Practical .NET

How I Approached Gaining Microsoft Certification

If you’re thinking about pursuing a Microsoft Certification, here’s how and why Peter went through the certification process for the second time, including his feedback on some of the resources available to you.

Recently, the company I teach for decided to offer Microsoft Certified training courses. To teach these courses, you must be a Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT) and, to be an MCT, you need a Microsoft certification. You also need to have passed the certification exams for the courses you wish to teach.

Recognizing an opportunity when I see one, I decided to get a Microsoft Certified Solution Associate (MCSA) certification in Web Applications and start a certification in Database Development. With an MCSA under my belt, I could associate myself with the company through Microsoft and, thanks to the training the company has already given me in teaching (along with my certificates in training adults and in instructional design), become a Microsoft Certified Trainer. The exams I picked would position me to teach the Introduction to C#, Programming in C#, Developing ASP.NET MVC 4 Web Applications and Querying Microsoft SQL Server 2014 courses. That’s a lot of training opportunities.

And I should tell you that this is the second time I’ve done this. About 20 years ago, I passed the certification exams that made me an MCSD. Obviously, I’m a certification addict.

Cost and Effort
Just as obviously, this time I had a very specific goal in mind. As a result, I could do a cost/benefit analysis to see if the expense and effort made sense. On the cost side, this plan will cost me a little more than $1,500 in exam fees and study aids. I will also have sacrificed about 20 days in exam preparation time when, presumably, I could have been earning money … though, mostly, I sacrificed what would otherwise have been "leisure" time. The additional teaching opportunities that the certifications would open up for me more than compensated for those costs. In addition, I enjoy studying this kind of material -- I enjoyed preparing for the exams.

Your time and costs may differ. For example, I picked technologies that I was already very familiar with. My goal in preparing for the certification exams was to fill in the gaps in my knowledge rather than to learn a new technology from scratch. Furthermore, thanks to a wide variety of clients, I’ve seen and programmed a lot of weird stuff. Plus, for many of these technologies, I’ve been teaching relevant courses for my client for almost 20 years (less, of course, for the .NET Framework courses). Nothing helps you understand something better than helping someone else understand it.

I also picked study aids that kept my costs down. I did that for two reasons: First, I’m cheap. Second, the most expensive study aid is a certification course and I don’t take training courses (I can’t afford to take that kind of time away from my consulting practice). While I don’t take certification courses, if your employer is willing to send you on a training course while paying your salary, that would be your best choice.

Instead, I tend to buy books, research on the Internet and write sample code. The benefit to these aids is that I can fit using them into my work schedule without having to give up any billable hours. I use the certification books to introduce me to the information I don’t know to direct my research and as a starting point for my first coding experiments. I also use practice exams, both to reveal my ignorance and to reduce my stress when I go to take the real exam (thanks to the practice exams, my reaction to the real exam is "Oh, another one of these").

Also: I’m good at this. If you want someone to pass an exam, I’m your guy. You may find that "passing exams" is a tougher task for you than me. And, by the way, I’m also smart enough to recognize that "passing exams" is a skill that doesn’t have a direct correlation to "deliver working solutions to my clients."

What Do You Get?
If you are considering pursuing certification, then you should figure out the costs … but I’m not sure you should do the same kind of cost/benefit analysis.

I say that because, unless there’s some job promised to you and the only thing standing between you and that job is acquiring a certification, your metrics are going to be fuzzier than mine. For example, while I could assess the value of those additional teaching engagements, I probably couldn’t quantify what the impact is of those certifications on my consulting business.

One way to assess the impact that a certification will have on your career is to go to your favorite job search site, type in MCSA and see what turns up. My search on one job site turned up about two dozen postings where an MCSA was "preferred" (it was never required). When I tried the search again with some technology (I used C#), I turned up over 1,000 jobs.

Those numbers tell me that there are so few MCSA-certified developers looking for work that employers have given up asking for it. If an MCSA-certification was sufficiently common, employers would include it simply to whittle down the number of applicants. To put it another way: If you’re certified you’ll automatically stand out from your competitors who have the same requirements but are not certified. But how much more likely you are to get a job is hard to quantify.

There are perks associated with having an MCSA: The MCP official site provides links to some job boards, discounts on Microsoft ebooks, and a free, one-year Premium membership in Gooroo, a career management platform.

Contain your enthusiasm.

