Passed Microsoft Certified IT Professional exam 70-647

That’s it. Done it! I’ve just passed the last exam I needed to take (70-647) in order to update my MCSE on Windows Server 2003 to MCITP: Enterprise Administrator for Windows Server 2008, before the vouchers I had for free exams expired and just in time for Christmas!

For anyone else thinking of upgrading the Microsoft certifications for Windows Server 2008, then check out the post I wrote last year on Microsoft Learning and plans for Windows Server 2008 certification.

There’s also a PDF available which shows the various transition paths from earlier certifications.

Free online training for Hyper-V

Whilst on the subject of Microsoft certification… I noticed on Gregg Robertson’s blog that Microsoft Learning are offering free online training for Hyper-V and System Centre Virtual Machine Manager (SCVMM) 2008 (access code 9350-Y2W6-3676). The free training courses represent 10 hours of online study (Collection 6319: Configuring Hyper-V in Windows Server 2008 – normal price £105.16) and cover:

  • Course 6320: Introducing the Hyper-V technology.
  • Course 6321: Configuring a virtual environment.
  • Course 6322: Deploying systems in a virtual environment.
  • Course 6323: Optimising a virtual environment.
  • Course 6324: Managing a virtual environment by using SCVMM.

Gregg also notes that Microsoft are offering a discount on exam 70-652 (promotion code USHYPERV).

Passed Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist exam 70-649

Phew! Another one down – earlier today I passed the Microsoft exam for upgrading from Windows Server 2003 MCSE to Windows Server 2008 Technology Specialist (70-649), which takes me one step closer to updating my Microsoft certification from MCSE (on Windows NT 4.0, 2000 and Server 2003) to MCITP: Enterprise Administrator. This week’s blog post drought may have been welcome relief for some but it was largely caused by many early starts and late nights cramming my head full of Windows Server 2008 information.

As usual, I’m not publishing any exam details (test details are under NDA, yada, yada) but it’s public knowledge that this is an amalgamation of exams 70-640, 70-642 and 70-643 and it seems that it was my applications infrastructure score that dragged me down (I did OK on the AD portion and scored quite well on configuring network infrastructure)… not bad for someone who doesn’t get much of an opportunity to play with technology at work any more! I will say that I put way too much effort into my revision though… I’ll write a follow up post on the online training that I used from Microsoft Learning.

I have one more exam planned for this year (I plan to take 70-647 on Christmas Eve) – and that will complete the transistion from MCSE 2003 to the equivalent 2008 qualification (I’ve already passed 70-624).

Incidentally, I couldn’t get in to the test centres that I usually use (QA-IQ in Milton Keynes or Global Knowledge in Coventry) so I went to Computer Associated Decisions in High Wycombe. If anyone is thinking of taking a Prometric test there then I’d urge them to reconsider as it’s absolutely the worst testing experience I’ve every had. The test centre is one half of a retail unit on a housing estate and the cheap wood laminate flooring and thin plasterboard walls mean that sound is echoed and amplified around the unit so you can hear the people in the shop next door (at one point someone was in the shop with a small child and it was like having my 4 year old in the room with me whilst trying to think…) as well as the office behind (where the people working seem to think nothing of shouting – even when asked to pipe down by the receptionist). Unfortunately, that’s where I have to go back to on the 24th…

Passed Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer exam 70-296

Last week I wrote about having scraped through the first of two exams needed to update my MCSE from 2000 to 2003 and this morning I passed the second by an equally narrow margin.  Whilst I’m pleased to have passed the Planning, Implementing and Maintaining a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Environment for an MCSE Certified on Windows 2000 exam (exam 70-296), and am similarly glad that I found it challenging (i.e. worthwhile), I did sail a little close to the wind – and that wasn’t for lack of preparation either. So what happened?

