Chris Randall
SQL Down Under Show 26 - Guest: Chris Randall - Published: 5 Jan 2008
In this show SQL Server MCT Chris Randall discusses the value of SQL Server certification, what is required to become certified and tips and tricks for taking exams.
Details About Our Guest
With 18 years in IT, Chris Randall has been a trainer, a developer, a database administrator, a courseware author, and a consultant. He has worked with and trained customers in the U.S., Canada, Bermuda and Australia, recently settling down as a senior trainer for Ameriteach, a gold-level Microsoft Certified Partner for learning solutions. Overwhelmed by trying to keep top-visual development and database work, Chris Randall now focuses exclusively on SQL Server development and administration, including Microsoft’s business intelligence toolset. An MCT since 1996, he’s also spoken at several industry conferences, including SQL PASS and MCT con. A graduate of Princeton University, Chris lives in Colorado’s Front Range with his family, pets, computers, and guitars.
Show Notes And Links
Chris' blog is at: http://blogs.ameriteach.com/chris-randall.
Show Transcript
Greg Low: Introducing Show 26 with guest Chris Randall.
Greg Low: Our guest today is Chris Randall. With 18 years in IT, Chris has been a trainer, a developer, a database administrator, a courseware author, and a consultant. He has worked with and trained customers in the U.S., Canada, Bermuda and Australia, recently settling down as a senior trainer for Ameriteach, a gold-level Microsoft Certified Partner for learning solutions. Overwhelmed by trying to keep top-visual development and database work, Chris Randall now focuses exclusively on SQL Server development and administration, including Microsoft’s business intelligence toolset. An MCT since 1996, he’s also spoken at several industry conferences, including SQL PASS and MCT con. A graduate of Princeton University, Chris lives in Colorado’s Front Range with his family, pets, computers, and guitars. Welcome Chris.
Chris Randall: Thanks, Greg.
Greg Low: As I do with most people, I’ll ask how you got involved with SQL Server.
Chris Randall: I upsized into it. I didn’t come from a computer science background when I fell into IT but I wound up bootstrapping, and went from desktop database including brief summer with PC products in mid 80s, into database development and FoxPro. As a trainer, I found myself doing FoxPro and Access and SQL Server was direction I wanted to get into. Grew into that and I’ve been learning since.
Greg Low: I’ve seen you on the train of groups for what seems like a very long time.
Chris Randall: Sometimes it feels like a very long time. MCT in 1996 in Visual Basic first. Used MCT private news groups for a few years while I learned SQL Server and got certification in 1998.
Greg Low: FoxPro in background, do you have any sadness over impending demise?
Chris Randall: Honestly I don’t. I saw FoxPro developers the same way I see Mac users. I say that as someone sitting in front of a Mac Notebook. Proud community that was more convinced of market share than markets indicated.
Greg Low: Points often made about Apple situation. You manage to achieve marks and profit share and 50 percent mark share.
Chris Randall: Reminds me of FoxPro.
Greg Low: I spoke at a few FoxPro conferences. Craig Bailey of local MVPs ran. Mostly in line with telling people what would happen when they migrated to SQL Server. Found them a passionate community about what they do. Aging community. No young people at all coming through into the product.
Chris Randall: Sounds a bit like the Hollywood film “Child of Men” or something. Last child died off and there was no future.
Greg Low: Sad from that point of view. But you moved into SQL Server. Around about version 6. What were your reactions?
Chris Randall: Having come from the desktop experience it was a blast of cold air in my face when I first started learning SQL Server. On one hand I enjoyed being thrust into what was a command line after a few years with Microsoft Access and FoxPro and Windows. Ever since I’ve enjoyed and emphasized it’s not command line management, but script line. PC quells not going away. Different approach, learned about operating system to understand SQL Server.
Greg Low: With SQL Server 2008 there’s much stronger power shell integration. For someone with a command line bent that should be of interest.
Chris Randall: I’m looking forward to learning more about that. Following Allan White blog post on SML and power shell.
Greg Low: I was sitting with him for the conference a few months ago.
