Hire the Imperfect

A modest proposal to help employers

Fabio stung this certification gadfly to the core this morning. "All you ever do is complain," he said to your dear Auntie. "Why don’t you make some positive suggestions once in a while?" Now I thought that was quite unfair. All I’d done was comment that he could be dusting the tops of the doors in the guest wing just a bit more often. Isn’t that a positive suggestion?

Although our little spat wasn’t entirely pleasant, it got me thinking about the certification industry. Just about anyone who’s ever written about certification has noted and complained about the “paper MCSE” problem. Throw in some ranting about braindump sites (which still exist in profusion, despite Microsoft’s legal action against some of the ones that it could catch), and you’ve got the core of an easy-to-write opinion column.

You see the problem, though. It’s easy to complain about paper MCSEs, but it’s hard to do anything about them—like the weather, they pretty much show up whenever you advertise for a Windows systems administrator. Your favorite columnists can stand on the sidelines and wring their hands about this trend, but what can you do about it?

Well, wonder no more. Your humble servant has the answer, and it’s very simple: Hire those who fail the exams.

Oh, that’s not to say that you should hire systems admins who fail all of their MCSE exams. But when you’re looking over those résumés and thinking of sneaky little questions to ask, you might throw in one asking how many times they took their exams. The ideal candidate, according to Auntie, is one who didn’t ace all of the exams the first time around.

Think back to when you first started taking MCSE exams. Did you sail through all of them? Were they what you expected, or did you go into a few of them (like the notorious 70-217) and discover that you weren’t quite as well prepared as you thought?

So, the question is: Who goes into a set of seven exams and passes them all on the first try? I’ll tell you who—people who sit through bootcamps, who memorize braindumps or who pay for those super-realistic practice exams that drill you only on the skills that the exams test. That’s who.

On the other hand, what sort of MCSE fails an exam or two? It’s the one who studied on the job, who learned to run the network and who took the exams to prove that she knew her stuff. If you’re busy actually maintaining a network, it’s hard to cram in the trivia that Microsoft puts on the exams.

OK, so it’s not a foolproof plan. For one thing, Microsoft doesn’t include failures on the official transcript, so you’ll be relying on the honesty of job applicants. If it gets out that you’re using this rule of thumb, you can expect astute candidates to start working failures into the conversation: “I remember when I really started to understand Active Directory. It was right after I’d failed the exam…”

And Auntie is sure that she’ll hear from you übergeeks out there when this column is published. “The exams are trivially easy,” you’ll write. “I passed all seven in two days when I went to Tech Ed, and I had hangovers when I took five of them. Now excuse me, I’ve got an AD forest to reconfigure before lunch.” And I’m sure some of you did precisely that. But let’s think of the percentages here. If you take the entire pool of people who passed all the MCSE exams without a hitch, what percentage did pass based on experience rather than gaming the system?

In the end, of course, hiring qualified candidates comes down to the same rule of thumb that MCP Magazine has been advocating for ages: Certification scores should be a factor in hiring, but not the sole factor. Great scores can come from the braindump trail or from honest experience and hard work. It’s up to you to judge applicants on their own merits.

Now if you’ll excuse me, Fabio just came in and ostentatiously dusted the tops of all the doors in the room, smiling all the while. I think he wants to kiss and make up, which means I’m outta here for another month!

About the Author

Em C. Pea, MCP, is a technology consultant, writer and now budding nanotechnologist who you can expect to turn up somewhere writing about technology once again.

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Reader Comments:

Mon, Oct 20, 2003 Jake Champaign, IL

whoop whoop whoop whoop nerd alert nerd alert nerd alert whoop whoop whoop whoop

i find that mcse certified induviduals are often far less competent than those who learn things the old fashioned way, by sitting down and hacking away at it

Sat, Jun 14, 2003 Anonymous Anonymous

sure, invite them for the interview, get them to spend 2 days of free labour fixing your network problems and then decide on hiring them or not!

Fri, Jun 13, 2003 Anonymous Anonymous

I don't think this is a good response to fixing the problem of paper tigers. If you are going to interview someone, ask them to fix a problems that you may have had and fixed. Analysis their method, and look at their possible results. If it is close to fixing the problem, that would be a good sign.