I’ve worked with Windows NT since 1995, been an MCP since 1998 (and MCSE since 1999) worked with Active Directory since NT 5.0 beta 2 and generally have a fair amount of Microsoft Windows Server design and implementation experience in a variety of organisations.  Even though I’ve remained technical, it’s inevitable that as I progress in my career, I spend more time managing and less time doing – meaning that I do not have a huge amount of recent operational or administrative experience.  So, in order to upgrade my MCSE I needed to refresh my knowledge of the key concepts without re-learning everything from scratch.

With that in mind, and the impending withdrawal of the MCSE 2000-2003 upgrade exams, last summer, I bought a Microsoft Press Training Kit entitled Upgrading your Certification to Microsoft Windows Server 2003.  It’s a weighty tome and includes evaluation software, eBooks and a readiness review suite from MeasureUp.  It’s actually a really good purchase but, at 1100 pages and almost 2.5kg, I found it too large (physically) to keep lugging it around with me and, despite the title, it seems to be targetted at people who are setting out on the MCSE path for the first time.

Then, a few months back, I used an practice test from pass4sure to help prepare for MCTS exam 70-624.  I passed the exam, but the software was Java-based (and the installer failed to recognise that my system already had Java installed and tried to install it again), was full of bugs and, at $79.99 for just 53 questions, I felt that it was very poor value for money.  So, when uCertify asked me to review their PrepKits I was interested to compare them with my previous experiences.

uCertify kindly provided review copies of the PrepKits for exams 70-292 and 70-296 and, from the moment I installed them, I could see that the quality was way above my previous experience.  No buggy installer – these went straight onto my Vista system with no issues, and I was greeted with a professional interface.  Unlike the pass4sure practice tests, there were a few hundred questions (albeit with a fair amount of repetition – I calculated about 15% appeared in multiple practice tests) and tests were available as pre-defined practice tests, adaptive tests, custom tests (for example, just the questions that have previously be answered incorrectly), or an interactive quiz.  There was also a complete run-down of the exam objectives and other study aids including flash cards, study notes and articles.  Finally, the software allows the ability to view test history and to evaluate readiness using the built-in reporting tools.

uCertify PrepKit

I set to work on the practice tests, and found that there were two possible modes – test mode (with feedback at the end) and learn mode, whereby a fairly detailed explanation was available on request after answering each question.  For some of the questions, I did not (and still do not) agree with the answers provided but the tool also includes the ability to provide feedback to uCertify and on at least one question I could view the feedback that others had provided.  I also spotted quite a few grammatical and spelling errors – one was even in the interface itself so occurred on multiple questions.

Even though the general quality of the PrepKit software is high, there are some very obvious bugs.  On my Windows Vista system I found that if I paused a test and then cancelled the pause, the clock did not start counting again – but that was actually useful because in learn mode there is not a lot of time by default (58 questions in 60 minutes) to take in the information.  I also had a problem whereby the software lost my exam history – a minor annoyance, but it did effectively prevent me from retesting using just the questions I had answered incorrectly.

So, the software generally is not bad – it has a few issues but no show-stoppers.  But what about its effectiveness?  Taking exam 70-292 as an example, I saw my scores increase but I do wonder if, due to the repetition of the questions, I was actually learning the answers to the PrepKit tests rather than applying the knowledge gained in order to answer the question correctly (the difference may be subtle – but it is significant).  This was particularly evident when I moved on to the PrepKit for exam 70-296, where there was some repetition of questions from the PrepKit for exam 70-292 (unsurprising as the exam objectives also overlap) and I consistently scored above 80% (with most tests above 90%).

My theory about learning the answers rather than learning the key concepts that are required to answer the questions correctly appears to be born out in my results from the real exams.  The Microsoft NDA prevents me from discussing their content but I do have to wonder if, when I can consistently score above 90% in a practice test – even with the final test – which is intended to be more difficult than the vendor exam – how come I barely scraped a pass score in the real thing?

