Operational Excellence with Technology

Wisdom of Crowds

A Study Group for the Acquia Certified Developer Front End Specialist Exam

Acquia is developing a series of certifications for Drupal, something the community has debated for almost as long as I’ve been developing Drupal websites.

I personally think this kind of vendor certification is valuable, even if it as one way of validating that a candidate has demonstrable Drupal skills to use when filtering resumes to consider.  I’ve been involved in too many interviews where the candidate had Drupal skills listed on a resume, either because they were “liberal” in claiming Drupal expertise or, sadly increasingly common, a recruiter has “enhanced” a resume with keywords that aren’t representative of a candidate’s actual skills.  A misrepresented resume is a waste of time for both us and the candidate.  These exams can cut to the chase and not waste anyone's further time.

Will getting the certification translate into instant success for me personally?  Not in the way you might expect.  Certainly the contract I’m working on isn’t dependent on the certification.  The certification program is barely on management’s radar.  I did notice that when I visited the govCMS group that participation as a vendor in that program has a requirement/recommendation of a certified developer on staff.  That’s the first time I’ve seen any certification requirement, but for a 1 year old certification program, that is a huge win.

I expect that in the near future you may start seeing job requirements that list certification either as a minimum requirement or a preference in getting an interview.  Much as having a contributed module or two on lets potential employers look at your coding skills, having the certification will offer an independent assessment of your Drupal knowledge.  And given the exam, that’s a significant statement.  I know that moving forward, I’ll recommend interviewing anyone who is certified.

What I really got out of the certification is what I learned getting ready to take the exam.  I am now much more knowledgeable about the entire theme system of Drupal and have a lot more confidence in my JavaScript skills.  That alone was worth the effort.  Already I see options available when I’m working on sites that I simply wouldn’t have known to consider before the exam.

Acquia started with the Acquia Certified Developer designation and examination.  All the Acquia certifications are exam based.  When the first certification was announced, I signed up to take the exam the first week it was available, before any study guides (mostly in the form of blog posts with suggested study topics) were available.  I figured I had multiple years of Drupal experience so I should be able to pass.  It was a surprisingly tough exam, with probably the best structured exam questions I have ever taken.  The questions presented scenarios, then offered possible solutions, very often as code snippets all in multiple choice format.  While you aren’t expected to have memorized the parameters of API calls, or the order they are used in a call, you are expected to be able to recognize when an API call isn’t being used correctly.

I barely passed.  I knew I would have to do some serious studying for the two specialist exams that were announced when they came out later in the year.

While I was at DrupalCon Amsterdam, I stopped by the certification testing facility to ask some questions about the recently released Acquia Certified Developer Backend Specialist exam, which had been released shortly before the DrupalCon.  While I was there I was persuaded to go ahead and register and take the exam right then and there.  The logic was even if I failed, I would have a free retake and the testing fee was discounted, so I was getting a deal.  To be clear, this was a DrupalCon special offer, a free retake is not included in the examination fee.

I failed.  I knew within 4 questions I wouldn’t pass, but was surprised I came as close as I did to passing.  Even failing was valuable since I had a feeling for the exam.  The exam score breakdown (they tell you how you do on each major domain section but not how you did on any given question) showed I needed more study on the Database API (especially dynamic queries which I hadn’t used very much) and a better understanding of the theme layer.  I had a great book (Pro Drupal Development for Windows) with me that did a good job on the Database API which was perfect for the 7 hour flight back from Amsterdam.  The theme layer took more reading in Definitive Guide to Drupal 7 and the original Pro Drupal 7 Development book.

When the Acquia Certified Developer Frontend Specialist exam came out in January, I knew I had to take a different approach than just showing up to take the exam.  I consider myself a backend developer even though several of my contracts have involved theme development or modification.  Fortunately this contract I have worked with probably the best themer I have ever met, so I am much more confident in my understanding of how to CSS style a Drupal site using a base theme and how to use templates much more effectively.

And I knew I couldn’t study for the exam by myself and hope to dedicate enough time to accomplish a passing score.  What to do?  Form a study group within the local Albany users group was the solution that worked for me (and at least one other developer with several more very close to success).

My current contract is in Albany even though I live in Denver, I have been commuting back and forth, spending a lot of time in Albany.  And I had scheduled almost a month to be remote starting late January, more than half that time in Thailand and Australia.  Knowing my travel schedule I had booked three solid weeks in Albany including weekends.  Late December I posted the plan on the page for Albany.  As the organizer I could drive the schedule and since I only had three weeks to do at least a full pass through the material, it was aggressive.

There was no guidance how much time you should spend preparing for the exam, although there was one blog post with links to sections of the on-line version of the Definitive Guide to Drupal 7 (  The eight domains listed on the examination page were broken down into a total of 20 sub-domains, so I figured an hour per sub-domain average should be adequate for the study group to meet.  Shoehorning 20 hours of meetings into under 3 weeks was tough but we ended up with 2 evenings, a half day on a weekend, 3 more evenings, another half day on a weekend, and finally 2 evenings.  Of course, that was to accommodate my needs, I definitely wouldn’t suggest doing that for the average group.

Other than the domain outline from the Acquia site and the blog post I really didn’t have a plan for the study group.  I wasn’t sure that anyone would show up, although a couple of coworkers expressed some interest, but no commitments.

