Jeff Pries

Business Intelligence, SQL Server, and other assorted IT miscellany

Category: Certification

Microsoft Certification Exam 70-768 and 70-466 Study Tips

This past September, I attempted (and recently received a passing score for) Microsoft’s new certification exam, 70-768, “Developing SQL Data Models” during its Beta period.  This brand new exam is a requirement toward the new MCSA SQL 2016: Business Intelligence Development certification.  Last weekend, I took and passed 70-466, “Implementing Data Models and Reports with Microsoft SQL Server” which counts toward MCSE: Data Management and Analytics.  Both of these exams overlap heavily in the topics covered, so if you’re interested in taking them both, its a good idea to study for both and take them back to back.

Brand new exams, as well as higher level specialty exams in general can be a bit of a tricky beast due to the lack of available resources.  For exams which are mainstream (such as Windows Server exams) and have been out for a while, you can count on resources such as MS Press Books targeted toward the specific exam, practice tests from MeasureUp and Transcender, and other useful resources.  Unfortunately, for brand new exams, or many of the high level SQL Server exams, none of this exists.  Having successfully studied for and passed both 70-768 and 70-466.  Below are some tips and resources I used to prepare for each exam.

 

General Tips for Both Exams

The first tip is just to know the question types that the exams typically cover.  Microsoft list all of their question types here, with examples of each.  It’s typically a good idea to pay special attention to the “Build List” type of question, which emphasizes knowing the steps, and order, that task components should be performed in.  There seems to be a lot of love for this question type.

For both exams, the best starting place is the bulleted section of the “Skills Measured” section of the official exam page.  Modern Microsoft exams follow this section very closely — you can practically guarantee there will be a question that ties back to each sub-item for each category.  I like to go through this section and all of the bulletpoints and break it down into small words or phrases that I can then use as a checklist while studying.  I’ve included an example for each exam below in the exam specific sections.

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Microsoft Certifications and Beta Exam 70-768 First Impressions

successfailsignRecently, I had the opportunity to participate in the beta period for the new Microsoft 70-768, “Developing SQL Data Models” exam.  As part of the development process for new exams, Microsoft periodically offers invitations to take a beta version of the exam free of charge.  Passing an exam while in the beta period results in passing the test officially when it is released.  However, there are a few catches to this.  The first of which is that these betas are designed to be taken by people who already have knowledge of a subject and work with it on a regular basis.  Since the exam is brand new, there are no official study materials to study, and there is typically a short window of time between the announcement and close of the beta period, so there isn’t a lot of time to prepare.  These exams also aren’t for those that feel the need for instant gratification, as it may take a month or longer to receive score results to ultimately find out if you passed or failed.  But, the wait is for a good cause as the beta exams are used to determine the final versions of the exam as well as passing scores, which must be completed before the beta exams can the go through the scoring process to be officially scored.

For those interested in taking a beta exam and qualified to do so, I’ve found that Microsoft usually announces the availability of a limited number of seats via the Born to Learn blog which are available until the allocated number of exams are scheduled.  For this last batch of SQL Server beta exams, 300 seats were made available for each exam.  This may sound like a lot, but this is worldwide, so you have to act fast.  I’ve found that if you don’t act within the first day or maybe two of the announcement, you will probably be too late.  Once announced, you typically have to have the exam scheduled in a proctored environment within around a month of the announcement.

Like all Microsoft certification exams, the beta exams are covered by an NDA protecting the exam content, so I won’t go into exam specifics, but I do have a few general thoughts about the exam and process.  It is interesting to see how the Microsoft exams in general have changed and matured over the years.

