Preparing for Exams

So recently I studied for the first in a series of SQL Server focused Microsoft exams (M70-431 A: SQL Server 2005 – Implementation and Maintenance). 

To assist me (and, in particular, to determine the scope of knowledge I needed to acquire) I used an exam prep kit from uCertify.  I’m taking a sizable working knowledge of SQL Server (from 6.5 to 2008) and trying to fill in the gaps.

This was an interesting challenge since the Microsoft official curriculum requires a solid understanding of SQL Server from the developer/architect and the database administrator viewpoint.  Most of my experience to date has been developer centric – schema design, queries, data access and performance tuning.  As I was to find out, my fundamental knowledge of DBA-centric tasks was a little lacking.

It’s very easy (and convenient) to let someone else (a DBA) worry about backup management, replication, RAID configurations and managing clustered databases but important to have a solid understanding of how and why these things are important.

Whilst using the prep kit, I was able to isolate specific areas (of the exam) in which I needed a lot more study. 

Besides the standard test exams (of which there were five in total) the kit also provided a series of flashcards, study notes and an interactive quiz which provided a fully configurable questions & answers style of approach (including time limits, categories and the ability to display the correct/incorrect answers immediately).

The kit also provided some interesting additional functionality, such as access to online articles which could be bookmarked – much like using periodicals in a library.  There is also a set of "How Tos" which provide a good breakdown invaluable for the second part of the official exam (which requires you to complete a number of tasks interacting with SQL Management Studio).  The "How Tos" give you step by step guidance in completing tasks such as "Create a login", "Disable an index" or "Create a linked server".

During the tests, it is possible to "tag" questions with user generated metadata and also the ability to add "notes" which can be reviewed later.  This is very handy if you want to track the reasoning behind a specific answer you came up with (handy when reviewing the results).

I had a few qualms with the software at some times while I was using the tests. 

Some of the questions (a handful) were misleading or hard to understand.  Given the correct answer , it was possible to understand the motivation behind the question, but the question could have been a little clearer about its intent.

There is support for a "drag and drop" style of question where you would take parts of T-SQL and drag them onto the appropriate place in the query.  My biggest knock is that the parts must be placed almost exactly over the placeholder or the object would not drop successfully.  This was very annoying and time consuming (and led to quite a few incorrect answers based on failed drops!).

Otherwise, there is a very handy feedback mechanism built into the software which allows the user to send feedback about a specific exam question to uCertify which I thought was a great idea.

This was more fun than simply reading or following a prep kit book.  The interactive nature helps to simulate real-world exam conditions (though, I highly recommend disabling your mail and IM clients for privacy!).

Overall, I enjoyed the preparation/study time and the kit was very beneficial.  My overall knowledge and appreciation for the depth of detail in the SQL Server family certainly increased as a result of taking all the exams.

I must say that, whilst a prep kit should never be the only source of study, it was quite invaluable in helping me determine my weaker knowledge areas. 

There’s no substitute for the real thing though, and anyone undertaking this or other Microsoft exams need to ensure that they have a solid "hands on" knowledge of the product range before they sit any exams.

Next Technical Post:
How to set up a Lego Mindstorms NXT device for use with BlueTooth (or, "how to lose your temper in five minutes or less").

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