To Recertify, or NOT to Recertify… THAT is the question.

I was definitely a proponent of expiring certifications when the topic came up.  Why?  Because my value as an MCSE was diminished by others who held the same title… from Windows NT.  By making professionals renew their certifications we obtained the ability to differentiate between someone with current value and skills and knowledge and someone whose knowledge and skills were obsolete.

I am not saying this position is coming back to bite me, only that I am probably at a cross-roads, and I have some decisions to make.

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I got this e-mail recently.  I actually got two of them that were nearly identical, with the one line differentiator:

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Okay, so I have to decide whether to renew my VCP credentials.  It is not an easy decision – not because I have not found value in being a VCP (I have).  However I have not spent as much time in the past couple of years working with large scale VMware environments, and I don’t know if I would have the time and resources needed in order to study for and pass the exam.  It is a tough choice (not on the VCP4, but for VCP5).

I am not only on the line for VMware though… I remember when I earned my MCSE: Private Cloud certification with Microsoft Learning.  It was cool to be among the first to earn what I consider to be a very prestigious certification.  Seeing the words CHARTER MEMBER along the top was not exactly new to me, but I still took great pride in it.

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Fast-forward three years (slightly more, as the renewal exams were not ready in time) and I notice, when looking at my MCP page, the following ugly note:

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Of course, if we look back to the beginning of this article, I would be a hypocrite if I really thought this was an ugly note… it is just the reality, and if I want the renewal to apply to others so that my certifications retain their value, obviously I have to renew as well so that everyone else’s certifications retain their value.

The question is though… would I pass the required exams if I sat them today?  The answer is, unfortunately, probably not. 

I have a couple of options. 

  1. I can make the decision to allow these certs to lapse.  I will always be a ‘Former VCP and Former MCSE: Private Cloud.’
  2. I can decide to buckle down and study, preparing for the exams.

The long-time faithful readers of my blog will know that I have said before that you should not study for exams (see article).  I said ‘The best way to know technology is to use it, and if you read the recommended pre-requisites for most exams they say that you should have a minimum of two years experience with the technology.’  Well I already proved that I knew the technologies – I proved it by earning the certs in the first place.  However over the last three years my career my priorities were different, and I took extended breaks from using the technologies the certs apply to.

Does that mean I am done?  No… when I said I took a break I meant it, and I am currently working on a number of projects, some involving VMware and some involving Microsoft’s Private Cloud.   While I know that for the Microsoft certs I will need to take a recertifying exam, for the VCP I found the following on their FAQ:

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Well at least they don’t beat around the bush.

On the VMware side I now have just under two months to prepare (if I am going to), and on the Microsoft side I have until the end of October.  Will I do it? On one? On both?

I don’t know if I will recertify on VMware… Exam prep is tough, and I frankly do not think I get the same benefit out of it that I do Microsoft.  That is to say, I do not think that there is an opportunity that I would lose if I said ‘I was a VCP-DCV, but let it lapse.’  Most of my clients are just as happy knowing that I am proficient in VMware, even if the cert has lapsed.

Microsoft is a different story.  Don’t get me wrong – my reputation with regard to Microsoft technologies is pretty solid.  However if I let that cert lapse I do not know if I will be able to renew my MCT (Microsoft Certified Trainer) for 2016 (I just renewed it for 2015, but we have to think ahead).  You never know what requirements they will ask at renewal time, and every senior certification on my transcript is a step in the right direction.

With that being said, according to the Certification Planner on the Microsoft Learning portal, I am a single exam shy of earning both my MCSA: Windows Server 2012 and my MCSE: Desktop Infrastructure, and one more exam short for my MCSE: Server Infrastructure certifications.  (411 and 413 for those who are counting).  To recertify for MCSE: Private Cloud I need to write exam 981, which is essentially an upgrade exam (based on the exam objectives for 246 and 247).  If you type the term “Upgrade Exam” into the search box of this blog, you can read about how unpleasant those can be.

With all of that being said, I passed them once… I should be able to pass them again… I think, hope, pray.  Fortunately, I have two things going for me: 1) There is a Second Shot Free offer currently available, so if I fail an exam I can retake it at no cost… well, at the cost of another half-day off of work. 2) As an MCT I am entitled to a 50% discount off my exams.

I haven’t decided which way I will go… in theory, four exam passes will give me five key certifications:

  • VMware Certified Professional: Datacenter Virtualization
  • MCSA: Windows Server 2012
  • MCSE: Desktop Infrastructure
  • MCSE: Server Infrastructure
  • MCSE: Private Cloud

Since MCSE: Private Cloud is no longer offered, I wouldn’t mind holding onto it for the sake of nostalgia.  The other MCSEs? Well, none of them would hurt to hold.  As for the MCSA… Yeah, I am sure there are a bunch of you who are surprised that I don’t hold that one.  When I came back from Japan last year it was my intention to sit a bunch of exams, and I did… but many of you know that my head was very much elsewhere, and what with my personal issues my head just wasn’t in it… I have been one exam shy for a long time, but I do plan to go get it.

So I guess during the writing of this article I have talked myself back into a certification mode… who’s with me? Smile

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Certification Exams: Is there a value to failing?

Although it is not something I am proud of, I have failed a number (the exact number is quite secret!) of certification exams.  I am not proud of this fact, but the reality is I have taken a number of exams that I have been unprepared for, and that is a sure-fire way to come up short.  I have always (not true… since becoming more enlightened, maybe!) felt that if I was going to shell out USD$125 to fail an exam (Actually, the first two were at USD$100) I should at least walk away with something… the consolation prize should not simply be a sheet of paper telling us that we failed.

So then what can we gain from failing?  We can learn what we need to concentrate on in order to actually pass the exam.  Let’s say you are a desktop deployment specialist for his company.  You are responsible for the deployment of systems across the country, which you do using the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit 2008 and System Center Configuration Manager 2007.  Your manager informs you that there is a new deployment exam available (70-635) and that the new department policy is that all deployment specialists must obtain the MCTS: Business Desktop Deployment to be eligible for promotions or bonuses.  You schedule the exam, and as you sit there taking the test you realize that you do not know a lot about Windows Deployment Services, managing images for multiple languages, driver groups, and MDOP.  Crud, that makes up about forty percent of the exam, and lo and behold you fail.

You could hang your head in shame as you walk away from the testing centre… or you can go back to your office and learn what you are missing; you can set up a lab environment to deploy images in French with Windows Deployment Services; you can implement driver groups, and learn everything you need to know about MDOP, and you can go back to the testing centre a few days or weeks later and retake the exam… and pass.

I am ashamed to say that there are a couple of exams that I have failed and have not yet gone back to rewrite… with an emphasis on the word yet.  Most of the titles I have failed I have gone home, brushed up, and retaken successfully a few days (or weeks) later.  They are all things that do not apply to what I have been doing… but don’t worry, I’ll get to them!