Why You Should Really Do It
But I think quantifying the benefits is missing the point. When I went back to school (part-time) to get my MBA, I asked the president/CEO of the company I was working for to give me a letter of recommendation. He and I had butted heads a lot but, while he was writing out the letter, he gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever got: He said, "Don’t do this to get the letters after your name. Do this because you want the knowledge."

And that’s the thing: Passing a certification exam forces you to work through your area of expertise thoroughly. You will uncover those parts of your field that, because your job didn’t require it, you didn’t know. I won’t tell you what I learned by going through the certification process (I have a reputation to maintain, after all) but I’m a smarter, more knowledgeable developer for having done it. As with getting my MCSD, I have never regretted the time or money I spent on the certification process because it makes me a better developer.

You can, of course, gather the knowledge without taking the test. But, if you’ve done the work, you might as well get the benefit, even if they’re not easy to quantify. In fact, I had been considering getting an MCSA certification before my client started offering the certification courses -- those new training opportunities were, really, just a good excuse.

If you are going to take the exams, then you need to set your "exam expectations" appropriately to manage your "exam prep" time appropriately. While you do want to know everything, you don’t need to know everything to the same depth. I budget my exam prep time to get a "comfortable pass": If the passing grade is 70 percent, then I’m targeting 75 percent (I was, as a result, annoyed when I got 90 percent on the ASP.NET MVC certification exam).

Resources
If you’ve read this far, then you might be interested in my opinion on the study aids that I used.

First, I always buy the exam with a retest. My goal in getting a retest is to reduce my stress when taking the exam: Failing to pass the exam will not cost me any more money. I regard the first time I take the exam as an opportunity to confirm what’s on the exam and direct any further research. Passing the exam on my first try is, as far as I’m concerned, a bonus (and, in one case, I’ve had to use one of my retakes). For $265, through PearsonVue, you can get an exam with a retake voucher and a practice exam: The perfect package for me.

For two of the exams, I’ve also picked up exam certification books, which are between $10 (Kindle) and $50 (paper) each. There does not appear to be a current certification book for the ASP.NET MVC exam.

In terms of the quality of the materials, based on my experience, the certification books are all pretty good. The practice exams vary in quality. I found the practice exams for the SQL Server courses very good, while the exams for C# were just acceptable (keeping an exam up-to-date is obviously easier for SQL than for C#). I was always disappointed with the practice exams for ASP.NET MVC because they often contained multiple questions on Web Forms and other technologies that Microsoft doesn’t test on (Health Monitoring, for example). That’s too bad because, in my opinion, the ASP.NET MVC certification requires the most knowledge (it covers both client-side and server-side knowledge, plus some Microsoft Azure).

A special class of exams are from Pass in 1 Day. It provides you with actual exam questions from the test rather than approximations. Presumably, you could just memorize the right answers from the Pass in 1 Day exams … except, often, the answers provided are wrong and, in the end, I only saw about a dozen of the Pass in 1 Day questions on the exam I was given. In addition, unlike the practice exams from other sources, Pass in 1 Day doesn’t often provide a discussion of why an answer is the correct one and, when it does, the analysis doesn’t seem to have much to do with the question. Not surprisingly, given those deficiencies, the Pass in 1 Day exams are much cheaper than the other providers.

There’s a site that provides a preview of what a Pass in 1 Day practice exam for the ASP.NET MVC certification looks like, complete with the wrong answers. The nice thing about the site is that any contentious question has a discussion about what the right answer should be (I’ve provided some comments myself).

Perversely, I came to prefer the Pass in 1 Day practice exams precisely because they gave the wrong answers and provided no discussion: I was forced to research everything to make sure (a) the answer was right, and (b) I knew why it was right. Remember, my goal is only incidentally to pass the exam. My primary goal is to work through the technology thoroughly.

If you want to take a certification course with me, I’d be delighted to help you. But, in the end, without knowledge and experience in the area, I don’t think you’ll be able to pass the exam -- you’ll have to know what you’re talking about. And, personally, I think knowing what you’re talking about is a good thing.

About the Author

Peter Vogel is a system architect and principal in PH&V Information Services. PH&V provides full-stack consulting from UX design through object modeling to database design. Peter tweets about his VSM columns with the hashtag #vogelarticles. His blog posts on user experience design can be found at http://blog.learningtree.com/tag/ui/.

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