Chris Randall: Wondering if you were going to do a shout-out, noticed that last time.
Greg Low: Leads into topic regarding SQL Server certifications. Need to know a lot about operating systems at the time. Earliest topical issues was the previous requirements to have certifications in the operating system and in the product. But we will come back to that, but first we need to talk about the whole concept of certification and does it have a place?
Chris Randall: I think there’s a very wide range of opinion about the value of IT certification. And of SQL Server certification. In preparing a little bit about this topic I went back and looked at archives. SQL Server magazines. Brian Moran’s column and Mike Hotek’s column, vocal about need or lack of need for SQL Server certification. Interesting to look at in light of changes that have happened. Really taken a life of its own, solved problems and raised issues. Still gets back to original question, is it valuable? It depends on who you ask.
Greg Low: Let’s start with employers. For an employer what’s the interest?
Chris Randall: Well, I think that at some point an employee can look at… let me back track. My friend and colleague Russ Cousman talks about certification as a way to test a minimum set of job skills. Microsoft training tends to try to provide a minimum set of skills. Employers’ prospective: it would be nice if certification did in fact demonstrate certain core knowledge. I don’t know that the certification as it stands today (technical specialist and IT pro track), I don’t know that message is clear, what those certifications are designed to do and demonstrate. I don’t think there’s a clear message to employers that SQL Server certification means a certain set of skills or knowledge.
Greg Low: Number of people certified. It was interesting that elective in the MCSE program (engineering certification) and elective in developer certification at the time. Too, lots of interest in the SQL Server certification. If you did it you could use it toward both IT pro style certification and developer style certification. Double benefit out of that. Interesting that SQL Server always sat in the middle. Significant challenge to TechEd, now broken into two separate TechEds. Endless discussion from people in SQL Server community saying which one do I go to?
Chris Randall: I’m in that position myself. Which week if any to go to, I can’t go to both. Following with old style certification, looking at when I took SQL Server 6/5 time frame, implementing design exam was elective. Administrative exam was elective for NT 4 MCSE.
Greg Low: At that time that was a very common elective. If you go forward to SQL Server 2000 time frame MCDBA certification which appeared, related to both seven and 2000, enormous number of people who did certification. Then moved to new certifications that are perceived as more difficult and much more meaningful than previous ones. Significantly lower number of certified people from an employer’s view. Is it less meaningful? Because there are far fewer applicants?
Chris Randall: Possibly. I don’t know that I’ve thought about it in that way. Looking at numbers. As of November Microsoft said there were 20,000 certified tech specialists on 2005. Compare to same time frame, 148,000 MTDBAs on SQL Server 2000.
Greg Low: What about current IT pro business intelligence developer?
Chris Randall: Strong opinions on that. Teresa at Microsoft Learning has given me grief. Microsoft made a mistake in abandoning MCDBA main as a certification.
Greg Low: We’ll come back to that. What I was getting to with business intelligence is that there were only 100 or something people last time I looked.
Chris Randall: At IT pro level? I think you’re right, I have the number here. Database administrators, 3,200, business intelligence, 182 people.
Greg Low: I’ll happily admit I’m one of those. I’ll come back to fact that I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself as strong as many of my colleagues. Thing I was getting at if you look at that certification and say there’s only 100 something people with that, is there any point in that to an employer, what’s the chance you’ll find one?
Chris Randall: Bit of education Microsoft could stand to do of employers and what certifications mean now, not sure that’s clear to a hiring manager or human resources what is an MCTS, what is an IT pro compared to what was at MCDBA. Not only are numbers low but certification name value and meaning have changed.
Greg Low: One of the things I think is confusing is because there are so many certifications many don’t understand them at all. And what I see on resumes commonly is I am Microsoft certified. And that could mean anything. They don’t even say which product. Employer reads that and it’s hard for them to know the difference.
Chris Randall: Let me ask you a question, why are you SQL Server certified?
