Exam Insurance Is Stupid
By Jonathan Goodyear
In many professions, such as legal, medical, and accounting, you must attain certification before you begin work. You attain that certification by taking one or more exams. The Bar Exam and the CPA (Certified Public Accountant) Exam are only offered a couple of times per year, and are rather costly so you had better know your material before walking into the room to take them. These Draconian measures help to ensure the quality of the candidates who pass the exams and attain certification in their desired profession.
The software development profession is much more nebulous than the aforementioned examples. You don t need to be certified to develop software. Heck, you don t even need a college degree (although it helps). Developers often seek to become certified anyway, in an effort to separate themselves from the pack.
I ve had a love/hate relationship with Microsoft s certification process for quite some time (http://www.aspnetpro.com/opinion/2002/06/asp200206jg_o/asp200206jg_o.asp; http://www.aspnetpro.com/opinion/2004/09/asp200409jg_o/asp200409jg_o.asp). A few of the complaints that I ve written about are how the exams are too easy, not specialized enough, and the lack of premium certifications. Microsoft has taken a lot of my suggestions to heart, and their more recent exams are more in line with what I had originally envisioned. They even introduced the Microsoft Certified Architect Program to allow the cream of the crop to rise to the top by having candidates go through a rigorous exam process and appear before a review board of their peers (http://www.microsoft.com/learning/mcp/architect/default.mspx).
Then Microsoft did something I feel is stupid and cheapens their certification brand. They introduced the concept of Exam Insurance (http://www.microsoft.com/learning/mcp/offers/insurance/default.mspx). The way it works is that you purchase an exam insurance voucher before taking a certification exam and use the code on the voucher when you register to take the exam. If you fail the exam, you are entitled to take the exam again at no additional charge. If you pass the exam, you are entitled to a 25% discount on a future exam registration.
The price for exams and insurance vouchers varies by region. In Florida, where I live, typical Microsoft certification exams cost $125 each. Exam insurance vouchers are $45 each. If you plan to take more than one exam, the 25% discount for passing means that you re going to pay $13.75 more than if you didn t purchase exam insurance. That is, until you re getting ready to take your final exam, in which case you d eat the whole $45.
The cost of the exam insurance isn t really what I have an issue with, though. What I don t like is the fact that the philosophy behind it (per the Microsoft Web site) is that you can take a certification exam even though you re not 100% sure you re going to pass. In my opinion, that s wrong. If you re not absolutely confident that you re going to pass the exam, you have no business being at the testing center. Think about it: Would you want to be a passenger in a plane piloted by someone who purchased exam insurance? Not me.
Microsoft publishes a list of the topics that are going to be on the exam, and relies on you having the requisite amount of industry experience using the technology about which you are going to be tested. Microsoft certifications have historically been tainted by the ease in which they can be passed. Now that they ve gotten a bit more difficult, Microsoft shouldn t be giving borderline developers an easy way to test the waters.
Some of you may recall a time several years ago when I walked into a testing center and took a beta of the Windows Forms .NET 1.1 exam after having only eight hours of experience with the topic (at that time) and passed (http://angrycoder.com/article.aspx?cid=1&y=2002&m=4&d=10; http://angrycoder.com/article.aspx?cid=1&y=2002&m=6&d=3). I did that purely to prove that the exams were too easy. I was given a free voucher to take the exam and asked for my feedback, as well, so I didn t see any harm. (I would never attempt such a feat on a normal occasion.)
The other thing that I don t agree with is that you can only purchase exam insurance vouchers from a Microsoft Certified Partner for Learning Solutions. You can t purchase them directly from Microsoft. The developers who are not sure about their ability to pass certification exams are going to be the ones who want to buy exam insurance vouchers, and that gives the learning solutions partners a great way to up-sell them into a training program. I find it hard to believe that this is a coincidence. Perhaps it is Microsoft s way to offset the affect of developers gaining a tool that potentially reduces their desire to get trained before taking a certification exam.
I probably sound like a nasty curmudgeon to some of you right now. I assure you that I m not that old (yet), and my intentions are sincere. The Microsoft certification brand has come a long way from the state that it was in a few years ago when I first picked up a sword and began fighting. I would really hate to see anything damage the progress that has been made. Exam insurance is an attack vector to that end. The Microsoft Web site indicates that exam insurance vouchers will be sold through May 31, 2007 for exams being taken before June 30, 2007. I imagine that if the concept is successful, in Microsoft s opinion, the dates will be extended. Voice your opinions with your wallets by not purchasing exam insurance and send this horrible idea back into the closet from whence it came.
Jonathan Goodyear is president of ASPSOFT (http://www.aspsoft.com), an Internet consulting firm based in Orlando, FL. Jonathan is Microsoft Regional Director for Florida, an ASP.NET MVP, a Microsoft Certified Solution Developer (MCSD), and co-author of ASP.NET 2.0 MVP Hacks (Wrox). Jonathan also is a contributing editor for asp.netPRO. E-mail him at mailto:[email protected] or through his angryCoder eZine at http://www.angryCoder.com.