Friday, May 15, 2015

Feedback on Oracle Certification Prep Practice Tests

It has been almost four months since the initial release of the Oracle Certification Prep practice tests. I have been keeping a close eye on the results throughout this period. The test engine being used has some excellent analytical reporting that has been very helpful in locating questions that test takers consistently get wrong (or right). This capability has proved invaluable in helping to ensure that test questions are in the 'Goldilocks' zone by being neither too hard nor too easy.

In addition, I have been tweaking the overall difficulty of the tests with the intent of making them just slightly harder than the corresponding production Oracle exams. Feedback from a number of the people who took a practice test and then went on to take the real exam seems to indicate I am very close to my goal in that respect. Test takers are fairly consistently reporting a production exam score at or slightly above the one they received on the Oracle Certification Prep practice tests.

This afternoon as part of this feedback I received a request that deserved to be covered here:

"In my opinion your practice test was closer in difficulty and overall feel to the Oracle test than Kaplan's. One suggestion: The feature on the Kaplan test allowing you to review your results along with correct answers & explanations was really useful. I would love to know what I missed on yours and why."

I take feedback very seriously and am extremely interested in fulfilling requests where possible. The Oracle Certification Prep website was actually built in response to feedback on the earliest study guides I wrote. Someone indicated in an Amazon review that additional preparation materials were required beyond what was in the guide.  I agreed and created the website to meet that requirement. The Oracle Certification Prep practice tests were created largely because readers complained that the study guides contain no practice questions.

Unfortunately, in this particular case, the fact that the practice tests do not allow test takers to review their results was not an oversight but rather a design specification. There are several reasons why the feedback is given at a topic level rather than a question level. These include:

Gap Analysis -- In an earlier article on this blog: Using Gap Analysis when Preparing for Oracle Certification Exams, I discussed how practice tests fit into that activity.  The following is a quote from that article:

"Practice tests are designed almost entirely to perform gap analysis. Many have a 'study mode' where the answers to questions and a brief explanation are shown.  However, once you use the study mode, the test becomes less useful for identifying gaps. You will have learned to answer that specific question, but not necessarily another on the same topic. Retaking the test will make it seem as if the gap has been closed, however."

Currently there is only one version of each of the exams covered, although eventually there should be two or three versions of the more popular exams. If test takers are shown the answers to missed questions -- that test becomes effectively useless for gap analysis.  I have had a number of people take a test, fail it, then retake it several weeks later and pass. If the exams allowed test takers to view missed questions -- the retake score would potentially be very misleading. I do not want certification candidates to gain false confidence from my practice tests.


Tunnel Vision -- One of my problems with certification tests in general is that exam takers focus entirely too much on specific questions. The questions on a certification exam are intended to act as a measurement of your overall knowledge of a topic.  Knowing the answer to question 'X' does not mean a test taker understands the topic that question represents. Memorizing the answer to a specific question that was missed on a practice test can still leave the test taker open to other questions on the same subject. My professional opinion is that it is more valuable for a test taker to be told that they have a weakness in a general area. My hope is that they will perform a broad review of the information in that area to strengthen their skills rather than perform a laser-focus review of a single question.


Keep it Real -- More than anything else, the Oracle Certification Prep practice tests are intended to be as much like the real exams as possible. There is no question-level feedback on the real exam. The goal (obviously) is to pass the production exam on the first attempt. However, if that does not happen, test takers need to be able to use the feedback provided to determine what they need to review before rescheduling the exam. The fact that the practice tests provide feedback that is equivalent to the production exams is intended to be part of the training.


The upshot is that there is no plan to change the level of feedback provided by the exams. I understand that some people would prefer more information and I understand why. That said, my opinion is that not providing the answers is the better option from a learning standpoint.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Is it 'Good Enough' to earn the Oracle PL/SQL Developer Certified Associate credential?

I was browsing the Oracle Certification group on LinkedIn this evening, and a post caught my eye.  The (slightly paraphrased) question was:

"Is it enough to earn the Associate-level PL/SQL certification or should you go on to earn the Professional-level certification. I have heard that the OCP credential is recommended for Database Administrators but that it is much less important for PL/SQL Developers."

