F5: New Certifications – with Ken Salchow

by Mirek Burnejko

Ken Salchow F5This is an interview with Ken Salchow from F5.

Ken is a legend in the certification industry. More than 160 certification exams in his career. Now he is working on a new certification program for F5. New 12 certifications.

F5 is an amazing company that is known mainly for their load-balancers.

In this interview you will find:

  • Why F5 has developed new 12 certifications?
  • Will F5 add a practical exam?
  • How to prepare to the new F5 exams?

IT Certification Master: Hello Ken. It is a big pleasure to have you here. Tell us something about you and your role in F5?

Ken Salchow: Hi and thanks for speaking with me. I have been professionally in this industry for over 25 years and along the way, I’ve been a CNE, MCSE, CCNP, Network+, C|EH, CEE, CISSP and several other smaller certifications; I’ve taken somewhere near 167 certification exams in my career (including recertification exams). I have worked at F5 Networks for the last 12 years in several roles (Systems Engineer, Security Architect, Technical Marketing and Corporate Spokesperson) and I was a customer of F5 when I worked for Best Buy corporation on the team that built Bestbuy.com. Take all of that together and you can see that I have a strong passion for F5 technology as well as a firm belief in the value of certification. My new role as the Program Manager for Technical Certification at F5 is a perfect opportunity to blend those two passions together as I am responsible for a complete redesign for the F5 technical certification program.

ICM: Big news. You’ve just published new 12! certifications. Why you decided to change your last program?

KS: There were a lot of reasons to change the last program. One of the biggest reasons is that the old program was designed for a different time when F5 was a much smaller company and our market was much smaller. The old program was really focused on partner and channel authorization, not individual certification because there wasn’t a great demand for a certification program from individuals. Today, things have changed. F5 has continued to grow, the technologies and markets we encompass continues to increase and, I think, there is now a much greater demand from individuals. As such, we need a program that is designed and managed to promote the value of certification at the individual level.

ICM: What is the first and the last step in your certification process? Do you provide any practice exam?

KS: I have tried to learn some lessons from professional licensure programs, so the new F5 program is a little different from most “IT” programs. The first step will be that candidates who wish to participate in our program will have to register with F5 via our credential management site (which should be up within the next month or so). You simply won’t be able to take a single exam until you register with us. Once that is done, you will be given instructions on how to schedule your first exam (“Application Delivery Fundamentals”).

Similarly, although becoming common in IT programs, the notion of “live labs” or practical exams also comes from the licensure world. So, the last step in the entire program is being planned as a practical lab exam. We’re still at least a year away from that, so I don’t know what the final exam will look like or how it will be managed until then.

I do want to note, however, that there are multiple “certifications” available between that first step and that last lab exam. Again, maybe because I’ve had so much experience being certified and participating in these programs, I wanted to make sure that there were recognizable milestones through the program that would allow people to instantly know where you were in the program as well as simply reward the individual as they continue through the program.

ICM: Do you provide some kind of additional benefits for certified people?

KS: Since my focus is on the individual, we are looking at many benefits for certified individuals. Most of these are still in development and benefits are sure to change over time, but we are looking at things like priority support, early access to product launch presentations, beta involvement, better access to virtual images, etc. In addition, our certification management site includes the ability to electronically demonstrate your certification status to prospective employers and we plan to implement the public registry to allow candidates to be visible (if they choose) to prospective employers who might be looking for people with their skills.

ICM: What with people with former F5 certifications? Do we need to pass any upgrade exam or maybe these certifications aren’t connected?

KS: Unfortunately, there really isn’t any way to compare the old certifications to the new ones. The way the old program was created was that we built the exams off of what our courses taught. That means that if we didn’t teach something, we didn’t test it; TCP/IP is an example of something we expected you to know, so we didn’t teach it and, therefore, didn’t test it. The new program is built the other way around. We are doing a full job-task analysis at each exam level to determine the skills needed and building an exam (and changing our courses) based on that. Therefore, the new exams will be substantially more rigorous than the old ones.