  • I’d classify this exam as “tough, but fair” with a heavy amount of reading.  I underestimated the amount of reading, and was thoroughly exhausted at the conclusion of the exam.
  • Due to the length of the questions and answers, and re-reading questions and answers, I used almost all of my time allocated for the exam.
  • The published Exam Objectives were very representative of the exam content (shockingly so) and make a very good framework for preparing for the exam.
  • How an exam is scored is always a black box, but some questions do make mention of how they award partial credit, such as “1 point per part of correct answer” which I found to be a welcome change — nice to know for sure that partial credit is at least possible in some cases.
  • The test engine itself is new since the last time I took an exam and seemed to work well with one exception.  An exam may be made up of a combination of “reviewable” questions in which you can go back and “non-reviewable” questions in which you cannot go back.  I’m sure there’s an intelligent reason for this.  The way the engine handled this, however, is to go through the reviewable questions first, then allow for the standard review and change process, then proceed to the non-reviewable questions with the remaining time — only it really didn’t do a good job of explaining this process.  Instead, I saw the question count, such as “50 out of 60,” hit next, then it proceeded to the review screen, which I thought was a glitch in the question count, no big deal…so I spent a bit too much time reviewing, only to have it launch into the next set of questions with not much time remaining once I finished review.  It’d work a bit better if the non-reviewable questions came first or it gave a can’t-miss screen of explanation to allow for better budgeting of time.
  • The question types are made available here .  Not all types will necessarily be present in all exams and the Build List is definitely a type to be very familiar with, as it seems quite popular.

 

 

I’m currently eagerly awaiting my results, and probably will be still for some time as the beta period has just closed.  Should I not pass, I look forward to attempting it again, possibly in the new online proctored format, which I’m curious to try out.

 

VMware Introduces Expirations to VCP Certifications

VMware Introduces Expirations to VCP Certifications

Earlier this year, VMware put into effect an expiration / re-certification policy.

This means that effective March 10, 2014, most VMware exams now have an expiration date attached to them requiring re-certification every 2 years (previously certifications were similar to Microsoft in that they were good for the life of the product)

Re-certification is similar to how Cisco performs re-certification in that a credential holder must meet the requirements for and pass any current VCP or VCAP exam.  This then resets the expiration date clock.

I’m not sure how I feel about this — I definitely see the value in pruning out individuals who don’t maintain their skills over the years, but at the same time, its yet another thing that requires maintenance.  At some point, it just becomes too much expense and work and you let it drop off.  Should VMware renewals be exam based?  Or should they be CPE-credit based like the CISSP (in which you perform ongoing education on your own and document it within the portal)?

Fortunately, to ease the transition onto the renewal treadmill, VMware is offering a one-time delta exam to current VCP-DCV (data center virtualization) holders in the form of a “delta” exam.  The delta exam is a shortened version of the VCP exam which only covers recent changes to the platform.  In addition to being shorter, it can be taken online.

The window for the delta exam expires very soon — November 30, 2014.  So, if you’re a current VMware VCP-DCV and want to renew via a shorter and cheaper exam online, act now!  See here for more information on the delta exam and here for a FAQ from VMware regarding the new re-certification policy.

I’ll be working hard over the next few days to study to squeak my delta re-certification in before the deadline.  Good luck!

The Road to SQL Server Certification – Part 5: The End – Exam 70-463

The Road to SQL Server Certification – Part 5: The End – Exam 70-463

Two exams down, one to go to complete the MCSA: SQL Server 2012 series.  And that exam was 70-463: Implementing a Data Warehouse with SQL Server 2012.

At the time of starting my studying for 70-463, I was about 8 months into my SQL certification journey.  I’d been taking my time so far and I planned to do so doubly on this exam due to the huge breadth of material covered on the beast.

70-463 is easily the strangest exam of the series.  Considering my interest in Business Intelligence, the exam didn’t bother me, but I could see how others in more traditional DBA roles would find the material to be very much on the fringe of their areas of responsibilities.  While “Querying” and “Administering” both seemed like natural fits in the MCSA series (which is the lowest level SQL certification), Implementing a Data Warehouse seemed a bit more of a stretch to me.

It doesn’t help matters much that 70-463 should probably be re-titled:  70-463: SSIS, SSIS, and More SSIS (We Hope You Like SSIS).  To say the material is a little bit SSIS-centric would be an understatement!  Sure, there is a little bit of DW design, MDS, and DQS, but it all circles back to SSIS!

