a pack of 'garden meadow' Seedballs, alongside a pack of 'poppy' Seedballs, and the back of the plantable thank you note.

My work sent all UK staff this thoughtful Spring gift of wildflower seedballs, to easily add some wildflowers to our homes and gardens. Even the little note that came with the packs contains seeds and is plant-able – just bury it and give it some water. I’m just waiting on some new planters to arrive, then I’ll get these added to the garden 🌼

Finally, I got around to my first Associate-level Microsoft certification. I’d originally planned to sit the AZ-204 exam for the Azure Developer Associate certification in November, as a follow-on to sitting AZ-104 in September. I’d fit AZ-102 somewhere after those, as I just wanted to do that one for fun. In the end, that all turned out to be too ambitious; with work being as busy as it turned out to be, and me quickly realising I’d bitten off more than I could chew, I kicked both exams further down the road. Both were pushed into February, while I figured out how I wanted to approach things. I decided I would give myself space to pass one Associate exam before committing to any more. For whatever reason, on the day I made the decision I was more confident about the Azure Developer material (funny that, given I’m a Lead Developer!), rather than the Administrator course, so I went with that. But I still needed a deadline, preferably not too far in the future, so March 31st was picked!

The last week of February, and all of March was given over to study in the evenings and some weekends. I used the official Microsoft Learn materials – both the new set linked from the certification page, and the older, more in-depth material which was previously tagged. When I started out I would do a practice test once a week to see how I was doing, and for a while it felt like I was doing pretty badly! Test scores were regularly around 65% until it started to sink in around weeks 3-4 and scores started to creep up slowly. At that point I started doing tests every day on MeasureUp – which has a nice feature where you can set the practice test to have just questions you haven’t seen in your previous N practices – and every other day on Whizlabs.

As the exam approached I was feeling really confident: I was starting to regularly score 95%, with an average score of ~85%, and practice tests under exam conditions were taking less than 30 minutes. While I didn’t think the exam would be easy, I was thinking I was in a good place.

The exam itself was… ouch. Much of it seemed at the time like it was something the learning material had only skimmed over, and I didn’t have nearly as many “I recognise that question!” moments as I did in the Fundamentals exams. It was easily the hardest Microsoft exam I’d taken, possibly one of the hardest exams I’ve ever taken. Question after question felt unfamiliar and not something I’d covered in study or practice. In my defence, a lot of the question wording left something to be desired. This is a constant complaint of mine with MS exams – the questions often feel like they are incomplete sentences, badly translated, or both. I remember one question asked me to pick a solution with barely any context to go on – I spent a good 5 minutes rereading the entire page and checking I hadn’t missed a link to an exhibit or case study that would allow me to intuit an answer! Looking back, I can see things a bit clearer-eyed and relate the questions I remember to the material, but at the time I had such a sinking feeling I would fail the exam.

But in the end, my preparation didn’t let me down. As unconfident as I felt part-way through the exam, I still passed comfortably, with a good score that was slightly above my average practice score.

So now that AZ-204 is out of the way, what’s next? I still want to do AZ-104 (Azure Administrator Associate), but I’m not in a hurry to repeat the gruelling exam experience just yet. Hopefully I can squeeze it in this year though. I’m also one step closer to reaching my ultimate goal – Microsoft Certified: DevOps Engineer Expert (AZ-400) – of which, Azure Developer Associate is one of the pre-requisites.

More importantly – I want to actually use more of what I learned! I feel like I’ve still only barely scratched the surface of Azure. While much of it is overkill for the simple side projects like I do in my spare time, I still have a few ideas in my head for what I could be using it for.

I ran into an issue last night where I couldn’t generate a new React application template using npx create-react-app my-app. Annoyingly, this was only broken in the WSL environment of my personal PC, where it had been a while since I’d had to use the command. On Windows, where I’d never run the command before, it worked fine. The error I received was:

You are running create-react-app 4.0.2, which is behind the latest release (5.0.0).
We no longer support global installation of Create React App.

