Over the past several years, I've taken several certification tests at five different testing centers. I've had some real adventures, including times when my tests were incorrectly scheduled or the testing center was closed. Even with these problems, the testing center operators have worked hard to sort things out and make amends. These folks are doing a great job and are in a unique position to give us an inside look at certification and testing.

I contacted a few testing center operators to get their perspective, and two agreed to share their thoughts. Mary Jane Fayyad owns and operates Link Testing in Houston, Texas, and John Richmond owns and operates Jet Test in Dallas, Texas. Here's what they had to say:

Can you give us a brief overview of your test centers and an idea of the number of tests you've administered?

Mary Jane: Link Testing has administered approximately 7000 tests in the past 2 years.

John: Jet Test is the largest Prometric center in Texas and has administered at least 50,000 exams in the past 3 years.

What percentage of the tests you administer are IT related, and what percent of these IT tests are Microsoft tests?

Mary Jane: 99.9 percent of the tests we administer are IT related. Before Microsoft retired Windows NT 4.0, Microsoft exams were 90 percent of our business. Testing has slowed dramatically under the new Windows 2000 track.

John: At least 95 percent of the tests we administer are IT related. Microsoft-specific tests have always been a major portion of the certification exams. The percentage varies, but of the IT tests we administer, about 60 percent are Microsoft tests, up from about 45 percent during the past 6 months. With the strong gains made by Microsoft, Novell testing has decreased to about 10 percent.

Although I've never experienced a failure, I've always feared that the test PC I was using would quit during my exam. Do you have a maintenance program for your test-serving PCs, and if so, do you or the testing vendors dictate this policy?

Mary Jane: If we don't fix our equipment as soon as possible when it breaks, we are hurting ourselves because it means we have one or two fewer testing seats. We can't run our business successfully if our equipment is down. It's our equipment, and we pay the bill when it needs fixing.

Imagine that your test PC does fail on the next to last question of your test. Your eyes get really big when I cut the workstation off to reboot the machine, but I explain to you that we've saved all your answers. The test will resume right where you left off with the same time remaining on the computer.

John: I had a test candidate lock up a test PC. After all else failed, I reached down and hit the power switch. When he started to stammer and grab his chest, I thought he was having a heart attack. I quickly explained that rebooting a workstation didn't affect his exam and that it would return to the same question with the same amount of time remaining. He finally calmed down when I completed the reboot and all was well. Now I tell every candidate what happens if we reboot.

We store our test data on a server with mirrored hard disks, and we back up the entire day's test results to tape every night. We automatically upload all test data each time we connect to Prometric, and we perform a complete upload each morning. Actually, a busy site like ours might upload exam results 5 to 10 times a day. The system works, and we've never lost an exam to my knowledge. We do have contract standards for workstations, networks, servers, exam stations, monitoring, privacy, and other issues with which we must comply.

I'll have more from the interview in 2 weeks.