Friday, February 22, 2013

Setting Up an A+ Certification Prep Home Computer Lab

My old home lab
One question I am constantly asked by students and other aspiring I.T. professionals preparing for the A+ exams is "how do I get experience working on computers?" The best way to get experience and the method I used is by constant hands-on practice. This is generally best done by setting up a home lab. Believe it or not, there are inexpensive ways to setup a decent home lab that will prepare you for the A+ exams.
A home computer lab can not only assist you in preparing for the A+ certification but also in gaining expertise in new technologies, which is important in today’s job market. It doesn’t have to cost very much and is a better use of old technology that would otherwise end up in landfills or gathering dust in a closet somewhere. 
When considering building your own home lab first ask yourself, why?  Obviously, the most common answers are for:
  • Exam preparation and study:  You can build a simulated environment to follow examples in any study material you are using.  It also allows you to confirm that what you have read in your study material actually works as described.
  • Hand-On Learning: The most proven method of learning for an I.T. professional is by breaking it, fixing it and then breaking it again. In other words, getting your hands dirty. People, especially adult learners, have higher retention levels when learning with a hands-on approach.
Once you have determined why you want to have a home computer lab, then you need to consider your workspace. When planned properly, the lab will not require a lot of space, especially if you already have a desk with a keyboard and a monitor. Do keep in mind that you will need a large area to work so that you can spread things out. I used the floor at times. If possible, find a place without carpet to avoid dealing with Electrostatic Discharge (ESD) issues. If you do not have an area without carpet, make sure that you are following the ESD guidelines to minimize any risk.

After you have designated a workspace for your, lab, check with family and friends to see if they have any old computers (desktops and laptops) or other equipment (printers, scanners, PDAs, etc.) lying around that they can give you or sell to you cheap. Goodwill, The Salvation Army, yard sales, Craigslist and eBay are also good places to find old computers cheap. Having a few old computers on hand provides you the opportunity to get your hands dirty. Take it apart. Put it back together. Learn what function each part you take out performs. See if you can upgrade it. Install the operating system. Just keep doing it until you familiarize yourself with it and tie it in with the exam objectives that you are learning.

Of course, don’t forget to buy yourself the necessary tools to disassemble a computer. You can get a decent, multi-piece toolkit for around $20 or less. There is no need to spend a lot of money on a fancy toolkit. Many times, all you need is a decent screwdriver set.

Once you get all the necessary hardware components for your lab, you will need software, specifically the Windows operating system. You can download evaluation/trial versions of Windows from Microsoft. However, the downside to evaluation software is that it typically ceases functioning after 60, 90, or 120 days. By far the most cost effective (and legal) way of getting your own Microsoft software licenses for use in a lab environment is by purchasing a Microsoft TechNet subscription. For $199 ($149 for annual renewal) a Microsoft TechNet Standard subscription will provide you access to the vast majority of Microsoft’s operating systems and applications with your own unique license keys. Not only is this a bargain but also a great investment of money for anyone serious about entering the I.T. field (especially if you are planning to pursue Microsoft certifications after the A+). Just remember that the software provided with a TechNet subscription is for evaluation purposes only. It provided for you to become familiar and keep up to date with the latest Microsoft software. It is NOT meant for you to resell or distribute to family and friends.

Because the A+ exam covers multiple versions of Windows (XP, Vista and 7), you could buy (or build) one computer and then multi-boot it. The problem with going that route is that if you need to practice in a networked environment, this configuration doesn't help much because it only allows one OS running at a time and you have to reboot whenever you want to test a different version of Windows.

One thing to consider is virtualization. Virtualization is a technology through which one or more simulated computers run within a physical computer.  The physical computer is called the host and the simulated computers are referred to as virtual machines (VM). Basically this allows you to create multiple virtual computers on one physical computer. Most importantly, these virtual machines can be configured in a virtual network allowing you to create an entire network without having to purchase additional computers or network components.

Download a free copy of VirtualBox to get started with virtualization. Also, if you can afford to get your hands on a computer that supports hardware virtualization technology (Intel VT or AMD-V), then you will have a much more comfortable experience with your virtual machines. It is important to remember that each virtual machine "borrows" hardware resources from the host computer, so the more CPU and RAM you have at your disposal, the better. In other words, just try to get the fastest computer you can with as much CPU, RAM and available hard disk space as is possible given your budget.

Finally you need study material. There are plenty of quality books that will prepare you for the A+ exams. The two that I recommend are the CompTIA A+ 220-801 and 220-802 Authorized Exam Cram and CompTIA A+ 220-801 and 220-802 Authorized Practice Questions Exam Cram both by David L. Prowse. Nevertheless, before you spend money on the first book you pull off the shelf what someone recommended, do a little research. Go to your local bookstore (Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, etc.) and read through the first few chapters of a book. You can also check out reviews of the books online (Amazon is a good source). One thing to keep in mind is that you have to pick a book that YOU are comfortable with. A book that may have helped someone else pass the exam might not help you pass. Does the author's writing style keep you interested? Are you comfortable with the printed text in the book? Is it the right length for you to read within a reasonable timeframe? How well does it actually cover the material for the exam?

