My new employer requires that I get an appropriate Microsoft certification by February 2012. This requires that I take six certification tests. I've started preparing, after not having bothered in four years. And, as I was in 2006, and 1999, and 1996, and 1993, the last times I jumped into the MCP Pit of Despair, I am unhappy.
Why, pray, have I not bothered to get certified? Why only one test in the last 10 years? Because I really, honestly, truly, hate these exams. The last time I took one, I literally walked in off the street and winged it. This didn't work. Not, I assert, because I lack the skills the test purported to measure. No, because the exams, for reasons of economics and volume, don't demonstrate ability; they screen for something else entirely. (I'm still trying to work out what.)
Having just taken a practice test, I am saddened to see things haven't improved. Here's an example, which I first demonstrated in 2006. Imagine you want to get a "Chicago Certified Driver in Stick-Shift Transmissions (Automobile)" badge. This credential establishes that you are certified by the city of Chicago to drive cars equipped with manual transmissions. To get this credential, you take a computerized, multiple-choice test. Here is question 1:
You're driving from 1200 West Fullerton Parkway to 741 West Cornelia Avenue. What is the route you follow?
A. East on Fullerton, North on Halsted, West on Cornelia.
B. East on Fullerton, North on Clark, North on Sheffield, East on Cornelia.
C. West on Fullerton, North on Western, East on Addison, South on Halsted, East on Cornelia.
D. East on Fullerton, North on Clark, North on Broadway, West on Cornelia.
Do you know the answer? You have 60 seconds, closed book.
The correct answer is C, because the other three are illegal. Of course, no one would ever, ever, ever, choose C in real life, because it takes you three miles out of your way. But that's not the point. Certified Chicago Drivers may not know how to use a manual transmission, but they absolutely know all the one-way streets in the city.
See, in order to get this question right you need to know several things. First, Halsted is 800 West, so you need to be East of it to get to 741 W. Cornelia. Second, Cornelia is a one-way street that goes East and West from Halsted. In other words, if you're on Halsted, you can go either East or West on Cornelia, away from Halsted.
Further, if you got the question wrong, so what? So you're going up on Halsted and you turn the wrong way on Cornelia. Oops: you're on the 800 block of Cornelia, the numbers are getting bigger, so you waste maybe 15 seconds turning at the next street and trying again in the other directon.
And even more: Anyone who has ever spent time in that neighborhood knows you won't find a parking space on the 700 block of Cornelia unless you get really, really lucky. So you may want to turn West on Cornelia anyway, because it's sometimes easier to find parking over there.
You may be wondering, why would anyone who wants to demonstrate mastery of driving stick-shift cars (a) take a multiple-choice test requiring him to (b) memorize all the one-way streets in Wrigleyville? Good question. And I have the one and only answer that should ever, ever make you do this:
Because someone is paying you to do so.
That is a good enough reason for me.