The Pain of Exams

Compared to the technology that's being tested, test center technology can seem outright medieval.

Despite appearances, Auntie has been known to relax from time to time. For example, she does like to go out to the Renaissance Faire re-enactments, mingle with the other peasants and eat half-burnt food with fingers and a sharp knife. But this occasional fascination with things medieval stops at the door to her office. Well, most of the time. It was one of those other times that provoked this particular column.

You see, I recently had the experience of taking one of the Microsoft certification exams. It's hardly the first time that I'd stayed up all night studying, making sure I was up on the latest and greatest. Then came the morning and the drive to the testing center, followed by digging up the requisite two forms of ID that didn't make me look too bad, and signing that charming agreement. Speaking of which, when was it that they added the paragraph about not assaulting the testing center workers? Are you people really that brutal over this stuff?

Of course, the veneer that I was working with the latest and greatest peeled right off when I settled down next to the PII-233 with the shrieking hard drive and waited for the exam to load. And waited, and waited ... until the screen popped up a message. The exact message took up half a screen, but the gist of it was, "This exam will only be available after June 16. Today is June 16. Please reschedule after June 16. If today is on or after June 16, ask the testing center to call technical support."

Of course, that's an insane error message on the face of it. And never mind the fact that someone from the testing company scheduled me for that date over the phone (I long ago gave up on the Web registration interface, since I got tired of agonizing waits for it to crash entirely). What followed was a 45-minute exercise in tedium. First the nice people at the testing center had to call technical support and read them the entire error message, s-l-o-w-l-y, so they could write it down word for word. (What, they don't know what error messages are in their own software?) Then there were a few things to try. Then there was more time on hold. Then there was a wait for a callback, during which time the nice testing center person confided to Auntie, "We're thinking of no longer offering the Microsoft exams. This sort of thing happens far too often."

Eventually, the testing company's software was convinced that today was indeed today, a new exam was downloaded, and a rather aggravated Auntie sat down to start answering questions. As a customer service experience, it ranked right up there with having Bengal tigers set upon one for asking an impertinent question.

After a decade-plus of dealing with Microsoft and their exam subcontractors, I could multiply this story many fold. But why should I bother? I'm sure you readers could (and probably will) send in plenty of exam horror stories of your own.

The real question on Auntie's mind this month is: Why do we put up with this nonsense? Or, not to put too fine a point on it, why does Microsoft put up with it? Perhaps when Microsoft was just experimenting with certification, it made sense to hire an outside contractor with an existing national network of test centers to work with. But now, Microsoft has committed to this path for the long run. Why don't they roll out their own testing rooms, since they have offices all over the world? Why don't they put together a database that can accurately track a few million certified professionals? Why don't they upgrade the testing software to run on a reasonably modern operating system, so the exams could actually simulate the material we're being tested on? Is anyone in Redmond listening?

As for me, I'm going to go see if Fabio wants to go to the Ren Faire tomorrow. If I'm going to be stuck with obsolete, poorly working technology, I might as well have fun about it.

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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