I became a Zend Certified Engineer in PHP 5 in May 2009 and I thought that I would write about my experiences of the process. I should firstly explain a little about why I took the exam. I had a major career change in my mid thirties when I switched from being a professional musician to a web developer. To achieve this I studied for the Certificate in Web Applications Development with the Open University in the UK. From fairly early on I knew that I was very interested in PHP but my first development job was with a company where everything was built in a mixture of Classic ASP, VB.NET and C#.NET. I knew that I wanted to get a PHP based job on moving to Canada but needed some way of showing that I had some PHP ‘chops’. I thought that the certification would be a good way of showing that.
Having decided to take the exam I purchased the certification bundle from the Zend website at $165. This includes a study guide, written by Ben Ramsey and Davey Shafik, in PDF format, ten online practice exams and a voucher to take the exam at any Pearson Vue centre in the world within twelve months of the purchase date. Before purchasing the bundle I wanted to know if the voucher could be used in Canada, having purchased it in the UK before emigrating. I had a very helpful online chat with someone from Zend, which helped to reassure me about parting with my hard earned cash. In the end though this wasn’t an issue as I was able to take the exam before emigrating.
I found the study guide to be excellent, although the first thing I did was to print it and bind it. I was commuting each day by train at the time and having a printed copy meant I could study on the train. The exam covers a wide range of topics ranging from PHP basics to OOP concepts and design patterns. Candidates are also expected to know the major differences between PHP 4 and 5. For the most part the study guide covered all of the topics in a clear and readable way. I did find that a couple of things were not covered though and I had to go elsewhere to find these. An example of this is email injection attacks in the security chapter. Still, if you view the study guide as a guide and not a completely comprehensive volume on everything needed in the exam there won’t be any surprises.
The practice exams were also valuable, with a few caveats. They closely mirror the format of the real exam with the majority of questions being multiple choice and with the time allotted to complete each exam being the same as the real exam. At the end you are not told which questions you got wrong but are given a rating of how well you did in each of the exams subject areas. I found it useful to take screen grabs of questions I wasn’t sure about to review and study later. Anyone using these practice exams needs to make sure that you have the full time needed to complete one as once an exam is started it cannot be resumed later. My major caveat with the practice exams is that questions recurr between them. There seems to be a large database of questions but after you’ve taken a few exams you notice questions recurring. This means that the practice exams become less about working out the answer and more about what you can remember. Still, I think the practice exams were valuable if only to get me used to the format of the exam and the exam questions.
After studying on and off for about a month (between work and spending time with my wife and daughter) I decided to take the plunge and do the exam. I booked it through the Pearson Vue system, which was very easy, and showed up at the allotted time at a testing centre in central London. After waiting for a while, completing some paperwork and showing some photo id I was shown into the testing room. The test is done on a computer and consists of 70 questions that need to be answered in 90 minutes. I found that I had enough time to answer all of the questions and thoroughly review my answers in the time provided. At the end you are instantly told if you’ve passed or failed (no mark given though). I walked out of the centre with proof of my pass and my certificate followed a few weeks later. There are a lot of comments on the web about how difficult the real exam is compared to the practice ones. All I can say is that I found the real test to be easier than the practice ones. Other people may have a different experience based on exactly which questions they get on the day.
So, was the certification worth the time, money and effort? On the whole I would say yes. After passing the exam all Zend Certified Engineers get a listing on the Zend website as well as membership of a dedicated Linkedin group. These are really just ‘nice to haves’ though. The main benefit for me has been in showing that I have a very strong knowledge of PHP, even if I don’t have years of experience yet. The exam also taught me things I did not know about the language before, helping to expand my knowledge and abilities. I’ve also received regular enquiries about my availability for work through my listing as certified on the Zend website. Does the certification make you a great developer? Absolutely not. It is a good way of helping you to set yourself apart from others, opening the door for opportunities and interviews. It’s still up to the individual to prove they have the skills to back it up though.