It is simply a matter of attitude… ‘Why the heck would I have to know that?’ is the wrong attitude; if for no other reason, then you have to know whatever that is in order to pass the exam.  I know someone who failed an exam by fewer than twenty points – often a sign that he missed it by a single question.  He came out and said ‘I know what I got wrong… I’ll just retake the exam tomorrow and change that one question that I got wrong!’  He did… and failed by fewer than forty points – probably two questions.

Don’t waste it… if you find an exam tough, then you should be taking notes on the sheet they give you.  1) Windows Deployment Services.  2) Multiple Languages… and so forth.  Of course you have to surrender that sheet when you are finished the exam… but if at the very end you reread your notes, you should remember a lot of what you are missing when it comes time to study.

With Microsoft’s Second Shot Free promotion you can actually fail the first time for free… though I do not recommend this as a goal.  When you are prepared for the exam, register for it using the promotion, and then do your best.  If you fail, it costs you nothing to go home and study some more, and then rewrite it.  If you pass, then you get a pleasant surprise, a new certification, and a discount on your next exam.

Thomas Edison was once interviewed about the electric light bulb.  He did not get it right on the first shot… in fact it took him over two thousand tries and when asked he said ‘I never failed… I just learned two thousand ways how not to make a light bulb!’  Use that attitude when taking your next test.

… and good luck!

The Harsh Realities of the Exam Room

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how tough I found Exam 74-409 was in my article Another Tough Exam.  I also mentioned that Microsoft exams were meant to be tough, and going into an exam unprepared can (and usually will) come back to bite you.

Last week I decided to bite the bullet and try to take home at least three certifications in a single marathon day of exams… I was hoping to achieve my MCSA: Windows 8, MCSA: Windows Server 2012, and my MCSE: Desktop Infrastructure in a single bound by passing three exams:

70-416: Implementing Desktop Application Environments
70-417: Upgrading Your Skills to MCSA Windows Server 2012
70-688: Managing and Maintaining Windows 8

The goal was lofty, but I felt I was up to the challenge.  I was wrong… but not terribly so.

Before going on I should mention that I am no dummy… I am just very busy, and taking the time to sit exams one at a time is a bit of a pain for me – I would rather, when I have to, simply write two or three in a single day.  Of course, this greatly reduces my chances of passing all of them, but because of the Microsoft and Prometric Second Shot Free offer for Microsoft Certified Trainers (see article) there is less of a risk – MCTs get a discount on the cost of exams, as well as a Second Shot.  My financial gamble on this day was minimal.  I have, by the by, passed three exams in a single day once… May 3, 2011 I passed three MCTS exams on Windows Server 2008.  If I could do it once, I could surely do it again.

Wrong.

Passing three exams in a single day was not easy, but they were all on the same general technology – Windows Server 2008.  On this silly day I went after three exams – one on Windows 8 (which I would have been surprised had I failed), one on Desktop Application environments (Windows 8 applications with a healthy dose of Windows Server, Remote Desktop Services, App-V, Group Policy, Microsoft Office, and several deployment tools), and one on Windows Server 2012…kinda.

Upgrade Exams

Thinking back to my early days of certification marathons, I remember hearing the horrors of Upgrade exams.  Essentially you are taking three exams in one.  The first Upgrade exam I sat was 70-292: Managing and Maintaining a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Environment for an MCSA Certified on Windows 2000.  My success with this exam could be summed up with the old adage: Third time’s a charm.  I passed it in June of 2006… over a year after my first attempt.

Although I did have success with the MCDST (Desktop Support Technician) upgrade exam 70-621: Upgrading your MCDST Certification to MCITP Enterprise Support I did not fare nearly as well on the server side – 70-648 TS: Transition from Windows Server 2003 MCSA to Windows Server 2008 and TS: Transition from Windows Server 2003 MCSE to Windows Server 2008 (both of which I sat as beta exams and, coincidentally, on the same day) were not my finest hours.  I decided instead to sit all of the exams for these certifications instead of going the upgrade path again.

In hindsight, had I thought of that when scheduling the exams, I would not have done it.  Three exams in one day is mentally tough enough… add to that one of them is actually three exams, and even I wouldn’t have done it.

I never got into a rhythm for the exam, and did not notice that it was not one exam as one block of time, it was actually three sections, each with their own sub-block of time.  Unfortunately I only realized this when, with ten unanswered questions on Section 1, a pop-up warned me that I had two minutes to complete the section.  Without reading anything I clicked through and selected an answer for as many as I could (four) before being forced to leave six questions unanswered.

Now that I knew this was the case, I managed my time for the remaining sections much better… but four blind darts and six blanks doomed me.

You did not pass the exam.

I do not remember the actual wording of it, but that’s what it said… I had felt pretty good going into that last ‘Are You Sure?! ‘ button, which is why I was heartbroken when it came up.  Damn damn damn.

Wait a minute… I did a double-take when I noticed that my score was below 600.  583?  No way, I know I did better than that, there MUST BE SOME MISTAKE!  I don’t know the procedures for challenging an exam result (nor do I know if there is such a procedure) but at the end of the day when I collected my score reports I was going to find out.

Okay, that was only one of the exams… the server exam, which I could re-sit next week sometime.  I got my mindset into the application environment.  It was a really tough exam, but I passed it with a pretty respectable score.  I then went on to the Managing Windows 8 exam, which after the ordeal of the two previous exams was like a walk in the park.  I am not saying that any end user – or an IT Pro who isn’t intimately familiar with Windows 8 – could pass without a lot of preparation, but I have lived Windows 8 every day of the last 2.5 years, and even though that last ‘Are You Sure?!button is always nerve wracking, I passed very respectably.

Okay, good.  At least I could hold my head high with the knowledge that I would walk away with two Windows certifications today… MCSA: Windows 8, and MCSE: Desktop Infrastructure.  Now I could go look at the score report and go give someone a piece of my mind!

Wrong.

First the good news… I am not as much of a Windows Server bonehead as I thought.  I did not realize that for the Upgrade exam each section is marked as a complete exam… the score report actually comes out like this:

70-410: Installing and Configuring Windows Server 2012: 800
70-411: Administering Windows Server 2012: 583
70-412: Configuring Advanced Windows Server 2012 Services: 766

Aha… while the results of certification exams are really binary – Pass/Fail – I felt a lot better knowing that had they averaged out my score for the three exams I would have passed, and the abysmal score that displayed on screen was just that of the lowest section – quite obviously the section on which I only answered 2/3 of the questions.  Alright, I feel better about that, and now that I know, the next time I sit the exam I can manage my time properly (I’ll bet you if you scour my blog you will see that advice for exam takers) and pass with authority.

I was wrong about something else on this day though… Although I thought the prerequisites for the MCSE: Desktop Infrastructure were my MCSA Windows 8 and the 70-416 exam, it turns out that the first prerequisite is actually my MCSA Windows Server 2012… alas, I would only be walking away with one certification today, and not two as I was hoping and expecting.  With that said, if/when I do pass my 70-417 Upgrade exam I will with one pass earn two senior certifications… and that ain’t all bad as they say.