Fri, Jun 13, 2003 Earl Denver

What a bunch of whiners. I will whine about you. Whine Whine Whine. I passed the first time, I failed the first time...cry cry cry. Getting the job really has little to do with what you know and letters behind your name. You either baffle the hiring person with BS or u tell the truth. In either case, if you are given the job, you better make sure u can fulfill the responsibility. Otherwise, u can know all the MS crap in the world, have every cert under the sun, BUT IF YOU CANT DO THE JOB, you make all of us look bad. If you suck at IT (and you know who you are,) do those of us who know what we are doing a favor and get your MCSE2 (McDonalds Cashregister Systems Engineer Too!) and serve up some hot juicy goodness to the rest of us while we do our job the right way.

Thu, Jun 12, 2003 Nick Clark Springfield, IL

Thanks Auntie! I'm so sick and tired of hearing the little weasels that brag all the time about passing tests without failing. I failed on three attempts with the NT4 Track (1 test I severely understudied) and have failed two exams on the 200 Track (missed Exch twice times due to lack of study prep).

Coming from a small company (75 emp.) I don't always get the hands-on with enterprise-class software and the least I can do is be book smart with it. I take pride in what I've done and what I'm doing. I could care less if someone calls me a paper product since that in itself is only a stigma put on someone that doesn't know what they're doing at that particular time.

Hey, we were all green at one time and we stay green due to the turnover rate in software.

Thu, Jun 12, 2003 Anonymous Anonymous

OK, I'm a paper MCSA and you know what It's damn tough to get hired on to a company nowdays. In addition to My MCSA I also have an A.S. degree from a local technical college and finished with a 3.54 gpa but people with equal experience and less certifications have gotten hired on while I havent. I have used study guides to help prepare me for exams but you know what I passed the dreaded 217 and 45 of the questions I got weren't from any study guide and I passed it the first time through. I guarantee that's not easy.

Wed, Jun 11, 2003 Ray Illinois

Ridiculous. I studied very hard for all of the exams I took. I have passed all 10 Microsoft exams on the first try. I also worked with every product in the lab and on the job for months if not years before I took each and every test. Of course there are paper MCSE's out there but punishing someone for knowing the technology well enough to pass on the first try is probably the most bizarre idea yet.

Wed, Jun 11, 2003 Mrs. MCP Raleigh, NC

The snobbery of the majority of several of these postings and general attitude of the non-paper MCSEs makes me recall why I got out of the field. I should thank you all for that. If an applicant accurately presents himself as being certified but not having a great deal of experience, what is the problem? We all have to start somewhere. If a person has the intellect to pass the exams - and let's face it; none of these are no-brainers - then should they not be given a chance, somewhere? If someone has worked hard trying to get certified does that not indicate that they are willing to work hard on the job? If that person is diligent enough to fail and re-take the exams, does that not show that they are diligent and will follow through until a problem is resolved? How is anyone supposed to get the experience (to become a non-paper MCSE) if they cannot get a foot in the door? You can't get hired if you're not certified in something. But what you are saying is that certification doesn't count for anything unless you have the experience to back it up. If anything, the paper MCSEs may have had to work harder because they might not have the equipment to "play" and practice on? The "Imperfect" may have been made to feel inferior so they may try harder.

Thu, May 29, 2003 Roy Alabama

The 216 was my toughest...been almost 2 years since I went down that road. As far as certifications, I would value a college degree (4year+) more than certifications. Experience would be first, college second, and certs third.

I had an AA degree for the longest and once the bachelors was finished, it opened doors. Working on MCAD and MCSD.Net right now.

No shame in failing the exams. There is shame in relying exclusively on braindumps or going to the bootcamps without any experience. My technique is to use practice questions and go through them like it is an open book exam.

Don't rush through, use your materials, and find the answers. You don't need the dumps to do this. I don't trust the reliability of the braindumps and even if they are reliable, for my luck I would get a fresh test. Just study and if you fail, spend another $125 (it was $50 last time I took it with the discount...man did it go up). Think about all the money you save by not going to a bootcamp. I can fail tests all day long and still spend less than I would at a bootcamp.