Given the breadth of the topics covered for the exam, as well as how little I interact with some of the topics covered (such as MDS and DQS) I planned to spend a longer time than usual studying for this exam — about 6 months or so, putting my target exam date around November or December.  My Second Shot voucher was set to expire on December 31st, so I did have a hard deadline to adhere to.

For preparation, I followed the same system I’d used previously for 70-461 and 70-462 (why fix it if it isn’t broken?) with similar materials:

  • Round 1:  Video Training — The CBT Nuggets 70-463 Series, taught by Garth Schulte, clocks in at about 12 hours which is on par with the others in the series.  These videos do an excellent job of laying the foundation and covering all of the exam topics in a very demo heavy setting.  The series is very very heavy on SSIS demos (since the exam content is very heavy on SSIS), but also includes some great info on other features such as MDS and DQS installation and usage.
  • Round 2:  Books and Labs — Much like with the 70-461 and 70-462 exams, I found the Microsoft Press book, Training Kit (Exam 70-463) to be incredibly useful.  This Microsoft Press book was well organized and well-written, comes with a PDF version, and comes with a pretty good and exam-relevant bank of electronic sample questions.  In the case of many exams, 3rd party books tend to be better preparation materials than the official Microsoft books (as they can sometimes be quite dry) but the Microsoft books were spot on for this series.  Another excellent book I used for preparation was Knight’s Microsoft SQL Server 2012 Integration Services 24-hour Trainer, which I happened to pick up a signed copy of at PASS Summit 2013.
  • Round 3:  Practice Tests — 70-463 had been out for a while by the time I got to this point, so there were a couple of good reputable practice test engines available for use.  As always, the practice questions included with the Microsoft 70-463 Training Kit were an excellent resource.  Additionally, the Transcender Practice Questions were very comprehensive and give excellent explanations as to why an answer choice is right (and why the others are wrong).  A handy bonus of having a corporate CBT Nuggets subscription is that Transcender practice questions are included for free…a handy perk!
Books, books, and more books!

With the craziness of November and December upon me, I had to push my exam date much further back than I’d originally planned.  I finally sat the exam on the 23rd, just days before the expiration of my voucher.  Fortunately, my preparation did the trick and I was able to walk away with a pass and could relax over the holidays rather than cram again.

The 70-463 exam followed a familiar format to 70-461 and 70-462.  If you’ve taken both of those, you know fully what to expect.  For a little bit of a rant, however, Microsoft exams these days seem to make heavy use of what Microsoft calls “Repeated Answer Choice” questions in which a question is presented in 2-3 sentences and then a large number of options, say 10-12, are given and you must choose the correct one.  They then have 3-5 copies of the question with slight variations in the wording of the original question as well as potentially in the answer choices.  Each question doesn’t relate to the last, so you could potentially choose the same answer over and over.  I’m not sure what the test benefit to this style of question is (I’m sure there is one…some pretty smart people design these things with a lot of science), however, to me, the consumer, they just feel like the test-maker got lazy.  Long tests are already pretty exhausting, but getting what feels like the same question over and over which is really easy to misread a key word, just seems to compound that exhaustion without a lot of apparent benefit.  Rant completed!

I’m relieved to have completed my three-exam MCSA: SQL Server 2012 series and have certainly learned a lot in the process.  Now I look forward to a period of rest and relaxation and using some of my new-found skills.

[ Go back to Part 4 ]

The Road to SQL Server Certification – Part 4: Exam 70-462

The Road to SQL Server Certification – Part 4: Exam 70-462

With my first SQL Server 2012 exam, 70-461 under my belt, I revisited 70-462 for attempt number two, this time with much more preparation and ultimately much better results.

Exam 70-462: Administering Microsoft SQL Server 2012 Databases is the most DBA-focused exam of the bunch.  It covers everything from setting up and maintaining SQL server to more advanced topics like various methods of failover clustering.