So, to your question directly, we will continue to honor any F5 certifications that are awarded up until we quit providing the old exams in early July; those certifications will still have their full 2-year expiry. However, once those certifications expire or if you just want to get started in the new program… everyone starts at the bottom. It’s a brand new program.

ICM: Let’s talk about training materials? How we can prepare to your certifications? What is the best way?

F5 CertificationsKS: F5 has a number of training options from instructor led training, virtual instructor led training, web-based training and independent study using tools like DevCentral, AskF5 and other sources. But let’s talk about the general philosophy of the program as I see it.

When we develop the exam blueprint, it details every skill we expect to be on the exam. This is the document we use to determine what items to write for the exam. This document will also be something that our training department uses to adjust our current training courses to ensure that they cover all of the things that we need to. This document can also be used as a skills assessment tool for organizations or individuals to know what they need to know and what they need to study. So, as each exam blueprint becomes available for each exam, I am going to publish this blueprint on our website so that candidates have a clear understanding of the skills we expect them to have for each exam. In addition to that, either as part of that exam blueprint or as a separate document, our training group will be providing a resource guide to give candidates specific resources to learn those skills. These resources will be down to an objective level and will include not only F5 resources, but open-source resources as well.

Given that, the exam blueprint and resource guide would be the BEST place to start preparing for the exam and will enable each candidate to create a custom learning plan to meet their needs and level of skill for each exam. Best of all, that means that many candidates will be able to prepare and pass the exams without having to spend large amounts of time and money on formal classes.

ICM: Do you offer any free training materials?

KS: The F5 LTM Fundamentals class has been available as a free WBT for some time now as well as a few others (UNIVERSITY, you must register, but it is free). In addition, the exam blueprints, resource guides, DevCentral and AskF5 are all free to anyone who wants them. Lastly, because we are not solely focused on F5 specific knowledge, many of the resources that will be specified in the resource guides will also be free, open-source resources. A great place to start would be here.

ICM: Do you have plan to provide practice test or (fingers crossed) emulators of F5 load-balancers and other devices?

KS: Practice exams will not be available for some time, if ever. Creating practice exams simply increases the massive resource strain we have simply creating the new exams as is (over 12,000 man-hours for the first 10 exams). Consequently, we don’t have the resources to do this at this time. That being said, once we start moving into maintenance on the exams and we can retire old items or pull items that have already been compromised, I might see about putting a practice exam together. We’ll see.

As I mentioned before, better access to virtual instances of F5 equipment is one of the big perks I’m pushing for. Most people could already have access to this, but it is not a simple process. I want to change that especially since … and many people don’t know this … but our BIG-IP family of products (LTM, GTM, ASM, APM, Web Accelerator and WOM) are actually a unified code build. So, technically, it’s very easy to have a virtual machine of our solutions that has ALL of these products; making it easy for certified candidates to do that and getting buy-off internally is a little tougher. We are looking at some other possible solutions as well.

ICM: Are all these 12 certifications available right now?

KS: No, not yet. The first certification “BIG-IP Administrator” requires two exams. The first of those exams will be available in Beta later this summer and the second will follow shortly behind. In addition, I fully expect the LTM exam(s) to also be available in Beta before October. You can then expect a new exam about 1 per quarter until they are all released. So, the full program will still take another year or so to get rolled out, but I don’t think that is really going to hinder too many people as these exams are going to be a lot more rigorous than the old ones. If people are following my advice, they will be using the exam blueprints and really making sure they are prepared before taking the exams and that will take time; if they aren’t following my advice and think they can just take the exam an pass it, they will likely fail. Given that we are implementing a very tightly controlled retake policy on the new program, if they fail … it will also take them some time to get through the program. I really suggest candidates take my advice and are prepared.

ICM: Thank you so much for this interview Ken. Tell us what is the best place to start our story with the F5 certifications?

KS: Thank you for the opportunity to speak with the constituents on IT Certification Master. As far as the best place to start? I’d go to F5 Certifications and become familiar with the program; review the exam blueprints, see where you think you are and start planning for when the exams become available. If you can’t find answers in the FAQs or other sources, feel free to email us at [email protected] Thanks again!

[This is part of the Interviews with Vendors Series]