Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Perils of Being Comfortable

A few days ago a former coworker lost his job. He worked as a programmer for a company with government contracts and his position fell victim to the sequester. For the past several days, his LinkedIn account has been a flurry of profile updates, new contacts, endorsements, and more. It is obvious that he was completely blindsided by the news. Now he is scrambling to dust off his credentials for this unexpected re-entry into the job market.

No matter how comfortable you are with your current job, it is always a good idea to keep your resume current. In recent years, I do this by always keeping my LinkedIn profile up to date. If I ever need to have a polished resume in a hurry, the data from my profile can easily be converted to that purpose. Because I have tweaked my LI profile over several years, I know it contains no spelling or grammar errors and I am happy with the wording of my previous positions. In addition, my profile generates a fairly constant stream of emails from recruiters. While I am not looking to change jobs at the moment, it is very comforting to know that my skills are in demand if that were to change suddenly.

In terms of certifications, they can certainly help when you find yourself in the market for a job. I have seen jobs where Oracle certifications are listed as a requirement. My certifications came up during the interview for the position I hold now and I am confident they were a factor in winning out over the other applicants. However, if you find yourself in the same position as my colleague, it is a bit late to wish you had another certification on your resume or that a certification you have was for the current release. Unlike tweaks to your LinkedIn profile, adding a new certification or upgrading an existing one is not something that you can do in a couple of days. Granted, not having a job means that you would have plenty of time to study. It is a bit of a reach to consider that a positive result, though.

Take some time and look at your LinkedIn profile (or your resume if you have no LI account). If your job went away tomorrow, would you be comfortable sending that information out to prospective employers?  If the answer is no, you might want to invest some time into fixing the deficiencies. This is something that is a lot easier done when it is not an emergency.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Oracle Beta Exams -- The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

I should preface this post with the disclaimer that I do not really care for Oracle beta exams. I have taken exactly one, many years ago. It was the Oracle 8 DBA upgrade, so you can work the math on how long ago it was if you are so inclined. I passed the exam, but the experience was not one I care to repeat. That said, I know people who really enjoy taking beta exams. This post is not going to be all about why you should avoid these exams, but I wanted to make my own preferences clear in case it colors my writing.

The Good
Beta exams are cheap. They cost about one quarter the price of the production exam. Exam costs vary somewhat, of course, but generally in the US the production exams are $200 and beta exams are $50. If you have to pay for your own certification expenses, then this is obviously a significant incentive.

If you pass the exam, you will be one of the first Oracle professionals to do so. If this is an exam that will directly result in a certification, such as an upgrade exam or an exam in the Expert series, then you have the potential to add this credential to your resume very early. Becoming one of the first Oracle professionals certified in Oracle 12c for example could help boost your career. Realize, however, individuals who take the production exams in the first few weeks after its release will have the same advantage.

The beta exam will contain all of the possible questions that will be used on the production exam. Since the beta is testing all of the potential production questions, beta testers will see the complete set. During the post-beta review, some will be discarded and others may be modified somewhat. However, beta exam takers are the only candidates that get such a close look at the entire exam. If you think of the beta in terms of practicing for the production exam, it is cheaper than any commercially available practice exam and will provide you with 'actual' rather than 'similar' questions. If you were to purchase a practice exam from Transcender for $150, I guarantee that no matter what score you get on it, Oracle will not give you a credit for passing the test. However, if you pay $50 to take a beta exam, you have a reasonable possibility of passing it and receiving credit toward the associated certification path. Even if you fail the beta, you have been given enormous insight into the content. This can assist you once the production exam is available. My earlier blog post on what to do if you fail your certification exam can help with this.

The Bad
To my mind, a significant downside is the uncertainty about whether you passed or failed the exam for months. If you were to take the beta on the last day it is available, you would not know if you passed or failed for about twelve weeks. People who take the test near the start could wait for over twenty weeks before learning if they passed. This might not bother some people, but I hate being in the dark about my score for so long.

The exam will be buggy. Beta exams, just like beta software, are intended to locate problems that must be fixed before going into production. Flawed questions will not directly impact your score. These should be caught during the post-beta process and the results thrown out. However, they will indirectly affect your score by wasting your time and throwing your thought process off. When a question does not make sense, I do not automatically assume the question is flawed but that my understanding is flawed. It is possible to spend a lot of time trying to find the correct answer to a question that does not have a correct answer. If you are like me, you will read and re-read, and re-re-read the question and the answers trying to figure out why none of the answers makes sense.