After reading the question, I had a mental image of a manager trying to choose between three candidates for a PL/SQL development position. The first candidate holds no certification; the second holds the  Oracle PL/SQL Developer Certified Associate credential; and the third holds the Oracle Advanced PL/SQL Developer Certified Professional credential. The manager quickly decides that candidate two is the person to hire because the OCA is 'good enough'.

The above example is ridiculous on several levels. First of all, the situation is extremely contrived. However, more importantly, very few (I hope) hiring decisions are made in such a clueless fashion. There are many factors involved in the hiring decision that have nothing to do with certifications. For one thing, if the first candidate had prior job experience developing PL/SQL and the other two did not, he would likely be hired despite holding no certification. If the three candidates had equivalent experience and all other factors were effectively tied, then the position would probably go to the candidate with the OCP. Why would the manager not hire someone who had a more prestigious credential when all other factors were equal?

It is impossible to be certain what the poster means by 'enough'. However, it comes across as an attempt to determine the minimum level of effort they must invest in order to be hired. It is hard for me to imagine even my hypothetical hiring manager wanting a candidate with this mindset.

If you are starting out in an IT career, you had better plan to learn fast, and then learn some more.  Once you are done with that, you will need to do some more learning. It never ends. Technology changes. New coding challenges come up constantly. The 1Z0-144 exam covers the absolute basics of PL/SQL development. If you pass that exam and then decide you know enough, then your development career will be a very brief one.

Now... I should clarify one point. I am not arguing that everyone who earns the PL/SQL OCA should go on to earn the PL/SQL OCP. I am a huge proponent of certifications, but less because of the credentials themselves than because they are an excellent way to learn new skills. Essentially I am a huge proponent of learning as a way to advance your career. My problem with the question as posed is that it seems to imply that once someone has passed the 1Z0-144 exam, they can stop learning. That is most definitely not the case.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Oracle Certification Practice Tests -- Repriced

It has been about six weeks since Oracle Certification Practice Tests were made available to the public. The initial response to the exams has been greater than I anticipated. That is gratifying for me, but it also good news to certification candidates who may have been considering taking one or more of the tests. The per-test costs that I pay to the site hosting the tests drop with increased volume. In addition, my pricing goal for the tests is not to charge 'all that the market will bear'. Instead my intent is to charge an amount that will allow me to recoup the man-hours I put into creating the tests. Because the sales volume is higher than anticipated, it has become possible to charge a lower price and still meet the target amount set to recoup my labor investment. The upshot of this is that I have dropped the price of taking an Oracle Certification Prep practice test from $19.50 to $14.50, effective immediately.

What may seem a bit counter intuitive is that this announcement is good news from my perspective as well. One of the reasons that I developed these practice tests was to make brain dumps a little less attractive to certification candidates. Brain dumps are a cancer on the Oracle Certification program and I have written numerous articles on why they should be avoided. That said, I believe that some people use them not so much because they want to cheat, but because they have limited resources to spend on study materials and brain dumps can often be obtained for free.

I created the Oracle Certification Prep study guides as a low-cost method for obtaining structured study materials to prepare for exams without resorting to brain dumps. The Oracle Certification Prep web site was developed to provide links to legitimate materials that exam takers could access for no cost to prepare for the exams. The practice tests are a  logical extension to the study guides and the website. They provide a low-cost and certification-safe method for people who want to get a feel for the type of questions that will be asked on the exam.

Some people will continue to use brain dumps no matter what type, quality, or cost of materials I make available. However, I can at least hope that I can steer some people away from 'The Dark Side' by making less expensive preparation materials available. In that respect, today's price drop makes the Oracle Certification practice tests a more compelling option to someone considering using a brain dump.

For the next three weeks (until March 28th), you can get an even better deal that that.  The following promotional code will allow you to take $4 off the price of an exam: OCP2_4CLAMS. With that code, you can take an exam for just over ten bucks.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Oracle Certification Practice Exams... Released

Oracle Certification Prep practice testsAs I announced earlier this month, Oracle Certification Prep is expanding into providing practice tests for a number of Oracle certification exams. The release date ran about ten days beyond what I had hoped to hit when I made that post. There are just too few hours in the day and the proofing and error checking for practice exams was considerably more time-consuming than projected.