Greg Low: I’m probably in the special case. Became an exam-junkie. It was forced on me by MCT program. We had to endlessly do all exams and keep new versions all the time to stay in touch with that. I did get a taste for endlessly doing them. Why I do them is I love the fact that it makes me explore parts of the product that I wouldn’t do. People endlessly say ten years experience saying product X, but they’ve only used 20 to 30 percent of product X. Don’t even look at new features unless it becomes imperative. If I do exams I do them in beta phase. No materials you can run off and find to easily gain certification. If you look at all the details of what you need to cover, forcing myself to cover all those areas has been valuable. Makes me look at areas I wouldn’t have looked at.
Chris Randall: I’m in the same category. Research paper on Microsoft research, don’t have a Mac background, but for reasons you said, had to learn more about ToolSet and it lead me in that direction.
Greg Low: I could do the same thing without continuing the exams. Preparation work that you do (doing exam is separate issue, financial thing they need to commit to). Thing I like is I will set a deadline that I will pass exam by. Study prep to make sure I go through product appropriately so I make that deadline.
Chris Randall: External discipline and schedules than anything from within. Concentrate for a week is a good thing.
Greg Low: Is there value in certification resume/CV wise?
Chris Randall: Still a bad taste in many people’s mouths from dot com boom days and days of paper MCSC.
Greg Low: Define that topic for those who weren’t involved.
Chris Randall: Still feel people asking for brain dumps or transcripts from exams, people who take the certification without knowing the product. Cram for it, or cheat on it. Less worse case is exam junkies. Back in boom days there was a huge explosion of number of people working in IT and a pressure to become certified. Varying background thinking certification was a ticket to a better job, and taking exam without knowing product. Where that led was people being hired because of inexperience on the part of employers who couldn’t do the job. Employers’ standpoint I don’t know if certification has recovered from that .From IT workers’ standpoint they don’t see the value. Both types of people in my classes. Managers who think certification isn’t a priority. People taking the classes for job knowledge only, with no intention to certify. Focus is job knowledge. Certification is very low on checklist of motivation.
Greg Low: When teaching many years ago certification was the outcome many people were looking for. Quite changed around now. Job skills chased, certification is not a primary focus. Wife Mary changed positions a year or so ago. The people that worked at previous said it’s irrelevant doing certifications, makes no difference. I encouraged her to do them regardless, and it was the same, one of the things that helped her get into the position she’s in. I think it’s largely because in the SQL Server area the newer certifications are understood as a cut above the previous types. The employer she was working for was aware of the state of the SQL Server certifications though they’re a SQL Server organization. They understood that very well. Secondly, they are a gold partner with Microsoft. Anyone who is a partner organization needs an appropriate number of certification. I can attest that it 100 percent made a difference in wife’s situation.
Chris Randall: I’ll ask people in my classes who are currently certified and who is seeking certification. For those seeking certification I’ll ask who they work for, and almost 100 percent says working for a company requiring a certain number of certified professionals to meet partner requirements.
Greg Low: Funny how requirement in a program, paper MSCE’s and so on, problem with competency based partner model. People become Microsoft partner organization and gain competences in different areas. Requirement is to have number of people certified in many areas. Dollar incentive, so corruption. Call from a local organization (who will stay nameless), gold partner, certified with Microsoft. Needed a certain number of MCDBAs. Offered to pay to have my number associated with them to retain certification. I said no, I was associated with another organization anyway. Situations where people have been paid to have their numbers associated with other organizations. Certainly heard strong stories about it. That corrupts the entire thing again. Perception from customer is that partner has those people with certifications, but they clearly do not.
Chris Randall: One thing I found interesting. If you look at SQL Server Magazine 2006 salary survey. Interesting comment “the respondents to this year’s salary survey already know the importance of their core knowledge. Highly educated group, 52 percent hold certification, most is Microsoft certification.” I read that and was a little surprised with how weak the SQL Server certification came off in that description. It’s only half the respondents (self-selected group), but only half were certified at all, and many were Microsoft certified, which didn’t read to me that SQL Server certification was something they all had or were looking for or was even valued.
