September 26, 2006

Watch out for brain dump test prep sites

Author: Lisa Hoover

In the crowded IT professional market, where having more than a passing familiarity with open source software can open doors to better jobs, few people will argue the benefit of acquiring open source training and certification. But watch out where you get your training information from.

Many people choose to become certified in open source software in order to increase their professional marketability or simply for their own edification. Though certification program creators typically recommend against it, most will allow people to sit for a certifying exam without requiring pre-test coursework. There are various methods of preparing for a certification exam, with the most popular being online, textbook, and hands-on study.

Many vendors such as Red Hat, Novell, and SGI offer certification programs specific to the products they sell. For more general open source certification, however, several online test preparation Web sites offer exam prep tools based on course objectives published by a variety of software companies. Many people find these to be useful and effective ways to prepare for the challenge of an exam.

There are other sites, however, that lure certification seekers with claims of a "100% guarantee" that they will pass their exam on the first try. These sites, often referred to as "brain dumps," are looked upon with a wary eye among certification programs and test takers alike. It is widely believed within the certification community that these sites are, at best, unreliable, and, at worst, downright illegal.

"Either the guarantee isn't worth the virtual Web page it's written on or they [the sites] acquired the tests by less than ethical means," says Scott Lamberton, director of communications at Linux Professional Institute (LPI), a vendor-neutral organization that offers Linux and open source certification exams and training programs. "Some sites are legitimate and offer sample questions based on published test objectives. Brain dump sites actively solicit actual test questions."

Brain dump sites frustrate the IT community on several levels. First, test takers who submit questions to these sites often sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) with a testing facility prior to taking an exam, stating they will not share or sell the contents of the exam with others. By memorizing and later sharing test questions, they are in direct violation of the NDA. Second, many people question the usefulness of a providing questions that may or may not be accurate since they depend solely on the memory of the person submitting the question. Third, brain dump sites devalue the certifications of those who acquired them by legitimate means. Ultimately, brain dump sites reduce the credibility of the entire certification process.

Unethical test prep sites continue to be a thorn in the side of vendors and legitimate certification sites. "It's obviously quite a conundrum for any test publisher," says Carsten Pedersen, certification manager for MySQL. "Even when you definitely know that what these sites publish is complete rubbish, doing nothing to stop their proliferation can lead to quite a devaluation of trust in your certification program. And the value of certification exams are, after all, completely rooted in trust."

Over the years, lawsuits initiated against several sites, including (a.k.a., TestKiller/, and, have met with varying degrees of success. Open source software certification programs will no doubt be keeping a watchful eye on the recent lawsuit initiated by Microsoft against exam prep website The lawsuit alleges that by distributing Microsoft's actual test questions, the owners of TestKing are in violation of federal law 18 USC 1832, which protects trade secrets and intellectual property. Microsoft claims that TestKing is offering test questions that are "identical or substantially similar" to the ones found on Microsoft's copyrighted certification exams.

Many open source certification companies are quietly applauding Microsoft's initiative. "Whether or not TestKing actually publishes anything close to the real thing, I'm not surprised that Microsoft felt the need to initiate the lawsuit," says Pedersen.

Lamberton said Microsoft's action serves two purposes: "First, it prevents unethical people from entering that future path. Second, those [sites] that provide good service can say, 'We're not like those other guys.'"

While declining to comment on the particulars of Microsoft's lawsuit, Gary Jordan, senior director of Global Professional Services for Red Hat, says, "Everyone wants to build great certifications. Brain dump sites make that harder to do. We at Red Hat intend to defend our certification program's quality and integrity aggressively, and we support the efforts of our peers at other programs to protect theirs."

Jordan says that the performance-based nature of Red Hat's certification process limits the usefulness of information found at brain dump sites. "Nevertheless," he says, "Red Hat does encounter cheating, exam content leakage, coaching, and so on, albeit on a far lesser scale than other IT certification programs that use multiple-choice tests. We have been stepping up our efforts to foil cheaters and penalize those who try to diminish the value of Red Hat credentials by sharing exam-confidential information."

Lamberton says LPI is "regularly notified of potential brain dump sites" but most issues are quickly cleared up by notifying the site's Web hosting provider to inform them of the problematic activity.

What's an IT professional to do?

According to Lamberton, "As businesses are demanding more indicators that a person is certified and employers are demanding more credentials, people will go to extreme lengths to get them. But nothing can replace hands-on experience." He says that when evaluating a site for usefulness, "look for ones that say their test questions follow closely the objectives that are published by software vendors. There's nothing wrong with that."

Texas database administrator and consultant Boyd Hemphill, who has successfully completed certifications through Oracle and MySQL, uses a variety of resources to study for his exams. He looks for test prep sites that offer high quality questions, studies at least one certification guide, reads a "definitive guide" on the topic for which he will test, and also makes sure to get hands-on experience prior to the exam. "The value of test prep lies with the test taker," he says. "The whole process of studying makes me a better professional overall."

No matter what route (or routes) people take in order to become certified as an open source software professional, industry insiders all echo the same thing. "Caveat emptor. Let the buyer beware, because most of those sites will just take your money and laugh in return," says Jordan. "The bottom line is that the easiest way to become a respected expert in your IT organization is to take high quality training, study hard, and pass the exam fairly."

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