It can be difficult to keep tech certifications current. Even if we use a technology in our day to day work, often the exam content covers topics beyond our specific use case or the version of the product we are using. I have found it much easier to prepare for exams while being a part of a community focussed on the same goal.
In the last 4 years I have been involved with running study groups for VMware Professional (VCP) and Advanced (VCAP) level exams. In Singapore I worked with Wee Kiong Tan, Tim Robinson and Sebastian Szumigalski to run VCAP-Design study groups. Since moving to New Zealand six months ago I have been working with Steve McLeod on VCP study groups in Wellington and Auckland.
The below guide summarises what I have learned about running effective tech exam study groups so that anyone can run one with their peers or in their community. While this Study Group format was developed based on my experience with VMware exams, the same principles apply for other IT certifications.
Why Study Groups help with Exam Preparation:
- Improved Return on Invested Time:
- Active participation gives you an opportunity to cement understanding by comparing notes explaining lessons learned to others, and white-boarding
- This is more valuable than passive reading/ watching
- Having a defined study plan creates structure and reduces procrastination
- External Commitment:
- The value of study groups is amplified when everyone actively participates
- If the group has a culture of everyone coming prepared, it can help keep you on track even more reliably than when you are just accountable to yourself
Who are Study Groups for?
Systems Engineers or Architects who are new to a product/service or do not use it every day will need to do extensive self study (50-70 hours) on top of the official course to pass most tech exams. This is based on my experience with VMware VCP and VCAP exams as well as AWS Solutions Architect Associate. However, the same is likely to be true for most vendor certifications.
- IT Administrators in Operations roles working infrequently with the product or service
- Architects pursuing Design or Architect level certifications such as VMware VCIX/VCDX or AWS Professional level exams who need to pass the more operationally focussed VCP or AWS Associate level exams but don’t use the product every day
- Technical Pre-Sales/Solutions Engineers working for Vendors or Reseller organisations who need to maintain a deep level of technical knowledge but who aren’t involved in implementation or operations
- Study groups aren’t for everyone. Experienced administrators or implementation consultants who use the product on a daily basis may find that sitting the exam within 1 week of taking the official course is their best option
What Happens in a Study Group?
Run Time: 1.5 Hours per topic – groups may choose to do one topic per session or longer meetings covering multiple topics. It’s up to you as a group how quickly you want to get through the content.
Topic: After experimenting with different formats, it seems to be best to just go through the sections in the exam blueprint – see one of the study guides linked below for an example.
Facilitator: A facilitator sets up the study group, recruits members, finds somewhere to run the meetings or delegates that responsibility within the group, ensures that there is a discussion leader for each topic.
If you are interested in setting up and facilitating a study group, see my post Guide for Study Group Facilitators.
Discussion Leaders: Lead the topic for the session and facilitate the discussion. This responsibility is distributed across the group. We are all busy with our day jobs and it is not fair to leave the facilitator to do all the work.
Bonus – If you have career aspirations to become a Team Lead, Tribe Leader, Architect or Manager this is a good opportunity to practice the skill of facilitating and mediating a group technical discussion in a safe and supportive environment.
1. Each person to teach (not just share)
- One thing (prepare for 3*) that you learned about the topic that you didn’t know before going through the pre-work– 3 mins
- Open discussion: key learnings not covered by the group, questions, challenges
- When I facilitate a study group I ask that everyone in the group prepares 3 things as it means that we don’t run out of items to discuss as we go around the group. Also, you will find you remember the three things you picked more clearly than other discussion topics!
- What I mean by “teach (not just share)”:
- Share sounds like this: “This week I learned about encrypting VMs in vSphere. Okay, next please.”
- Teach sounds like this: “This week I learned that there are two types of keys used in vSphere Encryption. A Disk Encryption Key or DEK that is issued by ESXi. This in turn is encrypted by a Key Encryption Key that is issued by a Key Management Server. Does anyone have anything to add to that?”
- There is no need to spend time preparing presentations unless it helps with your personal exam prep.
- Do use the whiteboard if there is one available.
As a group, it helps to prepare using the same study guide or content. There are official guides for most tech exams that are released by the vendors and I recommend you use these for your personal study if you want to be sure to pass first time.
Unless everyone in the group agrees to spend the money, it can be easier to use blogs, white-papers, product documentation and other free content for the study group pre-work. I have consolidated study materials for a few exams below.
If you want to run a study group for an exam that is not listed, work with your group to decide on a study guide that you will follow week by week. A reminder to ensure you protect the value of your certification by sticking to legitimate exam prep materials avoiding ‘dumps’. If in doubt, http://certguard.com/ can help to work out if you should avoid a site. Do note this is a community run and does not guarantee that resources are legitimate.
Your Time is Valuable
In a community meet up it’s counter productive to enforce too many rules. Having facilitated several discussion groups over the last 4 years, I can share that those who passed committed to the below. At the end of the day, it’s up to you but if you want to make the most of the time you spend at these groups, I suggest making the below commitments to your self:
1. Sit the relevant course before the study group schedule begins
2. Read through the exam blueprint and book your exam up front so you have a date to work towards
3. Commit to doing the pre-work
5. Make every effort to come to all sessions, and let the facilitator know if you can’t attend
6. Lead at least one discussion. Leading a discussion will help cement your learning
7. Join your local User Group community for support beyond the study group. You can find your local VMware User Group here. Other vendors have similar associated organisations.
But What if….
It’s hard to stick to those commitments, especially when your day job gets busy. Here are a few tips to help you see it through and pass the exam:
- What if I’m too busy?
- The study groups are only valuable if a critical mass of people come prepared. A little bit of preparation is better than not showing up – can you manage just one hour this week? Or 20 minutes?
- At minimum, prepare 3 things to contribute to the session, even if you can’t get through all the material.
- What if I find the content to be of low value/slow/boring/confusing?
- Do your own study on the same topics, share good materials you find with the group.
- If you can spare a moment, share them with me too on the contact page and I will update this guide.
Thanks for reading! If you are ready to start a study group in your organisation or community, check out the Guide for Study Group Facilitators.
If you joined an existing study group and are looking for the study guides, here they are:
Best of luck with your exams!