Despite the fact that most people install SQL server before they begin querying it (and hence have experience with 70-462 material before 70-461: Querying SQL Server material), I felt that 70-462 was a more difficult exam than 70-461.  This was likely largely in part due to two things:

  1. A seemingly wider breadth of topic area…more topics is more material to cover
  2. A heavy reliance on enterprise level features which are used in the real world far less frequently than features from lesser editions.  Specifically, brand new features such as AlwaysOn Failover Clustering.

That being said, after a little bit of a break from 70-461, I attacked the preparation for this exam with a methodology and timeline similar to what I’ve used for 70-461 and other exams:

  • Round 1:  Video Training — The CBT Nuggets 70-462 Series, taught by Garth Schulte, were the longest videos of the MCSA series, but still pretty manageable at around 13 hours.  These videos do an excellent job of laying the foundation and covering all of the exam topics in a very demo heavy setting.  Lots of demos on various backup and restore scenarios as well as all of the different fail-over methods were welcome, as these were favorite topics on the exam.
  • Round 2:  Books and Labs — Much like with the 70-461 exam, I found the Microsoft Press book, Training Kit (Exam 70-462) to be incredibly useful.  This Microsoft Press book was well organized and well-written, comes with a PDF version, and comes with a pretty good and exam-relevant bank of electronic sample questions.  In the case of many exams, 3rd party books tend to be better preparation materials than the official Microsoft books (as they can sometimes be quite dry) but the Microsoft books were spot on for this series.Additionally, this exam in particular really lent itself to setting up a virtual environment and performing many of the exercises.  The Microsoft Press book gives a guide to configuring a lab environment on virtual machines which includes an Active Directory domain controller, a couple of SQL Servers running on full GUI windows and a couple of SQL Servers running on Windows Serve Core.  Due to the number of machines involved, visualization is highly recommended.  I had an old server on which I ran VMware ESXi (Free Edition) for my virtual machines, but VMware Player (which can also create VMs) is another great free resource if you don’t have server hardware handy.
  • Round 3:  Practice Tests — Being the oldest of the three exams in the series, 70-462 had a couple of good reputable practice test engines available for use.  As always, the practice questions included with the Microsoft 70-462 Training Kit were an excellent resource.  Additionally, the Transcender Practice Questions were very comprehensive and give excellent explanations as to why an answer choice is right (and why the others are wrong).  A handy bonus of having a corporate CBT Nuggets subscription is that Transcender practice questions are included for free…a handy perk!

Having completed the preparation as well as a little exam familiarity from the beta exam, I was able to complete the exam successfully to wrap up exam number two of three on the path to MCSA: SQL Server 2012.  Now, on to 70-463!

[ Go back to Part 3 | Go forward to Part 5 ]

The Road to SQL Server Certification – Part 3: Exam 70-461

The Road to SQL Server Certification – Part 3: Exam 70-461

The 70-461 exam was, surprisingly, my favorite of the two exams I’ve taken so far.  The subject matter for the exam is querying SQL Server, which means lots and lots of T-SQL.

Initially, 70-461: Querying Microsoft SQL Server 2012 was the exam I feared the most, as my previous experience with Microsoft exams involving lots of syntax (Powershell) were pretty evil.  It’s really easy to make syntax-based exams very difficult.  But it turns out, this exam wasn’t so bad…not so bad at all.

I prepared for the exam using the tried and true method which I’ve developed for myself over the years.  Typically, the process takes me about 3 months to complete at a leisurely pace (allowing real life to interject where necessary):

  • Round 1:  Video Training — I like to start off a subject with video based training.  Usually, CBT Nuggets whenever they have a relevant series available.  We’re fortunate enough to have a corporate subscription to this resource, but the one-month subscription is pretty affordable in a pinch.  Generally speaking, a series will be around 20 hours in length, broken up over 20-ish parts and they really focus on teaching the material in a demo-heavy environment rather than just drilling practice questions.

The CBT Nuggets 70-461 Series, taught by Garth Schulte, clocks in at a very manageable 12 hours, but it does an excellent job of covering all of the exam topics — especially some of the more foreign ones which the exam was heavy on:  XML queries, merges, and window functions.

