The computer industry has always been plagued by a lack of standard milestones by which to measure competence. Unlike the Bar exam for prospective lawyers or the accounting exam for CPAs, computer professionals until recently had no way to certify their mastery of the technology that is indispensable to performing their work.

The Oracle Certified Professional (OCP) Program is the most recent of a string of data processing certifications that dates back to the 1970s. The first computer certification for database professionals was the Certificate in Data Processing (CDP), offered by the Institute for Certification of Computer Professionals (ICCP). This was a rigorous exam covering all areas of data processing. For programmers, the ICCP offered a Certified Computer Programmer (CCP) certification and an easier Certified Systems Professional (CSP) program for those who were less technically inclined.

The whole area of computer certifications languished in the backwaters until the CNE and Microsoft MCSE certifications began making the industry a whole lot of cash. Another impetus for the growing appeal of certifications was the rapid increase in the demand for computing professionals. Once upon a time, computer science was the bastion of those who possessed a natural talent for computing, and college programs were able to maintain rigorous standards to discourage those who were not well suited to the profession. This began to change in the 1970s when the demand for qualified (and naturally talented) professionals far outstripped the supply.

The Oracle certification exams are the natural result of a bombardment of unqualified and untalented Oracle professionals. Sadly, a majority of those entering Oracle DBA (database administration) jobs are doing it solely for the salary (Senior Oracle DBAs average over $100,000/year) without any regard for their qualifications or analytical abilities. This plague of under-qualified Oracle professionals has strongly influenced the certification program as a method for screening Oracle ability.

The Oracle certification exam evolved from the original Oracle7 Certified DBA exam that was introduced by Oracle in 1997. The OCP Program has created separate certification tracks covering the specific responsibilities of a range of Oracle jobs. For the DBA, the track is composed of a series of five tests developed from the content covered by courses of the same name included in the Oracle Education curriculum for DBAs.

The Oracle certification process
In keeping with its desire to maximize profits while providing standards for Oracle technical competency, Oracle has given the exams associated with the Oracle Certified Professional Program a huge amount of internal Oracle support. Oracle provides in-depth technical specifications and sample exams to assist candidates in preparing for certification. And it provides extensive information about the program here.

The OCP DBA exam
The most highly coveted of the OCP exams is the DBA exam. Those who successfully complete the certification have been known to obtain entry-level DBA jobs at salaries that often exceed $60,000 per year.

Oracle offers DBA certification programs designed for each release of Oracle. The original Oracle DBA certification was called “Certified Oracle7 DBA.” Oracle now offers tests for Oracle8 and Oracle8i. By offering new certifications for each release, Oracle can ensure a constant stream of revenue from the test-taking public.

The DBA exam consists of five sub-tests, each of which requires a comprehensive skill set:

  1. SQL and PL/SQL—This test measures knowledge of Oracle’s access languages.
  2. Basic Database Administration—This test measures knowledge of basic DBA techniques and concepts.
  3. Backup and Recovery—This test measures knowledge of Oracle Enterprise Backup Utility (EBU) and Recovery Manager (RMAN).
  4. Performance & Tuning—The most difficult of the exams, this one measures knowledge of Oracle internals and performance concepts.
  5. Network Administration—This exam covers distributed Oracle databases using their SQL*Net and Net8 tools.

The DBA certification exam has a reputation for being valid and comprehensive, and these tests provide a thorough overview of all areas of Oracle technology. Oracle certification tests are scenario-based, providing an effective means to assess your hands-on competence and time-critical, problem-solving skills. To become an Oracle Certified Professional for a specific job-related track, you must successfully complete all of the specified tests.

It is important to realize that the OCP Program is constantly evolving, and the test questions are constantly being refined to reflect changes in technology and the goals of the marketplace. The hottest OCP certification is the DBA program, but the Application Developer program has also become very popular.

The OCP DBA certification program consists of several tests, described on Oracle’s education Web site .

All of the OCP tests last 105 minutes, which includes 15 minutes for an optional tutorial and to answer survey questions at the end of the exam. Most candidates report that this is enough time to answer all the questions.

