CIPS CONNECTIONSINTERVIEWS by STEPHEN IBARAKI, I.S.P.
Distinguished, Internationally Regarded Design Engineer, Patent Holder, and A+ Authority
This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with the internationally renowned researcher and design engineer, patent holder, best-selling author, and pre-eminent A+ certification expert, Charles Brooks.
As the widely acknowledge authority in the area, Charles is the author of five editions of the best-selling A+ Training Guide. In addition, he sits on the prestigious CompTIA’s select A+ Advisory Committee. He is currently the President of Marcraft International Corporation and is in charge of Research and Development. His other book credits illustrate the breadth of his knowledge and remarkable background—they include: Speech Synthesis, Pneumatic Instrumentation, The Complete Introductory Computer Course, A+ Certification Training Guide with Lab Manual, Microcomputer Systems: Theory & Service, Microelectronics – Devices and Applications, and IBM PC Peripheral Troubleshooting and Repair.
He is also the cofounder of eITPrep, LLP, an online IT exam-prep games and textbook publishing company dealing primarily with Microsoft MCSA/MCSE certifications.
Formerly, Charles was an instructor and technical writer with the National Education Corporation on a wide variety of post-secondary electronics curriculum.
Q: Charles, you are one of the foremost experts in A+ certification. Thank you for taking the time out of your demanding schedule to speak with us.
A: It’s a pleasure. Thank you for giving me this forum to discuss what we’re involved in. I compare what I do to working in a big technical toy box, so I hope I can convey that feeling to people interested in our industry.
Q: You have an illustrious history in electronics. Please describe your many challenges and successes. And share the many valuable lessons you have learned along the way.
A: The first major challenge I had in this industry was getting my electronics training up to date after working in the instrumentation industry for a number of years. My skills had been pinpointed to specific areas of the industry while the general electronics industry grew rapidly in many directions. Teaching for five years at a 2-year private, post secondary electronics school gave me the in-depth knowledge of modern electronics I needed.
I also went through a tremendous learning process during this time that was focused on the art of teaching and on developing training materials. And finally, I had no idea that I could write anything until the teaching environment presented me with an opportunity to try and I took it.
The challenges presented in the classroom gave me the instincts I have about what should be designed into training materials so they can be effective in the classroom. You can design things that are very marketable but just don’t work well in the classroom. Writing a good book is one thing, designing a complete course that really reaches a wide variety of students and does not kill the teacher to implement is another – unless you want to slough off and just let marketing take care of getting the product into the classroom.
One thing that I have learned that I’m not sure many customers in our market know yet, is that just because a certain product has marketing sizzle doesn’t make it educationally sound. The whole idea that Computer and Web Based Training packages were going to revolutionize the industry and do away with the need for good teachers has come and gone for now. After many attempts to make those methods successful, the results have finally brought most of our industry to the adoption of “blended learning” (i.e., some CBT/WBT, some hands on, some instructor led training (ILT)) for successful training. However, for a while you couldn’t get your foot in some people’s doors if your material wasn’t on line, no matter how good it was. I’m glad that this experiment has failed for now and returned to the primary focus of whether the material will really do the job of training/teaching.
Q: How about two stories with a humorous slant?
A: We had two prospective customers from Michigan that wanted to see one of our urban classrooms in action, so we flew them to see a classroom in Georgia where we were attending a convention. When we contacted the host teacher, he set up the visit but asked us not to come at 2:30 (a time when he had what he described as his Zoo Crew). We told him that this would not be a problem as they would be in early and leave right away.
As luck would have it, the teachers were delayed by snow and arrived in Georgia just in time for (you guessed it) the zoo crew. As we were showing the teachers around the lab, our host looked very pale but answered the other teachers’ questions while we told them all the benefits of working with Marcraft. While he was talking with the teachers, I heard a sound behind me that sounded like an arc welder being lit off and turned to see a student with a screwdriver in an open computer power supply. The student was OK but the screwdriver was a goner, so I asked the young man why he had stuck the screwdriver in the power supply and why he had the top off it anyway since I was sure that there were no instructions anywhere asking him to do this. His reply was that he just wanted to see what would happen, and the distraction caused by the teacher answering the visitors’ questions gave him the opportunity.