  • Round 2:  Books and Labs — I’ll typically follow a video series by either reading a book or at least picking through and reviewing the more complex or foreign chapters.  This lets me focus and get more detail on individual topics which I don’t have a deep knowledge in already or that I think the exam will focus on.In the case of the 70-461 exam, I found the Microsoft Press book, Training Kit (Exam 70-461) to be incredibly useful.  After all Itzik Ben-Gan is one of the authors!  This Microsoft Press book was well organized and well-written, comes with a PDF version, and comes with a pretty good and exam-relevant bank of electronic sample questions.  Additionally, I already had Itzik’s T-SQL Fundamentals book on hand, which was another excellent resource.
  • Round 3:  Practice Tests — For the final round of my preparation routine, I move on to drilling practice tests.  I’ll typically use 1-2 resources, depending on what is available, and run through their question banks until I’ve got them as well as the “why” of the questions pretty well mastered.At the time, the 70-461 exam was fairly new, so my primary go-to resource, Transcender, wasn’t out yet.  Fortunately, the test question simulator included with the Microsoft Press book was good enough that I didn’t need the Transcender practice questions.  As a matter of fact, I bought the Microsoft Press book primarily for the practice questions, since I knew Transcender nor any other reputable provider had released their practice exams yet.

 

With my three-pronged preparation completed, it was time to actually sit the exam.  It’s difficult to discuss too much about the exam itself, since its covered by NDA, but with any Microsoft exam, it’s always a safe bet to really learn the stuff that’s new or greatly improved with that edition.  I was glad I’d spent a lot of time on XML queries, merge statements, and window functions!

A useful bit of information for anybody who has yet to take a Microsft exam or SQL Server 2012 exam, this transcender blog post lists examples of the current styles of questions Microsoft uses on its exams with a “safe” example of each type.  A new type of question for the SQL Server 2012 exams is the “Repeated answer choices” question…which I absolutely loathe.  But more on that later!

I was fortunate to pass the exam on my first try (though I had a 2nd Shot available if I needed it) and looking back on the series, I can say that I’m pretty confident that this was the easiest exam of the series, likely due to the fairly narrow breadth of the subject matter (unlike 70-463).  Now, on to 70-462!

[ Go back to Part 2 | Go forward to Part 4 ]

The Road to SQL Server Certification – Part 2: Progress So Far

The Road to SQL Server Certification – Part 2: Progress So Far

In Part 1 of my Road to SQL Server Certification series, I covered a little bit of background on my experience with certifications in general as well as Microsoft’s path for MCSA: SQL Server 2012.

I am currently in the final preparation and studying stages for, in my opinion, the most difficult exam in the series, the third in the series, 70-463: The Widowmaker…er, Implementing a Data Warehouse with SQL Server 2012.  That’s what I meant, but more on that in a little bit.

My SQL Server 2012 certification journey started with 70-462: Administering Microsoft SQL Server 2012 Databases.  In my opinion, this is the most natural starting point for someone with a strong IT background, whereas 70-461: Querying Microsoft SQL Server 2012 is the most natural starting point for someone with a strong development background.  But then again, the indexing T-SQL topics covered on 461 are helpful to know going into 462, but I digress…

70-462: Administering Microsoft SQL Server 2012 Databases was my first experience with a SQL certification exam.  I was about a 1/3 complete studying for the equivalent SQL 2008 version of this exam when the 70-462 beta was released.  In recent years, Microsoft has performed fewer and fewer public beta exams, but if you ever get the opportunity to take one, and know something of the subject material, I highly recommend it!  Essentially, Microsoft offers the exam(s) for free for a limited number of time and seats.  The exam you take is similar to what the final version will be, but longer and with rougher edges.  If you pass it, you get credit for having passed the final version without spending a dime, and if you don’t, at least you have an idea of what the final version will likely be like.

