Issue #5 March 2005

Red Hat Speaks

Randy Russell, Director of Curriculum and Certification

[ Randy Russell ]

Red Hat Global Learning Services recently announced a new addition to its acclaimed certification program: Red Hat Certified Architect (RHCA).

This month Red Hat Magazine is interviewing Randy Russell—Red Hat's Director of Curriculum and Certification—about the RHCA program and his role on the Global Learning Services (GLS) team.

How long have you been at Red Hat, and what is your role on the Global Learning Services team?
I joined Red Hat in April 1999 as around the one-hundreth employee. At that time, Red Hat had a single office in Durham, NC near Research Triangle Park. Red Hat now has offices worldwide and seven or eight times as many associates. My position is Director of Curriculum and Certification. I oversee the development of our training courses and certification programs. Unlike many companies, instructors develop and maintain our courses, not a separate development or instructional design group. Instructors are the ones with the daily customer interaction so they have a better sense of what needs to be in the courses than a sequestered courseware development group.
How long has Red Hat offered training and certification?
Red Hat began running classes in early 1999. Our first certification was Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE). It focused on core system administration skills but was (and still is) very different from certification programs offered by other OS vendors. First of all, we use performance-based testing in our certification programs rather than multiple-choice exams. Second, we had (and still have) more of a network services and security emphasis than most other system administration certs.
We introduced Red Hat Certified Technician (RHCT) in early 2003. We brought this certification to market for a number of reasons. It provides a way for people whose job roles do not necessarily require the level of network services knowledge required for RHCE to earn a meaningful credential. It also provides a credential for people migrating their skills from other operating systems and even for people entering the IT workforce like the students in our Red Hat Academy program.
You said that performance-based testing is something that really differentiates Red Hat's certifications from many of the other ones out there. What is performance-based testing, and why is it different?
Performance-based testing means that you test candidates by having them perform tasks similar to what they would perform on the job rather than asking them a series of questions about those tasks and inferring from their answers that they know how to do those tasks. Red Hat uses a particular type of performance-based testing often referred to as "live system testing." In this approach, candidates must perform system administration tasks on systems running Red Hat Enterprise Linux. We put them in front of a real system and ask them to install the OS, create users, create filesystems, and so on--in other words, to perform realistic tasks similar to what they would perform on the job.
This approach to testing means that someone who holds one of our certifications has conclusively demonstrated certain skills. It's conclusive because they have actually DONE something. So much of the certification world today is a crap shoot. A company that hires someone with one of those so-called "paper certs" can never be certain that the person can actually DO anything besides using "exam-cram" sites to memorize the exam questions. Those sites must HATE us, because our testing approach means that someone must actually know what they are doing to pass our exams. Memorizing a bunch of facts is not enough.
Red Hat has announced the Red Hat Certified Architect (RHCA) program. What is it, and how does it relate to RHCE and RHCT?
RHCA is a new certification we are introducing this year that represents a broad, deep set of skills needed to make the most of Red Hat's products in enterprise environments.
It is the natural evolution of what we began with RHCE and RHCT. It also reflects the evolution of Red Hat and its products. Six years ago, Red Hat Linux was used mostly for Internet services (web, mail) and workgroup-level functions like file and print servers. It was often brought into companies on the sly by technical personnel and was not necessarily something that management bought into or even knew about! Today, Red Hat Enterprise Linux is a strategic choice being made by CIOs. Companies are running their most critical datacenter applications on it. Red Hat offers layered products like Cluster Suite and GFS that address the needs of that environment.
In addition, Linux on the corporate desktop is a growing reality. Companies are tired of the expense, management limitations, and abysmal security of their present desktop solutions. They are looking to us to provide a desktop alternative with less overhead, better management, and tighter security. The Red Hat Desktop package in conjunction with Red Hat Network (RHN), Satellite Server, and Proxy Server, offers a viable alternative. My point here is that six years ago (and longer), I was using Linux on the desktop, but it was not a realistic option for companies to adopt for most of their end users. Now it is...and because it is, there are new challenges to confront that were not really there before.
So back to RHCA and what it is. Someone who earns RHCA has demonstrated skills and knowledge in areas of particular importance to large deployments, mission-critical environments, and that wide, varied range of requirements we throw under the term "the enterprise".
We call RHCAs the "masters of many"--many systems, many users, many configurations. There are particular kinds of issues that arise once the number of systems to manage, the number of users accessing them, becomes large, and the stakes associated with the availability and performance of systems are higher. Knowing how to address those issues is the job of the RHCA.
