About a decade ago, I was in the process of changing careers. Well, to call my job at the time a career is a generous move. It was a job, it payed the bills. It offered stress and no fulfillment. There wasn’t chance for advancement or personal development. It did provide for me, and gave me something to do for fifty or so hours per week, plus drive time. But it certainly was not where I wanted to be, and I needed to work towards a career rather than a job. As all of my friends told me, I was pretty good with computers. I felt pretty comfortable with them. Why not see where that took me? At the times, there were adds on the radio that preyed on people like me.
“Unhappy with your current career?”
“Looking to make a change?”
“Want to make more money in a fast growing field?”
“Have a knack for computers?”
“Take our online skills assessment test.”
I would hear them every day. Eventually, I was sitting up awake one night at two in the morning, feeling lost and trapped in my current life. I had been playing World of Warcraft because I couldn’t sleep, mostly due to the thoughts that happen when you’re displeased with your lot in life (also due to some other thoughts, typical anxiety bullshit). My mind drifted to those commercials and I found myself on the website, taking the “online skills assessment test” they kept talking about. It wasn’t too difficult, so I didn’t really feel too proud about acing it. After that, I shut down my computer and went to bed.
A couple of days later, I’m in the car with my wife, going shopping for Christmas presents, and I get a call. It was the program who’s assessment test I had just aced. They wanted me to come in for an information session and discuss possible enrollment. Fast forward a couple of months and I’m a student in a six month “boot camp” style course for Microsoft certification and career advancement. The class met twice a week, and the curriculum spanned desktop and server operating systems. There were four Microsoft exams involved in the course, and passing all of them would grant you the title of Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator. After that, getting in to a good job should be a simple process, since MCSA was a coveted title in the industry (so we were told).
The class was about thirty people, all about the same age as me, but from varying backgrounds. For the first unit, desktop operating systems, we were all pretty wel paced together as a class. We would do our homework and take our quizzes, but there wasn’t a lot separating us. Then came the first certification exam. Our instructor and interns did everything they could to prepare us. We were provided with practice exams and study guides. Some people formed study groups. I did not. Balancing the class and my other job while we only had one car between Heather and I was tricky. But I studied a lot on my own at home.
Let me make one thing clear. In fourteen years of school (kindergarten through freshmen year of college), I never studied. Never. It’s not my style. It’s not how I retain information best. But I test really well. I think I’ve mentioned it before. I am scary good at taking tests. But there were two things different about this particular situation. First, Microsoft exams are not easy. Tests in school are designed to help you pass. Microsoft exams are designed to make you fail. They are rumored to be adaptive, so if you get a question wrong, it will intentionally give you more questions about the same topic hoping that you get those wrong as well. This was not like any exam I had come up against. Second, for the first time in my life, I felt like these exams actually meant something. I never felt like that in school, where exams were just a way to offset the fact that I didn’t do any homework, or where an exam would be your final grade for a class. Even the SAT and ACT (I took both) didn’t feel like they really “mattered.” They were just tests, and I could pass tests. But these exams, in my mind, had direct bearing on my future. These tests were the only things standing between me and a career that I could enjoy and prosper in. They mattered much more than my Spanish final ever did.
So, on Tuesdays and Thursdays I would go to class. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I would close myself away in our “office” (the room with my computer and giant desk) and study for a few hours. I would review the material, look over my notes and the homework, but mostly I would take practice tests. After a few weeks, I had memorized the questions and answers to the practice exams provided to me, so I went out and found more. Whenever I found myself memorizing specific answers, I would switch tests. I couldn’t just do the tests in silence, though, so I would always have music on. When I started, it was just a shuffle of my collection, which later got pared down to just the artists I really wanted to hear (since Heather and I had a joint music collection). As the exam got closer, I noticed that I did better with the more upbeat songs or the ones with driving tempos. And from that, the “study mix” was born.
I took the first exam, and passed easily. Having worked with my own desktop for as long as I’ve had a desktop, it was all familiar territory. All of the students in my class had scheduled their exams within the same two week period (as required), so over the course of the following few classes, a clear division was forming between the people who “got it” and the ones who needed some help. Being in the “gets it” group had certain advantages. The instructor expected more from you, but would also devote a little more attention to you. The interns were in charge of helping those who didn’t pass on the first go around do better on their second outing. The class as a whole was moving forward into server territory.
Server was little bit different than desktop. It didn’t have a friendly and inviting user interface, but had a lot more power under the hood to work with and understand. I continued to do well on the homework and quizzes, but was a bit more worried about the upcoming exam. Desktop had turned out to be a breeze, but server was a lot of new territory. I took a week off, but soon resumed my rigorous studying schedule. I still had my study mix, but for as carefully I had curated it, I still found a lot of it very distracting. Part of that goes to the heart of this blog, sometimes music distracts me with memories. Sometimes I get hit with nostalgia or start thinking back over this or that and not concentrating on the finer points of Active Directory setup. And sometimes I just want to sing along. So adjustments had to be made. I cut the list back to bands without lyrics. That didn’t quite work. I switched to more ambient music, but that didn’t work either. I tried to switch to classical, which seemed to work for a bit. I moved from there to soundtracks, specifically Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. That worked a bit better. I was still burdened by a lack of enthusiasm during certain parts. The more slow or atmospheric pieces really ruined my flow. I returned to the original study mix to try and discover which bands I studied best to. The answer became clear after three or four study sessions and the playlist was scrapped. In the end, I would listen to nothing but Rip Slyme as I studied.