Tue, May 20, 2003 Joel Tucson

I was very disappointed by this article. Is this what it has come to? Hiring the imperfect because they failed? I have nothing against failure, but it is hardly a strategy for hiring the best and the brightest. It also maximizes credit for poor study habits, unprepardness, and an inability to learn the material the first time. I only failed one exam out of 17. I am now dinged for doing it right the first time? I would rather have a paper MCSE who understands the concepts and has the knowledge for the job than someone who has stumbled their way through a technical job for 5 years and still doesn't know the basics. It's articles like this that make me want to give up on the MS certs, not because they aren't valuable, but because even the writers of "Pro" MS publications fail to have any respect for them.

Thu, May 15, 2003 Anonymous Anonymous

True like the C average student is the CEOs an the book smart are in research labs

Tue, May 13, 2003 Alan London

I reckon that when interviewing for a technical position, a technical grilling is the best way to go. I got my current job, by sending my cv, as you normally do and then sitting through a 20 question technical grilling over the phone, before even being told to come in for a face to face interview. Having spoken to my now manager, he told me that they had interviewed over 25 'MCSE's' and that only a handful could answer more than 5 questions right. Do it that way and you save your own time(no chance takers trying to blag their way through an interview)

Fri, May 9, 2003 Matt Connecticut

I agree with Troy. I am an MCSA, and have never failed a certification exam. That surely does not mean that I do not really understand the material. My passing came from courses, real-world experience, and self-study (not just brain-dump exams, either). I have been one of the main players in my company for designing and rolling out Windows 2000 desktops, and implementing them into Active Directory (company of 3000+ desktops, NetWare as primary NOS). All of that BEFORE obtaining my MCSA, mind you. It was because I KNEW and understood the material.

Tue, Apr 22, 2003 Jaime Espinosa Colombia

Both things can happen (cheat and honesty). So why not put some pressure on HR to make a deeper interview and, before signs, make a real technical interview about what we need ?

Mon, Apr 21, 2003 Tim Denver, CO

I agree with anonymous from SLC: A better way to assign value to a certification is to look at the date achieved. This is a big reason I take beta exams whenever possible. After that, all bets are off, and a prudent employer will have to do independent verification of a certified applicant's skills.

The article's proposal is good for acknowledging the problem, but it will still err both ways. I certainly wouldn't underestimate a cheater's skills - I'm sure many of them have to retake exams too. And I'm one of those 'lucky' ones who has passed every exam.

Sat, Apr 19, 2003 id10t ottawa

So you descide to hire the imperfect.
"Sorry 'bout the network crash, we'll get it right next time!"
"Didn't think that would bring down the web site, I'll know next time"
"I guess next time I should do a backup before I upgrade the VP Finance's software on his laptop."
You set a dangerous dangerous prescedent if you demonstrate that you tolerate failure. Besides, how many people would admit they failed an exam?
Certification are a guideline. They do have a few problems, they increase flight risks of employees. It strikes me that when you hire someone you should look at how they think not things they have. "Oh, you don't know anything about AS/400. Lets do an exercise, a user calls you up saying they can't print and you find out it's an AS/400 printer. Tell me how would you troubleshoot the problem?"
These types of exercises help demonstrate the ability to adapt and learn. Much more useful than a Certification Paper.

Sat, Apr 19, 2003 rmyers Montreal

Interesting thought. Though the reverse is possible. Someone with enough money can write the exams till he gets it right...
As for myself I think the certifications are a only mildly useful to employers. I have done the MCSE, CNE, PCLP and CCNP. Each of the first three Certs took about 3 weeks for me to complete. Microsoft was by far the easiest. (3 of the exams took me less than 10 minutes to write). The CCNP took far longer and was more of a challenge. I think work experience is most important when hiring. For instance a guy has 15 years experience at a marketing company and another has 2 years working for a consulting firm. Who has more experience? Most likely the Consulting guy will have seen at least 50 different networks, at least 10 server crashes and over 100 software bugs...
I don't envy anyone doing the hiring.

