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Are network certifications a racket, due to cheaters?

Braindumps, testkings, proxy testers and collusion -- the methods that people use to cheat on network certification exams hurt the reputation of Cisco certifications and other vendor training programs. But networking pros who put in the necessary time to learn a technology will still shine in technical job interviews.

Students have been cheating on tests throughout history. But in the high-stakes world of network certifications,...

easy methods to cheat on exams abound and can hurt the reputation of hard-earned certifications that many networking pros spend lots of time and money earning. Now these network engineers have had enough and are looking to vendors to take action.

Cisco braindumps and testkings are everywhere on the Internet. Professional test-taking proxies hire themselves out to unscrupulous candidates, and rumors of training and testing houses that collude with students to help them pass exams circulate through the industry. This cheating leads to a flood of Cisco certification cheaters with padded resumes that are nothing more than paper and ink.

Are Cisco braindumps and other cheats making Cisco certifications a racket?

Blogger Dan Hughes, an R&S CCIE-certified network engineer from Ireland, says that in some respects the network certification industry has become nothing more than a racket.

Using Cisco braindumps to pass lower-level network certification exams like the CCNA and CCNP has almost become acceptable in some circles. "'Helping me understand the technology' is the excuse used," Hughes said. "I think some people actually believe that."

He saw blatant use of Cisco braindumps when he worked at a VAR (value-added reseller) a while back. "People put them on shared drives so everyone could see," he said. "They expensed them."

As a result, Cisco certification cheaters are even threatening the integrity of elite certifications like the CCIE.

"When I did [my CCIE] two years ago, there was a Cisco partner I knew who kept sending their staff over and over again," Hughes said. "It didn't matter if they passed. [They would] just come back [to the office] with the questions. One guy who was there told me that once he saw the color of the binder, he knew which test it was. Remember, the VAR gets better discounts [from Cisco] if they have more certified staff. It's big money."

Jennifer Huber, a senior systems architect in Austin, Texas, who is pursuing her CCIE wireless , said the compromised reputation of network certifications especially hurts less experienced networking professionals.

"If I were just starting out and didn't have any work experience to underscore that I know what I'm doing, at that point I only have your certs to make me stand out from the crowd," Huber said. "When I didn't have any experience, I made my resume reflect the night classes I was taking to indicate that I wasn't just taking cert exams, [but] I was enrolled at a local technical school."

Vendors act on network certification fraud, but do they do enough?

Cisco execs say the company takes ever-evolving preventative measures to address the problem. "We continue to look at patterns through data forensics to see how people are cheating. Our goal is to protect the overall value of the program for those candidates who didn't cheat," said Erik Ullanderson, Learning@Cisco's manager of global certifications.

Cisco continually broadens the pool of questions and continues to introduce more "performance-based items," or simulations, Ullanderson said. In fact, the CCIE certification is now essentially 100% simulation-based, making it more difficult for candidates to take advantage of rote memorization techniques. Cisco also said it polices network certification cheating among the channel.

"I work very closely with our channel team to make sure they make decisions based upon the data we find. I have on staff a group of security experts who work with me to vet this information and verify that the data is accurate and accusations [of cheating] are true," Ullanderson said.

Cisco has strict policies on confidentiality and conduct by network certification candidates. For instance, the company reserves the right to permanently ban cheaters from ever taking the exam again, and it can also revoke other, previously earned certifications.

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But Hughes said the company needs to get tougher with Cisco certification cheaters.

He wants Cisco to change test questions more regularly and use a larger question pool. He also wants the company to take a harder line. "Let it be known that anyone caught [cheating] loses all their certifications and never gets them back," he said. "Any firm that is complicit also loses its certification. The training company is no longer an authorized training company if their staff hands out testkings. Or partners lose their percentage [discount] if they are caught with braindumps on their systems."

Huber, on the other hand, understands it can be tough to keep up with Cisco certification cheaters. "I imagine it is quite time-consuming to develop new scenario questions on a regular basis. It seems as soon as there's a new test, the testking is on the Web within a day or so."

Network certifications can get you a job interview, but no further

Cisco certification cheaters don't completely devalue the work of honest test-takers. Network certifications dress up a resume quite well, but if networking pros haven't really learned the technology they were tested on, they won't stand much of a chance in a technical interview. What's more, IT and networking managers know about the problem and conduct interviews that shake out the problem candidates.

"I think certifications like CCNA, CCNP, CCSP, etc. are methods that HR uses to filter out resumes," Huber said.

Putting the right number of certifications on your resume is a "clever way" of getting past the HR filter, she said. "But I don't believe that passing a written test is any indication that you'd be a good employee. You have to have thorough, methodical troubleshooting skills. I think the CCIE is a differentiator, or at least I hope it is."

Hughes, who recently switched jobs, said he interviewed with a high-profile Internet retailer who expressed shock at the quality of some of the CCIE-certified candidates who had applied for jobs at the company.

HR departments at larger companies certainly use network certifications to filter out unqualified candidates, but smaller organizations are more open to looking at the person rather than the certifications.

"We don't have any certification requirements for any position we have here," said Don Lester, senior engineer with Wenatchee Valley Medical Center in Wenatchee, Wash. "And we don't use them as a screening tool in hiring new people. We just give them a rather extensive technical interview and listen to their answers and banter back and forth with them. We have seen many examples of people with certifications who have no basic job skills. And we can contrast that with people who have no certifications and have been our best performers."

When Lester interviews a job candidate, he likes to draw a diagram on a white board. The diagram consists of two PCs connected to different switches, which in turn are connected to the same router. Then he asks a simple question.

"They can assume the network is configured correctly," he said. "The two PCs have not communicated with each other. Now PC 1 is trying to connect to PC 2. In as much detail as the candidate understands, explain what happens. Even when interviewing a candidate [with a] CCNP, I rarely get more than a five-second response followed by a blank stare. The painful reality is they just don't know what happens next. But they are certified networking professionals. When asked to explain simple foundation services like DHCP or DNS, they also fail miserably."

With hiring managers tuning in to the problem, ultimately, the cheating that pollutes the network certification system today helps everyone but the individual cheater.

"Partners win -- they get the discount. Testing centers win -- they get lots [of paying candidates] coming through the doors. Cisco wins because they get lots of testing money and keep the partners in line," Lester said. "The candidates miss out on a learning opportunity. And it shows when you interview them."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor

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