So, to summarise – do I think the uCertify PrepKits are worth the money?  Probably. Will they prepare you to pass the exam? Possibly.  Microsoft/Prometric are currently offering free exam insurance (Second Shot) and, in any case, uCertify offer their own money-back guarantee but, based on my experience, the PrepKits form just one part of an overall preparation strategy – and my usual method of re-reading course materials and writing my own notes seems to work better for me.

You can try the uCertify PrepKits for yourself – and I’d be interested to hear how people get on.  Demonstration versions can be downloaded for free and access to the full PrepKit is unlocked with a license key costing around $59.99 with discounts for multiple purchases.  It’s worth noting that the uCertify PrepKits are not just for Microsoft certifications either – there are PrepKits available for a variety of vendors with further details available at www.ucertify.com.

[Update 20 February 2008: You can get 10% off the uCertify PrepKit of your choice using the discount code MARWIL]

Passed Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator exam 70-292

Phew! That was close. I passed the Managing and Maintaining a Windows Server 2003 Environment for an MCSA Certified on Windows 2000 exam (exam 70-292) yesterday afternoon, but only by the narrowest of margins. Microsoft’s NDA prevents me from commenting on the contents of the exam but after my last Microsoft certification (which was unbelievably simple) this one was much more difficult.

I’m also aiming to take exam 70-296 over the next couple of weeks – to complete the update of my MCSE from 2000 to 2003 before that is retired (and therefore make transitioning to the Windows Server 2008 certifications a little more straightforward).

I guess administration is not something I do a huge amount of (I’m a consultant and I know the technology but more from an implementation perspective) but I did invest a fair amount of time in the preparation and so I think it may say something about the quality of the revision materials that I used… I’ll reserve judgement on that until after I’ve taken the next exam but watch this space.

Microsoft Learning – and plans for Windows Server 2008 certification

One of the most engaging presenters that I saw on my trip to Redmond last month was Lutz Ziob, General Manager at Microsoft Learning, who dispelled all British preconceptions about German humour and delivered an interesting presentation about how Microsoft views its education programmes.

Having personally re-engaged in the learning process recently and with a number of exams planned for the next few months, now seems like a good time to post something about the direction which Microsoft intends its learning programs to take (including certification).

Lutz Ziob has a strong background in the IT industry – having worked at WordPerfect, Novell and CompTIA (where he introduced the Linux+ certification) prior to joining Microsoft.  Starting off by introducing the Microsoft Learning Mission ("Help Microsoft customers and partners realise their full potential by providing them with the necessary knowledge and skills to optimise the adoption and use of Microsoft solutions"), he then went on to add a few analogies of his own:

  • If we believe one car-maker’s marketing message, one should be more intelligent, and more attractive to the opposite sex, because they drive an Audi… is that true?  Almost certainly not but it does show that to use a product (let alone use it well), it helps to know something about it.
  • What about a holiday at Disneyland?  Disney may claim that it will transform your life.  It may lift your spirits for a period – may even may you think differently about travel, but transform your life?  Unlikely.  On the other hand, learning a new skill (such as how to use Visual Studio to write computer software) may well have an impact on your career direction and as a consequence your life may be transformed.
  • Or, moving back to the motoring analogy, switching to a new car may involve a few minutes of working out where the controls are and generally adjusting to the environment – switching operating systems (e.g. Linux to Windows) is a little more involved.

In short, skills are either a barrier or they can enhance an individual’s (and hence a company’s) overall success.

Microsoft Learning claims to be "Microsoft’s centre of excellence for learning" and offers products in a number of areas including:

  • Publishing (Microsoft Press).
  • Certification.
  • Office specialisation.
  • Instructor-led training.
  • E-learning.

Connected in some way to over 11 million learning engagements annually, Microsoft is instrumental to many in their entry, advancement (or just remaining current) in their chosen career.  From Microsoft’s point of view, the goal is to reach as many customers as possible and educate them whilst increasing their satisfaction with Microsoft products (and making money).