Mon, Apr 14, 2003 Troy Madison, Wisconsin

That's a great bit of logic. I suppose we should then hire college grads with C and D grade point averages because anyone with anything higher must have cheated. Come on, people. The tests are quite passable the first time if you understand the technology and what's being asked.

Mon, Apr 7, 2003 Bobbie IPMC, Ghana

I am MCSE and MCSA and I got my credentials after several years working with Windows networks. I did not fail any of my exams. Yet is it not possible for anyone to think I am paper MCSE. I passed my exams b'cos I was real prepared for them. Took me three months to clear it all. I currently work with a CTEC and I am an MCSE trainer.

Thu, Apr 3, 2003 Jason Illinois

Ridiculous theory that I hope no HR person takes to heart. Blame Microsoft for all the paper MCSEs not the people taking them. Take a Sun exam and you will realize that all MS exams are pop quizzes in comparison. I am an MCSE +I and MCSD and passed all exams on the first try however I failed the Java Programmers exam. MS should rethink the required skills to pass their exam and make the questions more experience based rather than a regurgitation of facts that can be taken from 1000 web sites out there.

Mon, Mar 31, 2003 John Hawaii

"Hire those who fail the exams". That's totally irrational. Good topic, but that is a completely ridiculous solution, because you cannot really conclude anything significant about someone who has failed an exam in the certification process. The ones who have failed a few exams (which probably comprise a vast majority of all MCSE's) simply weren't prepared or were in a bad mental state due to sickness or exhaustion. That is the only thing you can really conclude - and you want to encourage others to consider this in their hiring decision?

Here is the real problem (which you did hint at): EMPLOYERS DON'T COMMIT ENOUGH RESOURCES IN THE RECRUITING AND INTERVIEW PROCESS TO DETERMINE IF CANDIDATES ARE QUALIFIED. The MCSE is certainly a valuable yardstick, but as you say is only a part of the equation. Here is the only conclusive resolution to the paper MCSE problem: Employers must include a "working interview" with a non-intimidating walkthrough of technical problems that are typical of the position requirements. In this situation, paper MCSE's will be very obvious.

Mon, Mar 31, 2003 Anonymous Salt Lake City

217. Notorious? Gimme a break. These are ALL easy if you know the technology. The problem is that everyone expects to pass based on lame or non-existant instruction or self-study with no background. My solution to the braindump problem is to take the exams so early that there aren't any braindumps. It's kinda hard to argue that someone used a braindump when nobody else had taken the exam yet. Now I'll admit I got a lower score on 217 than I should have - 883. But that was only because I FELL ASLEEP for 30 minutes during the exam and had to answer the final 15 questions in 15 minutes. It was my last exam for MCSE 2000 and I took it on 8/22/2000. Here's a tip for employers - Hire the Charter 2000 people first. Then let them tell you whether the potential hire is a braindumper or not. It's REAL easy to tell when you really are an expert. But until Microsoft chooses to devote more than lip service to the braindump issue we're all stuck with useless certifications.

Mon, Mar 31, 2003 Robert Australia

Well I am one of the unlucky ones who failed three exams along my way to my mcsa and mcse, I am now a mct and I can almost tell the ones who will be visiting the brain dump sites to pass the exams, they are normally the ones who tell me that they know this stuff but when I ask them relevant questions on how they would configure this or that they just don't know. This is the kind of paper mcse that has help push the wages in the IT industry downward.

Mon, Mar 31, 2003 Anonymous Anonymous

217? I thought the 216 was notorius, it took me two tries! 3 exams to go.

Sat, Mar 29, 2003 Anonymous Anonymous

I hate those idiots at HR who only considers MCSEs and yet know nuts what does MCSE really entails !

Sat, Mar 29, 2003 Tina RI

Reading the column made me feel good knowing I wasn't the only one out there that failed it the first time. I was so close yet another $125 away! I ended up taking it the following week and passed and it did give me a feeling of accomplishment knowing I wasn't a " paper MCP."

Thu, Mar 27, 2003 Jeremy @ IS San Antonio, TX

I still think Microsoft Certifications should be prerequisite to the job interview. If the candidate is good enough to pass the exams and swoon his way through the interview, but fails miserably on the job, NEXT!

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