I took the beta version of 70-462 as my first exam.  They don’t tell your your score on these, in fact, they mail you the results a number of agonizing weeks later, but I know I didn’t pass.  I feel like I failed it pretty badly.  It was a much more difficult exam than I’d anticipated.

Months later, with all of the final versions released to the public, I decided to try again, this time starting with 70-461: Querying Microsoft SQL Server 2012 instead.  I had two reasons for changing tactics:  1) Microsoft numbered it lower, probably for a reason, so I should take their advice and start here.  And most importantly, 2.) one of the resources I really like to use to learn for an exam, CBT Nuggets, had just released their 70-461 videos and the 70-462 and 70-463 videos were in production, but not yet released.  So, my plan was now to take 70-461 then 70-462, and finally 70-463.

In my journey so far, I’ve successfully completed 70-461 and 70-462 and am getting ready to take 70-463 before the year is out.  In the next part of this series, I’ll talk about the 70-461 exam itself and my experiences preparing for and sitting it.

[ Go back to Part 1 | Go forward to Part 3 ]

The Road to SQL Server Certification – Part 1: Introduction

The Road to SQL Server Certification – Part 1: Introduction

Having been a part of the IT industry for a good 12 years now, I’m no stranger to certifications.  There are countless debates on the Internet over the value of certifications.  My stance tends to be that as long as you actually earn them, getting them is better than not getting them.  As such, over the years, I’ve taken, passed, and failed a number of certification exams from various vendors.

To me, certification is an excuse to learn a topic.  You may say to yourself “you know, I really enjoyed restoring that corrupt database last week, I want to learn more about SQL Server” or “I really enjoyed troubleshooting that mail delivery issue yesterday.  I’d love to learn more about Exchange server!”  Even if you don’t place a lot of value in the piece of paper you receive from completing a certification track, the exam prep materials provide a great structure for learning a topic from end-to-end and the exam itself provides the motivation to do so in a structured and timely manner.

Over the course of my career so far I’d estimate I’ve sat close to 30 unique proctored certification exams (many certifications require multiple exams to attain).  I make a distinction between proctored and non-proctored exams as you typically have to pay an exam fee to take a proctored exam at a testing center whereas a non-proctored exam may or may not be free and is typically taken in the comfort of your own home where you are free to Google answers or phone a friend.

In the beginning of my career, these exams tended to be for entry level certifications (such as CompTIA’s A+ or Cisco’s CCNA (which was their entry level certification at the time)) and over time I progressed on to higher tier certifications.  These days, most of the exams I sit tend to be of an upgrade nature to upgrade technologies, example upgrading my Microsoft MCSE 2003 to the 2008 equivalent or upgrading VMware VCP4 to VMware VCP5.

Around July of 2012, I decided to start a new certification journey:  MCSA: SQL Server 2012.  While this journey shouldn’t be an insanely long one (like the old MCSE 2003: Security which was a total of 7 exams!), it was a fairly new concept for me as previously all of my certification had been around operating systems and networking devices — this three-exam series would be my first single application/development themed series.  A new challenge indeed!

One great motivator on embarking upon this journey was a promotion Microsoft was running at the time:  Second Shot.  As it turns out, they’ve just started re-running the promotion again with new expiration dates.  The promotion is pretty simple.  You sign up for a free voucher code and register for your exam with that code.  Should you fail the exam, you get to retake it (within the promotion period, which is usually about a year) once at no additional cost.  Additionally, they offer a second deal (which is the one that I took advantage of) if you’re willing to pay for an entire exam series up front, such as the 3-exam MCSA SQL 2012 series.  By making this commitment, you receive:  a second-shot for each of the three exams in the series, 15% off each exam fee, and an extra 6 months in the promotion period to get it done (bringing it up to about a year and a half).  A great deal!

In my next post, I’ll give an update as to where I am so far along this latest certification journey (I’m not done yet, but time is running out and I’m close!) as well as some thoughts on the individual exams and experiences themselves, and finally I’ll cover some of the preparation tools and strategies which have worked well for me along the journey.  Stay tuned!

[ Go forward to Part 2 ]

 

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