Conclusion

The old expression says that the shoemaker’s children go barefoot.  I got bit quite a bit by not following my own advice.  Fortunately Microsoft and Prometric have my back, and I can come back and re-sit the exam for free.  That is one piece of advice I did listen to – make sure you check for any offers such as the Second Shot before you register for your exam.  Although I have registered for several exams with previous similar offers, this is the first time I will need the safety net.  However just because you are confident does not mean you should be stupid… take any offer they will give you, and save your money.  I am glad I did!

Does Microsoft Learning listen?

I often tell people who are worried about taking Microsoft exams for fear of failing that I have failed more exams than most people have ever taken – to date over twenty failures, including one miserable exam that I only passed on my fourth attempt.

Don’t worry, I do pass more than I fail.  Something else that I often tell people is that there is a lot that you can learn from failing a certification exam – if you are only willing to learn from it.  Every time I fail an exam I try to remember the questions that have me stymied, and as soon as I walk out of the exam room I write down whatever I can remember so that I can look them up later on.  That is how I learned the ocsetup command.  In fact, that is how I learned a lot of the PowerShell cmdlets and command-line switches that I use.

Every exam – in fact, every exam question – gives you the opportunity to comment.  Unfortunately I am always reticent; I know that I don’t know everything, and frankly I used to be worried that if I commented that I thought something was wrong, I would be showing my ignorance.  This phobia doubled as a ridiculous assumption that someone at Microsoft Learning cares how much Mitch Garvis knows or doesn’t know… beyond the obvious pass/fail requirement of the exam.

I have heard people tell me that they don’t leave comments because they don’t think that people actually read those comments.  I can tell you with absolute certainty that someone does… most of the time that someone is a wonderful woman named Liberty Munson.

I first met Liberty in 2006, and have often referred to her as a witch – not because she is anything other than kind and warm, but because I am reasonably sure she can sit an exam on any subject matter in the world with complete ignorance on the subject… and pass.  You see, Liberty is a Psychometrician – an expert in exams.  Although I still don’t like commenting on exams, occasionally I have a question or comment about something on an exam, and I ask Liberty.

I took issue with a particular question on exam 74-409 (Server Virtualization with Windows Server Hyper-V and System Center).  I walked out of the exam with a sigh of relief at 10:45am… and at 4:30 that issue was still nagging at me.  I sent an e-mail about it and made my point.

Within an hour I got a reply from Liberty – I had not actually taken my issue to her, but rather to a friend at Microsoft Learning, who passed it on for me.  Nonetheless Liberty replied directly.  In the hour since I had sent my ‘complaint’, she had tracked down the exact question I was referring to, figured out who had written it, and gotten a response from the item writer.  While I completely disagreed with the response (it was not a right/wrong argument, rather a in-scope/out-of-scope argument), I was thrilled that I got the response.

Now here’s the thing… we can’t all e-mail Liberty every time we disagree with a question on an exam.  That is simply not how it works.  The best way to contact her if you don’t agree with a question is to click that Comment button on your exams.  You may not (read: will not) get a direct reply, but is the best way for you to help the Learning Experiences team to maintain the highest level of quality in their exams.

By the way, while I do not know this for sure from personal experience, my best advice is to never play cards with a psychometrician for money… it will never end well Smile

Gee thanks…

This is one of those situations I laugh at… because even great organizations like Microsoft Learning Experience is going to make the occasional mistake.. especially when it’s systems are all automated and unmonitored.

I received the following e-mail today congratulating me on passing my exam yesterday:

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I was reasonably sure that I already had that certification, but just in case I logged onto the MCP Portal to check my transcript.  Sure enough…

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Now here’s the thing… the e-mail is right, I never passed 70-247… but I didn’t have to.  If you passed 70-659 before a certain date then it replaced the requirement for the 70-247 exam… but if the automated system checks people who have passed the requisite exams as of today (and not as of June, 2012) then it is right… I shouldn’t have the cert.

I’ll chalk this one up to a funny system glitch… no action required Smile

Certification Planning

I maintain a spreadsheet of every certification exam I take – pass or fail.  Excluding the title line it currently consists of seventy (70) rows, dating back to my first failed exam in December of 2001.  I don’t remember when I started maintaining it, but it goes back a while, and consists of the following cells:

DateExam
TitleExam CodeTesting CentreResultApplicable Cert

Yesterday morning (January 15) I was happy to pull it open because I had just passed exam 74-409 (See article).  It was a bit of a milestone because it was the seventieth exam I have written in a little over twelve years (I sat my first exam, 70-215, on December 11, 2001).  It includes three that I have re-sat after having passed, a lot of failures (including one exam that I failed three times before passing!) and overall the good, the bad, the ugly – the pride and the shame, all in one spreadsheet, which includes a rule to highlight the word PASS or FAIL appropriately so that I can see streaks and trends.

As I will often do when I open the spreadsheet, I took a couple of minutes to see if anything jumped out at me… and sure enough, there it was.  In 2013 I did not sit a single exam.  It is the first year since I failed that first exam that I did not even attempt an exam in a calendar year.  In fact, since the last exam I sat was August 12, 2012 (71-414 – Implementing an Advanced Server Infrastructure), meaning it was a full seventeen months between exams – the longest gap/draught ever for me.

Does this mean I have been negligent in my career planning?  Not at all.  IT Professionals do not have to take exams on a set schedule in order to properly maintain their career paths.  However it is important that we make sure that our certifications remain relevant, and that will mean different things to different people.

Some IT Pros are content to ride their Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) on Windows 2000 (or NT!) all the way into the next decade.  Others want to earn every certification as soon as they can and remain at the head of the pack.  Somewhere between these two camps sit the moderate camp of people who get certified on every second version of a software or solution.

Is one of these positions right or wrong?  While I certainly feel that certifications become stale and irrelevant, how often you recertify depends on your career goals and needs.  I am glad that the new generation of Microsoft certifications actually do have retirement dates – IT Pros will have to recertify every few years or they will lose their credentials.  Microsoft tried several years ago to retire the MCSEs on Windows NT, but because they had not planned for this scenario from the outset they were unable to do so legally.  Simply put, people invested in their certifications and were not told up front that they would have an expiry date.  Now when you take a certification exam you know up front that your credentials will be retired unless you maintain them.

My first certifications were on Windows Server 2000, and while some of the information I learned back then is still relevant, most of what we do today is completely new – IPv6 did not exist, nor did x86 server virtualization.  There were questions on my exam yesterday that included several aspects of System Center, IPv6, Hyper-V, Active Directory Recycle Bin, Live Migration, Virtual Machine exports, Volume Shadow Copy, Virtual Hard Disks, Fibre Channel, QoS, and NIC Teaming… none of which existed in any form when Windows Server 2000 was current.  Sure, I am still an MCSA on Windows Server 2000 (I only earned my MCSE with Windows Server 2003), but it is completely irrelevant… and nobody would hire me based on my complete understanding of a fourteen year old operating system.

