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Microsoft Certifications: TS & ITPro

This article looks at the new Technical Specialist and IT Pro certifications from Microsoft. It provides preparation tips for these exams in general. Knowing what one is getting into before beginning (or getting too far into) the preparation process might ease the anxiety associated with Certification testing.
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Being in Information Technology is certainly an interesting career choice. The technology changes very rapidly, and we IT professionals are expected to keep up (and likely stay a step or two ahead of the curve). Certifications are no different—especially with the latest round of certification from Microsoft, namely the MCTS and MCITP paths, which replace the MCSE and MCSA paths from previous versions of Windows.

Some see Microsoft certifications as declining or less valuable than other vendor-based (or third-party sanctioned) certifications because if you are good on paper, you can pass them. I am in the middle of the road on this idea. I believe that you have to be a fairly good test taker to be comfortable sitting the exam and understand the concepts they want to know about, but not being able to understand things outside the exam room becomes plainly obvious in a hurry.

With the new MCITP certification tracks, the certifications actually expire when the technology sunsets, so the new version can be released and we can all race to update our credentials. This is both good and bad. It is good because it will help keep the certifiable population of Microsoft IT pros on their toes and striving to understand what is coming next. This is good for the industry, because it isn’t fair to companies to hire stale technologists. The bad part about renewing certifications is that one will never be done studying. With a full time position and a few side projects and some leisure activities (and sleep) thrown in, the studying seems constant.

What to Expect from MCTS exams

Microsoft Certified Technical Specialist exams are the technology/product- focused exams that cover products and build up to the Microsoft Certified Information Technology Professional certification.

MCTS exams use several different types of questions, ranging from the expected multiple choice and multiple choice/multiple answer (the questions asking you to select all that apply) to case studies and drag-and-drop. Previous exams have used case studies occasionally to change things up a bit, but from my experience with the new exams, there are more (and larger) case studies used this time around.

Preparing for the MCTS

When I started down the path of the MCTS, I decided to try a new method of studying. I had been to training classes before, which were the most succinct way to learn, but going to class isn’t always feasible. This time around I discovered video training. This method of study and preparation was interesting to say the least.

Video lessons combine two things that appeal to me: classroom training and portability. Both of these things were useful in my preparation. I was able to keep the lesson on my laptop and use my lunch hour to sneak in some studying during the week and get away from my desk for a few minutes every day.

I also find it helpful to watch the video for a particular exam with an open copy of Microsoft OneNote or a notebook to jot down items that I might want to remember or keep track of for further testing in my lab environment. With video training, the pause button is also very useful. Being able to review content right away is great and less disruptive than asking a classroom instructor repetitive questions.

Use a test environment if possible

Video study materials are one step in the right direction, since the MCTS exam is quite a bit different than previous Microsoft Exams. Case studies are popular this time around to force participants to apply their knowledge and prep to scenarios designed to represent things that might appear out in the real world.

How do you prepare for these scenarios? The best way I have found is to create a lab. I know that this may sound expensive, building a computer lab in your home—but virtualization using products like VMware Workstation or even a dedicated host server running VMware or Microsoft’s Hyper-V makes it affordable.

My lab lives on a Hyper-V host machine and tends to change based on what I am working with or studying. The first MCTS exam I took on was Active Directory, so the lab was full of domain controllers and a few client PCs to test things like replication and application of group policy.

What about the MCITP certification?

The MCITP certification cannot be taken, but rather is earned over time. It is made up of a track of other certifications. When you take the MCTS exams for related products, these build up to the MCITP. Achieving 5-7 MCTS exams will also earn you the MCITP designation. This is similar to the MCP and MCSA/MCSE certifications.

Microsoft has built MCITP certifications of related products, such as Windows Server 2008. There are also specializations that can be added to these designations, which are earned by taking certain MCTS exams. Some of these specializations include:

  • Server Administrator
  • Desktop Support Technician
  • Desktop Administrator
  • Messaging Administrator
  • Sharepoint Administrator
  • Database Administrator
  • Virtualization Administrator
  • Lync Administrator

With all of these options, there is a specialization for almost every interest. Review the tracks available at the Microsoft Learning website and select those that you use in your everyday job or that interest you, and will build your career path in the direction you want to go.

Tips for Preparation

While my own study habits could likely use some improvement, my goal in writing this article isn’t to dig into a specific exam or testable topic, but to get you thinking about the path as a whole and how you will choose to travel it. Think of this as an overview to certifications, with some POV tossed in. I have not yet taken all of the new exams in the track, but I am on my way—and hopefully my experiences will help you accomplish your goals in Microsoft Certification.