Greg Low: I saw a discussion on local mailing list. Religious topic that comes up is certification. Comment from one guy that dismissed any value in certification. Telling, two thirds of the posts later did one exam once and failed. From that point on, there’s no point where’s he’s tried to pass exams. Contention was how exam was structured, therefore certification has no value.
Chris Randall: Sour grapes.
Greg Low: Very much so, a degree of that in the community as well. Answer for myself yet is how valuable is certification to the IT worker? You mentioned the positive experience of certification. Lots of people pursuing it in one field or another. What is the clear story?
Greg Low: Correlation with experience is key. CV with certification listed but no experience is not a good thing. Just experience rates way higher. Strong experience with certifications is additional benefit. One of the things I look at is that they have some degree of discipline of some sort.
Chris Randall: Commitment required to become certified, writing a check to testing vendor at least. Time commitment and personal commitment. Most people who are certified have to do so off-hours. Not given time at work.
Greg Low: The last topic before break is the whole cheating discussion. Are people really being certified? In dot com days common to find lots of sites where people would come out of exams, detail them, and brain dump sites where you could get a copy of every single question. Microsoft stopped providing some of the grading info and it was interesting how that changed things. Brain dump sites didn’t know if they had the right answers for the questions. Distracting. Another interesting thing is the number of people taking the certifications endlessly to produce guides worked. Trainer on news group talking about exam had to take it another 4 or 5 times. Literally taking exam to go off…
Chris Randall: I remember the trainer and the discussion.
Greg Low: The first time it struck me that anybody would do that. In awe that someone would take the same exam. It was another requirement that came into the program that you can only take the exam for certification. Once you’d passed there was no point in taking it again (idea), and against the program to take it again because there’s not certification value. I wondered, there are numerous problems. Exam centers someone has just sat there taking pictures of every question that comes up. Not only details of questions on cheating things, but exact pictures. There’s no other way other than photographing every exam or having access to preparation process. Sadly, even though there are way less of those sites available. Discussion with training group about how many of them are still around. 15 minutes and I picked an exam that isn’t one I would do. Found I could pay 30 dollars and obtain word for word what would be on the exams.
Chris Randall: Have you noticed that a number of beta exams have geographical restrictions. What countries the exams will be offered in. I wonder if Microsoft has identified patterns that way or if there’s something else behind it. It’s interesting to see that. Windows server exams, is said they weren’t available in India, china, or Pakistan. Any connection between problems?
Greg Low: There has been a history of those things. Certainly a Chinese one that I was able to pick (one that I’m not interested in). What I obtained was 100 percent what you would get on the exam.
Chris Randall: Ad said I could purchase certification and World of War craft gold with same transaction.
Greg Low: Problem with certification thing. It’s very hard to do the testing without face to face testing. I’ve heard a story in Pakistan about a training center where you could pay to have someone sit and do the exam with you. The more you paid the better the person with you did. It’s ridiculous. When Microsoft identified that they disallowed all certifications that have come out of that center. The point is still there that when you have remote testing it’s very difficult to make sure you are testing what you think you’re testing.
Chris Randall: And that’s a hard problem to solve. The alternative is how do you maintain 100,000 certified professionals and require face to face testing?
Greg Low: Now Chris, you’re living in Colorado?
Chris Randall: That’s right.
Greg Low: And we were in Colorado recently for the PASS conference in Denver. I enjoyed it and was able to take a trip around the areas. Have you lived there for a long time?
Chris Randall: Coming up on eight years. Lived in Silicon Valley area for decade or more before that. Grew up on east coast, and now I’m in the middle. Watching snow melt in backyard and looking forward to spring. SQL PASS I got a minute to say hi with you, and meet your wife.
Greg Low: It was very short!
Chris Randall: I was proctoring the hands-on lab and didn’t get a chance to get out and circulate.
Greg Low: I noticed that you seemed to be very dedicated there and almost chained to it.
Chris Randall: You’re welcome to say that! I was trying to think of the last time we got together in person was dinner in Sydney a year ago!
Greg Low: I have a colleague who loves the hands-on labs and proctoring them. He says he meets the most interesting people and prefers it to the rest of the conference.