I’m in the fortunate position that I get involved with many Microsoft products early in their lifecycle (at least from the point of view of understanding what the product does – even if I no longer spend as much time on the implementation aspects as I once did) and one of my frustrations is that I often attend a pre-release training course but have to wait for a while before the certification exam is available.  It was interesting to hear Microsoft Learning’s view on this as their customer readiness program for a new project begins around 12-18 months prior to release.  As the product enters beta testing, books and e-learning are generally available, with instructor-led training following once there is sufficient customer demand (generally after product release) and certification at release.

Microsoft uses the term "unified skills domain" as a methodology to integrate assessment, learning, reference and certification products, recognising that the cost in training is not so much the cost of the training itself but the resource cost of the time taken to attend the training – to which I would add that cost of the training itself is still a significant factor.  Microsoft’s intention is that books, e-learning and classroom training come together as a whole without repetition and compliment rather than overlap (or even worse – contradict) one another (although it has to be said that the trainers I have spoken to recently are unhappy with the quality of the learning materials being provided recently).

Moving on to focus on Windows Server 2008 certifications, it’s worth noting that nearly 4.5 million certifications have been granted over their 15 year history with 2.2 million unique Microsoft Certified Professionals.  What these figures don’t show though is that Microsoft saw certifications peak in the late 1990s and then tail off, although they claim that there has been a resurgence since they added performance-based testing and a new certification framework.

This certification framework sees the replacement of the Microsoft Certified Professional/Systems Administrator/Systems Engineer (MCP-MCSA-MCSE) progression with a new structure of Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist/IT Professional/Professional Developer/Architect (MCTS/MCITP/MCPD/MCA).  Each new qualification has two parts – the credential and the certification (e.g. Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist: Business Desktop Deployment with the BDD).  Most notably: the MCTS is retired with the associated technology; MCITP, MCPD and MCA require re-certification for major technology changes; and the MCA qualification is Microsoft’s high watermark certification that requires proven ability to deliver business solutions, including an interview board with and is broader in scope than Microsoft’s technology looking at wider IT industry issues.

I’m somewhat skeptical about the program as my first-hand experience indicates that some (not all) of the exams represent little more than a piece of paper to indicate that a set of questions was correctly answered – questions that in one recent case were available for purchase on the Internet in the form of a practice exam!  By contrast, Red Hat certification (even at the lowest level) involves correctly configuring a real (not simulated) system.  Microsoft’s architect qualification attempts to address this but is only expected to be attained by a few select individuals and so I was interested to see what Microsoft is planning for the MCTS/MCITP certifications for Windows Server 2008 certifications.

Lutz Ziob explained that, for Windows Server 2008, there are five distinct certifications, three technology-specific and two job-role specific:

  • MCTS:
    • Networking Infrastructure Configuration.
    • Active Directory Configuration.
    • Application Infrastructure Configuration.
  • MCITP:
    • Server Administrator.
    • Enterprise Administrator.

As for previous MCSE upgrades, there are upgrade exams (70-648/70-649) – but only from Windows Server 2003 (the skills gap from Windows 2000 is viewed as too large – I’d better update my MCSE by taking exams 70-292/70-296 before they are retired at the end of March 2008).

And when responding to comment that Microsoft certifications are sometimes too easy to obtain and that experience is what counts, he responded with another analogy – would you rather take a long-haul flight fly with a pilot who is certified to fly a Boeing 747 (for example), or one with many years experience but who has only flown smaller aircraft?  This is equally applicable for a doctor, nurse, lawyer, electrician, architect, structural engineer, etc. so why should IT be any different – why not insist on experience and certification?  I have to admit that I take his point and he positively encouraged the journalists and bloggers in the audience to quote him on saying:

"Certification programs do not replace experience"

[Lutz Ziob, General Manager, Microsoft Learning]

but:

"Experience in itself doesn’t guarantee that someone knows what they need to know"

[Lutz Ziob, General Manager, Microsoft Learning]

So where is Microsoft heading in respect to improving the learning experience?  New initiatives in what Microsoft refers to as the learning plus services model include:

  • Performance based testing: the main complexity here is the need to simulate incorrect configurations too and so here are some limitations; however Windows Server 2008 certification makes use of virtualisation technology to allow the monitoring of what a candidate is doing – working in a "real" situation on a "real" system.
  • Virtual classrooms: Microsoft Official Distance Learning (MODL).
  • Re-inventing the classroom experience: moving away from an instructor leading a roomful of passive students – trying to bring online services into classroom so that the trainer becomes a coach with the ability to adjust materials on the fly (e.g. add/remove modules).
  • Ability to provide documentation in both printed and soft (e-book) formats (however when asked for assurance that Microsoft Press would not completely abandon printed books, Ziob replied that there are no plans to phase out printed books).

For anyone considering learning about Windows Server 2008, more information is available at the Windows Server 2008 learning portal.

Passed Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist exam 70-624

I’ve just come out of a Prometric testing centre after taking the Deploying and Maintaining Windows Vista Operating System and 2007 Microsoft Office System Desktop exam (exam 70-624).  I’m please to say that I passed – with a 100% score – but I feel cheated somehow.

You see, the thing about certification is that, ideally, you should know something about the subject.  I used to do a lot of operating system deployment work but that was in the days of Windows 3.1, then NT 4.0, following which the principles didn’t change much up to Windows XP but now there are a lot of new tools and methods that make a huge difference.  I needed to get up to speed on these new tools (and pass this exam) in order to deliver desktop deployment planning services, so I spent a week reading up around the tools, working through hands on labs, installing and testing BDD on my own computers, and then used a practice exam that had been recommended by a colleague to be sure that I was ready…

Microsoft’s NDA prevents me from commenting on the contents of the exam but what I can say is that the week of revision/labs/testing was probably not worth it and that I now know why my colleague recommended the practice exam…

I suppose at least I know that I put the work in to actually learn the subject.

Do IT qualifications really matter?

A few days back, I received an e-mail from a young man in Pakistan who had found my website on the Internet and wanted some advice. This is what he had to say (edited for grammar and spelling):

“I have a Bachelors degree in Computer Sciences and am studying for MCSE certification.

[…]

My question to you as a newbie in the networking field is are certifications necessary to jump and fly high in this field and even if it’s true then do I have to stick to Microsoft or can I do a mixture of Cisco and Microsoft certifications. Lots of “thinktanks” here in Pakistan say that a person with MCSE, CCNA AND CCNP certifications is a much needed guy for IT companies.

I am sooooooooooooooo confused as to where I should move.”

The reason I’m blogging about this is because he raised some interesting points. I too have a bachelors degree in Computer Studies and I don’t consider that it’s been of any practical use to me in my work. The process of leaving home and going to university helped me progress from home life to becoming an independent young man (actually, it was a Polytechnic when I started my course – reflecting the vocational nature of its tuition – but don’t get me started about how all the Technical Colleges and Polytechnics have become “Universities” and what a bad idea that is) and it set me up with some valuable first-hand experience about managing personal finances (i.e. debt… and that was 13 years ago – I feel really sorry for today’s young graduates who have no access to grants and have to pay tuition fees too).

My degree was simply a means to join the career ladder at a certain level. Please don’t misunderstand me – I’m sure that has opened some doors that might otherwise have been closed (or would at least have been harder to force my way through) but it was by no means essential to reaching the position that I have today (perhaps I should have aimed higher?) and I have not used any of the Computer Studies skills that I learnt along the way so I could have studied anything (given the amount of writing I do today – perhaps I should have studied English, or journalism? Who knows – back then I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life!).