I was sure that our prospective customers were probably never going to buy anything from us after this, so I asked my sales director to get us out of there. On the ride back to the airport I was very surprised when our visitors said that they had no problem with our lab setup, after seeing that lab environment they were sure they could handle it.
While preparing to make a presentation to a government body in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia, we found that the overhead projector that we had rented had no computer cable with it. The meeting was set for the first thing in the morning and we needed a cable. Our local rep in Malaysia told us that he would simply have his sister pick one up from the supplier, which was several miles away, when she came to the meeting the next morning.
As the time for the meeting was nearing the next morning, we sat with great concern, as the sister had not yet arrived with the needed cable. Finally, 15 minutes before the meeting was scheduled to start, the sister came in with the cable and in perfect English exclaimed, “Sorry I’m late, it’s a jungle out there.” She was right, it was.
Q: Describe your current role with Marcraft International Corporation and your current projects?
A: As you mentioned in your introduction, I am the President of Marcraft International and I am directly responsible for our product development. We currently have three distinct product lines that we offer to different segments of the IT training market.
The flagship of our company is still the IT Certification line that follows the CompTIA line of vendor neutral certifications. We publish textbooks, lab books, instructor’s guides and practice test banks for the A+, Network+, I-net+, Server+, HTI+ and Security+ certification programs. For some of these topics we offer multiple textbooks aimed at different market segments.
In addition to the text and lab books, we offer classroom equipment that enables a fully functional training environment to be established. These items range from simple fault kits for conducting break/fix lab procedures to complete trainers that provide in depth hands on training (the second key element in blended learning solutions – also the element that insures that the student can not only pass the certification exam, but can also do the job the certification says they can do).
Our second line of products is referred to as the Digital Literacy Series and focuses on IT skills below the certification level. These courses have been designed to introduce students to various IT career paths and provide them with bedrock technical skills that are now required to be successful in the electronic world they live in. These 45-hour, student driven courses include Introductory Computers, Networking, Internetworking, Multimedia, Graphic Design, Programming, Database Management, and Office Programs.
The third line of products is our Connectivity Product line that is aimed at a different market area and a different student base. These courses cover Copper Cabling Installation, Fiber Optic Cabling Installation, Wireless Networking, and Security Systems Installation. Students who complete these courses and become certified typically go to work in Trade jobs. The courses provide them with industry-requested skills that make them employable and provide the white picket fence and SUV-in-the-yard life style.
As with our IT courses, we offer great text/lab books, test banks, and instructor’s support materials for all of these courses, along with hands on lab equipment to fully implement the blended learning approach.
Q: Where do you see yourself and your company in five years?
A: When you consider that the half-life of a computer technician today is 6 months, it’s hard to say where your company will be in five years. When you add the shifts and changes that occur in the education market to this, it is even more difficult. Five years ago, Marcraft was moving out of an education segment in the public school market known as Tech Ed. The great ideals that had been set forth at the beginning of the Tech Ed movement had never been fully recognized and the market had become full of discount equipment vendors with questionable curriculum so we extricated ourselves from that market and placed more emphasis on the IT certification market.
Having said all that, we see the IT certification market remaining somewhat stable as it is now for the foreseeable future. We will continue to improve our existing product line adding items that technology brings to the forefront and pruning products that become less important.
I also believe we will tune up some of the elements in our blended learning approach. Our text and lab books are excellent but I see opportunities to supplement those items with electronic instructor’s notes and some online content.
I see myself continuing to do what I do now and exploring new products and delivery methods. Because I really do enjoy what I do, I don’t think I’ll ever retire from it. I may simply create training products in other environments. IT has made it feasible to create and deliver some types of training materials from the beach or the back of the boat. Those ideas are both appealing to me. State parks also offer very creative atmospheres to work in.
From my corporate strategic planning experiences of the past, it will be very interesting to read this five years from now to see what we were thinking back when.
Q: Describe in detail your activities with the CompTIA’s A+ Advisory Committee.