On the other side of the scale, I am also a Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE): Private Cloud.  I earned that credential in June of 2012 – three months before the release of Windows Server 2012.  I earned it based on my proficiency in Windows Server 2008 R2 and the then newly released System Center 2012.  Is that certification still relevant?  Sure… both Windows Server 2008 R2 and System Center 2012 are prevalent in production IT environments around the world.  Even if they weren’t, as they are essentially only one generation removed from the current ‘latest and greatest’ and while there are certainly huge improvements in the newer versions, they are still familiar enough that the one-generation-off is still recognizable and familiar.

Yesterday’s exam was only the third Windows Server 2012 exam that I have written, and because of the new certification model I do not actually have any Windows Server 2012 certs.  In order to become an MCSA: Windows Server 2012 I am missing the exam 417 (Upgrading Your Skills to MCSA Windows Server 2012).  Then to earn my MCSE: Server Infrastructure I will need to pass exam 413 (Designing and Implementing a Server Infrastructure).

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In order to close all of these out, I seem to be four exams short.  While I am not sure I will be able to complete them all before I go back to Japan, I will be trying to do at least a couple of them.  Unlike yesterday’s exam though I plan to prepare for them.  While I consider myself strong in both Windows Server 2012 and Windows 8, none of us know everything that they are likely to test us on.  I will try my best to not go into another exam unprepared.

imageAs usual, I will be taking you all along for the ride.  While I cannot take you into the exam centre (I don’t think we would all fit, and that would be illegal) but I will tell you about my experiences in each exam.  Hopefully it will help to give you the impetus to take your next exams.  Are you missing some?  Are you just starting out, or thinking of going down a new certification path?

If you aren’t sure where you stand, the Microsoft Learning Members Page has a new Certification Planner tool that can guide you toward success.  Since most of us don’t know off the top of our heads what exams are needed for what certifications, this handy tool will let you know how many exams (or other prerequisites) you are missing for each credential.  If you have even one prerequisite for a credential it will be listed there, and you can see what you are missing.  Check it out – you may be closer than you thought!

Of course, most IT Pros won’t need all of the certifications available… and chasing them is both time consuming and costly.  Trainers are usually going to have more certifications because they need the credentials in order to teach the courses.  That is why I started chasing them… and while I am no longer a full-time trainer, until I decide what I want to be when I grow up I am going to keep chasing them… you never know when someone is going to call on you to teach a class after all, and I like to keep my options open!

Check out the certification planner, and go schedule that next exam… yes, I am talking to you, Mr.Legacy MCSE, Mr. One-Exam Short!  Good luck!

Another tough exam…

As a subject matter expert (SME) on virtualization, I was neither excited nor intimidated when Microsoft announced their new exam, 74-409: Server Virtualization with Windows Server Hyper-V and System Center.  Unlike many previous exams I did not rush out to be the first to take it, nor was I going to wait forever.  I actually thought about sitting the exam in Japan in December, but since I had trouble registering there and then got busy, I simply decided to use my visit to Canada to schedule the exam.

This is not the first exam that I have gone into without so much as a glance at the Overview or the Skills Measured section of the exam page on the Internet.  I did not do any preparation whatsoever for the exam… as you may know I have spent much of the last five years living and breathing virtualization.  This attitude very nearly came back to bite me in the exam room at the Learning Academy in Hamilton, Ontario Wednesday morning.

Having taught every Microsoft server virtualization course ever produced (and having written or tech-reviewed many of them) I should have known better.  Virtualization is more than installing Hyper-V.  it’s more than just System Center Virtual Machine Manager (VMM) and Operations Manager (OpsMgr).  It is the entire Private Cloud strategy… and if you plan to sit this exam you had better have more than a passing understanding of System Center Service Manager (ServMgr), Data Protection Manager (DPM), and Orchestrator.  Oh, and your knowledge should extend beyond more than one simple Hyper-V host.

I have long professed to my students that while DPM is Microsoft’s disaster recovery solution, when it comes down to it just make sure that your backup solution does everything that they need, and make sure to test it.  While I stand behind that statement for production environments, it does not hold water when it comes to Microsoft certification exams.  When two of the first few questions were on DPM I did a little silent gulp to myself… maybe I should have prepared a little better for this.

I do not use Service Manager… It’s not that I wouldn’t – I have a lot of good things to say about it.  Heck, I even installed it as recent as yesterday – but I have not used it beyond a passing glance.  The same used to be true of System Center Orchestrator, but over the last year that has changed a lot… I have integrated it into my courseware, and I have spent some time learning it and using it in production environments for repetitive tasks.  While I am certainly not an expert in it, I am at least more than just familiar with it.  That familiarity may have helped me on one exam question.  Had I taken the time to review the exam page on the Microsoft Learning Experience website I would have known that the word Orchestrator does not appear anywhere on the page.

Here’s the problem with Microsoft exams… especially the newer ones that do not simply cover a product, but an entire solution across multiple suites.  Very few of us will use and know every aspect covered on the exam.  That is why I have always professed that no matter how familiar you may be with the primary technology covered, you should always review the exam page and fill in your knowledge gaps with the proper studying.  You should even spend a few hours reviewing the material that you are pretty sure you do know.  As I told my teenaged son when discussing his exams, rarely will you have easy exams… if you feel it was easy it just means you were sufficiently prepared.  Five questions into today’s exam I regretted my blasé attitude towards it – I may be a virtualization expert, but I was not adequately prepared.

As I went through the exam I started to get into a groove… while there are some aspects of Hyper-V that I have not implemented, those are few and far between.  the questions about VHDX files, Failover Clustering, Shared VHDX, Generation 2 VMs, and so many more came around and seemed almost too easy, but like I told my son it just means I am familiar with the material.  There were one or two questions which I considered to be very poorly worded, but I reread the questions and the answers and gave my best answer based on my understanding of them.

I have often described the time between pressing ‘End Exam’ and the appearance of the Results screen to be an extended period of excruciating forced lessons in patience.  That was not the case today – I was surprised that the screen came up pretty quickly.  While I certainly did not ace the exam, I did pass, and not with the bare minimum score.   It was certainly a phew moment for a guy who considers himself pretty smart in virtualization.

Now here’s the question… is the exam a really tough one, or was I simply not prepared and thus considered it tough?  And frankly, how tough could it have been if I didn’t prepare, and passed anyways?  I suppose that makes two questions.  The answer to both is that while I did not prepare for the exam, I am considered by many (including Microsoft) a SME on Hyper-V and System Center.  I can say with authority that it was a difficult exam.  That then leads to the next question, is it too tough?  While I did give that some thought as I left the exam (my first words to the proctor was ‘Wow that was a tough exam!) I do not think it is unreasonably so.  It will require a lot of preparation – not simply watching the MVA Jump Start videos (which are by the way excellent resources, and should be considered required watching for anyone planning to sit the exam).  You will need to build your own environment, do a lot of reading and research, and possibly more.