I was surprised when 10 people showed up for the first session.  That is comparable to our monthly meetups and this wasn’t as well organized.  We started at Starbucks for the first couple of sessions, then moved to the breakfast room at my hotel for the middle and ended at Upside Collective’s new offices once they had moved.

I made it clear that participation didn’t require coming to all the sessions.  I figured that other than myself no one had that much free time to devote to the exam.  A couple of people made it to all 8 meetings, but most missed a couple.

We started off the first session discussing approach.  It started to look like we had the right expertise to work in a teacher/student mode with someone teaching a session on the topic.  That is how the first session went.  By the second session we started to migrate to the pattern that ended up working amazingly well.

For CSS and Javascript basics we had a study group member who taught those topics at SUNY, so the teacher/student model wasn’t a big stretch.  He did it mostly off the cuff and it turned out well.  When we got to Drupal specific topics we were moving past his expertise so that wasn’t going to work.

Someone in the second session had the idea to take the list of links for a topic listed in the blog post and supplement them with sections from the theme guide on and summarize the content into a shared Google document that could become a “Cliff’s Notes” of the study material for the exam.  We split up a couple of sub-domains that session and each person took a link or topic.  We’d each work for about 30 minutes, then go through the material explaining it to the rest of the group.  That would generally take the 2 hours in an evening session, if we ended early, we’d start on the next set of topics.  On the weekend sessions, which were twice as long we’d do about 3 rounds of working alone for about 30 minutes, then coming together to discuss what we had summarized.  At one point I thought we might have been able to do preparation between sessions, but the realities of a life outside the study group coupled with the tight timescale made doing our homework in class the best option.

Our shared Google document grew with each study group meeting.  It is now about 70 pages long.  It’s not pretty and there are lots of inconsistencies in presentation and content depending on who did the research and whether they summarized or cut and paste from the reference.  A couple of our team members are getting ready to take the exam and have offered to clean up the document as part of their studying for the exam.

From the very first session there were discussions and debates about possible exam emphasis and direction.  Since none of us had taken the exam, it was hard to discount any possibility.  After the first weekend session, it became clear we needed a guinea pig to take the exam and report back to the group in general terms (obviously disclosing specific questions would violate the terms of the examination and might not be 100% useful since each exam is slightly different (based on having taken the back end exam twice and not seeing the same questions on both).

Based on his experience and the kinds of insights he added to our discussions, I really expected Chris to pass.  He came back our second weekend session and reported he had failed (but it was close, much like my first try at the backend exam).  But he was encouraged and felt our studying had really helped prepare for the exam.  One comment he made was that it seemed like every question had been covered during one of our sessions.  One specific observation, which I can confirm from when I took the exam, was there felt like there were more JavaScript related questions that we might have predicted from the domain weightings on the Acquia site.  That can be explained by the fact that many questions can cover multiple domains given the way they are structured.

We both reported to the group that the questions were tough, yet fair and well structured.  Chris observed there were some questions that appeared to have more than one correct answer.  And that the options all represented ways he had personally used to solve a problem.  I noticed something similar until I realized there were some subtle wording clues that eliminated some possibly correct answers.  As an example, one question had the phrase “using the Drupal API” which would eliminate options that used CSS to solve the challenge.  So read the questions carefully.

Another topic of much discussion was how the few questions on the exam that actually had more than one answer expected were scored.  A few questions would present the scenario and ask which 2 answers would work, which is truly representative of Drupal—there is often more than one correct way to accomplish many things (and often many more incorrect ways).  The consensus was perhaps you got partial credit if you got one right and one wrong.  I finally asked the certification office and got the answer that it was all or nothing.  Either you got both answers right or you got no credit for that question.

I ended up taking the exam after my overseas trip.  On the 13 hour flight from Tokyo to Denver I studied the theme guide, which when printed was almost 500 pages.  I felt pretty good going into the exam and ended up passing with my highest exam score to date.  Clearly the efforts of our study group paid off big time for me.  When I told the group I passed and my score I found out another study group member had taken the exam the week before and passed with a similar score, he just hadn’t told the group.  Our original guinea pig test taker is scheduled to take the exam any day now and I fully expect him to pass.

The rest of the group is working at being ready to take the exam.  The three of us already through it (or close) were the more experienced members of the group.  Some of the other study group members weren’t as experienced and I’m sure they are intimidated by some of our comments about how tough the questions are.  But I am hoping that in the next 2-3 months we’ll have several more Acquia Certified Developer Frontend Specialists in the area.

Having the study group also kept me motivated to keep pushing forward towards taking the exam.  With the backend developer exam, I rescheduled a couple of times when work got busy, but knowing the group was aware of my plans helped keep me on my original exam schedule.  I also have bragging rights within our development team and the local community.  I am the first developer in the area to pass all three developer certification exams.  Not a bad ego boost.

Finally working in the study group with a dozen other local developers has widened my network in the local Albany area.  I know those people much better, I’ve gotten to see how they work, and I’ve heard their inputs into discussions.  And I feel like I have more local friends than I did before the study group started meeting.

We’ve had a couple of additional follow up study group meetings.  Even though I’ve passed, I am attending, to give back to the group what I can and to help keep the rest of the group motivated to keep going.  Certification is more valuable as more people become certified and the word about the certification spreads.  Rather than trying to limit the number of people in the area with the certification it is my selfish interest to have the entire group certified.

My question to you is, when are you going to get certified?  And will you go at it alone, or form/join a study group to spread the effort and share the learning?  I would easily do another study group for the next certification exam I take.