Monday, December 24, 2018

Preparing and Taking a Certification Test

Despite how many people hate it, we judge education and skills with standardized tests most of the time. As a result, most certification tests are standardized tests. Of course there are exceptions, but in most cases you will run into standardized tests. Personally, I've always had poor test taking skills. Despite this, I've passed all but one certification on the first try and the one I failed was in the beta phase anyway. So here's my advice on how to pass.

Now the first obvious thing to do is study. Today you have a huge selection of options to choose for studying. You can choose between instructor-taught courses to self-study. In my opinion, instructor taught courses are over priced and offer very little added benefit for anyone who is at least a hobbyist in the subject matter. That is not to say you shouldn't try it out, I just think most of them are fairly expensive for what you are getting and co-workers that use it do not seem to have any more of a leg up. Then of course there are books you can buy and study guides you can download.

I've done all of my certifications through CompTIA so far and I use the Certmaster tool. I find there are two main benefits. The first is that since it is made by the people that make the test, it covers almost all the material necessary. The second thing is they also word the questions in a similar manner, so it mentally prepares me to be able to read and understand the questions on the test. The wording of questions is the big thing, because I wonder if English is their first language or somewhere down the line a fifth of sixth.

Study guides and topic outlines are also useful to read over. They often can include things you can do your own research into. For me, this research leads to tools and techniques to actually try.

Actually trying the techniques, tools, and methods that you are studying is probably the best way to hammer the ideas into your head, coupled with an understanding of the practical application involved. Say you read about nmap and have never tried it before, simply do some googling and then try out the tool. In some instances, it's hard because you might not have access to the tool or program or have a setup to try the technique. In those cases, you may still have a way to set it up with some virtual machines or maybe find demos and screenshots online. Anything to further familiarize yourself with the content.

Books. I like having physical books. Problem is, they eventually go out of date. Make sure if you buy a book that it is a version that is useful to you. Check the publication date, any reviews, and any information that indicates that they are worth reading. Then make yourself a library. Knowledge is power.

Time. Take your time studying. Study a little bit every day.

Refresh earlier information as you go. Read acronyms as the words they represent. Take practice quizzes and try to answer without looking at the multiple choice answers. Try to teach others around you what you've learned, even if they yell at you to shut up or keep saying they have no idea what you're talking about.

So now you are prepared to take the test. How can you take a test any different to optimize your chances? The first thing is to go through the whole test, even questions you are not sure of. When you come across a question you are not sure of, first eliminate all the answers you know are wrong, then guess with the remainder. Make sure you pay attention as you go, as one question may have an answer for another question in it. I've had questions where after I eliminate all possibilities I know are wrong, I have one answer left which helped me answer another question by eliminating one of the two options I had narrowed it down to.

Okay, so you got through the test, and look! Still time on the clock. Do not end the exam yet, go back to the beginning and start over. More often than not, I find questions that when I'm on my second run, I look at the answer I picked and realize that I had misread the question. So go through and look for errors, look for answers other questions gave you, look to find what you did wrong.

Now you made it through again. Maybe there's still time on the clock. Use it. Go through again and again until that time runs out. Maybe you're just clicking next and not changing anything, but each time you go through you should be more certain of your answers than the next.

Times up, exam ended. You passed? Great! You failed, don't fret. If you do fail, even after all that work, try to keep all the questions you can remember. Go home, try to get the right answer. Go through all your study material with all the questions of that test in mind, then try again.

There's no magic method that will make you always pass, no perfect study material. You just have to be willing to try.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Getting Certified for Beginners in IT

For those just starting out in IT, to those looking to change careers, getting certifications is a great place to start. From my experience, employers love certifications. Whether or not the certification is actually as useful as people think is an entirely different story. Now getting a certification is not a magic key for a job, but it can be some heavy leverage. It's a piece of paper that specifically says that you can do that type of job and are backed by an industry standard that you are indeed capable by there standings. So where to begin?

Every job I applied to, and the job I currently work, consider the CompTIA A+ the starting point of being an IT Specialist. Sure people get hired without it, but at my place of employment, they expect you to either acquire or have supplemental experience/education with credible proof. I will say that the CompTIA IT Fundamentals is as useful as toilet paper, so try to start with the A+. There are other companies with other certifications, but the A+ is the go to. So what does an A+ mean? Well, it's pretty much a basic understanding of computers, operating systems, and troubleshooting. Pretty much the job description of IT, the only thing you need to add on is that you're good with Office suites like Microsoft Office, and maybe tack on some free ones like Libre Office and OpenOffice.

Despite the A+ being a job description for IT work, like a help desk, it's just saying you meet expectations. In the day of the Internet, networking is something every IT person should at least understand. This includes things like the OSI model, different technologies used, network services, and the like. When it comes to networking, there are two routes you can go. CompTIA Network+ is the normal go to if you're not wanting to go heavy into networking, but the Cisco certifications like the CCNA are held in high regard. Even if you don't use a Cisco network, their certifications are held very high when it comes to networking.

Once you cover these two areas, you should have the proof you need that you can IT. After that you can branch out into quite a few different areas. They include Security, Infrastructure (Cloud and/or Server), and Networking to name some. Those of course branch off into more specific groups.

When looking at security, there's the CompTIA Security+, CySA+, PenTest+, and CASP+. There's also other companies such as SANS with the GIAC stuff, EC-Council with their well known CEH (certified Ethical Hacker) to get you started, and Offensive Security (who brings Kali Linux to the table) with a certification that shows you can penetration test in the real world. There are so many good options here, especially with everyone trying to get into the penetration testing stuff.

With networking, your best bet is to get into Cisco's certifications. To be honest, I don't recall seeing much else asked for outside of Cisco certs beyond the minimum of a Network+. It's also a good start with so many companies emulating what Cisco does and the way they do things, so you still are quite versatile.

Infrastructure is a unique area because it often requires some advanced networking, security knowledge, and a million and one tools and commands to pull out of thin air. When it comes to the cloud stuff, I have never really looked at it. When it comes to the server stuff, there's of course some that CompTIA have, like the Server+. Other options worth exploring are the certifications offered by Microsoft themselves. Let's face it, they're everywhere. There are of course other things out there that can be just as important, or even more so. In steps Linux. CompTIA does have the Linux+, but I think the Redhat certifications are a better bang for your buck. Redhat and CentOS seem to be the heavy hitters in the Linux world that actually require some knowledge. Every Ubuntu based server I've delt with at work was either shipped pre-configured or just a script you ran and called it quits. I manage the CentOS servers we use for mass image deployment across our locations. We have security cameras that use Ubuntu servers, but those are already setup and our camera guy is usually only running updates or wget and a shell script. There's a few other places that offer certifications, but none spring to mind.

I should also add that there are certifications for virtualization that can be valuable for Networking and Infrastructure. There's plenty of information on it if you go check out VMWare and their certification path.

So how do you decide which way to go? Well, start with the A+ and Network+. Figure out an industry you want to work in or type of area. Then just take the more general varieties and narrow it down as you go. So... Good luck!

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