learn from failed exams.


Mitch Garvis

Mitch Garvis is a Renaissance Man of the IT world with a passion for community.  He is an excellent communicator which makes him the ideal trainer, writer, and technology evangelist. Having founded and led two major Canadian user groups for IT Professionals, he understands both the value and rewards of helping his peers. After several years as a consultant and in-house IT Pro for companies in Canada, he now works with various companies creating and delivering training for Microsoft to its partners and clients around the world. He is a Microsoft Certified Trainer, and has been recognized for his community work with the prestigious Microsoft Most Valuable Professional award. He is an avid writer, and blogs at