Chris Randall: Well if I couldn’t watch the conferences after on DVD I wouldn’t proctor. I get to meet interesting people and never have to wonder what the rest of the conference looks like because I’ll never see it.
Greg Low: You mentioned living with family, pets, and guitars?
Chris Randall: I share a house with my wife who’s in IT and working on business stuff, our nine-year-old, a dog, a couple of cats, and used to have birds and fish that didn’t survive.
Greg Low: For many people a single pet is enough of a challenge.
Chris Randall: We maxed out at a dog, four cats, two birds and a fish tank, but we’ve scaled back.
Greg Low: With the amount that Mary and I travel a pet wouldn’t be a good option. We can’t even look after the few plants. I always tell people at a nursery that I need ones that thrive on neglect.
Chris Randall: If it weren’t for my wife none of the plants or pets would have survived. I used to be on the road two to three weeks per month.
Greg Low: Guitars as well?
Chris Randall: I had a mid-life crisis when I turned 40 and realized I missed playing music. I went 20 years without and needed to get back into it. It’s a slow process but therapeutic.
Greg Low: Now we have correlation between music and IT. Particularly people involved in development. It has to be something with the similar creative nature or something. Certainly a strong correlation.
Chris Randall: I think you’re right, I remember that from my academic days. Dad was a professor as were his colleagues. Especially between mathematicians and musicians.
Greg Low: The odd thing with that is you would think someone with more math rigor would be more precise (left brain right brain thing), no creative nature that is required for musical ability. In terms of current SQL Server certification what’s on offer?
Chris Randall: Choices now. Goes back to problems raised and solved by SQL certification. Certified database administration. Convergence of former elective in database implementation and administration. We’ve got several different tracks now that people can partake in. I imagine that just as I’ve done, you’ve partaken of all of the tracks, so we’ve got the database admin certification at the tech specialist level, and the IT pro level in database administration, and two other tracks. Database developer and business intelligence developer which is brand new in this version. Microsoft is going to expand more in SQL Server 2008.
Greg Low: Can I get your thoughts on removing of operating system certification requirements? Database administration types used to require some level of operating system certification. Always contentious when people had no interest at all in operating system certification and then not eligible to be in trainer program because they weren’t going to hold certifications.
Chris Randall: I wish I had insight into why Microsoft made the decision to separate the operating system requirements from the DBA requirements. As I put it in a short bio, I found myself overwhelmed by trying to keep track of development and database work. Another set of toes in operating system to understand what was going on there. Made life easier to focus on SQL Server but not have to know everything about acting directory.
Greg Low: Should there be some level of that in the administrative side of the certifications?
Chris Randall: From a security/communications standpoint, we’re seeing more and more things that are leaving the sandbox. Ability for DBAs to open ports for listeners for web services. Gets back into needing to learn more about how the operating system is going to handle that.
Greg Low: I don’t remember seeing anything in the exams about sound environments, and nothing about SQL Server virtualization. Administrators are faced with daily; it’s rare that you find something that isn’t a sound environment.
Chris Randall: Let’s look at the age of SQL Server 2005 exams, even if they’re only two years old. Virtualization wasn’t in the front of the average DBA’s mind three years ago like it is now.
Greg Low: I’m leading to going forward with 2008 ones, which we’ll come to as a suggestion. Should there be some type of examination on those types of operating system concepts?
Chris Randall: From perspective of database vendor (Microsoft) how do you, from a practical standpoint, how do you test on things like fans that are not owned and operated by Microsoft, not something that comes out of the box with the operating system? Need to demonstrate that knowledge. Make the case that it belongs in pro-level exam.
Greg Low: It’s an interesting aside. Operating system requirements before, there aren’t now. More need for them now than before.
Chris Randall: I agree absolutely. SQL Server security leads to deer in headlights look from student. Never got to learn it, now need to know it.
Greg Low: When you talk about things like security of websites, and slowing windows authentication to database, and machines trusted to delegation. So many of those concepts that are not part of normal SQL Server competency.
Chris Randall: Agreed.
