F5 Certifications Mega Meta Series: Congratulations, you have failed!

In this series of articles, I will go into the details of how the exams are developed (...as far as I know at least), and how I think you can improve your chances of passing them. Everyone fails an exam every now and then - my exam history is a definite testament to that. If you never fail an exam, I suspect you spend more time on preparing for an exam than you really should. Let’s have a look at some of things you can do so that it doesn’t happen too often though.

Guest Author: Alex Tijhuis

An evangelist for anything software designed and security, and a self-described massive network geek, Alex is an F5 trainer and consultant at ABCT.net. While certified and highly skilled and interested in all things F5, he's just as happy pulling cables in a data center and designing scalable systems as he is messing around with the latest cool kids toys our fine industry has to offer.

Let’s try again!

F5’s exam policy (https://support.f5.com/csp/article/K90101564) stipulates when you are allowed to retake exams again; wait 15 days after first fail, 30 days after second, 45 after third and a year after fourth. This has been done to ensure that nobody will keep doing the exam in the hope of memorizing questions and passing by accident. I quite agree with that. Still, everyone can have a bad day, and everyone will fail every now and then – as I said, my own exam history is a perfect example of that. But when you fail, don’t let that keep you from trying again!

Here is how I look at the number of tries:

  • First time failed? Meh, nobody cares, everyone fails now and then. Brush up on what you think may be missing and see if you can find some other sources of material.
  • Second time failed? Not to worry, hope you have recognised the areas that you need to focus on and you better rebuild some of the scenarios in your lab or find some more study material for those areas.
  • Third time failed? Okay, you really need to straighten up now and prove that you are actually trying!
  • Fourth fail? You may want to rethink your career plans.

I will leave it up to you to decide when is a good time to try again, but don’t put it off too far, or it will be “conveniently” forgotten about. If it was worth doing it a first time, it’s worth trying again. “It is better to have tried and failed, than to have never tried at all” Wait, is that how that saying goes? But it is right. I’m not saying waste your tries, but don’t hold back either, failing isn’t such a bad thing!

Learn from your mistakes

Although your initial result at the exam centre doesn’t tell you your score, once the results have been uploaded to F5, you should find your exam score in the Exam History section of the Certification portal (https://certification.f5.com/). I believe that nowadays the exam score runs from 100-350 points with 245 (or in hex…F5!) being the passing mark. It’s not much consolation, but knowing how close you are to the passing mark, gives you an indication of how much extra work you should be putting into preparing for the next time.

If you were close to the pass mark, you should have a good feeling of which questions you were struggling with and what topics you didn’t know enough about. If you can’t remember, it's likely that everything was difficult and you are best off starting from the beginning again. Remember, these exams are designed to distinguish between those who can and those who cannot. So if you were just “wingin’ it”, you'll get beaten up by the exam. Go back to the blueprint and see if you can match up those topics you were struggling with. That’s your starting point for the next phase.

What to change?

When you are going back to your study material to find out what you have missed, don’t stick with just the same material. My daughter being a prime example who keeps doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome. “But I’m trying!” No you’re not, you are just too stubborn to stand back for a few seconds and think about what you are trying to do, and changing it if needed – oh how I recognise my younger self in her... Just like the hackers that are trying to attack your F5 really. If they notice that an attack doesn’t work, they will change their approach – no point in trying something that doesn’t work.

So should you change tack too. The material you may be using might not be of the level you require. Maybe you are just not understanding what the material is trying say, or the material is simply not covering the topics that you need. Find some other resources to study, ask some other people for help and build out some more scenarios in your lab. If you do this right, I am certain that there will be a few times that you say “aaahhh, of course, that’s what I missed” when you go through it. Of course there is no guarantee that you will get the same questions again next time around, but you have at least covered off yet another gap in your knowledge, and have gone on to improve yourself – and isn’t that what the whole certification program is for anyway?

A few years ago, I coached someone for the 401 exam. He had a great background in networking and security, but limited knowledge of F5’s. He managed to pass most of the 300-level exams in a few months’ time! By the time we met, he was ready for the 401. After spending a day with him talking about a variety of topics, and letting him lab up various scenarios for a week, he sat the 401 exam…. And failed. Meh, no real problem, we had another chat afterwards, discussed some of the topics he recognised he was struggling with, spend another week in the lab, …and passed! Well done and well deserved for sure! Before you ask, no, I do not suspect any foul play. I have never seen such a feat repeated again and am still in awe of this guy’s brilliance. (If you read this, you know who you are...) For most of us, that's not the case though and we actually have to make an effort... ;)

Long story short, for me that was a perfect example of someone used to passing, but still failing from time to time. Meh, it happens, brush yourself off, learn from your mistakes, try again and succeed!

Dr. Ken Says...

Many will know that I spent many years pursuing certifications when I worked as an engineer. In the many, many exams I took, I only ever failed two exams. The first one was Novell 4.0 print services (yes, that dates me a bit), which I took a second time and passed. The other was F5’s 201: TMOS Administration exam.

For context, I have been with F5 for over 21-years now and my original role was as a field systems/sales engineer: I sold, designed, installed, and provided support on F5 systems around the globe. My second role was as one of the first “Security Architects” at F5, working with TrafficShield and FirePass (again, dating me a bit if you recognize the product names). I was, I believe anyway, a fairly well-respected F5 engineer. The point being … I’m no novice when it comes to F5 equipment. So, why did I fail 201?

I failed 201 because it I took it nearly a decade after I quit working as a full-time F5 engineer. Not only had many things changed, but knowledge and skill are perishable; they decline over time. While I didn’t fail 201 by much (and I didn’t study for it at all), the assessment correctly determined that I was no longer capable of doing the job. Yes, it hurt my ego a little, but I’ll have to admit it was a fair assessment. I wouldn’t hire me to do the job anymore either. As the author intimates, failing an exam doesn’t make you a failure, it just means you need to work a bit more to pass the exam; it’s not personal.

In case you’re wondering, no I haven’t retaken exam 201. Primarily, it is because I don’t do the job and having the F5-CA, BIG-IP doesn’t have much value in my current role. At the same time, I will admit that I like to tell this story because it underscores the validity of the assessment, and why we have some of the policies we have. 2-year renewal; knowledge is perishable. Complain to me that you can’t pass an exam even though you’ve worked with F5 gear for 10-years; you and me both!!

Note: For another perspective on pushing through, check out Peter Silva's successful failure with the 201 exam .

Published Jul 08, 2021
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  • Very good Alex, and to the point. I have failed one F5 exam since I joined F5, and it was APM. Reason I failed the 1st attempt was I was overconfident. Didn't study and I thought that what I knew was enough. Big mistake. It wasn't. I believe that's a mistake most people make when attempting the 101 exam. I Have two CCIE friends who failed the 101 more than once. And the reason is the same: Overconfidence. They didn't study. F5 exams are tough. Much tougher than any other vendor's exams I have ever taken. There is a learning curve there, for sure. But, if you pay proper attention to the blueprint and prepare accordingly, the PASS grade is a given ;-)