Don’t Do It for Money

You read that correctly: getting certifications has become the IT trick du jour for many in the field. Some employers expect certifications; some offer more money or other benefits for those who achieve the credentials. Be careful about additional benefits and things for getting certified. Not that the additional items aren’t good, but you shouldn’t use them as your sole motivation for certification. I found out long ago that doing something with your own time solely for the money is futile. When it feels like work, it isn’t very fun anymore. If getting paid is your motivation for getting certified, you may be hurting yourself and anyone you do business with.

Understand rather than memorize

Sure, there are things that are likely to appear on the exam that you will be able to regurgitate, either because you work with it every day, or because it just sticks in your brain for some reason. Be careful about relying on pure memorization, however; while it may get you through the exam, how comfortable are you with performing the task? Acronyms are a different animal, and lord knows there are a few acronyms. Some of these you would do well to memorize, and after using the technology for a while, things like File Classification Infrastructure (FCI) and Distributed File System Replication (DFSR) will be things you come to know, but memorizing the steps needed to use a particular technology or feature set will not serve you that well. Learning the technology will be a better move in the long run.

Assume the method on the exam is correct

I know that some will look at that and think I am nuts, but let me clarify. The exam method is correct, for the exam. However, there are times when the method outlined on the exam either will not work as expected or doesn’t work at all when you get out in the real world.

If you are someone who learns best by using technology, there are two things to keep in mind. First, you rock, so keep doing what you are doing because the industry needs as many hands-on techs as possible. Second, be sure you pay special attention to the methods outlined in the material. You may need to adjust your everyday method for the exam. Remember, these are computer graded tests, and there is a pre-recorded correct answer.

Pay attention to yourself

When you are preparing for an exam, there will likely be some things that work for you and some things that do not. For example, if you are a morning person, studying for a while in the morning might be the best bet for you, as time permits. Keep this in mind when you are scheduling your exam. If you are typically an early riser and feel most alert in the morning, try to schedule your exam in the morning. You should also keep in mind any regular (and prior) commitments that you have with family and your job so you do not put your exam right in the middle of the budget meeting you have scheduled for the third Monday of the month. Just the same, be mindful of self-commitments like regular coffee with friends. If you have coffee with a group on a specific day, you might try to avoid scheduling your exam for that time as well. Keeping your routine as normal as possible when scheduling a certification exam will only benefit you.

Also, make sure you get a good night’s sleep prior to the exam to ensure you are really ready to go. Once you click the start test button, you either pass or you don’t; there is no refund for ‘oops I didn’t sleep too well the night before.’

Ask Questions

Once you get in the testing room, asking questions will not do you much good. The computer cannot answer you, and if there are other people taking exams at that time, you may be bothering them. Be sure to ask questions of your peers and co-workers as they come up during the studying process. If you are unsure of something, put the question out there. There are lots of IT professionals who are very willing to help. I have also found Twitter and Facebook to be very helpful during the studying process. While the social media tools can be helpful, you need to remember that they are social and can be quite the distraction to the studying process. You also need to consider the fact that you may not get an answer immediately—but it certainly never hurts to ask.

While you are studying, keep a list of the things you have questions about, and take time to put these questions out to your peers. Then check in with the places you have asked the questions occasionally (perhaps on your lunch hour) to see if anyone has responded or asked for clarification.

Keep a schedule if you can

Preparing for a certification exam comes easier to some than to others. Making your best effort to set aside time on a regular basis will benefit you greatly. Not only will this allow you to be reminded and see the time for studying (if you make it an appointment on your calendar), but it will allow others around you to see that you have something going on.

The hardest temptation to avoid is perhaps the one involving family and friends who wish to spend time with you. If you schedule shorter, more frequent study sessions, say 3 times per week for 30-45 minutes, you will be able to study without giving up leisure activities. For me, this step has helped significantly in keeping my study habits from getting derailed. Another thing I have found is that meetings with yourself are the easiest to put off, dismiss, or continually reschedule. Sure, time with family and friends is great, but if you always put off studying, you aren’t helping yourself either. Surely if you make the regular habit of studying for certification and stick to it, your friends and family will understand.

Be honest

The last advice I can give about certification preparation is to be honest. You have to be honest with your knowledge and with yourself. For the knowledge part I am thinking of ethics, which is to say that you shouldn’t cheat or help others cheat on the exams—which is likely something you have heard before. For the rest, I am thinking of understanding your interests and staying true to what you are interested in. For example, if you are more into Windows than SQL server, with very little interest there, do not fool yourself into spending time studying for and sitting an exam that isn’t really important to you.

The more technology you take the time to learn, the better off you might be, however learning things that do not interest you will only make you less likely to continue learning in the future.

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