Greg Low: Some feeling that there is a need for some more of that type of thing. Tech specialist level qualifications. Intended to be entry level ones?
Chris Randall: Designed to be entry level. Jerry O’Brien blog posts talks about differences. Tech specialist level is designed to be certification that proves skills in how-to, while pro is designed to be in design layer.
Greg Low: Good differentiation. Tech specialist level is day to day skills, while IT pro exams test much more in terms of design and architectural skills. IT pro area you are more likely to get case studies. Tech specialist exams, traditional multiple choice questions.
Chris Randall: Going back to talking about operating systems, it would be interesting to see if Microsoft decided operating topics needed to be in SQL PS exam, and design topics in pro-level exams.
Greg Low: Currently two tech specialist level exams (70-431, general SQL Server implementation/maintenance). Materials available for preparing vary between different exams. Business intelligence one is other tech specialist exam (70-445) implementation/maintenance for business intelligence.
Chris Randall: I don’t know what your thoughts on that exam were. Intent of both tech specialist level and pro-level business intelligence exams. What we find is that they are very sweeping in sheer number of topics.
Greg Low: Exam 431 surprised me with breadth of topics. Little bit about this and this, amazed by the breadth of things covered.
Chris Randall: Business intelligence exam, there are multiple products, products that one person isn’t going to be working with day to day at the tech specialist level. Typically a business intelligence worker in SQL Server tools will be focused on analysis services or integration or reporting. To including all three and data mining was interesting.
Greg Low: The 445 exam was a very odd exam, and tended to examine what tended to be some quirky options in the various products. Some of those things did not seem to be day to day type knowledge. The fact that there was such an option was good knowledge for design exam, but setting those weird options really struck me like something that had no place in that exam at all. A colleague who specializes in business intelligence area found the tech specialist exam more difficult than the IT pro level exam in the business intelligence track.
Chris Randall: I would agree with that, when I saw them in beta the tech specialist was more challenging.
Greg Low: To me that seems the wrong way around.
Chris Randall: It certainly explains the numbers of certified people!
Greg Low: Exam 445 people should not underestimate. Exam 446 is the design exam for the IT pro exam. If you do 445 (single certification) and 446 additional certification once they’ve done 445 that takes them to IT pro level (Microsoft certification IT pro). Thoughts on 446?
Chris Randall: Exam 446 wasn’t as challenging in terms of detailed technical requirements. Scope of what business intelligence tools did. Did all those things really belong in one exam?
Greg Low: Back on relation engine side of the fence. In terms of this side, 70-431 is the tech specialist exam for database developer and DBA; if you’re heading to DBA platform you have two exams.
Chris Randall: You’ve got 444, the pro-level optimizing/maintaining, and 443 which is on designing the infrastructure.
Greg Low: Key point is that if you go to that next level you have two exams. One is optimizing/managing, the other is designing.
Chris Randall: Both of those exams were very fair and interesting to take after being through other SQL Server certification exams. I enjoyed them both, and found them both interesting, and they solved issues of earlier exams.
Greg Low: I took them separately. 447 is a transition exam for people who did previous MCDBA, which effectively combines questions from 443 and 444. You’re basically doing both exams, but not the total number of questions.
Chris Randall: If you are SQL Server 2000 MCDBA, you still need to take exam 431 (tech specialist SQL implementation). Seeing all the exams for me was an accident. I took 447 but didn’t see new certification on transcript, took 443 and 444, but I needed only to take 431. My employer has a testing center so I didn’t have to walk very far.
Greg Low: For database developer side, you need the same tech specialist exam 431, but you need 441 and 442, one’s a designing and optimizing, the other is a designing exam.
Chris Randall: I don’t think I took both the developer ones.
Greg Low: I found both of them similar in structure and nature to the DBA ones. One exam primarily a case study and the other one was very much a multiple choice exam. Should mention for people. What is different with a case-study exam?
Chris Randall: Those exams caught me by surprise. There was a bit more ADO.net discussion than I was expecting.
Greg Low: Good point. Worth mentioning that there are preparation guides and almost invariably you’ll find that those things are spelled out in those guides.