That said -- they are out now and available from the 'Practice Tests' link on the Oracle Certification Prep website. For those of you that have already followed the company page on LinkedIn, a post will shortly be made from there which will provide a promotional code for $5 off the price of any practice exam. Since the exams are only $19.50 to start with, that's a hair over 25% off. If you have not yet followed the company, there will be three follow-on promotions released at two-week intervals for $4, $3, and 2$ respectively (the promotions cannot be combined). In addition, the company page is going to be the primary vehicle for announcing the release of new Oracle Certification Prep practice tests and study guides going forward.

While I really work hard to release products with zero defects, the real world seldom complies. As such, Oracle Certification Practice exams will have a similar policy to that of my study guides where I reward readers for reporting errors in the text. In fact, I have more control over the practice tests and can offer an even better deal to users than is possible with the study guides. For each verified error that a practice test user is the first to report through the Contact Page of the Oracle Certification Prep website, I will give them a $5 voucher for an exam. Users that report two or three errors will get a $10 or $15 voucher respectively and reporting four errors will net them a voucher for a free exam. I can make corrections to the practice tests much more rapidly than I can release a new study guide revision, so hopefully this program will mean that any error I miss in Oracle Certification Prep practice tests will rapidly be caught and corrected.

I have been working on this project for over a year at this point and I am very excited to finally be releasing them. I sincerely hope that the Oracle certification community finds these practice tests to be a useful addition to the resources available for earning Oracle certifications.

While currently there are only practice tests available for six certification exams, over the next several months, I plan to add to that list considerably. I am not going to give a timeline, or even a planned order, because all of my work on certification materials is done when I have time for it. My schedule is constantly in flux and priorities change unexpectedly. If you are waiting for a particular exam, check the website regularly or subscribe to Oracle Certification Prep on LinkedIn to be included in the announcements.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Oracle Certification Practice Exams... Re-Invented

One of the most common questions that I see asked on various forums about Oracle certification exams is where to find practice questions. Likewise, one of the most common complaints about my Oracle Certification prep study guides is that they do not contain any. In fact, I created a post in this blog a few months back on that topic: End-of-Chapter Questions and Oracle Certification Preparation. As indicated at that time, the guides will never contain practice questions because I do not think this would add sufficient value to be worth the additional effort on my part and additional expense that I would have to pass on to readers.

That said... in early January I will be making practice tests for several certification exams available via my Oracle Certification prep website. The exams will not be free, but they will be offered at a price that is a fraction of anything else available on the market today. Just to be perfectly clear -- I have not gone over to the dark side. These tests are not and will never be brain dumps. As each exam is completed, I have been submitting them to the Oracle Certification team with an offer to change any questions that they feel are too close to production ones. While the material will not be the actual test questions and answers, the fact that I have seventeen years of experience taking these exams means that mine will be very similar to what certification candidates will experience on the real exam.

My overriding goal for the Oracle Certification Prep practice exams is to create an environment for candidates that is as close to the real one as possible without cheating. The practice tests will have the same question count, time limit, and passing percentage as the exams from the Oracle Certification team. If questions are not completed before time runs out, the test ends and uncompleted questions will be scored as incorrect... just like the real exam. In short, if I have done my job correctly in creating these practice tests, people who fail them are very likely to fail the real exam.

The model I am offering these practice tests under is on a per-usage basis.  A fee of $19.50, will allow any of the practice exams to be taken one time. The intent is that candidates prepare for the exam in question using other study materials. Once a candidate thinks they are ready for the real exam, they can take the equivalent Oracle Certification Prep practice exam to verify this without paying a couple hundred dollars. If the practice exam results demonstrate someone is not ready, they are out a lot less money than would have been the case otherwise. In addition, the practice test will help to highlight any weaknesses and make passing the real exam more likely once these have been corrected.

