The Art of SQL Server Database Administration, Development, and Career Skills for the Technically Minded
This afternoon I finally passed the last test in the Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert series for Data Platform. I started the first test in the series while at Tech-Ed 2013 New Orleans. After I got through the first three tests I decided to just be happy with MCSA figuring a new series was right around the corner with the pending release of 2014 and any further pursuit would be out of date quickly. When Microsoft announced that the tests for 2012 would be the same, just with some additional coverage of the newer topics I picked up the torch again and finally got it done.
Supposedly I won’t have to recertify again for three years. < whew >
Treading carefully, so as not to violate the NDA that anyone taking the tests signs and agrees to, I’ll share what I found to be the most valuable techniques for preparation as well as my experiences testing and with certs in general.
1. Second Shot
To me, second shot is the most important offer you could possibly take advantage of. A practice run on the real test is invaluable. If you happen to pass on the first time around – BONUS! These deals usually come up once or twice a year and part of the reason it took me so long is because I only purchased the exams when I had the opportunity for a second shot. As of this writing it’s on right now. Don’t get me wrong, I do study, but my first take is all about recon. Further, if you took, and failed, any of the older SQL Server tests you know how useless the printout was in helping you prepare for the next time around. The new test results, while they don’t identify questions for obvious reasons, do give you much more valuable information as to where you are weak than they used to.
Of the five tests, 70-461, 70-462, 70-463, 70-464, and 70-465 I actually only ended up using two retakes. I was able to pass the other three on the first try. For me, 464 was the hardest, by far – which frankly I was a bit surprised about considering 463 is the one where I have the least actual experience.
While taking a first shot as a recon trip is a good strategy, don’t expect to be able to walk out and immediately look up the answers to all the questions you weren’t sure on – return a week later and ace it. On my retakes, I didn’t recognize a single question. The general topics were the same, but it felt like a brand new test. The reason is the whole brain dump industry. Those sites sharing servers with bootleg movies, malware, off-shore human exploitation, etc. They are up on my list with those guys who horde 22 ammunition making it so me and my kids can’t go plinking pop cans anymore on the weekends.
2. Brain Dumps
It’s obvious Microsoft has made significant efforts in stopping the proliferation of cheat sites and brain dumps. The format of the tests, especially the case studies makes simple memorization strategies less effective than they once were. If you are the type of person who struggles with ethics… suck it up and have an honest conversation with yourself. Learn the stuff for real. Obtaining a cert under false pretenses ends badly when it becomes apparent you are both incompetent and without character. That is a losing combination, loser.
What the honest student can learn from knowing the questions are formatted to trip up the paper tigers is this: Take your time! Read the questions thoroughly, I never once came up against the time limit. Read the question!!! I don’t think MS is trying to trick you, but they are going to find out what you know by being subtle.
3. Study Materials
Once upon a time I was the guy who bought all the MS press books, MS exam toolkits, practice exams (not braindumps), and went through every example in my virtual lab. These new tests however are all about what you actually know, not how much you can cram. Frankly, I think the best study material can be found right here:
https://www.microsoft.com/learning/en-us/mcse-sql-data-platform.aspx (follow links to actual exams within the series)
and then here:
and then here:
I found the Skills Measured section of each exam page to be exactly as Microsoft says. Tests will cover topics that include but are not limited to. I’m not going to violate the NDA by going any further than that, but I would say with these pages, books online, and a decent amount of hands-on experience – you’ll be fine.
This is what I did. I went through each skill item measured and put them in a list. I checked them off one by one when I felt that I was comfortable with each topic and could use and apply it real world. I then made a list of 2014 and 2012 features that were new to the product to ensure I had a handle on those. I always assume that the most recent cert exams will be heavy on newer topics and newer features of the product. But again, read the question – don’t just pick an answer because it’s the newer feature.
This is a personal blog so I get to have opinions. To me the move to Pearson-Vue over the old test provider was a major improvement. I had a couple really bad experiences with the previous provider on appointments, customer service, and over-all quality of equipment. Pearson-Vue’s integration with the MSLearning site and MCP area is great. The exams seem much more polished. Frankly, I have nothing but good things to say about Pearson-Vue.
5. Do I actually value certs, or just like trophies?
As both a database geek and a hiring manager I have mixed feelings about the true value of certifications for job applicants. On the one hand I know how much time and effort I put into my own certification and am very proud of the accomplishment. On the other, when I review a resume I am looking more at demonstrated skills and experience. To be sure, when I see that AND a certification, I am impressed – to me this shows not only experience and skill, but also a passion for learning, and a certain amount of pride in excellence. With that said however, I will happily hire someone with zero certs and demonstrable skill.
On the flip side, when I see a resume with very little experience but lots of high end certs I am a little more suspicious. I don’t automatically throw it out – but I am going to verify applicable knowledge before handing you the keys to production. You know, unless it’s been a long week on call, and I’m in a “just don’t freaking care anymore” kind of mood.
You might think this contradicts my recent post on “experience is over-rated”, but I am talking about people who use certs to mask lack of experience as opposed to what I REALLY like, people who use certs to demonstrate a love of the field. There is a difference.
I will say this. The current certs are a much better indicator of actual knowledge and skill than any of the prior tracks, certs, or tests.