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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,, 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 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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Reader Comments:

Tue, Feb 7, 2012 Anon UK

Preparing for and passing MCP exams is completely different to actually being able to perform a job role in IT. The skillsets are poles apart. I've seen system admins on Microsoft courses, who were left way behind by people with less practical experience when it came to Microsoft exams and results. Whatever material you use to prepare for exams, you have to check and verify the answers and that way you learn more about the exam technique. The more prep questions you have the better your chances. The simple reason why Microsoft and other test providers do not like Braindump sites is that some of the questions are stolen from legitimate sites. Interestingly, it is not that easy to tell if a site is legitimate or not these days. I have seen several sites were I could not tell, although they tried to imply they were legitimate it was very questionable.

Fri, Dec 9, 2011 Mike Dallas

I never used the brain dump sites, but I did use Transcender software years ago. There were definitely questions that were word-for-word on the test, but the real value was getting comfortable with the environment of the test itself. Learning what type of questions you might face, learning areas where my knowledge was weak. I passed my MCSE exams using the Transcender, but I knew my stuff. I was definitely prepared for the “real world” after passing the exams. I think in the boom days you might have made it past the HR department with a cert, but not past the IT hiring manager unless you had knowledge to back it up. Besides, it’s well and good that I passed a test on the subject of enterprise architecture and design, but the foot-in-the-door job was usually a low-level engineering or help desk job. I think the loss of those good paying entry-level jobs has more to do with the deflated value of certifications than the “paper MCSE.”

Fri, Nov 11, 2011 Chicago, IL

I am a MCTS (SQL business intelligence) and, and have lost some of the interest on certifications due to one single decision from MS: they don't advertise the MCP numbers anymore. Before, I could see how many peers had achieved a specific certification. I could use that info to see how market was moving, and decide on which areas to pursue next. Now the only numbers they advertise are for the master level (supposedly). Since now anyone can argue that any high school kid has the same certification I possess, and there's nothing I can do to prove them wrong, certifications lost a lot of their value.

Fri, Nov 11, 2011 Inak

I tried a couple brain dump sites years ago when I was studying for my Novell CNE. Both sites had a huge question base, were well laid out, etc. The problem with both was with the answers. With both tests I was studying for at the time, I found about 30% of the answers were wrong. Even better, some looked like they had been copied from the other site.... I emailed the site owners to point out the incorrect answers and provide correct ones (including references to New Riders and Sybex study guides). In both cases, I got a polite reply saying they had extensively researched the questions and there was no way their answers could possibly be wrong. I haven't tried others since then because certification hasn't been a priority for me as my employer doesn't think its important.

Fri, Nov 11, 2011 joel atlanta

I agree that they can serve as a good gut-check.....I've used some of the more reputable ones as a way to prep for a subject that I have experience with but don't want to sit through an expesnive or time-comsuming class.

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