This was odd, as I’d never globally installed create-react-app. Never the less, I followed the error’s suggested fix of running npm uninstall -g create-react-app. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work. What followed was an hour of trying various other “fixes” from around the internet – update NPM/clear the NPM cache/update NPX… none of which worked for me.

In the end I resorted to fixing the issue through brute force – finding wherever this mystery instance of create-react-app was lurking and purging it from my system with good old rm. Using a combination of find and rm I found 2 places containing binaries. Removing these directly didn’t fix the problem either, but working my way further up the diectory tree to their common parent directory did.

As it turns out, I’d accidentally stumbled on the NPX cache, which is kept hidden away from the usual NPM cache. Mine was in a slightly odd place because I use NVM to manage my NodeJS versions, but you can find yours using npm config get cache, then looking for an _npx directory within the returned path. Delete the contents in there, and npx create-react-app my-app should start working again.

Or, to make it really easy, run npx clear-npx-cache.

A few of us at work might be moving to a project that uses React more heavily than anything we’ve done before, so I wanted to make a list of any interesting links which might be useful to share with the group. Some might not be specifically about React, but were useful for me getting up and running on my home PC, or are worth storing for future reading:

Much like my development environment notes, this post is pretty much just for me – but if you find it useful, I’m glad!

Because Docker have changed their licensing and subscription TOS overnight, I’ve had to rebuild my development environment so it doesn’t use Docker Desktop on Windows anymore. What follows are notes I’ve made along the way on how I got this working on my particular laptop. This is not a tutorial! While the notes below might help you, they’re mostly a reminder to myself, in case I need to rebuild again, or adapt this into documentation for the rest of the team.

Docker on WSL

Uninstall Docker Desktop. Make sure WSL2 and a distro are installed and updated, then follow this guide by Jonathan Bowman.

Install docker-compose:

sudo apt-get install docker-compose

Git configuration in WSL

Setup Git to use your email address and username:

git config --global user.name "Your Name"
git config --global user.email "youremail@yourdomain.com"

Use the Windows Credential Manager, to share credentials across WSL/Windows:

git config --global credential.helper "/mnt/c/Program\ Files/Git/mingw64/libexec/git-core/git-credential-wincred.exe"

WSL Tweaks

Set the default WSL distro:

wsl -l --all  your available distos
wsl --setdefault Ubuntu-20.04

Create the file %USERPROFILE%\.wslconfig, and add the following:

[wsl2]
memory=8GB              # How much memory to assign to the WSL2 VM.
processors=4        # How many processors to assign to the WSL2 VM.

Adjust the values as necessary. This limits the VMMEM process to a sensible amount of resource usage – it’ll consume everything it can otherwise.

Restart WSL:

wsl --shutdown

(Open a new WSL terminal to start it again)

Windows Terminal Tweaks

To create a command which opens a single tab which is split into four panes, with each pane set to a different service directory, open the settings.json file, and add the following in the commands array:

{
            "command":
            {
                "action": "wt",
                "commandline": "new-tab -p \"Ubuntu-20.04\" -d \"//wsl$/Ubuntu-20.04/home/chris/dev/graphql\" ; split-pane -V  -p \"Ubuntu-20.04\" -d \"//wsl$/Ubuntu-20.04/home/chris/dev/inbound-service\"; split-pane -H  -p \"Ubuntu-20.04\" -d \"//wsl$/Ubuntu-20.04/home/chris/dev/outbound-service\"; mf left; split-pane -H  -p \"Ubuntu-20.04\" -d \"//wsl$/Ubuntu-20.04/home/chris/dev/front-end\""
            },
            "name": "startdev"
}

The network-style formatting of the starting directory is necessary, otherwise the path won’t be parsed properly.

Other

Install Node, etc on WSL by following this guide in the Microsoft docs.