There will not be any third-party study materials available to use in time for the beta. You will be restricted to using the Oracle documentation and secondary sources like articles on OTN and the Oracle Learning Library. All of these are good sources to use, for beta or production exams. However, if you normally use Oracle Press books or other such materials when studying for certification exams, do not expect any to be an option for a beta. Third party materials provide short-cuts to the information you need by compiling it into a single source. Without such materials, you will need to allocate additional time to prepare for the exam.

The Ugly
The tests are long. They are really... really... long. Years after I took the one beta, that is what I remember most clearly about the exam. I probably was not as well prepared for it as I should have been (that memory I find easy to repress). However, I clearly recall that I was ready to be done with that test before it was two-thirds complete. By the time I was ninety percent of the way through, I had a splitting headache and no longer cared whether I passed or failed so long as the exam would just end. In order to do well on a beta exam, you need to plan for this. Drinking a big glass of soda before any exam is not a wise choice. Doing so before one that will last for three hours can leave you unable to concentrate for a sizable portion of the exam. You should not schedule this test in the late afternoon after you will have had a full day of work. You want to be rested, alert, and energetic at the time you start the exam. I highly recommend that you take it in the morning for this reason. Of course that is also what I suggest for production exams... just to a lesser degree of importance.

I also suspect that there is a bit less time on average per question for beta exams than is the case for the production version. I cannot substantiate this because Oracle does not post specific times and question counts for beta exams. However, beta durations are listed as 2.5 to 3 hours and the question counts as 120-150. Picking the top numbers, 150 questions in three hours is 72 seconds per question. Using the bottom two numbers gives 75 seconds per question. It seems reasonable to assume that the target time per question on betas is somewhere between 72-75 seconds. By contrast, the 1Z0-117 and 1Z0-053 production exams have 112 and 92 seconds per question respectively. I have not done exhaustive checking, but 75 seconds is definitely a low-end number for a production exam.

The Conclusion
If you simply count the negative points I have presented in this post, they outnumber the positive ones. It is not my intent, however, to imply that taking beta exams is a bad idea. As I indicated at the beginning, there are people who enjoy taking them. If there is a point that I hope people come away from this post with, it is that you should go into beta exams with your eyes wide open. Do not spend a quarter the amount of time studying for the test just because it costs a quarter the amount of money. In order to be successful, they require more study time than the production version. The more familiar you are with the material, the faster you will be able to answer questions. This means that the increased question count will affect you less, the reduced time per question will be a smaller issue, and it will be easier for you to identify flawed questions.

Based on threads I see reasonably often in the OTN Certification forum, cost is a major concern for many individuals pursuing certification. My employers have always reimbursed me for exam expenses so their cost has never been a factor for me. This in turn means that betas do not provide me with a significant upside. However, for IT professionals pursuing certifications on a limited budget, there is no less expensive route to Oracle certification than studying using the online documentation, and then taking (and passing) a beta exam. For these individuals in particular, the Oracle beta program provides an excellent method to boost their career prospects inexpensively.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

I Failed my Oracle Certification Exam. What Should I do Now?

First off -- I'm sorry you didn't make it.  That said, if everybody that took any given certification test passed, then the test would have no value.  It's not much of a consolation prize, but this is validation that the certification you are pursuing has relevance.

That aside, over the years I have taken twenty Oracle certification exams plus another ten or fifteen from various other vendors such as Microsoft, Novell, and CompTIA.  In recent years I have dropped into a pattern of preparation for the exams. I wrote these up as an article at GoCertify.com: Oracle Certification: 10 Tips for any Exam.

That list of tips stops with submitting the test, so it does not cover my 'after-test' routine.  However, tip number nine suggests marking every question that you are not positive about and then going back over them them at the end of the test (if you have time).  I normally do a bit more than that.  When re-reading the questions at the end of the exam, I also try to cement the subject of each question in memory -- not the exact wording, just the base elements.  Once the test is submitted I will return to my car and write these elements down.  One thing needs to be perfectly clear, though, I do not make any attempt to write down exact questions or answers.  That behavior is effectively creating brain dumps and is specifically prohibited by the Oracle Candidate Agreement.  My notes might look something like:

Parameter "X" -- valid values?
"Y" command -- syntax?
How  to perform "Z" operation?
and so on...

With this information, once I am home and have access to documentation, I will look the answers up.  I do this regardless of whether I pass or fail the exam because it is information that I should know even if I passed.  This data is, after all, part of what the test is validating that I know. If I fail a test, the list gives me a starting point in studying for the retake.