IT certifications are similar. I hold a variety of IT certifications but none of that matters if I don’t have experience to back up the qualifications. Sometimes you have to admit your shortcomings too – I didn’t feel comfortable being flown in to one potential customer as an expert earlier this week because I haven’t done anything practical with the associated technology for a long time now. The customer would have seen through me and that would have damaged both mine and my employer’s credibility.

I learnt a few days back that a colleague, whose advice and experience I hold in very high regard, holds no IT certifications. Equally I have friends and colleagues who left school at 16 or 18 and that’s not prevented them from reaching the the same (or a higher) position within the company as myself.

I understand that the UK government has a target for 50% of all school leavers should go to university (Why? Do 50% of all jobs require a degree? How about 50% or more of all school leavers going on to some form of further or higher education – whether that be vocational or academic). When I meet new graduates I recognise how wet behind the ears I was when I started out all those years ago. Which nicely illustrates my point – that it doesn’t matter how highly qualified you are – what really counts is experience, even if the company does still insist that you have the letters after your name before you can get through the door.

Passed the Red Hat Certified Technician exam

Red Hat Certified TechnicianPhew! I’ve just read an e-mail from Red Hat informing me that I passed the Red Hat Certified Technician (RHCT) exam that I took this morning.

The confidentiality agreement that I had to sign makes it practically impossible for me to talk about my exam experience but Red Hat’s RHCT exam preparation guide gives the most important details and without giving away any of the specifics, I can confirm that it was one of the most challenging certification exams I’ve ever taken (which is good, because having passed actually means something).

Apart from living and breathing Linux for the last few days, my preparation consisted of attending an RH033 course last year (including the now-discontinued RH035 Windows conversion course – my own quick introduction to Linux for Windows administrators may be useful as a substitute) and spending this week on an RH133 course (which includes the RH202 practical exam); I also have some limited experience from running Linux on some of my own computers and I worked on various Unix systems at Uni in the early 1990s. In short, I’m a competent technician (as the certification title indicates) but not a Linux expert.

As for my next steps, the Novell and Microsoft Interop Ability partnership directly impacts upon my work, so I imagine that any further work I do with Linux will be related to Novell (SUSE) Enterprise Linux. Even so, RHCT is a well-respected qualification, which is why I wanted to gain that certification (especially after setting off down that path last year). It’s unlikely that I’ll gain the necessary experience to go forward to attempt Red Cat Certified Engineer (RHCE) or Red Hat Certified Architect (RHCA) status (at least not in my day job) but I may convert to Novell’s Certified Linux Professional (CLP)/Certified Linux Engineer (CLE) path at a later date. In the meantime, it’s about time that I updated my Microsoft credentials…

Passed Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist exam 70-262

I missed the announcement, but at some stage in recent years, Microsoft revamped its IT Professional certification scheme. It seems as though I still qualify as a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) for both the NT 4.0 and Windows 2000 tracks; although I never did get around to upgrading my MCSE to Windows XP and Server 2003… maybe I’ll follow the Vista and Longhorn Server track when it’s released.

Anyway, earlier today I passed the Microsoft Office Live Communications Server 2005 – Implementing, Managing, and Troubleshooting exam (70-262), making me a Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (MCTS): Microsoft Office Live Communications Server 2005.

I guess that’s just like an MCP in the old days but it’s another logo to display on the IT Services page. Actually, the real reason I did it was that I was incentivised by the prospect of a free iPod from my employer if I was one of the first three people to take (and pass) the test by a particular date!

This was the first Microsoft exam that I’ve taken for a while and Microsoft’s non-disclosure agreement prevents me from saying too much about it but as I took Monday off work, spent all day Tuesday (and Thursday evening) at Microsoft events and had to do some real work too, it’s been a challenge to cram in all of my revision… hence the lack of blog posts this week. I plan to make up for that after the long weekend (when I finally get around to writing up my notes from the Microsoft Management Summit and Vista After Hours events)… watch this space.