If you do plan to sit this exam, make sure you visit the exam page first by clicking here.  Make sure you expand and review the Overview and Skills Measured sections.  If you review the Preparation Materials section it will refer you to a five day course that is releasing next week from Microsoft Learning Experience – 20409A- Server Virtualization with Windows Server Hyper-V and System Center (5 Days).  I am proud to say that I was involved with the creation of that course, and that it will help you immensely, not only with the exam but with your real-world experience.

Incidentally, passing the exam gives you the following cert: Microsoft Certified Specialist: Server Virtualization with Hyper-V and System Center.

Good luck, and go get em!

Just in time… Second Shot Exams Are Back!

Why do I say Just in Time? Windows Server 2012 and Windows 8 exams are coming out soon, and there’s a good chance that you may still have to write a few exams to earn your MCSE!

I don’t know if they are THE most popular promotions that Microsoft Learning offers, but if they are not then they have to be right up there…

SECOND SHOT VOUCHERS ARE BACK!

Simply stated: when you take an exam (for $150 per exam) you are going to be nervous… it’s a lot of money for something that is not a sure thing.  Now, I have written before about what you take away from failing an exam, but that is small consolation when you know you have to pay another $150 to retake it.

With Second Shot promotions from Microsoft, you have the peace of mind knowing that if you do fail the exam you get to take it again… for free.  How cool is that?

Now, the question I get all the time is ‘What happens if I pass the exam the first time? What do I get?’ Normally, you get a certification, as well as all of the time that you would have needed to study and retake the exam.  No, you cannot take a different exam for free if you pass it.

So how does it work? Follow these steps (C&P from Eric Ligman… thanks Eric!)

    1. Register to receive a Second Shot voucher for either a single exam or a certification pack (certification packs not only offer you the Second Shot, but also save you at least 15% off the single exam prices too).
    2. Using the Second Shot voucher number, schedule and pay to take your initial exam through our testing provider, Prometric, at http://www.register.prometric.com.
    3. Take your exam.
    4. If you do not pass your exam the first time, you may register to take the same exam again at no charge, via http://www.register.prometric.com. Provide them with the same Second Shot exam voucher number when registering the second time.
      • NOTE: Please wait one day after failing the exam to register for the retake, to allow for test results to be entered into the system.

How long is Second Shot available?

  • Second Shot voucher offer is available from August 27, 2012 to May 31, 2013.
  • Exam voucher expires on May 31, 2013 for single exams (with 070 and 071 prefixes), June 30, 2013 for academic exams (exams with a 072 prefix), and December 31, 2013 for certification packs

Which certification exams is Second Shot available for?

Looking for more info? Check these links out:

Good luck on your Microsoft certification path and enjoy the Second Shot offer for both your individual exams and exam pack purchases.

(Portions cut & pasted from Eric Ligman’s blog at http://blogs.msdn.com/b/mssmallbiz/archive/2012/08/28/free-microsoft-exam-retakes-with-the-ever-popular-second-shot-certification-exam-offer.aspx)

MCSE Private Cloud… Not easy, but valuable!

This morning before I started teaching I came into the training centre early to sit an exam.  It is not the ideal way to take exams – I showed up at 7:30, knowing I had to start teaching at 9:00 – but sometimes it is the only way that you can make it work, and besides, pass or fail I am usually a quick exam taker.

When Microsoft Learning announced the new generation of Microsoft certifications a couple of months ago I was surprised to see just how much of what I have already accomplished would count toward my new certifications.  Any IT Pro who held the MCITP: Server Administrator (or MCITP: Enterprise Administrator) would already hold the new certification, Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate.  Cool.  Out of the gate I already had a new cert!

The MCSA is a prerequisite to earn your Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE): Private Cloud, which in the immediate would be my next goal.  The MCSE would require MCSA, plus two more exams (70-247 and 70-246). mcse-private-cloud

The Private Cloud certification would be great, but nobody said it would be easy.  Fortunately I had two things going for me:

  • I was able to sit the beta teach for class 10751A: Private Cloud Configuration and Deployment with System Center 2012.  It was held the second week of April in Redmond, Washington, and I had a great time learning.  This class aligns with exam 70-247, which would become irrelevant due to my next point.
  • If you have already passed exam 70-659 TS: Windows Server 2008, Server Virtualization then you do not need exam 70-247.

In other words, it looked to me that I was one exam short of earning my MCSE (again). Okay, I can live with that.  All I would have to do is pass an exam based on one product… which until recently was actually seven products, each with their own exam (or two).  Although I was competent in the older versions of some of these products, and even an expert in one or two, this would be a tall order.  I would probably sit this one out for a few months, while working on other things.  It was not a question of procrastinating, I just had other things to do… and at $150/exam, it seemed like a waste to spend the money if I didn’t know I had a good chance of passing.

Then I got lucky.  Microsoft Learning announced that attendees at Microsoft TechEd 2012 in Orlando would be able to sit the exam for free.  Cool!  On the one hand, I had absolutely no time to prepare; on the other hand, it was free, and I would be able to see the types of questions they would ask, and then better prepare for the exam.

I have said before and I will say again, it is better to know the product than it is to study for an exam.  I broke this rule for this exam, because while I ‘know’ it, I do not consider myself nearly proficient in it to pass an exam without studying.  However when you know how to read the questions, once you have seen the exam you will know what you have to study.  There were a lot of terms and processes I had confused in my head, and based on my first (unsuccessful but free) viewing of the exam I was able to go back, study those terms and processes, and knock the exam out of the park.

This morning, June 20th, I signed onto the exam computer and was nervous… the questions were still tough, and it was a very rigorous exam – asking questions on several components of System Center 2012.  When I hit the ‘End Exam’ button I was not at all confident, but I was certainly moreso than I was last week in Orlando, when the results were in line with that confidence level.  When the screen flashed its congratulatory message and told me my score, I was thrilled… and I was an MCSE again.

I have a lot more to do… as the score report states, the Sectional Results …’indicates your relative performance on each section of this exam.  We hope this information will help you determine areas, if any, for further development.’  I certainly have several of those, and will be spending a lot of my downtime over the next few months working on these.  However in the meantime I can take a deep sigh of relief, knowing that I have earned that elusive MCSE (again).

Tweet Chat – Cloud-proofing your IT career

I am excited about this.  Tomorrow (Tuesday, April 3rd) I will be the guest on Microsoft Learning’s Tweet Chat.  The topic will be what IT professionals should be doing to ensure they stay relevant in this day and age where so much of what we see in the IT industry is heading into the clouds.

