Sometimes, real-world experience, books, and practice exams will get you only so far. Unexpected problems tend to pop up at the last minute before you take an exam, no matter how well you plan your efforts. Occasionally, you need help from others, and fortunately, the Web offers several resources you can use to find the answers you need.

When time is of the essence
It’s not uncommon to run across a questionable item when preparing for an exam. I’ve found errors in certification books, in study guides, and even on simulation exams. It’s always nice to confirm your suspicions, though, especially if it’s a day or two before you’re supposed to take your test. That’s where IT certification forums and newsgroups enter the picture.

The next time you’re struggling for an answer or you believe you’ve found an error but are having trouble confirming your suspicions, try posting a message to an online certification forum or bulletin board. To ensure your post doesn’t prove fruitless, follow these seven tips to ensure you find an answer quickly.

  • Visit a credible site. If you’re posting your message to a forum at a hack site named something like Pete’, you’ll likely not find the help you’ll need. Instead, try an established site.
  • Select a well-trafficked forum. Here’s a case where congestion is good. The likelihood of you finding an answer is exponentially higher if you post your note to a bulletin board that lots of other IT professionals are using.
  • Describe all the facts, and just the facts. Time is of the essence, so it’s important that you don’t omit important information other pros will require to properly answer your question. You could run out of time before your thread reaches its conclusion. By the same token, you can’t write a book; no one will respond to your post if you do. Instead, describe your confusion, list the potential answers you’ve found, and ask what the most accurate solution could be.
  • Cross-post. Some Webheads frown on the cross-post. That’s silly. One of the purposes of the Internet is to share information. Just announce in your message that you’ve also posted the same question in other locations (and include hyperlinks if you can).
  • Remember the vendors’ forums. Hardware and software vendors’ Web sites boast some of the best forums on the Internet. Microsoft, Cisco, Novell, and others all offer information-packed forums. It’s easy to forget they’re there, but be sure to check them the next time you’re stuck.
  • Don’t restrict yourself to Web sites. Usenet newsgroups are beehives of information. Using your favorite newsreader, search for a newsgroup on the topic in question and post your inquiry.
  • Act on responses to your posts. I’ve seen countless questions answered in newsgroups and on bulletin boards with no sign that the author ever came back to retrieve the solution. Don’t ask that your question be answered offline or that others respond via e-mail. Again, one of the Internet’s purposes is to share information. It’s much more beneficial if an answer lives with the question on the Web rather than having just the question hanging loose in cyberspace indefinitely. Be sure to post or send a quick thanks to those that try helping you too.

Eckel’s take
When you need an answer in a hurry, the Web’s bulletin boards can be your salvation. Just be sure you know where to go, what to look for, and how to make the most of these online forums.

Next week, I’ll take a look at the many choices you have in IT certification forums and newsgroups. I’ll show you the strengths and weaknesses of the most popular sites and provide recommendations on where to look for specific certification help.