A: I am one of the A+ advisory committee members that represent the education and publishing industry. My input centers on how the A+ exam (and changes to it) affect certain segments of the school market. I also provide some input about how the timing of test changes affects publishing text based products.
We meet four times each year, twice by web/telephone conference and twice in person. As a group, we deal with test performance and exam marketing issues. We also deal with exam domain structures and topics as they are going through the revision process.
Q: For those uninitiated into A+, what value does the certification have, and which areas are covered?
A: A+ first came to prominence when CompTIA organizations like Packard Bell began requiring their technical services people to obtain the certification or be dismissed. The value is that it was required. Over time, the certification has become the entry point for IT careers. It has become a hiring criteria for many IT companies. When you stop to realize that this exam is recognized by the Microsoft MCSA certification, the Cisco CCNA certification and the Novell CNA certification as prerequisites or as alternatives, you start to grasp the importance of obtaining this certification. The industry leaders recognize it as do the mom and pop computer shops. It’s a mark of achievement.
The A+ exam covers two basic areas: the core hardware components and peripherals that make up the typical PC compatible system and the Operating System Technologies exam that deals with the Microsoft stand alone desktop operating systems (i.e. Windows 95, 98, Me, 2000 Pro, XP). In both cases, the exams are built around the topics technicians work with, installing, configuring, and troubleshooting hardware and software. There is no consumer level or user level information involved in the A+ exam.
Q: What about the future evolution of A+?
A: While A+ began as a hiring guide for the computer industry groups that make up CompTIA, it has evolved into the entry-level certification for IT. The most logical starting point for anyone entering the IT market should be the hardware that makes up desktop computer systems and the stand alone desktop operating systems that run them. After that, you can network them, make them servers, or connect to the Internet with them, but it all starts with the stand-alone computer.
There is no good reason why A+ will not remain this entry point as long as it continues to remain relevant and focused in what its purpose is. I know there is some consternation in the industry section that A+ can be taught successfully at the High School level. But the skills required to pass the exam can be reached by those people. That’s the thing about an independent certification – whoever can get over the bar has achieved the goal.
Q: There are so many books available on A+ certification. How do you differentiate your book from others in the market?
A: We write books specifically targeted for different markets that have different learning styles associated with them. Other companies typically write a single book and try to fit it into as many markets as possible – One size fits all. Our ILT books are written in a much different manner than our Trade and Prep books even though they cover the same material. They are tailored to specific types of readers and the support that they need.
We try to provide the pedagogical elements that prove most helpful to the types of students using our different books. These include several different types of questions presented at different parts of the chapter. Some are open-ended asking the student to explain things in their own terms, while others are multiple-choice and represent the types of questions encountered on the exam. We also include open-ended, scenario-based Challenge Items throughout the chapter, which make the reader stop and organize what they have digested so they can apply it to the challenge presented.
We use many illustrations. We’re not afraid of the cost of having many diagrams and tables in our books. One of the early victories I won at Marcraft was having in-house artists on staff. They do wonderful work and provide insight that you just can’t get from a photograph.
Q: What additional tips can you share from your book?
A: Because the A+ exam is in two parts and very robust, the book has to be large. But don’t be intimidated. Our book is easy to read and well illustrated. It also provides many exam tips and help scattered throughout it.
Q: Provide your predictions about the evolution of hardware? Are there any areas we should be watching?
A: The most interesting hardware products center around two areas – those products associated with the new high-speed I/O ports (USB and IEEE-1394) and wireless devices. The products for the new buses are actually old devices with new interfaces to use the high performance of the buses. As we hang more and more devices on our computers, a wider array of USB and Firewire devices will be developed.
For that matter, let’s just make everything wireless so that it just has to be around the computer to work with it.
Q: Share your top study tips for certification?
A: 1) Get a good textbook – preferably one certified by a third party to cover the material.
2) Do hands on exercises. Working in the psychomotor domain as well as the cognitive domain is a much better learning environment. It is also the domain you will actually be working in when you have the job.
3) Get a good prep product – CD or text based. The prep product should be a small book or online product that does not try to teach you about the theory of the material, but instead focuses on the exam as much as possible. You need to get the flavor of the exam itself.
