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Weighing the Value of Certification Brain Dumps

In a career first, I've entirely rewritten this column three times. That's because although its question greatly interests me, its answer greatly eludes me.

Perform a Web search on the term "legitimate brain dump Web site," and you'll find pages of responses condemning the practice as cheating, illegal or worse. One describes the practice as serving, "no beneficial service for true knowledge in the field the test-taker is pursuing." Another offers heuristics for identifying whether a test preparation site is, in fact, a brain dump site.

So brain dumps are bad, right?

The answer is, I truly don't know. I've seen these highly targeted study aids used in places I'd never expect. I've seen them demonized in others where I expected a quiet embrace. I know of consultancies that use them to aid staff in acquiring needed certifications for maintaining partnership status. I know of enterprises that store them on file servers so key personnel can acquire their certifications with minimal distraction from daily tasks.

The opposite view is just as easy to find. I've met unemployed people who vocally fight against them, even though that battle might run counter to their own financial stability. This magazine's sister publication, MCPmag.com, reports in its 2011 annual salary survey that 61 percent of respondents don't believe or aren't sure if certification has had an impact on employment status or job promotion over the past 12 months. Another 49 percent don't think it will over the next 12 months.

We all know the certification craze is over, an artifact of a time long past. The rush to acquire an MCITP today pales in comparison with the lines out testing center doors the industry witnessed a decade ago.

Some attribute this reduced interest level to the brain dumps themselves. You've heard the arguments: The brain dumps created a generation of "paper MCSEs," an army of good-on-paper-but-worthless-in-practice IT pros who taxed the system, whose resumes wallpapered HR offices, and whose presence altered the perceived validity of IT professionals forever.

Others, including me, wondered if the certification bubble was destined to burst, even as we sought our own certifications. That same MCPmag.com survey offers up one of the biggest clues as to why interest in certification waned—and, potentially, why brain dump use still soars today. It asked, "Why did you pursue your most recent Microsoft certification?" An impressive 71 percent responded that doing so fulfilled a personal goal. Compare that with the 32 percent who did so to get a better job and the 20 percent looking for a raise, and certification seems to have become more a personal and less a financial goal. (Percentages add up to more than 100 because respondents could choose more than one answer.)

These numbers raise a question: In an era when certification arguably affects those around you less than ever before, do brain dumps still have a negative impact on the IT profession? That answer remains up for debate, and it's most likely the reason I've rewritten this piece more than any other column in my writing history.

The brain dumps do indeed offer a service to society. For experienced IT professionals seeking to quickly prove they know what they know, the brain dump offers a pre-exam gut check. That person argues, "If I can answer a sample of real questions with relative ease, then this is a worthwhile investment." To this group, such tools are less a study aid than assurance they already possess the knowledge they need to pass.

So, brain dumps are OK, right?

Those who are still acquiring our industry's foundational knowledge might think otherwise. For them, these aids surely seem like little more than cheating. "A brain dump offers no beneficial service for true knowledge," they argue. And they're probably also right.

It makes me wonder if this column's question has no morally correct answer. Or that its answer is, paradoxically, both at the same time. As it relates to certification, do the means ever justify the ends?

About the Author

Greg Shields is a senior partner and principal technologist with Concentrated Technology. He also serves as a contributing editor and columnist for TechNet Magazine and Redmond magazine, and is a highly sought-after and top-ranked speaker for live and recorded events. Greg can be found at numerous IT conferences such as TechEd, MMS and VMworld, among others, and has served as conference chair for 1105 Media’s TechMentor Conference since 2005. Greg has been a multiple recipient of both the Microsoft Most Valuable Professional and VMware vExpert award.

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