This Tweet Chat series is one of the ways that Microsoft Learning is honouring the twentieth anniversary of their first certifications.  All you have to do to follow along and join in is watch for the hash tag #20yrs20ways.  I was amazed to find out that Microsoft certifications are actually celebrating their 20th… although I admit that I have only been certified since March 31, 2003 (hey, I just celebrated my 9th anniversary this week-end!).  I would love to hear from people who have been around longer how they feel certifications have changed, and if they are more or less relevant than they once were.

While we will start with questions from Microsoft Learning (that I will be doing my best to answer in 140 characters or less), I expect that we will quickly start taking questions from the audience – in other words YOU!  This Tweet Chat is meant to be fully interactive with the audience, and I will do my best to answer as many questions as I can… which is why for the morning session (9:00am Eastern, 6:00am Pacific) I will be sequestered in my hotel room in Calgary, Alberta… and for the afternoon session (7:00pm Eastern, 4:00pm Pacific) I will be in my room in Edmonton. 

Normally these sessions would be at the same PM hour as the AM hour, but Microsoft Learning was good enough to make this exception for me, as I will be presenting tomorrow evening at the Edmonton Microsoft Users Group.  If you are in town, come on out!  I’d love to meet you!  If not… I’ll be repeating my session (Architecting and Supporting the Back-End Infrastructure for the Consumerization of IT) across Canada over the coming months.

In the meantime, I hope to see you on Twitter… just follow @MGarvis and of course #20yrs20ways so you don’t miss a minute!

Wow that certification exam was TOUGH!

I was so excited in 2003 when I passed my first certification exam and became a Microsoft Certified Professional.  I immediately went out and printed new business cards with my new MCP logo, quit my (reasonably low-paying) job, and decided to make my own way as an independent computer consultant.  It was, up to that point, the proudest day of my IT career.

Whenever people complain to me that certification exams are hard, I remind them that if they were easy then the credentials would be worthless.  The harder we have to work for a goal, the higher we value it – the higher it is valued by others.  As the famous quote states:

“The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value. I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress and grow”  –Thomas Paine

So really, why would you ever want a certification exam to be easy?  I remember walking out of one exam that I took several years ago fuming because it was too easy.  I was angry because I felt it diminished the value of all of my certifications, and was glad when Microsoft Learning revisited that exam and did make it tougher… somewhat.

I know, looking at my transcript, which were easier and which were not… but I also know by speaking with my peers.  There was a time when we simply didn’t discuss failed exams… although one good friend of mine, with whom I went through many of my early certs, made me a bet about one exam that he had failed three times.  I couldn’t understand at that point how someone could actually fail one exam that many times… I have since learned the hard way.

One friend of mine – someone I consider to be smarter than I am – has failed one particular exam four times.  That is rough… but it is among the hardest exams I have ever taken.  To be fair, it took me a second try to pass it, but I was glad when I did.  Maybe glad is the wrong word… thrilled, relieved, exhausted, and elated are all accurate.  The exam was 70-647 PRO: Windows Server 2008, Enterprise Administrator.  It is easy to underestimate these exams, but it is a PRO exam, which means you have to really know your stuff… and not just the answer to questions, you have to be able to weigh the needs of different people and departments in a client environment before selecting an answer.  The exams that go through scenarios (testlets) and ask you several questions on that environment help to not only understand the technology, but also what is required to be a trusted business advisor to your customers.

MCITP(rgb)_1085

That certification – the MCITP: Enterprise Administrator – is in my experience the toughest of the MCITP certifications available today.  It is a worthy successor to the retired Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) which remains among the most recognized industry certifications today.  It is rigorous – you need to pass five exams – 70-640, 70-642, 70-643, 70-647, and a desktop exam.  However when you do obtain this credential, hiring managers will take notice.

MCITP(rgb)_1084

If this is a bit much (and for a lot of people it is not just a question of being too hard, it is simply overkill) then Microsoft offers another certification – MCITP: Server Administrator – that I see as the successor to the Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA) from Windows Server 2000 and 2003.  It is also tough, but only requires three exams… 70-640, 70-642, and 70-646.  If you are paying attention, you will notice that the SA cert requirements are a subset of the EA cert, so if you are working toward your Enterprise Admin, but need more time, it may be worthwhile to take the extra exam and get the SA once you have passed the first two exams.

MCITP(rgb)_1084_1085 MCTS(rgb)_1078_1080_1079_1310

Once you earn both credentials you will actually have six separate certifications, which may not be more knowledge than you would have had with the MCSE model, but it does make for a slightly more impressive transcript.  For all of the people who would say ‘I have four MCPs’ or ‘I am an MCP in Server Infrastructure and Active Directory’ they were really just MCPs.  Today you can show potential employers exactly where you are in your certification roadmap, and what you have left.  It also, frankly, looks better.

The harder you work on your certifications the sweeter they will be… but the current model also allows you more milestones along the way… I remember thinking back when I started out that it was cool that I got a certification with my first exam, but how disappointing was it that I needed to pass six more exams until I got my next cert?  The introduction of the MCSA made it a little better – only four exams for that.  Now every time you pass an exam you can add it to your transcript, and it does show more granular progress.  So the MCITP: EA may be harder than previous iterations, but you can at least hang your hat along the journey with measured progress.

Of course… soon enough Microsoft will be releasing Server 8, and I’ll have to start all over again…

Under the Wire Revisited… Another exam deadline leads to success!

I don’t mind deadlines; they are great for enforcing discipline for tasks that I have to get done in order to get paid. However when it comes to taking certification exams I hate them.  I do not like studying, and even though I have taken myriad of exams they are usually on technologies that I work with on a regular basis.

When VMware released vSphere 5 last year they announced that current VCPs (VMware Certified Professionals) would have a grace period during which they could take the VCP5 exam without having to take their course.  The deadline would be February 29th.  On the one hand that was plenty of time for a VMware administrator who works with the products day in and out to be ready.  On the other hand for someone like myself, who spends most of my life working in (and teaching and writing about) Microsoft virtualization solutions, and who maintains bid VCP for credibility when talking to VMware enthusiasts, the deadline was not a comfortable one.  I would have to spend a week building and implementing the products… when I had the time.

Two weeks ago I realized that the deadline was fast approaching, and I decided to jump in and schedule the exam for Saturday, February 25th.  That would leave me with two weeks to prepare… if you took into account that I also work more than 75 hours per week it was an ambitious goal, but the alternative was letting the deadline pass, and I would have to take a full Instructor-Led Class in order to qualify for the cert.

Several years ago (June, 2006) I had another exam deadline, and I wrote about it in this blog’s predecessor (the article has been reposted at this link: Under the Wire Sometimes Brings Unexpected Success.  I remembered that deadlines can force you to take a leap.  I knew that if I failed the exam then I would not get the certification, but I also knew that if I did not take the exam I would not get it either.  Besides… if I spent even a day or two studying there was a slight chance that I might pass!