If you are reading this, presumably you failed an exam, and probably did so days or even weeks ago. The above information would obviously have been considerably more useful to you before taking the exam. Hopefully you can still remember some of the questions that gave you trouble. You have one big advantage that you did not have before -- you have seen exactly what the exam is like. Make the most of that advantage before time blurs the details. Create a set of notes as I suggest above to the greatest degree possible.  Your score report from Oracle will indicate the topics you missed questions on.  Look over them -- they may help you to recall some of the questions that you could not answer.  Even if they do not, the list of problem topics is a valuable resource to use in preparing to retake the exam. Go back to your study resources and read over portions on these topics again.  If you do this soon enough after taking the exam, the material itself may help you recall questions that you were unable to answer with confidence.

Possibly the single biggest uncertainty after failing an exam is how long you should prepare before attempting it again. The absolute minimum period mandated by Oracle for proctored exams is fourteen days. The amount of time that should be spent preparing is entirely dependent on you. If you were close to passing and feel that all of the problem areas have been identified and resolved , then fourteen days may be sufficient. Keep in mind, however, that you are very unlikely to get the same questions. You may find the set of questions on the retake harder or easier than the first attempt.

If you read my GoCertify article at the link above, the first tip suggested calculating how many questions can be missed while still passing the exam.  The same basic technique will allow you to figure out how many questions you were from getting a passing score.  Oracle rounds the percentages, so it is only possible to estimate the number of questions.  However, if you scored 61% on a 70 question test, you probably got 43 questions right (70 * .61 = 42.7).  If the passing score was 66%, you needed to get about three more questions correct in order to pass. You should use that information in making a decision about how much additional preparation to budget for. Be conservative. Allocating a week more study time than you really need is much better than taking the test a second time and realizing (too late) that another week would have made all the difference. Getting certified is not a race.  Take your some and prepare until you are comfortable with all of the problem topics before rescheduling the exam.

If your result was not reasonably close to the passing score, you might also consider making use of a practice test after you have done some more preparation and before you schedule the real exam again. There are a handful of vendors that offer legitimate practice exams, including Self Test Software and Transcender.  Oracle Certification Prep has also started offering low-cost practice tests that can be found at this link.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

How to Dump Your Oracle Career in One Stupid Step

There have been a number of articles written about how you really shouldn't use brain dumps when preparing for certifications. Heck -- I wrote one just under a year ago. I can't honestly claim that I believe writing one more will magically convince someone who is planning to use illicit materials that this is 'A Really Bad Idea'. However, the recent surge in requests for brain dumps on what is effectively the official LinkedIn group for Oracle Certified Professionals (or at least the only one directly linked from the Oracle Education website) made me want to do something -- however futile.

My youngest daughter has a problem with doing things she knows are wrong and then lying about it. One of the most irritating things about the situation (and about dealing with liars in general) is the automatic assumption that I am dumb enough not to recognize the lie. My daughter is eight. Her lies are pathetic. She steals candy then leaves the wrappers in her wastebasket. She doesn't put her clothes away and dumps them behind her bed. She doesn't do her homework but claims that she has. The lies are transparent as soon as I see her wastebasket, look behind the bed, or glance at her workbook.

People who use brain dumps think they are being clever by taking the easy method to pass an exam in order to get a certification that effectively lies about their skills. In reality they are following the same basic thought process as my eight year old. I have been working with Oracle for over seventeen years. Do you honestly believe that I cannot determine whether or not someone is knowledgeable about Oracle?  Prospective cheaters might ask why they should care what I can do. They should care because it is people with experience like mine that generally make the decisions about who gets hired. I have been part of that decision making process in the past and I am sure that I will be again in the future. There may be companies out there where human resource personnel with no knowledge of Oracle hire the DBAs (I hope I never work for one).  However, for the most part junior DBAs and developers are interviewed by senior DBAs and developers.  Senior personnel know how to do their jobs and can generally figure out when prospective (or new) employees can do theirs.

Let me make it perfectly clear that experienced Oracle professionals detest people that cheat on certification exams. These people are treating us like we are stupid and it is extremely irritating. The vast majority of people looking for brain dumps are individuals with little or no database experience that are trying to get their first job working with Oracle. The reason for this is because anyone who has worked with Oracle for any length of time knows that getting the paper without the knowledge is not only useless but actively dangerous to their career. If you get a certification that indicates you have knowledge of a topic, and then demonstrate in your work environment that you do not have that knowledge, this is a bright red flag that you either lied or cheated. When you raise that flag, you are likely to get fired.

