Unlike all the rest of the sessions at the Red Hat Summit, one was more dialogue than lecture. In the RHCE and RHCT (Red Hat Certified Engineer and Red Hat Certified Technician, respectively) Focus Chat with Randy Russell, Red Hat's director of certification Russell departed from past practice and turned the forum over directly to the small audience rather than directing the talk himself.
"This year I tried something different," Russell said in a phone interview following the Summit. "I decided to start with questions and comments and feedback…instead of holding them until the end of the presentation. And it was a great success."
"We're very open about the program. I am happy to be very transparent," he said.
What's on the tests
Both Red Hat's technician and certified engineer exams measure practical, hands-on knowledge with no multiple choice questions and no trick questions, Russell said.
"Red Hat doesn't gain anything by making the exams excessively hard or tricking people into failure," he said. "Our objective is to get an accurate measure of how [candidates] perform on real world tasks."
The exams ask test-takers to perform tasks like adding partitions, updating packages or configuring a network, permissions or logical volumes, he said.
Where test-takers trip up is failing to check their work by rebooting the system or double-checking a network configuration from a different system, Russell explained. But those who fail an exam for these reasons could cause problems on the job site, so there is a certain justice in a failing grade. Success really comes down to following good field practices, he added.
Red Hat recently shortened the length of the tests, reducing the technician test from three hours to two and the engineer test from 5 ½ to three hours. The reason for the change, explained Russell, was to reduce the time lost from work; the new tests are just as difficult but skip the basic installation and jump right to a specific configuration skill.
Other than the courses and materials on Red Hat's website, Russell said the best test preparation is to learn how to find information and become familiar with the individual tasks rather than trying to memorize all the different command switches.
Red Hat's training programs
The training programs, which Red Hat has been running for a decade, include Web-based materials and classes, held around the globe, for both technician and engineer certifications, as well as some advanced topics.
To date, Red Hat has certified 30,000 technicians and 40,000 engineers, with some overlap between the two. According to Russell, class enrollment in India has been particularly strong, with more than 100 students currently; globally, however, the number of students dipped earlier this year due to the economy but is now rebounding.
In recent years, Red Hat has seen significant interest from administrators with a Windows background and has added two courses and modified others to accommodate their different work experience, Russell said.
"We are using the same benchmarks and not changing standards but the path getting [Windows administrators] there is different," he said. "We're changing the way we teach."
Mike Roberts, an RHCE technical trainer with Rackspace, a large IT hosting company based in San Antonio, Texas, said Russell was astute in recognizing the caliber of the individuals in the audience and opening it up for questions instead of giving a lecture.
The major feedback the audience offered was the need to give applicants who fail a certification test some information about why they didn't pass, Roberts said. Currently, candidates simply get a pass or fail grade and some who fail believe a little more information about the reason would alleviate anxiety, he said. The challenge is explaining a cause of failure without enabling the student to guess the correct steps without restudying the issue and thinking it through, he said.
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