The bottom-line is that you will not get the same level of exposure or experience working on a computer by just reading a bunch of books and magazines. The A+ exam, just like other certifications, is a means to validate your skills. Employers want to hire people with skills, not knowledge. You develop your skills by doing, not reading. The key is getting hands-on experience to go along with the knowledge you gain from books or any classes you take.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

My Thoughts on the Chromebook Pixel

Being a fan of Chromebooks, I have to admit that I am seriously fascinated by the recently announced Chromebook Pixel. It is Google's new laptop based on its Chrome OS. In many ways, it physically resembles Apple's MacBook Pros in an a sleek aluminum body. Even the hardware specs of the Chromebook Pixel are pretty impressive when compared to other recent Chromebooks from Samsung, Acer, HP and Lenovo:
  • CPU: Intel Core i5, Dual-Core 1.8 GHz with Intel HD Graphics 4000
  • Display: 12.85-inch Gorilla Glass multi-touch screen, 2560 x 1700
  • Memory: 4GB DDR3 RAM
  • Storage: 32GB Solid State Drive (64GB Verizon LTE model)
  • Ports: 2 x USB 2.0; mini display port; 2-in-1 SD/MMC card reader; audio
  • Connectivity: Dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n; Bluetooth 3.0
  • Battery: Up to 5 hours of active use
However, these impressive specs come at a price. $1,299 to be exact ($1,449 for the LTE model). That is what stops me from pulling the trigger and ordering one. That and the fact that I would have to get spousal approval as well. $1,299 is a premium price to pay when you can purchase other Chrome OS laptops starting at $199.

Google is taking a big risk with this high-priced Chromebook. Whether it sells or not is unknown, but everyone is talking about Chromebooks now. That by itself is a big win for Google right now and the little OS that could.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

What I Use: Fitbit Fitness Tracking Devices

I am what you would consider someone who engages in moderate exercise. I usually go walking or jogging daily and do some light free weight training at home. That is pretty much it these days based on my schedule. Far from my one hour a day, six days a week visits to the local gym from just a few short years ago. I am not a fitness freak but I do want to stay active and keep my body moving. In order to help me do that, I decided to give the Fitbit devices a try.
His: Fitbit Zip

I originally used a 6th generation iPod Nano as a pedometer to keep up with how many steps I take on a daily basis. Nothing wrong with it. For the majority of health-conscious people, it's the perfect workout accessory. However, the thing that attracted me to the Fitbit fitness tracking devices was that they not only tracked my steps, distance, and calories burned each day, but also automatically syncs that data to my Fitbit account. Yes, Fitbit devices stats are uploaded via Wi-Fi to your computer or mobile devices. Additionally, either through the Fitbit website or through the Fitbit App (which is available for both iOS and Android devices), I can set goals and track my fitness path with easy to read graphs and earn badges after reaching specific goals.
Hers: Fitbit One

The website and apps also let you log what foods you eat, your activities as well as track your weight. You can choose to view your progress each day or you can view your stats over a week, month or even year. It's not required to log everything, but it is helpful if you want to get a good picture of your progress.

The Fitbit Aria Wi-Fi Smart Scale, while not a necessity, ties in nicely with the Fitbit family of fitness activity trackers. It is not cheap in terms of price or quality. It feels rugged and durable while having a clean look to it as if designed by Apple. The cool thing about the Aria is that when you step on it, it wirelessly syncs the information to your Fitbit account. Not just your weight but also your Body Fat (BF) composition, which is used to calculate your body-mass index (BMI). It can also be setup to be used by multiple people in your household.

Ours: Fitbit Aria
Again, the Aria is not a necessity, but when you put it all together with other Fitbit devices, it acts as a smart system in helping you achieve your fitness goals. This is a great example of how technology can help improve your health.

I originally purchased the Fitbit One as a Christmas gift for my wife. Once I discovered the potential of the devices, I bought a Fitbit Zip for myself as well as the Fitbit Aria Wi-Fi Smart Scale. If you are serious about monitoring your health but not at a  Jillian Michaels fanatic level, the Fitbit devices are well worth the money.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Black Girls Code Robot Expo

Today, my daughter participated in the Black Girls Code Robot Expo held at GA Tech. It was a fun and exciting workshop where girls had the opportunity learn all about robots. This was the first Black Girls Code event that I had the honor to  attended and I can say that it lived up to it's reputation.

For those not familiar with Black Girls Code, their missions is to empower young women of color between the of ages 7 to 17 to become innovators in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields through exposure to computer science and technology.

While our daughter was learning about robotics, my wife and I attended a parents panel called Why STEM Matters: Understanding real world needs for STEM education. This panel provided information on how STEM can directly impact the future of their daughters. The panel, moderated by Vicki Hamilton, consisted of Dr. Shaundra Daily, Assistant Professor at Clemson University; Candace Mitchell, CEO/Co-Founder of Techurized; Dr. Yolanda Rankin, Lecturer at Spelman College;  Dr. Han Reichgelt, Dean of the School of Computing and Software Engineering at SPSU and Corvida Raven, founder of SheGeeks.

The day ended with a Tech Talk with the SpelBots. The Spelman College SpelBots were the first-ever, all-female, African-American team to compete in the International RoboCup four-legged robot soccer competition, which is considered the Olympics of robotics and artificial intelligence. Their goal is to encourage young African-American women to explore robotics and computer science.

When it comes to women in technology, the numbers still fall short. For women of color, the numbers are even smaller. Black Girls Code shows young girls their opportunity and potential within the I.T. industry.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Starting a new chapter

I had to do something hard at work today. No, it wasn't anything related to technology. I had to submit my resignation and let my colleagues know that I had accepted a new position at another nearby university. While to some it might sound like an easy task to do, it was saying good-bye to people who I have grown close to over that past seven years.

Yes, my new position is the next step for my future goals and career (see item #2 in my 2013 goals), but I've come to regard those I work closely with as a second family, many of whom I will miss interacting with on a daily basis. Additionally, there has been faculty, staff, and students who have shown me gratitude and appreciation during my tenure at Emory.

While my new role provides me with an opportunity and challenge that I cannot pass up, I will miss the many things that made working there unique (such as BTS Weekend and no more T-shirts). I know that with text, iMessage, phone, Twitter, LinkedIn, Skype and whatever other technology is available, I will keep in contact with everyone as I embark on this new chapter in my life.