What absolutely astounds me is the number of people who request these materials from their LinkedIn account. This account is what most employers will first see when researching your background. I will certainly perform such a check. If I see a candidate has requested dump material, their resume will be trashed immediately. You might as well put as part of your profile summary "I lie on my resume and cheat on tests. If hired, I will probably steal office supplies and key my manager's car."

I cannot think of any way to make it clearer. No one with so little Oracle knowledge that they need to use dumps is likely to get through an interview with me. If someone does and I find out about it after they are hired, I will do my level best to see that they get fired and I will report the incident to the OCP fraud team as well. I am fairly certain that my attitude is typical of the professionals that are employed as senior Oracle DBAs. Cheat if you must, but do not bother sending your resume to any company I am associated with.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Picking an Oracle Release for DBA Certification: 10G vs 11G

As it turns out, I don't need to get a cat to generate something to blog about. So long as people read my blog and keep asking leading questions, I have topics. As an added bonus, readers don't shed, claw my furniture or cough up hairballs. My article about choosing between Oracle 11G or 12c when selecting a DBA certification was overwhelmingly in favor of 11G. A reader asked what my thoughts were on getting a DBA certification in 10G instead of 11G.

My recommendation between these two releases is not quite as black and white as that between 11G and 12c. While 12c does not even exist at this time, both 10G and 11G are being used in production databases. I tried to locate some market share numbers to see how they compare, but was unsuccessful. I am certain, however, that 11G installations have long since passed 10G. Premier Support for 10.2 ended in July 2010 and Extended Support will end July 2013.  Companies use Oracle for enterprise-class databases and they want to be sure that Oracle support is available if they have a crisis.

Some companies that are still running 10G databases will upgrade due to the release of 12c (even if they only upgrade to 11G). Others will upgrade when the Extended Support period for 10G ends next year. While it is certain that a number of companies will continue to use it for years to come, they will make up only a tiny fraction of production Oracle installations. I would have to recommend that new DBA certification candidates pursue 11G unless they have a specific reason why 10G certification makes sense for them.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Upgrading from Older Releases of Oracle

A reader of my prior post about choosing between 11G or 12C when pursuing a new DBA certification asked for advice about upgrading. He currently holds the Oracle Certified Professional DBA certification for release 8i and wanted to know if he should upgrade directly to Oracle 11G. Rather than making a quick reply in a comment, I decided to create a larger blog post on the topic.

What is Possible?
It is only possible to upgrade if you have the Oracle Certified Professional (OCP) designation. There is no upgrade path if you only hold the Oracle Certified Associate (OCA) designation. You can also only upgrade where a test exists. Below are the six upgrade exams that Oracle Education currently offers:
  • 1Z0-030 -- Oracle9i New Features for Administrators
  • 1Z0-035 -- Oracle9i DBA New Features for Oracle 7.3 and Oracle8 OCPs
  • 1Z0-040 -- Oracle Database 10g: New Features for Administrators
  • 1Z0-045 -- Oracle Database 10g DBA New Features for Oracle8i OCPs
  • 1Z0-050 -- Oracle Database 11g: New Features for Administrators
  • 1Z0-055 -- Oracle Database 11g: New Features for 9i OCPs

The specific question asked was about upgrading directly from an 8i OCP to 11G. As you can see from the list above, there is no single upgrade test available to jump directly between those two releases. That said, there are four possible combinations of exams that will upgrade an OCP certification from 8i to release 11G:
  1. 1Z0-045 & 1Z0-050 -- This path will add two additional releases to your credentials. After passing both exams, you will be certified in three releases of Oracle: 8i, 10G and 11G.
  2. 1Z0-030 & 1Z0-055 -- This path also requires only two exams and results in three certifications, but the releases of Oracle will be 8i, 9i, and 11G.
  3. 1Z0-030 & 1Z0-040 & 1Z0-050 -- This route adds one more exam, but also results in a an additional certification. Upon completing the three exams, you will be certified in four releases of Oracle: 8i, 9i, 10G and 11G.
  4. 1Z0-052 & 1Z0-053 -- Strictly speaking, this isn't an upgrade path. However, this route came up some time ago in the OTN Oracle certification forum. I was assured by a certification manager that for an 8i OCP, taking these exams would result in the candidate being Oracle 11G certified, and would not require a hands-on training class. In the end, the candidate would be certified in 8i and 11G.

