F5 Networks (F5), an industry leader specializing in application delivery networking, launched the current F5 Professional Certification Program (F5 Certified!) in 2011. Since that time, the program has experienced significant growth and notoriety in IT certification. Its success is directly related to consistent efforts to listen to stakeholders, protect the security and integrity of their certification exams, and find creative and reliable ways to help candidates grow and be more successful in their careers. Due to the respected F5 product line and reputable certification program, F5 Certified! professionals have a great deal of credibility and are sought after throughout the industry.

Dr. Ken Salchow, Senior Manager, Global Training and Certification, and Heidi Schreifels, Senior Certification Administrator, Exam Development, are the drivers behind the successful management of F5’s thriving certification program.

“F5 has set high standards for developing quality test items. Our certifications are challenging to achieve and one must have experience, hands-on knowledge, and study diligently in order to pass. When candidates earn a certification, it empowers and enables them and gives them a confidence boost. It’s also rewarding for us as program sponsors when we have opportunities to congratulate and celebrate with them,” said Schreifels, a savvy certification administrator with exceptional organizational skills, who masterfully manages and works with candidates and partners.

In 2017, Salchow and Schreifels were faced with a dilemma. Some candidates were requesting more detailed information on how best to prepare for the exams. “We had been providing candidates post assessment information but nothing more than pass/fail results and their score versus the required cut score. We determined if we gave them what they were requesting, they would likely be studying the wrong things. Our candidates were in need of guidance and we were determined to provide it for them, while ensuring we maintained the security, integrity, and validity of our exams. We evaluated the situation, did research, and began formulating a solution,” said Salchow, the visionary for the program who credits his experience as a DBA and technical field systems and sales engineer, during which he earned numerous technical certifications, combined with his nearly ten-year role as F5’s senior certification manager for providing him with a deep understanding on how to meet candidate and program needs coupled with an understanding of the big picture and how to align business strategies with core competencies to promote innovation and sustainability.

Schreifels, who excels at engaging subject matter experts (SMEs) and managing exam development, added, “Our candidates are advocates of our program and we are advocates for them. We highly value our reciprocal relationship where we listen to one another, have ongoing open dialog and collaboration and did not want to lose that. We were seeking the ultimate solution that would help our candidates be successful and acquire the certifications they desired to earn.”

“Based on our research and consultation with our psychometric partner, Alpine, we determined the best solution was to provide practice exams,” said Salchow. “But instead of merely pulling together old items or a collection of items that had not been vetted, our goal was to create true practice exam forms that were equated to respective production exam forms so candidates could experience taking an exam that was highly related, from a pass/fail standpoint, to how they would perform on the production examPractice exams that are equivalent to production exams are highly predictive and that adds additional value. We also saw the need to provide additional direction. We recently added a section-level feedback component to give candidates applicable guidance on where they needed to focus their study and to ensure we are not steering them down the wrong path.”

The planning for the practice exam implementation that began three years ago has benefitted candidates and F5. Exams are administered online via Exam Studio by Zoomorphix. Practice exams are the same length (both number of items and available time) as the production exams and provide an opportunity to become familiar with the exam environment, format, and content. The practice exams are developed to be completely unique from the production exams, with no items in common between production and practice forms. F5 cautions candidates that performance on a practice exam is not a guarantee of how a candidate will perform on an F5 production exam. Candidates receive a pass or fail score on the practice exam.

F5 charges a nominal fee for each practice exam, which is invested back into the program. Assessing a fee gives the exam more perceived value and discourages candidates from over indulging and taking the exam multiple times or without being appropriately prepared. One example of an appropriate use of taking the practice exam more than once would be if the candidate was able to engage in learning/training. For example, a candidate could take the practice exam as a “pre-test” prior to training and then as a “post-test” after the training to see the effect of the training. This may be purposefully planned, or a decision after a poor result on the practice exam that encouraged the candidate to gain additional experience or engage in additional training prior to continuing with their certification journey.

“We’ve received positive feedback from our candidate population regarding the practice exams,” stated Schreifels. “A lot of candidates have test anxiety. Many have reported that having the option of taking a practice exam not only gives them familiarity with the types of exam content they will see on the production exam (without giving them access to the actual production exam questions), but it closely aligns with the overall experience they will have when taking the production exam. It’s beneficial because it actually helps measure their performance on the exam rather than potentially measuring their performance based on anxiety from taking the exam. Another advantage is that candidates have more confidence when sitting for the production exam because they know what to expect.”

F5 is passionate about meeting the needs of their candidate population and staying connected. The practice exams have helped F5 receive more real-time feedback on practice exam content. The feedback is primarily provided via email as candidates are not allowed to discuss exams in public forums.

“One great benefit the F5 team appreciates is the opportunity to engage with our candidates and have dialog on a variety of topics. Our candidates love to share feedback and we love to listen. We also share data and applicable information, which helps us improve the candidate experience and our program,” said Salchow.

“As a visionary and architect of the F5 certification program, it’s very important that certifications have value, mean something and that we at F5 can stand behind them. The practice exams are just one more piece that adds value to the candidate,” shared Salchow.

We’ve all heard age-old sentiment, “Practice makes perfect.” The practice exam initiative has gone well for F5 and is helping candidates reach certification goals as they strive to grow and be more successful in their careers.