Why I am writing this post
Let me just make this clear at the start that this post is not intended as any sort of bragging or boasting or anything along those lines. My story about my journey to take and pass the Apple Certified Support Professional exam for Mac OS X Lion is, hopefully, to serve two purposes. Firstly, if there are other blind folks interested in doing the same thing, this will help to encourage and inspire them. Secondly, even if you don’t ever intend on taking an Apple certification exam, I hope that this will convince you that, no matter what kind of goal you set for yourself, don’t sell yourself short by believing that there is no way to achieve it because it doesn’t seem “realistic” to reach as a blind person.
I will begin by plainly stating that the ACSP exam was the most challenging and intense exams I’ve ever taken in my life. I knew it would be difficult and that a lot of preparation would be needed, but I had no idea just how hard the exam would prove to be. I had always thought that the exam I took for my Certified Social Work license had been the toughest test I had taken until I took my Black Belt test in 1994. That had been an overall much more challenging exam because of the mental and physical drain. However, despite the ACSP exam not having the physical element to it, I still felt as if I had gone through all of the aspects of the Black Belt test by the time I completed the last of the 80 questions.
Somehow, by the grace of God, when the smoke cleared and it was all over, I had passed the exam and some three months of preparing and studying had paid off for me. I will try to describe the preparations that I took in achieving my goal, as well as advising you on what worked and what will not work for you. I never took an exam like this before, and some felt that I over prepared for it. However, sitting here now, every moment and choice I made I feel was worth the effort and the time I spent getting myself ready. I hope to provide you with some tips and sound advice should you decide to take the same journey by the time I am done writing this post.
Why I took the Exam
Moving from the world of being an adaptive technology vendor, which I spent some sixteen years of my life doing, to the world of providing training and support for the Mac and iDevices has been both challenging and rewarding. I had no idea when I started using my original iBook G4 back in 2005 that I would end up having Apple products as the center of my professional life. Some of my friends can flat out tell you the number of times I declared that I’d never find myself becoming a full time trainer and teacher of any kind, as I had enough of that as consequences of selling various adaptive devices or Windows computer systems over the years.
But here I am now moving farther and farther towards being a full-time “teacher” and “trainer”, and, surprisingly enough, I am really enjoying the job. Since I love the Mac and the iDevices so much, it’s simply a joy and privilege to be able to pass along my enthusiasm and knowledge to a variety of people. In many ways, I am happier than I ever was as a vendor, and the stress level is so much lower in my life with this “profession”. So, it is something I plan to try to make a go of and make it my main “job” as time passes.
One of the minor problems or issues I have had in some instances, though, is being asked by some agencies or individuals what “qualifies” me as a trainer or how/why I can declare myself as being able to offer Mac and iDevice VoiceOver training and support. Explaining that I have nearly seven years of experience as a Mac user with VoiceOver and some nearly 3 as an iDevice user isn’t necessarily “good enough” as requirements in some cases, and I certainly can understand this. What’s to stop anyone from declaring themselves capable of training or having such knowledge when they really don’t possess any of that ability?
I had considered trying to find out how one gets “Apple certified” over the last few years. My youngest brother had done so after Snow Leopard was released, so I knew there was a certification of some kind. However, I didn’t know how many different certifications Apple offers or which one was best for me to attempt to earn. I really didn’t know where to look or who to ask, and in the beginning, it seemed too much effort for something that I wasn’t sure would be necessary for me. I really just sort of fell into the world of training, and I had believed that I would only do so as a part time gig in conjunction with something else, something outside of the blindness field.
Towards the end of 2011, state agencies began to contact me, and so did universities and colleges. I was finding myself training private individuals as well, and I think the reality hit me around Christmas time that this could be a vocation I could seriously try and one that had potential for me to make a living from. The Mac has been expanding as far as the number of blind users go and the assistive technology specialists who need to learn about the Mac OS X platform and VoiceOver. Additionally, the iPhone and iPad and iPod Touch are rapidly becoming popular among the blind as well, so the opportunity to be a part of the expanding world of Apple products in the blindness market is definitely present. Also, as I said before, I very much enjoy using all of the products, so having the chance to train folks and get them to effectively use them was already something I had been enjoying more and more.
By the beginning of the year, I was officially contracted by a state agency to provide remote Mac and iDevice training to clients, and I had found myself with a couple of short term and long term training jobs for a couple of universities and colleges to teach staff about the Mac and VoiceOver. It is amazing just how much one can learn by experience, but when you have to teach someone how to do something and provide them with training, you learn even more. It just happens, and your level of “geekness” grows without you even realizing it. Thus, by February, I realized that I both needed to earn some kind of Apple certification and that I felt that I was capable of passing any exam to earn it.
The Preparation and Studying Process
Thanks to some research by my youngest brother, Chris, I figured out that the exam I needed to take was the Apple Certified Support Professional for Mac OS X Lion Essentials, 9L0-410. There are actually three ACSP exams, the other two being for Apple Hardware and for Mac OS X Lion Server Essentials. I wasn’t interested in doing hardware repairs and I have little experience with using an OS X server. Additionally, well, I had been providing support and training for OS X Lion since the middle of July of 2011 when Lion was released, so that certification was the one I set my goals to earn at the beginning of February of this year.