4) Get a good practice test bank to work with. You’re going to be answering questions that have certain slants to them. A good test bank will help prepare you for this aspect of taking the exam.
5) Take your time preparing for an IT exam. Know the stuff; don’t just try to memorize it long enough to get it down on a test. That works for high school but not for a career. There’s a Dilbert cartoon that illuminates this problem quite well.
6) If you’re taking a multi-part IT exam like A+, prepare for the parts separately. There’s no penalty for doing this and why try to fight two dragons when you only need to fight one at a time.
7) Try to get real experience that is not scripted. Apprentice in an IT shop for a while before taking the exam to get into non-scripted hands-on activities. Labs are great for demonstrating key concepts, but they are written with a defined purpose that has a definite beginning and end. Real problems are not so. They have no ‘Start Here’ markers and the end point depends on how well you can apply what you have learned.
Q: Give your views on experience versus certification versus an academic degree.
A: As I mentioned at the beginning of the interview, the biggest challenge I had in this industry was getting back up to speed when I went through a job change because my experience was niched and I wasn’t prepared for another role in the same field. The reason that the A+ certification came along had to do with the industry not knowing what it was hiring when it asked for a computer technician – an old electronic guy like me who could use an oscilloscope and schematic diagrams to fix hardware, or a Microsoft OS person who knew where Microsoft had hidden everything in those .INI files. This is why there are two parts to the A+ exam – the Core Hardware exam and the Operating System Technologies exam – so that people certified as computer technicians can handle both parts.
The entire reason that certifications sprang up and evolved in IT comes from the fact that modern industry rides on IT products that can be complicated and require specific skill sets to implement and maintain. Academic degrees are generic in nature and tend to the well-rounded approach to a topic such as computer science. You know a lot of theory about computer and network systems in general but this does not help a company that has Netware servers that will not communicate with Microsoft clients and financial transactions are being held up or users are being prevented from accessing information they need to carryout their job functions. These are lost dollar situations where industry just wants to know that you have the skills to correct the problem and return the system to a profit making undertaking. That’s what certification is about.
On the other hand, real experience along with a certification provides the best job candidate. CompTIA exit feedback identifies the most successful exam candidates are those who have had good theory delivery, with hands on labs AND related job experience. If any of these elements are missing, the percentage of success goes down accordingly. This should make sense – good theory, practical experience through scripted labs and exceptional experience through open ended, non-scripted work scenarios.
While a single certification, or a grouping of certifications, will get you a job and some advancement, the thing I see is that the industry really brings IT professionals back to the classroom several times during a career. When you’re a great troubleshooter and have worked at solving problems for a while, it is natural to want something more in your career – such as managing people who troubleshoot or administrate IT. At this point, you’re talking about academic training of some type – probably leading to an AS or other type of degree.
Q: What are the most compelling issues facing technology professionals today and in the future? How can they be resolved?
A: 1) Staying current – training, training, training either on your own or through a training media.
2) Building a career bio that contains the credentials that will take them where they want to go. Over a career, this usually involves regular training of some kind, possibly including academic degrees.
3) Deciding which of the many technology paths to pursue. You could spend all your time getting ready for and taking certification exams. Pick and choose to get where you want to go. Refer to the Tech Career Compass that CompTIA built to show linkages between key IT job titles, education, and certifications. Marcraft participated in the creation and population of this database with a number of other IT companies. This tool is located at www.tcc.comptia.org.
Q: List the best resources for technology and business professionals.
A: 1) Certification magazine. A great source of certification relevant news and tips.
2) The Internet. There are so many good technical resources on line. I even include the sites where I do my research in my textbooks.
3) Microsoft Technet. Microsoft operating systems and software runs on most of the computers in the world. The answers to problems associated with these software packages are available through this resource.
4) The bookstore. There are books available for whatever IT topics you want or need to be up on.
Q: What are the qualities that describe a successful technology professional?
A: The ability to focus and think in practical terms. Someone not given to getting too excited by problems – having the confidence to know that they can correct them. I think this confidence must come from good training and a good work environment. Working in the IT field often means working with people. Good people skills are a must if you are going to be successful. Fortunately, these skills can be taught and polished – they are not inherited.