With Rip Slyme cranking out of my computer speakers, I redoubled my studying efforts. I took my server exam and crushed it. The “gets it” group grew smaller in class, as even some of those who passed the desktop exam had stumbled on the server exam. Much of my class was lagging behind me, now. Some were retrying the server exam, some were finally getting to it for the first time, having finally passed the desktop exam. Some were on their third or fourth attempt at the first exam. It became clear who was going to find that “new and exciting career in IT” and who had just thrown a whole bunch of money down a black hole. By this time, the whole class knew who the elite among us were. As we were at the halfway point of the class, my instructor posed a question to the class. He asked us all who the top student was in the class. Everyone said that it was Matt. He was confident, always got his labs done before the rest of us, and had been tutoring a few of the classmates lagging behind. He was always first to schedule his exam, and always passed on the first try. Well, always is a bit strong. He had done it two times out of two opportunities. The teacher admitted that, in fact, Matt was the top student in class. Then he asked who was second. The room was split on this. Some said Ben, the guy who worked at a gaming store and had passed both exams easily. He was loud and brash, but also confident. Some people guessed it was Ned, the guy who knew everything there was to know about Linux, but wanted to switch to Windows to get better opportunities. A couple of other names were bandied around: a guy named Aaron who was sick of selling insurance, Zach who wanted to get past his current help desk job, Kevin who despite some early struggles had passed both of his exams. My instructor just shook his head, then pointed at me. He called me a “creeper,” as I had silently and without braggadocio risen through the ranks and sat only a couple of points behind Matt. He used it as a lesson in “sometimes it’s not the loudest person in the room who knows the most, so notice who you should and shouldn’t be asking for help.”
The third test was on server networking, which was much more complicated than server configuration. I gave myself the obligatory week, then buckled down to studying again. For the start, all I listened to was Rip Slyme. At that point I only had five albums, and by the end of the networking unit I had heard them all half a dozen times. I scheduled my server networking exam, took it, and did better on it than on any previous test. Matt took it the same day I did, but did not pass. I was now top of the class.
My luck for the fourth exam was not as good. I still studied, still listening to Rip Slyme, still did well with all of my classwork and quizzes. I scheduled my exam for ISA server, took it, and failed. I turned around and rescheduled for the following Tuesday, studied my ass off that weekend, and failed again, with the same score. Matt finally passed his server networking exam, but was also having trouble with the last exam. We would both take one last try at it on the final day of class, and both of us failed. No one in the class was able to achieve the ultimate goal of MCSA. Quite a few students didn’t even pass their first exam by the time class wrapped up, which is really unfortunate considering how much the course cost. To walk away from it with nothing would be pretty devastating. I had almost achieved my goal, and along with some of the other top students, was offered a chance to stay on as an unpaid intern for the next class. Since I still hadn’t landed the elusive IT job I was looking for, I figured the resume experience would do me well. It would also give me access to study tools, and to the instructor. I finally passed that last exam, got my title, but still didn’t have a job. I stayed on and continued taking exams, working towards the even more prestigious Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer. And I continued using Rip Slyme as my study music.
I eventually left my position as an intern. The time constraints were getting to be too much for not enough reward. There’s only so much “resume building” an unpaid internship can provide before it starts to just look sad. I also eventually landed a job in IT, a career decision that I’ve been very happy with.
About a year and a half ago, I was in a job that required each employee to get one new certification a year. I didn’t know which one to get, so in September my boss told me to get a Citrix certification and had me schedule the exam. I scheduled it for November, hoping I could use the two months to study. A lot happened in those two months, and I found myself with only a week to go to take and pass an exam I had not studied for at all. So I hunkered down, read the material, and took every practice exam I could find for three days. All that time, I had Rip Slyme on. I passed that exam.
So, the real question is “why is Rip Slyme my magic study aide?” I think there are a couple of key factors. To start, they are incredibly upbeat. There are no somber or quiet Rip Slyme songs. Some of them tread towards R&B territory more than hip-hop, but they’re still infectiously peppy. To be honest, though, I think the lyrics being in Japanese, a language I neither speak nor understand, was a key factor. The music is uplifting without the need or even the ability to sing along. I don’t get lost in the words, since I have no idea what they’re saying.
Whatever the reason, it seems to work, and anytime I need to buckle down and study, I’m going to use Rip Slyme as my soundtrack. They have a good track record for it.