Chris Randall: I will post a link to each of the prep guides on my blog; let me know when I can provide that. I will post links and quick references.
Greg Low: We’ve just been revamping the website the last week. We’re turning it around where there will be a more complete page associated with the podcasts. We’ll have decent show links and that will appear very soon.
Chris Randall: Simulations. Those can be a bit of fun (case studies). You’re presented with a case study and how you would design a solution on how you would present the requirement. How quickly one can read.
Greg Low: What you have is a story they’ve spelled out. From the perspective of different people in an organization, which is quite like real life. Different people will have different opinions. Questions on what needs to be achieved and options on how you would achieve that. More realistic than other styles of questions.
Chris Randall: Depends on what organization you’ve come from. Requirements aren’t always communicated.
Greg Low: One of the things you mentioned was reading speed. Case study exams are onerous to take. Sit down and read entire case study and then answer the eight to ten questions per case study, and the problem with that is after you’ve read all that you’ve got to completely forget that and read another case study and do the same thing again. The problem comes from concentration, forgetting all you just read and reading another lot of detail.
Chris Randall: As a comparison, the American education system and college preparation exams. Pre-university exams called SAT and relatives of it. For number of years I paid for beer in college by teaching SAT prep seminars. Taught tips and tricks that still help me take these exams. Reading comprehension: long passage to read and follow-up questions. Used to advise my students to skim questions first, and filter out text that wasn’t related to question. Approach works on case studies.
Greg Low: I do exactly the same things. When I take case study exams now I’ve completely changed how I take them. Many exams I complete in less than half an hour. I don’t read all the material. I look at the questions and if there’s six to 10, I can answer three to four completely unrelated to the case study.
Chris Randall: I don’t know if I’ve had that many that were answered that way, but I’ve had a few that I can answer on product knowledge.
Greg Low: Small number of questions I need answer to, and then I look at that part of the case study. The other thing I find about that is it completely fixes the comprehension problem for me because I’m not trying to read and comprehend.
Chris Randall: While I’m not a fan of test prep software, I do recommend to my students that they do pick up a copy of a self-test to learn the format and to practice that kind of technique.
Greg Low: That’s a good point, the technique for taking the exams gets easier the more you do. You do learn the way they tend to ask questions and so on. In general if you had to give general advice I would say if given a choice between a newer Microsoft technology and an older Microsoft technology they’re probably going to look for the newer.
Chris Randall: If taking a test question that is chose only one of the four choices, you’ll find that code snippets are virtually identical. If you can recognize that the second or third choice only differs in one area, just focus on how they differ.
Greg Low: I look for code samples and just finding the words that are different. That’s the thing to focus on.
Chris Randall: If you’ve got two choices that are functionally the same and you can only pick one, they can’t both be right so they’re both wrong.
Greg Low: That’s completely right!
Chris Randall: It comes back to just knowing how to take tests. I’m appreciative of my SAT prep years. Former student is a current actress and supermodel, so it’s gotten me somewhere…
Greg Low: Only half-jokingly talking about new technologies. Important to realize that marketing guys have direct input in what ends up in exams. Or review status on those. There is always going to be marketing bent on some for the questions. The questions will be pushed in a way that they cover the new features rather than existing ones.
Chris Randall: State clearly for the record that we’d be speculating.
Greg Low: The reason I say that is one of the other questions that has appeared are the simulation questions, where you’re presented with something that is somewhat like the real interface of the product and getting you to change configurations in some way. What frustrated me in one SQL exams was the choices you ended up having to make to get the right answer were simply really poor practice, and I did go back and talk to the people who had generated the question in the first place, and asked what he was thinking, and he said the question made perfect sense, but right in the final review phase one of the people doing the review required them to insert another product feature, and that was what had undone the point of the question. It was the final review stage where the question came unstuck. The correct way to answer the question was to configure the system in the least-desirable way you would actually do it. That leads me a little on to the final thing about exam errors. Do you find errors in exams?
