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Free E-Books for your Technical Library

Every so often Microsoft releases a bunch of new books that they give away for free.  Most of the time they are for the latest and greatest software and systems, so they are worth checking out.  Currently they have books for:

Microsoft SQL Server 2016

Windows Server 2016

Microsoft Azure

Microsoft Power BI

Windows 10

Microsoft SharePoint Hybrid Capabilities

Mobile App Development

…and much more.  Check out the list here.

While it is nice to be able to download these as PDF files, I am really happy that I can also download all of these files as proper e-Books from www.kobobooks.com for my Kobo, and I assume from www.Amazon.ca for my Kindle (I don’t have a Kindle… but you know what I am saying).

Here is what I like to do to make sure I don’t miss a thing:

  1. I log on to my Kobo account.
  2. I enter the name of the product I am looking for in the Search bar (say, Windows 10).
  3. When the list comes up I change the Sort parameters to Sort By: Price: Low to High.  This ensures that the FREE books come up first.

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Let me be clear though, there are some excellent books on all of these subjects that are not free, and are probably worth buying.  That is not the point of the article though Smile

Thanks Microsoft Virtual Academy!

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!

Changes for MCTs

You may not have heard the complaints about the Microsoft Certified Trainer program… you may not be involved or interested in the program, or you may live on Mars.  However if you are an MCT, you have heard a lot of complaints over the past few years.  I have done my best to keep my issues with the program private, but I know that many of my MCT peers are much more vocal than I.

As the MCT Regional Lead for Canada last year I spent a lot of time speaking with the people responsible for the program, especially as they made efforts to revamp the program – certainly the first time they have done so since I joined it in 2006.  A lot of the changes that we (MCTs) have been asking for have been introduced recently… not all, but many will be widely welcome by the wide community of active MCTs.

Alumni Program

You may notice that I referred to active MCTs.  That is because a lot of MCTs do not train anymore, and many more exclusively train non-official courseware.  That may be for many reasons and I will not judge them.  However if they are not active trainers, they do not need to be active MCTs.  Because of that, Microsoft Learning Experiences have introduced a new program: MCT Alumni.  This is for people who were MCTs, but no longer teach official courseware. 

How does Microsoft Learning Experiences (MS Lex) determine if you are active or Alumni?  It’s simple… if you don’t teach any Microsoft Official Curriculum (MOC) courses in a program year, you become Alumni.  While you must still pay dues to remain an MCT Alumni, it is about 1/8th the cost of the annual MCT dues (for IT professionals & Developers) – $49 for those who join the ‘Charter Class’ of MCT Alumnis – on or before June 30th, 2014, and $99 per year for those joining after that date.

The advantage to the MCT Alumni program is two-fold.  For inactive MCTs they can remain connected to the program for a much lower annual fee, while still retaining many of the benefits.  For active MCTs they can differentiate themselves – I teach current technology and am current in my skills.  Both sides benefit.

MCT Fees

Incidentally, for the first time that I know of, the yearly dues for MCTs will also be going up.  Starting July 1st, the New MCT Fee(for IT Pro & Dev) will be $1,000, and then $800 per year.  This is new in two ways – there was never a ‘new MCT’ fee before, you simply paid your dues, which were $400/year (and have been since I joined the program).

Software Benefits

For the last few years MCTs have been given a free TechNet Plus subscription.  Unfortunately the TechNet team ended that program (we will still have our software rights from the last year through September, 2014).  There was a huge uproar from the MCTs, and while Microsoft MS Lex told the MCT Regional Leads that they were working on a replacement for that program, it was not announced until very recently.

Going forward, depending on the type of MCT you are, you will get one of the following:

MCT Software & Services MCT Developer Software & Services
Software downloads through MSDN Software downloads through MSDN
Office 365 Visual Studio Ultimate
$100 Windows Azure credit per month Office 365 Developer Subscription
  Visual Studio Online Advanced
  $150 Windows Azure credit per month
  Windows and Windows Phone developer accounts

As far as I am concerned as an IT Pro Trainer, I expect I will have everything that I need with that level of benefits… and much more.  A couple of the Dev MCTs I have spoken to are jumping for joy that they will be getting Visual Studio Ultimate and Online Advanced.

Exams

One of my favorite MCT benefits has always been the exam discounts.  I have, to date, written 68 Microsoft exams.  Let’s say that twenty of them were beta exams and maybe another eight were from vouchers I got for whatever reason, that means I have still paid for forty exams.  Although it has changed over that time – the original exams were $100 then $125 and now $150 – let’s say the majority of them cost $125.  That makes $5,000 worth of exams.  The 50% discount we get as MCTs makes a huge difference!  Unfortunately the down side to that is that you had to call in and speak to a rep, rather than simply registering on-line.

That, I discovered yesterday, has changed.  Woohoo!  I called to register a bunch of exams, and instead of him looking up the MCT discount code, I was told to go on-line and request one (per exam).  In fairness to MS Lex, this change was made nine months ago, but as I mentioned in a recent post I did not write any certification exams in 2013.  So as I sat on the line with the rep from Prometric, I dug on Born to Learn and found the link: http://bsf01.com/microsoft_vouchers/mct_portal.aspx.  I registered for and received four codes within seconds.  All you have to do is provide your name, e-mail address, and MCP ID – and yes, it does check to see if you are an MCT or not, so don’t try this if you are not Smile

Incidentally, an added benefit of these vouchers that nobody had told me about – the voucher is also good for a free re-take if you fail your first exam, (second shot).  Having failed a ridiculous number of exams (albeit many of those were beta exams) I am glad to have this safety net.

Conclusion

It is now 2014 and I am no longer a MCT Regional Lead – spending most of my time outside of my region made that decision necessary.  However I still care about MCTs and the program, and am glad to see that Microsoft has evolved the program – the first time in over twenty years that I know of.  It may not be perfect, but it is certainly a very good start, and you can’t please everyone.  I for one am satisfied, and I suspect the majority of MCTs will be too.

If you are dropping from the program this year I hope you stay as an MCT Alumni… I am looking forward to speaking with some of them and hearing their thoughts on the program!

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!

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