In addition to the OCP DBA exams, Oracle is now offering the following certification exams for Oracle application developers and designers:

  • Oracle Certified Java Developer
  • Oracle Certified Application Developer
  • Oracle Financial Applications Consultant Certification
  • Oracle Operator

Test details
Oracle certification tests are administered by Sylvan Prometric at local sites throughout the U.S. and overseas. Each computer-delivered certification test challenges candidates to demonstrate their knowledge and experience by answering 60-70 multiple-choice questions in the space of 1.5 hours.

Most of the multiple-choice questions are straightforward and have been carefully screened by real-world Oracle DBAs to remove questions that are superfluous or misleading. Some questions even provide “what-if?” scenarios, but these constitute a small portion of the exam and are often presented as multiple-correct, multiple-choice questions.

By requiring a series of these tests for each job-related certification track, Oracle can verify that a candidate has both the knowledge and experience required for successfully administrating an Oracle database.

The OCP exams have no trick questions. However, they assume familiarity with the Oracle documentation, and some test questions address documentation samples. Because of the complex nature of Oracle database administration, you aren’t expected to memorize all the tens of thousands of facts; rather, the test assumes that you know where to go to look up the information. Unless you’re familiar with the Oracle documentation, you may not have enough time to research some of the questions.

Taking the exam
During the exam, you may bypass any questions you’re not sure about and return to them later in the test. The best strategy is to make one pass through all of the questions, marking the answers you are most confident about. The exam also allows questions to be answered and flagged, so that you can return to them later on. This enables you to make the best use of your time and ensures that you’ll get through the entire exam at least once in the allotted time. If you plan carefully, you’ll have time at the end to go back to those questions you weren’t sure about. The best policy is to answer every question if possible. If you can eliminate even one answer, you should venture a guess because there is no direct penalty for guessing.

The OCP exam informs you immediately of your pass/fail status and also provides a listing of all missed as well as correctly answered questions. You’ll receive a hardcopy version at the end of the exam.

Preparing for the exams
Many candidates are afraid of the rigorous reputation of the OCP exam and often put off taking the test even after they have registered. However, there are a wealth of books and online tools to assist students in test preparation, and candidates who have been diligent in their studies often pass the test with relative ease. I’ve written High Performance Oracle8 Tuning, published by Coriolis Group, to provide a good reference for helpful information related to Oracle8 OCP performance and tuning, which the exams rigorously test.

There are several other books, as well as online training tools, that can help you prepare for the OCP exam. The most popular of these include:

  • OCP Exam Cram Series by Mike Ault—Coriolis Publishing
  • Web-based DigitalThink training courses—see its site
  • Sample OCP exams from the Oracle Web Site

These sample exams closely reflect the content of the real thing and are useful for understanding the type of information Oracle requires for certification. You can download more than 10 separate sample exams.

The OCP exams are designed to be complete and to adequately test your familiarity with Oracle products and the procedures associated with them. While there is no substitute for knowledge, you can improve the score significantly by taking as many of the sample exams as possible.

Certification is not everything
The advent of Oracle certification has changed the landscape of the Oracle marketplace. Prior to the exploding demand, entry-level DBA jobs were reserved for the top masters degree graduates from major universities. Now that demand has outstripped supply, the OCP certification exams have removed a barrier to entry and help candidates demonstrate minimal (or entry-level) competence with Oracle software.

Of course, a certification is no guarantee that the DBA will be able to manage your multimillion dollar database. I’ve known very bright individuals who pursued the OCP and obtained entry-level DBA jobs solely for the money. These people possess knowledge of the technical details but are woefully lacking in experience and analytical ability. These “certified beginners“ are often very dangerous in a production environment. Again, OCP DBA certification is a great demonstration of technical memorization skills, but it is not a substitute for real-world experience.

Don Burleson is a leading database author with expertise in data warehouse technology and tuning. The author of eight books on database management and 50-plus articles in national magazines, Don has more than 18 years of experience as a database administrator and has worked with some of the world’s most sophisticated Oracle systems. Don also serves as editor in chief of Oracle Internals, a popular Oracle database journal. Don runs a Web site and can be reached by e-mail at You can find a list of his books here.

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