Chris Randall: Yes and no. I have noticed errors in exams and I think there are errors in exams. I can think of situations similar to yours, or the dreaded drag and drop tiles to make a flow of steps. By the same token, there’s been at least one occasion where I was convinced there was a question error and it was a gap in my own knowledge. There are errors.
Greg Low: That’s common, I hear that it had all the wrong things, but there’s a gap in their own understanding. Hard for a test taker to know if there is an actual error in the test. Only someone fairly experienced would know. If you think there’s a problem there is an opportunity to comment.
Chris Randall: There’s a fairly recent issue when Microsoft switched over to using Prometric as a test provider. For someone previously using View exclusively, the test engine looks different. In View there was a review and comment option that would give you the option to go back and look at the question. Prometric engine just has the review check mark.
Greg Low: Personal thing, I have never used those check boxes. I’ve done 50-something exams and I have never used that. I find that I go through the exam once, get to the end, and I don’t want to look at the questions again.
Chris Randall: My goal is to see all the questions as quickly as I can, answer the ones I can, and then go back and use review for anything that needs more time. Not because I’m not sure, just if I need re-reading. First pass-through is very quick. Test takers these days say you need to know that review is for comments to Microsoft about exam, and for test takers who want to review the test.
Greg Low: When they do review on the exams it will be looked at. I have fairly good experiences in the quality and delivery of exams. If I go back to earlier ones I have done, that was easily the hardest and worst exam I’ve ever done. It had faulty questions.
Chris Randall: You mentioned that in one of the earlier podcasts. I’m embarrassed to admit that I was listening with my 9-year old and explaining check boxes and radio buttons and why I was laughing at your comments. Another generation listening to SQL down under.
Greg Low: Those silly things I found weeded out. The basic quality of the delivery is pretty high.
Chris Randall: I agree. I don’t believe individual test takers will ever hear back when they’ve left a comment.
Greg Low: It goes into a process that is one-way when you do that. The last certification is a new Microsoft certified architect program. Called SQL Ranger program. Very specialized program, and addresses the need for much more realistic certification and requires a fairly intensive course of study. One of the requirements is that you arrive at a board review and you have several people there who orally examine you, and you have to answer the questions to their satisfaction.
Chris Randall: As close as Microsoft certification will get to a PhD examination.
Greg Low: The problem with this is scale and cost.
Chris Randall: What’s the cost to apply, $10,000 per applicant?
Greg Low: Yes, and if you have to apply again you have to pay again. The same for normal exams. When you take an exam you pay for it once, it doesn’t entitle you to keep taking it forever.
Chris Randall: In terms of special retake, Microsoft still has exam insurance offer available. Link to blog about how that works. If you register in advance you can retake the exam at a reduced cost or for free.
Greg Low: If you fail an exam more than once you do have to have a delay before you’re allowed to take it again.
Chris Randall: I was told that was to prevent piracy.
Greg Low: People could otherwise intentionally fail the exam but remember the questions in detail. Good move in that direction. The other thing is that if someone’s failed the exam twice in a short period they need to do more research anyway.
Greg Low: Most interesting Chris. Thanks for your time. What is coming up in your world?
Chris Randall: I’m teaching in Denver for the foreseeable future, I loved coming on board at Ameritech after years as a road warrior. I’ve gotten my usual load of SQL classes coming up the next month or so. Looking forward to first week in February at the Microsoft certified trainer summit in Redmond. Second half of week is SQL trainer session.
Greg Low: Different tracks for that one…
Chris Randall: Business intelligence one sold out very quickly. Streaming some to the web.
Greg Low: Which track did you end up in?
Chris Randall: Administrative and engine track.
Greg Low: Excellent.
Chris Randall: Looking forward to getting out of classroom and absorbing as much as I can in that.
Greg Low: Kimberly Tripp and Paul Randal, former guests on the show. Thanks for your time, I appreciate you spending…
Chris Randall: For folks looking for SQL 2008 certification Microsoft will be having a live meeting on certifications on February 6. I’ll put a link on my blog to register for that. Carry on pulling the plug on me.
Greg Low: Talk to you again soon.
Chris Randall: Thanks Greg.
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