April 6, 2004

Sitting for the RHCE

Author: Ken Barber

I've taken some pretty tough tests in my life, and passed every
one of them on the first try. And since I'm teaching Linux system administration at my local community college, I thought
I would be hot stuff when I signed up to take the Red
Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE) exam. I don't think that way anymore.

I've always done well on tests. Mensa once offered me a
membership in their organization because of my SAT scores. In a
former life I was a refrigeration mechanic and earned the coveted CM
certification from the Refrigeration
Service Engineers Society
-- a cert well known in that industry
for requiring multiple attempts to pass -- on the first try.
I even passed the written exam for a private pilot's license on
my first try.

Then I started a new career in IT. I breezed through my
MCSE
a few years ago, including the notoriously difficult Exchange Server
exam. Then I earned a
GSEC
security certification from the SANS
Institute
, requiring two open-book exams. I took the first
one closed-book, and passed both. When I learned that the
Linux Professional Institute was
offering its exams for free at Linuxworld last year, I walked in
late to one of them on a lark, totally unprepared. I barely
squeaked through, but I passed.

RHCE was different. It was the second-toughest exam I've ever
taken.

Red Hat vs. other certifications

The day after I earned my MCSE the Dilbert comic strip featured a
character in tights and a cape saying, "Step away from that
network server! I'm certified!", but he couldn't fix
anything when he sat down in front of it. My friends and
co-workers thought it was really funny, and made sure I had
clippings of it coming in from all over for the next few days.

But the problem of people holding "paper" certifications
is not a laughing matter to employers, and the number of "paper
CNEs" and "paper MCSEs" has become the stuff of
legends. I do not believe there is any such thing as a "paper
RHCE."

To my knowledge, there are only two IT industry certifications
that require a candidate to set up and repair an actual running
system. Red Hat's is one of them; the other is a Cisco exam.
There are no multiple-choice questions to answer; you spend the
entire session repairing a broken system and then building a
new one from scratch. At the end of the day, the things you've
been asked to do either work, or they do not -- and you pass or fail
on that basis alone.

It's not as easy as it sounds. The failure rate hovers
around 40%.

Fortunately, all is not necessarily lost for those unlucky 40% who
fail to meet the lofty requirements for an RHCE. For a little
more than a year now, Red Hat has been issuing a Red Hat Certified
Technician (RHCT) certificate to those who demonstrate competence in
the portions of the test that deal with workstation (as opposed to
server) administration.

Preparing for the exam

What's on the test? I'm not allowed to tell you, but
Red Hat provides a list
of everything you need to know. It is safe to
assume that you will be tested on every item in that list; if you're
weak in two or three of the list's items, don't take the exam
until you've done some more preparation.

The choices for "more preparation" are somewhat limited:
you can take a
class
from Red Hat, or you can take
a different class
from Red Hat! Red Hat does provide a very
nice set of online
pre-assessment tests
(free, but registration required) to help
you choose which class is right for you. The exam prep guides
being sold by various booksellers can help you prepare for a class,
but are useless in preparing for the exam itself. Believe me -- I own
two of them.

The main value of the classes is to learn how do the exam's tasks
quickly, the way Red Hat wants them done. But I can tell you
from experience that even Red Hat's classes are not enough to fully
prepare you. If you want to have any hope of passing, you will
have to have been installing, repairing, and configuring Linux, in all
of the areas mentioned in the list above, often enough and long
enough to do most of it without referring to a man page. Yes,
you're allowed to use man pages during the exam, but if your system
won't even boot when you walk into the room, you had better know your
stuff cold.

I took the RH 300 course, the one for people who supposedly
already know what they're doing. It runs for the four days
prior to test day.

Exam day

On a recent Friday morning eight of us filed into the
classroom we'd been calling home for the last week to find our
systems re-imaged. After signing non-disclosure agreements, we
were given a list of 10 things that weren't working and 2-½
hours to fix them. Five of the items had to be fixed
in the first hour.

You must get at least eight of the 10 items fixed to earn an
RHCE. If you get only the first five items, in the first hour,
you can earn an RHCT.

One of our number didn't make it through the first hour. No
one gloated when he shook the proctor's hand and left early. The
pervasive feeling in the room was that any of us could have met the
same fate. The mood afterward, as we ate our catered lunch,
was somber. One of us had already been eliminated. How
many more of us wouldn't make it through the three hours to come?

We returned to the test room to find that our hard drives had been
erased. We were given a boot CD with instructions to build a
server with an unbelievably huge list of requirements. As I
looked over the list, my heart sank. "There is easily two
days' worth of work here," I said to myself, "and I have to
have it all done in three hours?"

The list was divided into RHCT tasks and RHCE tasks. You
must score at least 70% in each area to earn an RHCE, and a high
score in one won't help in the other.

A few of the items on the list were easy, but many were not. So
I set myself to the task, starting with the things that I already
knew how to do and plugged along at my usual snail's pace. For the
things that I'd never done before taking the class, the man pages and
online guides weren't enough help. There is simply not enough
time to read them, and doing a task once in a class exercise isn't
enough to remember how to do it cold.

I actually got through the entire list of items about five minutes
before the time was up. Only one other candidate had finished;
from the sound of feverish key-tapping in the rest of the room I
guessed that most were still trying desperately to get as much done
as possible before the bell. All of the things I had tested
worked, but I didn't test everything. And there were enough of
those to sink my boat if they didn't actually work.

I decided there was no use trying to test any more stuff because
if they didn't work there wouldn't be time to fix them anyway. So I
rebooted to make sure the system came back up with the services
running that were needed, and then just shut the thing down and
leaned back in my chair. "I'm done," I said to no one
in particular. "Either I passed or I didn't, but I'm not doing
any more to this machine." I shook the proctor's hand and
left about two minutes before the bell rang.

The next morning my head still hurt, and the pain went down into
my shoulders. My sweetheart tried to massage my neck, but said
that my muscles there were so tight that they felt like bones. In
the end, I had to take a muscle relaxer to calm down. Still, I was
cautiously optimistic. While I knew I hadn't aced the exam, I thought
I had a good shot at getting the double 70%.

A few days later, I received my scores:

SECTION I:      TROUBLESHOOTING AND SYSTEM MAINTENANCE
Overall Section I score:        100%

SECTION II:     INSTALLATION AND CONFIGURATION
RHCT components score:          100.0%
RHCE components score:          67.9%

RHCT Certification:             PASS
RHCE Certification:             NO PASS

It's a brutal exam.

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