The exam got off to an ominous start when I got up early on Friday (a snow storm had been forecast) and got to the testing centre to find out that my exam was actually scheduled for Saturday.  Under normal circumstances this would have really thrown me for a loop… but since it meant I had an extra day to prepare, I was not all that upset.

Saturday morning was clear and dry, so I got up at 7:00am, got ready, answered my e-mails, and was about to pick up my study notes for review when I decided to follow my own advice: I had 30 minutes left before the test, and the chances of my learning any nugget in the 5 minutes I had (it is a 25 minute drive to the centre) that would actually mean the difference between passing and failing the exam were between slim and none.  VMware exams are scored out of 500, and a 300 is a pass.  If I got a 298 I would kick myself Winking smile

For certification integrity VMware candidates must have their photo taken before they go into the testing room.  That picture is actually included on your score report.  I think this is a great idea, that Microsoft Learning should consider adopting.  With that being said, I would much prefer that they take the picture after the exam… I smile a lot more when I pass!  However it is what it is, and I tried to smile for the camera.

This was the third VMware exam that I have taken, and while I will not comment on the content or the questions, I will say that having taken far more Microsoft exams, I am always surprised by the difference between the questions.  I have also been involved in creating Microsoft exams,and I know the level of diligence that goes into them.  Having now seen three VMware exams, I cannot imagine that the same amount of work goes into them.  They also do not seem to require the same amount of reading – and just like the previous exams, they give you little over a minute per question (timed over the entire exam of course).  That made me nervous at first… but pass or fail, I am almost always a very fast exam taker, so after I got through the first twenty questions or so I stopped worrying about it.

Just like Microsoft exams, once you have answered the last question you have a review screen where you can make sure you answered every question, and go back to any that you felt uncomfortable with.  I NEVER do that, but that is a personal thing.  I pressed End Review, and waited for my results.

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CONGRATULATIONS! You passed!

Phew… I was glad for every bit of preparing that I did, and realized that the perfectionist in me does not allow me to prepare for anything less than perfect… which lead me to the feeling that I was not going to pass.  I took my score report (I did not score a 300… but did not get over 400 either) and walked out of the centre with a big smile on my face.

The exam was a success, and although I was not thrilled by the deadline, I have to admit that without it I might have waited and waited until… I don’t know when.  It forced my hand, and as my previous article title stated: Under the wire sometimes brings unexpected success!  I am now a VMware Certified Professional on vSphere 5.

By the way… the one tip I will give in case you do plan on writing this exam: Remember, if one of the answers is Hyper-V, it is a wrong answer… even if it would be right!

NEXT WEEK: I will be in Redmond, Washington for the week at the 2012 Microsoft MVP Summit and then at MVP Nation… Expect me to be tweeting a lot, and hopefully blogging a bit!

A response to a recent blog response

Yesterday a gentleman named Cameron wrote a very insightful response to an article I write back in July (Certifications Alone do not Make the Pro, July 20, 2011).  He points out that as he has been in IT for 26 years, he actually pre-dates most certifications.  Please read his comment, but this is my response.  I respect his position, but if the world changes around him then he may find himself scrambling. –M

You make a lot of very interesting points in this article, but the one that stands out is that you have been with the same company for sixteen years. That is nearly unheard of in our industry, and power to you! I am sure that as long as you are in your current position you know all of your systems and wouldn’t need the certs… but if your CV was on my desk it would mean that your safety zone was gone. It would mean that you needed to find a new job, and the job that I might be hiring for DOES require some of those tools that you have never encountered.

The new generation of certifications – the MCTS and MCITPs – help somewhat. While MCITPs are more job-based, the MCTS certs are task-based… so if you work with AD you don’t need to know IIS. However I understand that no cert will be custom-tailored to an individual.

In any event, as long as you stay in the role and current in the technologies that you need, then I understand that certifications are likely not as relevant to you. However if you do have to step out into the job market, I want to leave you with this thought… when you explained your situation to me it made sense, and I might have even given you an interview. However if I had given the HR manager or a headhunter a series of criteria to look for, you never would have had the opportunity to make your case to me. They look for keywords, and if you don’t have it you don’t get to bat, let alone on base.

I will leave you with this thought… The great composers of the Rennaissance did not study the classics, they were too busy inventing them. I also learned computers way back when, but realized that I had to adjust to the realities of the modern world… and I didn’t invent anything so when I do apply for jobs (contracts) I cannot say ‘I wrote Hyper-V’… so I have to demonstrate to them that my knowledge of server virtualization is superior to that of the next candidate, and the first step to that is certifications :)

Skills Measured: Improving your chances of passing certification exams

I have a friend who has been using Hyper-V since it was released with Windows Server 2008.  I know that because at the time I did some consulting for his company, and was given a tour of his environment.  That is why I was a bit surprised to hear that he recently failed his certification exam 70-659 TS: Windows Server 2008 R2, Server Virtualization.  I asked him why he felt he did not pass, and he told me that while he thought he know Hyper-V very well, the exam covered all sorts of aspects that surprised him… he didn’t use things like Remote Desktop Services, command-line utilities, and a few other components that were more heavily weighted on the exam than he had expected.

Certification exams are hard; they are meant to demonstrate the skills of the top professionals with the technology being measured.  I have worked on the design and creation of several certification exams for Microsoft Learning (including this one), and we intentionally try to come up with questions that will be challenging.  That is the only reason that our certifications have value.  However Microsoft Learning also take great steps to not surprise you. If you come out of an exam feeling they tested things that you did not expect then you went into the exam unprepared.  This article will cover a number of steps that should help you to avoid doing that.

Don’t Study for Exams

I have been saying this for years… the best way to pass an exam is not to study for it… know the material and you should pass.  The best way to know technology is to use it, and if you read the recommended pre-requisites for most exams they say that you should have a minimum of two years experience with the technology.  Someone once described one of the exams that I had helped to write as follows: ‘Some of those questions can’t be answered by studying a book… if you have deployed the software then you will know most of the answers off the top of your head, but if you haven’t… wow, it will be difficult to pass.’  Although I do not create exams anymore, I hope this is a bar that Microsoft Learning will set for their exam creation teams.  On the flipside of that comment, there is one exam that I wrote a couple of years ago that I passed without ever having implemented any of the technologies discussed.  Either I was channeling Liberty Munson, or it was simply a poorly written exam.