To get VS Code Remote working, open a WSL terminal, then run the following:

code .

This should automatically install the Remote server. Once done, a Remote editor can be opened in Code on the Windows side. Extensions for Remote are managed separately, so install any that are needed, such as Docker, etc.

To have the VS Code Remote window make sure Docker is started when it’s opened up, add the following to ~/.vscode-server/server-env-setup on the WSL side:

DOCKER_DISTRO="Ubuntu-20.04"
DOCKER_DIR=/mnt/wsl/shared-docker
DOCKER_SOCK="$DOCKER_DIR/docker.sock"
export DOCKER_HOST="unix://$DOCKER_SOCK"
if [ ! -S "$DOCKER_SOCK" ]; then
    mkdir -pm o=,ug=rwx "$DOCKER_DIR"
    chgrp docker "$DOCKER_DIR"
    /mnt/c/Windows/System32/wsl.exe -d $DOCKER_DISTRO sh -c "nohup sudo -b dockerd < /dev/null > $DOCKER_DIR/dockerd.log 2>&1"
fi

Note to self: don’t book exams for very first thing on a Monday, as you might not get to finish your coffee beforehand! Bad scheduling aside, this morning I passed the Microsoft MS-900 exam. This takes me to five certifications this year, adding Microsoft Certified: Microsoft 365 Fundamentals to the list.

I hadn’t really planned to do this exam, and it was very much a spur-of-the-moment thing, largely driven by “well, I’ve done the others, so I might as well…” As I mentioned the other day, I found this one a bit odd to study for. Although I passed, I don’t feel I was as prepared for this exam as I was my others, even though I tried to approach it in the same manner I’ve approached my other certifications this summer. I really struggled to find resources which were both comprehensive and up-to-date. A lot of the non-MS resources were from 2019 and 2020, but the exam was updated in 2021. That said, enough of the core information was available, and my view is probably being tinted by my initial… disappointment(?)… at my own performance. Yes, I know that sounds odd to say after passing, but I guess I just feel I could do and should have done better.

I guess if I had any advice to give about the exam it would be: study the chart of MS365 editions and what features are available in each one. There were a lot of very specific questions on this – more than I was expecting – and I wish I’d learned it in greater detail.

As far as resources go, I used my regular mix of Microsoft Learn’s free study material, and the Percipio video courses I have access to through my work. As there is no Whizlabs module for MS-900, I used MeasureUp for the first time, so I could have access to a reliable online practice test. It was good, following the format of the real exam pretty closely. I’ll be using their tests again when I’m going for the AZ-104, AZ-204, and AZ-400 exams.

I had my yearly performance review/annual appraisal today. I know a lot of developers (and non-developers!) who treat these with a very dismissive or laid-back attitude. A lot of the time it’s because it’s seen as a “box ticking” exercise with little obvious benefit to the appraised. Another common attitude I’ve seen over the years is that the outcome is already decided before the meeting, often on personal or emotive reasons rather than an honest and clear-eyed look at how the preceeding twelve months have gone.

I’m not someone who sees the annual appraisal this way. As someone who has been on both sides of the table at different times, I view the appraisal as an important milestone in the year, and should be treated as such. If you don’t take your own appraisal seriously – particularly in the preparation for it – then how can you expect others to? In the rest of this post I want to talk about the appraisal, and my thoughts around how to approach it (from the point of view of the appraised in this case – maybe next time I’ll do the appraiser viewpoint)

In my experience the appraisal is a good opportunity to do three things:

  1. Confirm to yourself what you’ve achieved over the last year – and maybe more importantly – remind your manager of it. Managers are not omnipotent. They don’t necessarily know or remember every little victory you’ve had. So remind yourself, and remind them.
  2. Look at the trajectory you’re on and where you’re headed over the next year. Is that where you want to be? Is that where your manager wants you to be? What do you want to achieve?
  3. How do your colleagues see you? Where does that fit into the above two points? