My Certified Wireless Network Administrator (CWNA) Certification Experience

As of Friday, October 14th of 2011 I am officially a Certified Wireless Network Administrator (CWNA). The vendor neutral certification is designed and put forth by CWNP, Inc which stands for Certified Wireless Networking Professional.

My Experience:

I’ve had hands-on expereince with Wi-Fi products since the early parts of my IT career. It was nothing spectacular. I was a pinch hitter between help desk, the Sr. SysAdmin and the network administrator at a 300 person organization. The network admin would frequently have me track down ad-hoc networks, sniff for signals as he played with the 3Com-based enterprise wireless network, perform authentication tests and generally be his gopher. I’ve mucked about with my own small wireless deployments for clients as well.

The meat of my networking experience has been with 802.3 as it comfortably wriggles its way through UTP cabling. Most of my formal training with wireless has been through Microsoft-centric networking topics. However, I felt pretty confident with wireless networks in general even if I knew I wasn’t aware of the deep inner workings of it all. I figured it would be a simple matter to focus my mind on the topic and “get to the bottom of things.” How complex can it be? It’s like the ethernets, just with no tubes.

Exam Motivation:

Now that I’m a consultant (distancing myself from the term “contractor” and the culture that surrounds it), I feel a greater need than ever before to have certifications to show off to prospective clients. Also, even though I’m 29 I still have people look at me and assume I’m barely out of high school. I’m sure I’ll appreciate my Dorian Gray genetics later on in life, but for now my boyish looks can be a barrier to convincing people to trust me with five and six figure projects in spite of my experience and references. Certifications are another leg that I can stabilize a corner of the bargaining table with.

As I gazed at the certification landscape, many seem viable. CCNA? GSEC? JNCIA? RHCSA? CCDA? LPIC-1? I have a decent breadth of SysAdmin / NetAdmin knowledge, even if it’s only a few inches deep in some areas. However, at least I know what I don’t know (at least, I think I know what I don’t know… you know?) and in many cases I merely have to polish what already exists to progress from dilettante to journeyman and eventually on to craftsman / artisan. The wireless networking arena had captivated my attention a few months ago as I saw the needs of small and medium businesses and how they could be solved with wireless networks. With that hunch I decided to pursue the CWNA as my first foray into the realm of invisible tubes.

Exam Preparation:

I took full advantage of a great promotion that CWNP is offering right now: Their Self Study Kits are being sold for the exact same price as the exam voucher. The study kits come with the official Sybex book, a voucher to get official practice exam questions from CWNP, Inc (it’s always nice when the exam creators also make the practice questions), a dictionary of Wi-Fi terms and the voucher that you give to Pearson VUE to schedule your test. The exams are $125, $175 or $225 depending on which level of expertise it is, so for the same price as the test you can get a great book and some practice questions. I believe that this promotion will end with the new year, but can’t find confirmation of that.

The Sybex Book

CWNA Certified Wireless Network Administrator Official Study Guide: Exam PW0-104” was written by two Davids, David A. Westcott and David D. Coleman. This book goes above and beyond the bare requirements of the CWNA exam. Many exam preparation materials focus purely on the need-to-know information that gets you a passing score. This is not one of those books. You are pushed beyond the exam outline and into some fairly gritty territory with painstaking detail. Many, many times the authors note that a certain passage or entire subsection of a chapter is beyond the scope of the CWNA, but that the foundational information will help all of the required information to gel. When reading the book you feel less like you’re reading exam preparation material and more like you’re reading introductory wireless engineering courseware.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever read a technical book, especially an exam preparation book, that has made you pause and consider if eating carpet and washing it down with a stuffed porcupine would be easier. Is it a certification prep book? NOPE. Chuck Testa! (Okay, I need to chill out on browsing Reddit for a few… hours). While certain publishing houses are known for producing thousand-page longueurs *COUGHMSPRESSCOUGH*, Sybex has, in my experience, largely avoided that pitfall. This book is a shining example and might be one of the few exam prep books that you keep around for a reference.

The downside of the book is that the practice questions that come with it (20 at the end of each chapter and three sets of 60-question practice exams) were a bit sketchy. The questions were frequently subjective, sometimes maddeningly difficult to interpret and on occasion I felt that a few answers were just plain wrong. I wilted, feeling completely inadequate to take the exam in spite of having thoroughly enjoyed the prose in the book and thinking that I had understood the information solidly. That is, until I took the official CWNP practice tests, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The CWNP Practice Questions

After the frustrating experience with Sybex’s practice questions and exams, I kicked the dirt, plodded over to my CWNP account and tried my cortex on their practice questions. Joyously, I had a better experience. While I didn’t perform quite as well as I had hoped, the questions were at least fairly worded (with a few notable exceptions, as is common with anyone’s tests apparently) and I only disputed one or two. They were well written and the explanations to the correct answers were acceptably thorough.

My main gripe with them is that the wrong answers are not explained. Often it’s not enough to simply explain why the correct answers are right. Many times there is still some misunderstandings surrounding a wrong choice that need to be cleared up. Going slightly off-topic, this is why I’m so impressed with most of Transcender’s products. They almost always take the time to painstakingly explain why each right answer is right, and more importantly why each wrong answer is wrong. Often I’m more instructed by an explanation behind why a certain choice was wrong than why the correct choices were correct.

The Exam:

Of course, I’m bound by a NDA to stay silent about the specifics of the exam (PW0-104). I will only say that it is a fair exam. I felt like one or two questions were unnecessarily vague, however all of the rest, to the best of my ability to understand them, were very straightforward and tested a person on the standards and their various implementations. There were no “gotcha” questions like there were in the first iteration of the test ten years ago.

If you want to pass, you have to be intimately familiar with the standards and their interaction with each other. You have to know the fine grained details of each protocol and how it operates in different situations. If you do, you’ll pass it without even having time constraints. There’s none of the usual funny business that vendor-centric exams (viz. Microsoft and Cisco) are known to have. I attribute this to CWNP being a vendor neutral organization and the fact that they actually stick to their claims. They have so far stayed very true to their vendor neutrality, however that’s not to the exclusion of mentioning specific brand names in their study materials. After all, someone who is certified in a technology needs to have some familiarity with the vendor landscape to be considered proficient.

The Results:

I passed! I needed a 70% score and earned a 78%. I am required to pass with an 80% score or higher if I want to be eligible to become a CWNP trainer. I’ll need to request a retake if and when a training opportunity comes up, but that’s off in the distant future.

While I’m happy with the results, I’m unhappy with my subject matter knowledge. I was fully convinced that I had failed the exam by the last question. Passing is of little consolation to me if I don’t know the subject as well as I should. Perhaps I got lucky on a few answers. My plan is to take a break this week as I travel up to Colorado for a client (in fact, I’m there right now; this post was written and scheduled on the night of Friday the 14th, the same day that I passed the exam). I may take a second week to stay away from the subject. I might even dive into a different subject for about a month to get some healthy brain-distance between Wi-Fi and myself. However, before the year is out I’m going to return to this study guide and the questions and grind it to pulp as I squeeze out as much information as I can.

My further plans are to gain some of the CWNP’s Professional level certifications (the third of four tiers; my CWNA being the second tier and the CWNE being the fourth and final tier). I’m intrigued by the Certified Wireless Design Professional (CWDP) as I learn more about the deeper design principles of wireless networks. Also, the Certified Wireless Analysis Professional (CWAP) is valuable as I research the finer points of site surveys and electromagnet wave propagation at clients’ sites. At that point, I might as well jump into the final P-level certification: the Certified Wireless Security Professional (CWSP). Everyone is concerned with Wi-Fi security, or at least should be, and regardless of peoples’ concerns, I need to be intimately familiar with securing my designs. If I’m going to be learning all of the above topics, I might as well get a pretty new logo to print on my business cards!

If you work with wireless networks and want to know more, regardless of your stance on certifications or your desire for a new one, at least consider reading the Sybex CWNA exam preparation book. It’s top notch. If you want to go further, I’d encourage you to earn the CWNA certification. It’s a legit credential that appears to be well accepted and respected among hiring managers and other decision makers.

And if you’re in the market for a wireless network consultant (among other things that I’m proficient at), HOLLAH! =)

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