Q: You pick the topics: now provide us with those valuable rare “gems” that only you know.
A: Technology expansion will slow down vertically (i.e., faster this and that) but will continue to expand horizontally (more intelligent items working with host computers and networks).
Q: What future books can we expect from you?
A: The A+ book has become a small cottage industry of its own right now. There are different versions for Instructor Led Training, the Barnes and Noble trade market and the professional exam prep market. In addition, the ILT version is also presented as a two-part book, with one covering the Core Hardware exam and the other covering the Operating System technologies exam. Most of these versions include their own Lab Guide and test banks that correspond to each book. Therefore, I don’t think there will be anymore purely Chuck Brooks books. At eITPrep, I work with other authors to co-write and produce series MCSA/MCSE books. At Marcraft, I design new courses as they appear viable in the industry and coordinate their development with our production staff. I keep my hand involved in some pretty interesting products, including the hardware required for the classroom. Imagine having to put together hardware and software to support the home networking, automated HVAC, Security systems, lighting system, and advanced Audio/Video systems involved in the HTI+ certification. What great toys to play with.
But I never expected to write any books, so let’s never rule anything out.
Q: What do you consider the most important trends to watch, and please provide some recommendations?
A: 1) Wireless technologies invading every facet of IT. No more wires to do anything. Monitor your home security system from the beach using your cell phone/PDA. Brush up on your TCP/IP and VPN knowledge.
2) Home technology integration. The Jetsons are here and coming to your house. The products we see will continue to integrate into a cohesive home management system with remote operation and control functions. Get used to connecting things to computers that are not printers, monitors, and keyboards.
3) Security issues. As we get more comfortable with technology doing things for us we get more comfortable with having more of ourselves open to inspection – either legally or illegally. As users, we need to be more aware of what can happen to us in a virtual world and how to avoid these things while maintaining the good opportunities that the electronic world offers us.
Q: What kind of computer setup do you have?
A: At my office, I have a desktop PC running Windows XP Pro and a notebook running Windows 98. I also carry an iPac. In my home office, I have a small network consisting of a Windows 2000 Server, a Windows 2000 Pro workstation, a Windows 98 workstation and a notebook running Centrino wireless technology. I also have a standalone Windows 98 machine for record keeping and finances. Whow! Where did all those computers come from? I wonder if my wife has become a computer geek.
Q: If you had to do it all over again?
A: I couldn’t have planned this career I have. I didn’t know it existed. Like I said, it’s like working in a big technical toy box. I went off to electrical engineering school, went into industry and had my feet propped up to do 30 years there. I never thought of being a teacher and not even being a writer. So would I do it again? In a heartbeat!
Q: What drives you to do what you do?
A: I really enjoy what I do. The challenges of learning about new ideas and devices and then developing training solutions to pass that knowledge on to others is a real blast. I joke about coming to Marcraft from the classroom so that I could torture more students more effectively. That’s a funny way of saying that I could affect more people’s lives where I am now. If you use one of my products and it gets you and your family into a better or more enjoyable career, what could match that?
It also doesn’t hurt that I find computers and IT-related material interesting. I don’t play computer games but I do like to see what can be done with technology to make things easier and better.
In addition, I like the people that I work with in this industry. I have met enough truly interesting people and done enough truly interesting things since I came into this business to write a novel (and I just might if technical writing gets boring someday). The names will have to be changed to protect me.
Q: How do you keep up with all the changes?
A: Customers, committees, trade publications, the Internet.
As I mentioned above, I work with truly interesting people. Some are designers and engineers while others are teachers and administrators, but they all have ideas about new ways to teach and new products they would like to see developed. I get to listen to those ideas and weave them into products and product lines. I get to build off their energies
Q: If you were doing this interview, what five questions would you ask of someone in your position and what would be your answers?
A: Q1: Where is IT going?
Q2: How does certification help individuals?
Q4: What are the best certifications to have?
Q5: How do we make certifications better at providing workers that can actually do the job
they are certified for?
Q: Charles, thank you again for your time, and consideration in doing this interview.
A: My pleasure. Thank you for giving me this forum to express my opinions.