How does one become an RHCA?
RHCA is earned after an RHCE has passed five endorsement exams. Each of these exams concerns a particular area of focus: deployment and systems management; directory services and authentication; storage management; system monitoring and performance tuning; and network services security.
Each endorsement is an additional credential attached to one's RHCE, and each endorsement has a value of its own independent of any others an RHCE might earn. Many people will have fine careers without earning any endorsements, but obviously having tangible proof of competency in one or more of these areas will give someone an edge and open some new possibilities professionally.
Now consider what it means if someone does earn all five. While they have value independent of one another, having this kind of depth and breadth--this particular set of skills and knowledge--means that one has a remarkable toolset at their disposal. They understand how to both provision hundreds or thousands of systems for a big desktop rollout and also how the people sitting down at one of those systems will authenticate. They understand how to load-balance a farm of web servers and how to monitor their performance. They know how to ensure that mission-critical systems are highly available even during times of system maintenance. And they know how to manage all these systems efficiently and effectively.
Because of the breadth and depth represented by earning all five of these endorsements--because there are some connections and complementarities that arise from having all these competencies- we award RHCA as a certification. You've collected your box tops and have earned one heck of a decoder ring.
When you say "tangible proof of competency," do you mean these exams will also be performance-based live system tests?
Of course! We are completely sold on this method of testing as the best measure of someone's abilities. That said, we do not rule out the use of other testing methods to supplement the Main Event, which in our exams is and will remain live system testing.
So how does one prepare for these exams?
Not surprisingly, we offer courses that cover the skills an RHCE will need to pass the endorsement exams. Most of these are in our Enterprise Architect curriculum. One, on network security, is part of our security curriculum.
One could, conceivably, undertake a program of self-study to prepare. We do not require people to take any of our classes to take an exam. However, these are rather specialized skills, and in all of them I think that attending class is the most effective and efficient way to gain the knowledge.
In some cases, gaining the knowledge requires access to multiple systems and specialized storage hardware. This is not usually the kind of stuff a would-be examinee is going to find gathering dust in a broom closet. Coming to class not only provides a structured, hands-on class taught by a qualified instructor, it provides a hardware environment that is not usually available for self-study.
You indicated that passing an endorsement exam adds a credential to one's RHCE.
This is another area where Red Hat is a bit different. If you think about it, mocking up a "certificate" is something anyone with a computer can do. Consequently, we see a physical document as something that might look real but does nothing to ensure that the person presenting it is the genuine article. Therefore, we issue every RHCE a unique RHCE certificate number, and these can be verified on our website.
When I say that someone has an additional credential--an endorsement--associated with their RHCE, I mean that when someone queries that person's RHCE certificate number, we will not only report that the RHCE number is valid (assuming it is, of course) but will also report any additional credentials that person has earned. In this way, the IT professionals who certify with us can, over time, build up a portfolio of credentials, and anyone interested in hiring or promoting them can go right to the source to find out if those credentials are authentic.
Given that approach, it sounds like one must be an RHCE to take these exams.
Right. One must be an RHCE on a release we consider current to take any of the endorsement exams.
What about the Enterprise Architect courses? Are they open to RHCEs only?
Anyone may attend the Enterprise Architect courses. However, we strongly recommend that people attain RHCE first before they do. That may mean simply taking the RHCE exam to ensure that one's skills and knowledge really are at that level. It might mean taking our Rapid Track course to ensure that gaps in knowledge are filled, or it might mean taking our Standard Track of courses if one has less experience.
Ultimately, one has to have RHCE-level skills to get a lot out of the Enterprise Architect classes. We cut right to the chase with these classes and assume you already know how to perform RHCE-level tasks. Those who come to these classes without that level of background usually find it a frustrating experience, and obviously that's the last thing anyone wants.
Customers who are uncertain where to begin should take advantage of our free online pre-assessments. The best, most reliable measure of someone's readiness to tackle the Enterprise Architect curriculum, however, is earning RHCE.
When will the Enterprise Architect courses and the endorsement exams be available?
The courses are available now. We will begin running the exams in selected locations beginning this month. Check for more information.
If you could only read one book for the rest of your life, what would it be?
I am TERRIBLE at these kinds of questions, because I always need to know context. Is it the only book because, say, there's been a complete collapse of modern civilization and we are living in some post-apocalyptic anarchy? If that's the case, a nice treatise on metallurgy might be more useful than, say, _Emma_ or _The Wealth of Nations_!