From speaking to folks who had taken both Apple and Microsoft certifications, I was advised to try to purchase sample test questions and study material. I located what was advertised as being 100 sample questions and, thanks to another brother of mine, Stephen, I got a copy of the preparation outline Apple provides for the exam. In that document, they reference a book written by Kevin M. White, OS X Lion Support Essentials: Supporting and Troubleshooting OS X Lion: Apple Pro Training Series. I found this book in the iBooks store and immediately purchased it. To be flat out bluntly honest, if you intend on taking the 9L0-410 exam, this is the book you need the most and don’t bother with the sample question kits sold by various companies for $75 or $99. The guide is $39 in the iBooks store, and it has some 129 total sample questions that can be found at the end of each of the 9 chapters of the book.
Thus began almost three months of preparation and studying for John. In fact, it seemed that outside of training and supporting clients and getting ready for the ACSP exam, I had no life between February and April 30. I took few days completely off, and often brought my study material with me on my iPad or iPhone to various places, including family events. I listened to hockey and baseball games with my iPad or my Mac Book Pro on my lap as I studied questions or the notes I took from the training guide. Yes, there is an expression about “living and breathing” something, and I felt like I was doing just that at times. I must thank a good friend, Tricia, for helping provide me with a few of those “days off” and for helping me maintain my sanity throughout the preparation and study process.
It’s interesting how things can often turn out in life. There was a situation that really helped me and acted to provide inspiration and motivation during my preparation period. Just at the time I began to prepare for the exam, a university contracted me to do a modified Lion 101 training job for one of their staff members. The Lion 101 course, which can be taken at Apple Certified Training Centers, is basically the same material that is presented in Kevin White’s book. So, what this meant to me is that I taught the material as I read the book, took my notes and learned it myself through teaching it. It really helped to concretize the material in my brain, and truly internalize it. I really had no choice, and had to keep reading the book to stay ahead of the point in which I was training my client. I cannot tell you how thankful I am to Jonathan and Wake Forest University for their timely training needs.
Kevin White’s book is some 950 pages in iBooks, but, fortunately, it is not a difficult read. Just how valuable that book is to the preparation process quickly became apparent to me, and I will strongly advise you to do as I did if you are seeking to take and pass the ACSP exam. Read every word of the nine chapters, which takes you from installation and configuration of Lion to User Accounts, File Systems, Data Management, Applications and Processes, Network Configuration, Network Services and Peripherals and printers all the way to the startup and shutdown processes on the Mac. While you do this, take plenty of notes and make sure you organize those notes and copy the questions at the end of each chapter into a separate file. I cannot thank Kevin White enough for that book and credit it for the main reason why I ended up passing the exam in the end, as I will explain later.
One of the things I also did as I prepared and then studied was take one of Kevin’s recommendations quite seriously. I created a dummy Lion installation on an external hard drive and set up some test accounts for standard and sharing users. I used that OS to try various tasks and explore different settings described in the book. I played with file and folder permissions, logged in as a guest or sharing user, created a root user, deleted and restored user accounts,and experimented with a variety of System Preferences settings. I created disk images, explored the Lion Recovery HD, and created a variety of network service configurations. I messed with passwords and keychains, and tinkered with Spotlight index files and Time Machine preferences. I encrypted a system disk using Filevault 2, and altered the account settings of the user accounts I created or utilized Parental Controls on a few of them to find out how that effected the account. Every system preference of folder that was mentioned or described in the book, I made sure I found them in the OS, and I took the time to read many of the Apple knowledge base articles that are referenced in the book. I still have that dummy Lion install, and also still tinker with it to learn more.
Each chapter I read of Kevin White’s book, I took extensive notes, and at the conclusion of each chapter, I reread those notes two and three times prior to moving onto the subsequent chapter. I edited this notes several times throughout the preparation process, and when I completed reading the book, I studied those notes along side of the 129 questions. I memorized just about every word of every answer to the sample questions, and I could recite entire sets of options for System Preference panes or Network Service settings. I quizzed myself constantly, and I drove people crazy by stating various facts and bits of information that I was learning just to keep them straight in my mind. Perhaps, I went a bit overboard, but I was determined to pass and didn’t want to underestimate any potential subject that might be on the exam that wasn’t in the test questions. How smart this turned out to be only fully hit me the day I took the exam ….
The ACSP Exam Experience
Originally, I was quite pleased because I found a testing center for Apple and Microsoft certifications that offered an accessibility accommodations link on their home page. Prometrics, is the name of the company, and I received an application from them to set up an accessible exam, which had to be certified by my doctor to “prove” that I was blind. At the time, this was a big relief for me, because finding a testing center that could provide an accessible exam via a reader/recorder had always been my biggest concern. Thus, it seemed that the exam taking part of the equation was going to be a non-issue.