What is Practical?
Taking certification exams costs money and preparing for them takes time. You want to get the best return on the time and money invested. Getting a certification that you'll never get any value back from is simply a waste.  Of the four options above, three will provide you with one certification per test.  The last provides only a single certification in return for passing two exams.  I don't see any reason to use that particular set of tests to upgrade to 11G.  Either of the other two-test upgrade paths will give you more in return for your investment.
In order to choose between the other two-test routes, you must decide which version you would rather skip.  From that perspective, as a general rule, the older a release, the less value that you will gain from being certified in it.  Oracle 9i is definitely losing market share to the newer releases.  Skipping that release when upgrading makes considerably more sense than skipping 10G.
If you have some personal reason not to skip a release and you have no objection to spending extra time and money on an additional exam, then you can certainly take the three-test route (1Z0-030 & 1Z0-040 & 1Z0-050). However, for most people upgrading from Oracle 8i, I would recommend upgrading to 10G, and then to 11G (1Z0-045 & 1Z0-050).  For DBAs upgrading from even older releases (7.3 or Oracle8), I would recommend a similar path using the 1Z0-035 upgrade exam and then 1Z0-050.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Should I Get Certified as an Oracle 11G DBA or as a 12c DBA?

Before you read too far into this article, take a look at the date it was written. All of the points I will bring up here are time-sensitive. The older this gets, the less relevant it will become. That said, right this minute, the advice that I would give to anyone is overwhelmingly in favor of becoming Oracle Certified Professional in 11G by taking the exams 1Z0-052 and 1Z0-053 (plus an exam fulfilling the SQL requirement). Once you have your 11G OCP certification, you can take the Oracle 12c upgrade test (1Z0-060) when it becomes available. The reasons why I make this recommendation follow.

Right now, 12c is not out yet
Obviously this is the first of my points that will become obsolete. Oracle might release 12c at any time. However, until they do, why would you consider putting your career on hold waiting for an unknown release date?  No company is using Oracle 12c as a production database. No one is including 12C certifications as a requirement in job offers. 11G is the version that most companies with a production Oracle database are using.

Right now, the 1Z0-062 and 1Z0-063 tests are not out
As with the above point, this is subject to change at any time. However, until it does, you can’t even begin studying for the exams because the topics are not published. There are no third-party books available and even the 12c documentation is not available. Once the exams are released, they will be released as a beta. Personally, I hate betas (which is a subject for another post), but you might feel differently. If you want to take it, the beta period will last for about fourteen weeks. For about eleven weeks after that, the post-beta evaluation will be run. If you take the beta exam, you won’t know your score until a week or two after the post-beta evaluation. If you want to take the production version, you cannot schedule it until after the post beta period. Either way, this means you can’t (or at least shouldn’t) take Admin II (1Z0-063) for about twenty-six weeks after the start of the Admin I beta. Again I ask – why would you even consider putting your Oracle career on hold for this length of time?  Even if the beta was released tomorrow, in the time it would take to get your scores for 1Z0-062, you could have studied for and taken both 1Z0-052 and 1Z0-053.

Oracle 12c installations will be in the minority for quite some time
When Oracle 12c gets released, there is not going to be a mad scramble by companies abandoning 11G in favor of 12c. There will certainly be some early adopters. However, the vast majority of installations will move to it at a very relaxed pace. Companies running Oracle databases have huge amounts of money invested in the data and the applications currently on them. Switching to a new release is not an automatic process that is performed without significant advance planning. For the first twelve to eighteen months, the installations of 12c are likely to be a tiny fraction of those with 11G. During this period, you really want to have an 11G certification, not a 12c certification.

Companies moving to 12c will want people with 11G knowledge
When companies do move to 12c, they will likely be on 11G and need someone experienced with that version and knowledge about how to upgrade. If you look at the topics list for 1Z0-052, you will not see any on upgrading from prior releases. You will, however, see that topic on the 1Z0-050 ‘New Features’ exam. This will be the same for release 12c. Oracle professionals who have knowledge of 11G and have taken the 12c upgrade exam will have more of the information needed by companies moving to 12c than will professionals that have taken the 12c DBA certification track alone. The topics on the Oracle New Features exams specifically cover the reasons why upgrading makes sense and how the new release enhances the capabilities of the Oracle database. The topics on the Admin I and Admin II exams do not have this focus.

Once 12c has been released and adoption starts to climb, my emphasis on just how important it is to become 11G certified and then upgrade to 12c will diminish. That said, I cannot imagine recommending going straight for the 12c certification until mid-to-late 2014. I think that it will take at least that long for 12c installations to be significant enough to consider skipping 11G DBA certification.