My target release date for the exams is the second week of January.  I have a fair amount of final tweaking and testing to do between now and then, so I won't guarantee a specific date.  However, I will certainly release the exams at some point in the next couple of weeks.  The initial list of Oracle certification exams that will have practice tests available is:

1Z0-047: Oracle Database SQL Expert (with 12c topics)
1Z0-051: Oracle Database 11g: SQL Fundamentals I
1Z0-060: Upgrade to Oracle Database 12c
1Z0-061: Oracle Database 12c: SQL Fundamentals
1Z0-144: Oracle Database 11g: Program with PL/SQL
1Z0-146: Oracle Database 11g: Advanced PL/SQL

I recently created a page for Oracle Certification Prep on LinkedIn. This venue will be used in the future to make announcements when I release new practice tests or study guides. In addition, when I make the initial release of the exams, the LinkedIn announcement will include a coupon code for a $5 discount on any exams (i.e. you would pay $14.95 for a single exam after the discount). Anyone who follows my company page on LinkedIn between now and the time I make the announcement will be able to make use of the coupon. For people who miss the initial announcement, I plan to make three follow-on promotions at two-week intervals -- each for $4, $3, and 2$ (and no -- the promotions cannot be combined). Once these are over, I do not expect discounts to be a common occurrence -- the normal price is a bargain already.

I sincerely hope that the Oracle community will find the new practice tests useful in preparing for Oracle certification exams.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Guarding Against Brain Dumps

I have been trying unsuccessfully for some time to get my Oracle Certification Prep site listed as being safe on the CertGuard website. However, I have never succeeded in getting a response back from them.  Until recently I simply left it at that.  However, a couple of days ago I did some more searching and found several signs that the site has been stagnant since around 2011.

I asked a colleague who writes about certifications across multiple vendors, Ed Tittle, if he knew anything about the issue.  Ed did some digging and created an article at GoCertify.  I'm not going to recreate here what he already wrote.  If you are interested in avoiding being caught out by brain dump sites, you should check out his article.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Oracle 12c Performance Certification Released to Beta

The first of the new expert exams that I wrote about back in May has just entered beta.  1Z1-064: Oracle Database 12c: Performance Management and Tuning is the 12c update to the legacy exam 1Z0-054: Oracle Database 11g: Performance Tuning. The beta is currently scheduled to run until late February. Betas are often extended if not enough candidates take the exam by the original deadline to provide a good statistical sample. However, I expect this exam will be popular enough that the exam may close on its original deadline.

I compared the topics of 1Z0-064 with 1Z0-054. Not surprisingly, the two lists are closely related, with the 12c exam being largely a refinement of the 11g incarnation.  Some of the difference between the two exams include:

Added topics:

  • Implement Real-Time Database Operation Monitoring
  • Understand and configure the Database Resource Manager


Removed Topics:

  • Identify performance issues & set tuning priorities
  • Interpret tuning diagnostics  
  • Tune for life cycle phase 
  • Using Statspack
  • Use Enterprise Manager Monitoring  
  • Identify the key tuning components of the alert logs 


I find it interesting that Statspack was removed. Obviously AWR is Oracle's preferred performance tuning solution. However, unless that stops being a separately licensed option, a significant number of Oracle DBAs will continue to use Statspack for diagnosing performance problems.  Ignoring this popular tuning option comes across as petty to me.

The 12c exam has considerably fewer topics than the 11g version (32 vs 54). Much of this comes in the form of topic consolidation. In several instances there are subjects that were split into several separate topics in 1Z0-054 that have been rolled into a single topic in 1Z0-064. Some examples include:

  • Configure and manage services 
  • Use services with client applications, Database Resource Manager and Scheduler 
  • Configure services aggregation, tracing, and set performance-metric thresholds

Rolled into:

  • Configure and use services to monitor database performance


Also...
  • Describe the buffer cache architecture
  • Explain the symptoms that indicate a buffer cache problem   
  • Tune the buffer cache for performance issues 
Rolled into:
  • Diagnose and resolve performance issues related to the buffer cache
 
I consider it unlikely that the information being tested on these consolidations has changed significantly. Most likely the questions have all simply been consolidated into a large bucket.

Performance is always a major factor for enterprise databases. No organization ever objects to their applications running faster or data being available more rapidly. This certification provides one more way for Oracle Database administrators to expand on their skill set.