Unfortunately, as luck would have it, I learned that the 9L0-410 exam for Mac OS X Lion Essentials was one of three exams that they did not offer. It seems that the three ACSP exams can only be given by an actual Apple Certified Training Center. This news was not exactly appreciated by me, and when I looked on the Apple website, I could not find any authorized training centers anywhere close to me. To say the least, this was a serious disappointment and frustrating situation to be in. I had done all the preparing and studying for over two months, but I had no way to take the actual exam itself.
To make a long story short, with help from an old contact, who worked for Apple Accessibility when I first started using VoiceOver with Tiger and was a vendor attending trade shows, I found an ACTC willing to provide me with a reader and recorder for the exam. In fact, I’d like to publicly thank Bill Keogh of Novaworks, who had never administered an exam to a blind person, but was willing to do so for me. He contacted Apple and Apple, of course, made the arrangements for me to have the exam read to me on April 30 at Novaworks. This required that I had to get a ride there because it was in Manhattan, but this was not a problem, as my older brother, Joe, who had worked in that exact area, offered to take me there.
On April 30, I had the 80 question exam read to me by Bill. Although I was allowed up to 4 hours to take the exam, I needed an hour and thirty-five minutes in total. I will tell you that halfway through the process, I found myself hoping and praying that I could get just a 73 to pass because the exam was proving to be so difficult. Yes, I can’t describe how mentally taxing it was, and how many times I told myself that I hadn’t prepared or studied enough or the “right material”. However, when the smoke cleared and the results, which are given to you right after the exam, were read to me, I had scored a 92.5. Yes, I was now an Apple Certified Support Professional for Mac OS X Lion!
If you plan or are thinking about trying to take the ACSP exam for Mac OS X Lion essentials, let me offer you the advice I earlier promised now. A couple of people have contacted me privately asking about my exam experience, so I will offer you my observations and thoughts to consider.
• Blind or not, you can take and pass the exam. If I could do it, anyone can do it. It’s as simple as that.
• Don’t waste your money on testing kits. By Kevin M. White’s book and use that along with the questions he provides at the end of each chapter. Buying the exam preparation kits will only get you some of the same questions, and you will blow $75 or $99 on top of the $39 for the training guide.
• As you read the guide, take plenty of detailed notes and be organized in the process. My notes proved to be far more valuable than the sample test questions. I am extremely thankful that I was intelligent enough to believe that the exam would not mirror the sample questions and that taking notes and studying those notes would be important and necessary. Without them, I would have failed hands down.
• Don’t study the sample test questions alone. If you think this is the “easy” way out and you can pass by just doing this, you are in for a very big surprise. From memory, I think about 5 of the 80 exam questions were actual questions from the sample question pool. Additionally, perhaps 15 were versions of the questions reworded in some way. The rest, well, yes, much of the material from the questions was there, but you had to have read the guide and have LEARN it to be able to answer the actual exam questions.
• I have been asked why a reader is necessary since the exam is taken online on a computer. There are about 15 questions that are based on screen shots. For example, there is a screen shot of a Network Services list in System Preferences and you have to determine which network service is the primary network service being used by the Mac. A reader is necessary to describe the screen shots for you and provide you with enough information for you to be able to answer the associated question. Be sure the reader has Mac knowledge and knows the terminology as well. I was quite fortunate that Bill did a fantastic job in describing the screen shots without interpreting them for me.
• Believe you can pass the exam. I knew that I would not get every question right, but I walked in there believing that I would get every question right. I only got 6 wrong, despite how difficult the exam seemed at times. If you know the material and have studied it, have faith in yourself.
• I cannot say what your test taking style is, but I am a believer in going with my first answer. On the one hand, I know, from having checked my notes, that I should have changed 2 questions that I know I got wrong, but I didn’t want to review my answers after taking the exam, regardless of the fact that I had over 2 hours that I hadn’t used to do so. I felt that if I started checking every question, I’d begin doubting every one of my answers. Thus, I just walked away and went with my initial answers without changing a single one.
Until Mountain Lion is Released
That was, overall, the story of my experience taking the ACSP for Mac OS X Lion Essentials exam. Without a doubt, it was one of my proudest successes, and all of the long preparation and studying was worth it in the end. Considering the fact that I hadn’t taken a sit down exam like that since my CSW exam some twenty years earlier, my achievement made me feel even more satisfied.
So, I have my “official” Apple certification that I will be adding to my website and my business cards. It was a lot of work for such a seemingly simple matter, yet there was nothing simple about the process. I guess the only “sad” aspect is that I’ll have to do it all over again when Mountain Lion is released. Even so, now that I have done it once, I will be more prepared and I don’t think the process will take as long to get ready for that exam.
For those who may be thinking about trying to get an Apple certification, I hope that this story will help to encourage you to do so. It would be, in my opinion, a great thing to have many blind folks get their certifications. It’s not an easy task by any means, and it takes a great deal of preparation, a definite commitment, and some serious studying. Nevertheless, as I said above, if I managed to do it, I believe any person willing to take the time to do it can accomplish the same thing as I did in the end. Good luck to anyone out there who does try for their certifications, and please do let me know how you fair.