Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog
Wednesday 21 September 2011

I do not like programmer certification exams, and I have used this space to rant about them before. The topic came up again today during a conversation with a colleague, so here follows a distillation of the reasons why I can't stand the stupid things.

Imagine you are taking a driving test, so that you can put "Certified Chicago Driver" on your CV. Never mind that you've done a great job driving in Chicago without this credential; never mind that you've gotten one parking ticket and no moving violations in 20 years of driving. For whatever reason, you think getting this credential is a good idea. Maybe someone told you it would look good on your résumé. For whatever reason, you want the CCD logo on your business card, so you fork over the money and go to the testing center.

Now, imagine you get there, and rather than put you in a car, they plop you in front of a computer that is running—I am not kidding—Windows 3.1. Then you begin the multiple-choice, computer-scored test that will determine whether you get your CCD. Here is the first question:

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.

Ready for Question 2? Good.

You are at the Eastern end of Hugh Hefner Way. How many traffic lights are between you and the Water Tower?
A. 4
B. 24
C. 118
D. 0

So, wanna-be-Certified Chicago Driver, what's the answer? You have 60 seconds, and if the test center catches you banging your head on the keyboard they'll throw you out.

Actually, I'm not entirely sure what the answer is. There are two major problems with the question. First, Hugh Hefner Way doesn't appear on any maps of the city that I'm aware of, because it's an honorary street name (on Walton Street between Michigan and Rush). So the Eastern end of it is, therefore, at the corner of Michigan and Walton, which is three blocks above the Water Tower. Only I'm not sure if it ends on the East or West side of Michigan, because "end of a street" isn't defined in the Chicago Municipal Code anywhere.

This dovetails with the second problem. How do you count traffic lights? Does the question want you to count intersections, actual light structures, or the lights themselves? Do you start counting with the ones nearest you? What does "between" mean, and anyway, doesn't it depend on where your car is sitting? Finally, if you want to split hairs, a car sitting at the point described should be pointing West, again because of the one-way street business Chicago has all over the place.

OK. You've spent an hour slogging through 40 questions like that, and you've got five to go. So you get to question 41, the only one of its kind on the exam, the only one with absolute relevance that every Chicago driver should know without thinking too hard about it:

What is the maximum legal speed, in miles per hour, for non-emergency vehicles on any street, road, or expressway inside the Chicago city limits?
A. 25
B. 30
C. 55
D. 65

Please tell me you answered C. This hasn't changed in my lifetime. It's important to remember, because speed limit signs are scarce on the expressways. If you don't know the answer you probably shouldn't earn any kind of Chicago driving certification.

But look what's happened: Only at Question 41 have you finally gotten something that everyone should know cold. Something that real people wouldn't need to look up. Something that's not necessarily obvious everywhere in the city, but that is nonetheless important to know. It's relevant. It's appropriate to ask in a multiple-choice format. It MAKES SENSE.

Then comes Question 42:

You are parking in zone LV-2 on the second Monday of July. Which of the following does not apply?
A. You must have a permanent LV-2 sticker or a 24-hour LV-2 pass to park overnight.
B. You may park without a zone pass any time between 6:00 am and 6:00 pm.
C. You must have a permanent LV-2 sticker, not just a 24-hour pass, on this particular day between 5:00 pm and 10:00 pm.
D. If you violate the LV-2 zone restrictions, you could get fined $60 by the city.

Think...really...hard...

Before I tell you the correct answer, can you think of any reason why a normal person who can read parking signs would ever need to have this information memorized? I only know it because I used to live in that zone, and even then, I forgot from time to time and had to look at the big red signs posted every half-block along Cornelia.

The correct answer is C. Here's why: The LV-2 zone surrounds Wrigley Field. When there is a night Cubs game, parking is prohibited to all but permanent LV-2 sticker-holders between 5pm and 10pm. However, the second Monday of July is night before the All-Star Game, the one day of the year when there is no possibility of a professional baseball game anywhere in the U.S. or Canada.

It's important to note that the night-game regulation is posted on the corners of every block in the zone, on big yellow signs, that have the exact dates of all the season's night games listed. If you get a night-game ticket it's because you are illiterate or because you were at the game and felt that the $120 ticket was a better value than the price-gouging lots near the park.

Aren't you happy you took the Certified Chicago Driver test? And don't you see how Certified Chicago Drivers are more skilled drivers than you?

The lesson, for those considering employment in software development, should be clear. Forget certification exams; learn the art and science of the profession. Unless you want to work for the kind of company that values the kind of knowledge the exams test, in which case you and I won't work together much anyway.

Tuesday 20 September 2011 20:12:53 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Chicago | Business#
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