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The Big Test

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Everyone who takes a big exam for school or professionally has a story about it. People who hold the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) exam are no different. Frequently, you'll hear about all of the planning and preparation, the culmination of experience and training, and the alignment of the planets needed to be counted as certified. Here's my story of exam day, a Saturday back in November 2002.

Going into the test, I had about ten years' experience, spanning several different domains included in the certification's body of knowledge. Before deciding to sit for the exam, I went over the official site on the exam to see what it covered and to be sure that its value was being accurately represented. Certification and accreditation has become big business in technology and I'm highly skeptical of its value as a general matter. Seeing relatively little in the way of hype and agreeable statements regarding ethical guidelines for the profession being represented, I decided to sit for the exam.

As the date for the test approached, I started to wonder if maybe I should do some more preparation than simply looking at the list of things covered by the certification's body of knowledge. I had been talking to a few other folks who had recently taken the test, and they really didn't have much in the way of very specific advice, except of a few things that they were told that did not help. I started to poke around the Web, and found that the vast majority of the advice that I saw was all about taking the test itself. “Pace yourself.” “Bring light refreshments.” “Bring candy.” “Bring water.” “Take the time to review your answers.”

A lot of advice that is probably most helpful to people who either do not test well, aren't sure of themselves, and generally intend to spend a lot of time agonizing over everything.

I looked over Rob Slade's reviews of CISSP books. I know what all of the jackets say, and I know what the reviewers say, but I have been reading Rob's reviews for a long time, and trust his commentary on technical books probably more than any other reviewer whose stuff I read. (In a nutshell, he tells it the way it is. My work has been on the receiving end of one of his reviews, so I know that if he says something is good, it has to be good. Even a good book that has some room for improvement will be called for what it is.)

So the day before the test, I decided that I should get the “least bad” CISSP study guide on his list, the Shon Harris All-in-One guide.

I inhaled the first two chapters, and then when it got into the body of knowledge material itself, I went straight to the sample questions and tested myself with them, without reading the material. On chapters that I seemed to get more than one or two questions wrong, I went back and read the chapter. (I was amused that I remembered things I learned as a kid from my dad, a construction general contractor, had some applicability. I didn't even remember that I knew about fire suppression systems until confronted with the questions.)

I spent about four hours during the day on Friday reading the book, taking tests, etc., and another hour that evening on the way to the testing site (in Cleveland). I stayed at the Ritz Carlton, where I could be sure that it would be quiet, I could sleep well, get up early, and have a leisurely breakfast before heading down for the test.

Everything went as planned, and about fifteen minutes before the doors opened (forty-five minutes before the test was to start), I got the car to head down to the testing site. Getting there early is a good idea as latecomers are strictly forbidden from sitting for the exam, as oral instructions are given exactly once and no one may take the exam without hearing said instructions. Unfortunately, I think I confused the valet with a poorly phrased question, because he pointed me in the opposite direction. Fortunately my sense of direction clued me in to the fact that I was headed in a direction that would not get me to where I needed to be so I turned back around and finally found my way to the community college where the exam was being held.

With ten minutes before the test started and at least on the right campus, I should have had no problem, but that's when the real problems began. Street names, as it turns out, are so well understood by the local populace that there's no point in bothering with signs. Where signs were present, they were quite hard to read. As I made multiple right turns to go left, a necessary feature of navigation through unfamiliar territory composed of one-way streets, I saw that I managed to pass the entrance to the parking lot for the building where the test was being administered. So I went around the huge block for another attempt at the entrance.

I stopped behind another car at a red light. After it turned green, the driver didn't seem especially anxious to notice, which would present a problem since traffic in the other lane included a huge truck that would shortly be between where I was and where I needed to be. With six minutes before the test was to start, I thought I'd give him a gentle honk, the sort of thing that you get from tapping the horn, as opposed to pressing it.

The horn kept sounding. I tried pulling at the top edge of the button to get it to release, but that wasn't the problem—the button was in its normal position. Hitting the horn did no good, as the driver got going just in time to ensure that there was no way I would get into the appropriate lane in light of the fact that no one over there wanted to let me get into the right spot.

I finally got into the right lane, just past the entrance I wanted, and back around the block I had just circled. People standing on their porches in their pajamas with mugs of coffee in-hand gave curious stares to the black Honda Accord rushing down the street with its horn blaring. The one break of the morning came when a police officer didn't care enough about what was happening to stop me and see if I'd care to do something about that horn.

With two minutes before the commencement of the test, I came roaring into the parking lot and screeched into the first visible parking spot. I pried apart two plastic covers around the steering column just far enough to get my fingers in far enough to feel the wiring, disabled the blaring horn, and sprinted into the building, up the stairs, around the top floor, and slid into the testing room just as instructions were beginning.

Lacking both bottled water and candy, I took a seat in the last row and took a few deep breaths. I then decided that I had already passed a better exam that morning, whether I could get myself to the right place in time and without killing the battery.

Created by cmcurtin
Last modified 2007-07-28 12:31 PM
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