Study the Scope

For every exam that Microsoft Learning has there is a document called the Objective Domain.  On the website it is simply called ‘Skills Measured’ and in preparing for an exam there is probably no more crucial document than this.  It starts with the main categories – for example, for exam 70-642 TS: Windows Server 2008 Network Infrastructure, Configuring there are five categories:

  • Configuring Addressing and Services
  • Configuring Name Resolution
  • Configuring Network Access
  • Configuring File and Print Services
  • Monitoring and Managing a Network Infrastructure
    Some exams may have four categories and some may have seven… but these are the main technologies or skills that are covered.  Under each of these categories there will ne a number of sub-points… so under Configuring Name Resolution you will have a point on Configure DNS zones and Configure a Domain Name System (DNS) server… all of the topics that the original Objective Domain Team decided were important enough to have specific questions written to.them.  Under those you will have more specific tips, so under Configure a Domain Name System (DNS) server you will find: “May include but is not limited to: conditional forwarding; external forwarders; root hints; cache-only; socket pooling; cache locking.”  These are not points that WILL have a question or two, but MIGHT have.
    Fill in the Blanks
    Of course, in the case of this exam (70-642) you have probably been using Windows Server 2008 for three or more years, so you think you are ready to write the exam.  However when you review the Skills Measured section for this exam you review this list, and notice the following section:

Configuring Network Access

  • Configure DirectAccess.

    • May include but is not limited to: IPv6; IPsec; server requirements; client requirements; perimeter network; name resolution policy table

Now, although you have a Server 2008 R2 infrastructure in your environment, you have not implemented Direct Access, and you have not even looked at IPv6.  You have already in your trusted Self Paced Study Guide from Microsoft Press, so rather than reading the whole book, you pull out your PostIt notes and start placing them strategically at the pages of the topics that you need to learn or review.  While you may now have 100 sticky notes all over the book, you have done a very good job of narrowing down what topics you need to study (or review).

Practice Lab

The abovementioned example is a bad choice for this, but most topics that you are going to study will be easier to learn by implementing them in your lab, which may be in your corporate datacentre, in your basement, or at school.  Make sure you can build all of the scenarios that the book discusses so that you do not only have a theoretical knowledge of them, but have actually given yourself hands-on experience with them.  Theories are great, but theoretical knowledge can be dangerous when the exam asks you a practical question such as ‘What do you do next?’

Practice Exams

There are several vendors selling good and legitimate practice exams, that will help you to gauge if you are truly ready for the exam.  This does not mean that you should buy question lists or Brain Dumps… all of which are tantamount to cheating.  However vendors such as Bosun offer legitimate practice tests that should tell you if you are ready or not.  They may cost as much as the exam, but they are worth it.  I used to use them for each exam, and was always frustrated when I would score 90% and still fail… however when I came out of the actual exam with an 875 I knew that running through them time after time paid off!

There’s always an angle…

Ok, that sounds dirty.  However Microsoft Learning and Prometric run all sorts of promotions throughout the year, ranging from exam discounts for pre-purchasing multiple exams, to Certification Packs for the Microsoft Partner Network, to Second Shot Free vouchers.  Also beta exams are a good route to get certified for free, but these are usually not offered to the public, and you do not have the benefit of practice exams, Skills Measured pages, and so on.  I save on exams because I am a Microsoft Certified Trainer, which entitles me to a 50% discount off the regular cost of $150 per exam – I have taken six exams this year, so I have saved $450, or $50 more than my yearly MCT dues cost.  However if you do not want to invest in becoming an MCT, keep an eye on the MPN Newsletter, as well as the Born To Learn blog for deals that pop up every so often.

Don’t be afraid to fail!

I know too many IT Pros who don’t schedule their exams because they are afraid that they will fail.  I have failed more exams than most people have taken, and although there is a cost to it, you also learn from failing.  If you are not sure if you are ready for the exam then you can keep waiting until the certification becomes irrelevant, or you can impose a deadline on yourself.  The worst thing that can happen is that you fail – nobody is going to stand and laugh at you (Nelson Munch style).  However the first thing you should do when you walk out of the exam room is jot down notes about what you were not sure of… and that with your Score Report (which will let you know according to the Top-Level buckets from the Skills Measured page how you did on each section) will give you a good guide to what you should be studying before retaking the exam.

Don’t Mess with Juju!

If you have a system and it works, don’t mess with it.  I have mine, you have yours, and you cannot learn from mine – you can learn my study habits, but my idiosyncrasies will not help you.  If you only pass exams on Thursdays then why would you possibly schedule one for Tuesday?  If you have a lucky pair of socks, make sure they are clean and ironed before you head to the exam centre.  In addition to the tips I have given you herein, real or imagined, these habits may help you to pass your exams – or at least calm you down in the room so you can pass.  Whatever it is that works for you, do it!

Your Certification Journey Starts with a Single Step!

Sunday morning I woke up to find a foot of snow in my driveway; time to break out the shovel! I dressed up warm (the thermometer read -9C / 19F), grabbed my shovel, and opened the garage door… and was flummoxed. Where should I start? There was a wall of snow all along both sides of the garage that was equally deep right to the foot of the driveway, some thirty-five feet away. I stood there for a minute and weighed my options, and then I put the shovel to the snow and scooped up my first shovelful.

Thirty minutes later I had cleared off the top third of one side of the driveway… I honestly never thought I would get that far! Although the end was not quite near, I could certainly see how far I had come.

I drew a parallel between that progress and my IT certifications; I thought back to the first time I really looked into it, and realized that it was not as simple as saying I would take a few courses and pass a few tests, I had to plan out a course of action, and the starting point was often times as complicated as the material I had to learn; which course should I take first? What study materials and methods should I use? When would I be ready to pass my first exams? It was so nerve-wracking I occasionally thought about giving up… and it was nearly eighteen months before I would pass my first exam.

Sure, certifications are complex… it would likely be simpler if it was a linear path from start to finish, but that is simply not the way it works. You have to really know what you are doing before you set out, and frankly that can be a daunting challenge, one that I am sure has prevented many people from setting out.

What should you do first? You have to decide what it is you want your certifications for; if you want to be a developer or an IT Pro… and a dozen other decisions. My advice? put your shovel to the snow and scoop up your first shovelful; If you are not simply thinking of changing careers but have been working in IT for a while then chances are you know what you are comfortable with; look to see what certifications are available. You might be comfortable with the desktop operating system, so a logical ‘first shovel’ may be one of the desktop OS exams – TS: Configuring Windows Vista (70-620), or even the Microsoft Certified Desktop Support Technician (MCDST) exams (70-271 & 70-272). They may or may not have much to do with what you want to eventually do, but they are a good way of learning what certifications are about.

The public newsgroups are replete with certification advice, and you can have your questions answered by passionate people who are either where you are or were once. If you want to invest in classroom learning then most training centres will have sales consultants who can answer a lot of your questions as well. If you are leaning towards e-learning then many of the IT vendors (Microsoft, Cisco, Novell, etc…) will offer some sort of e-learning options that are worth exploring.

The point is that after a while you will discover what is right for you, what works and what doesn’t, and when you wake up one day you will realize that you may not yet be a Microsoft Certified Master, but you do have a couple of exams under your belt!

My driveway is clean today, but it is going to snow again this week and I am going to have to pick up my shovel again; just like that, certifications is something that is ongoing rather than a journey to an end. The first certifications I achieved are now obsolete, but that doesn’t matter because I have replaced them with more relevant ones now. However if I had not started when I did… when would I have?

When will you?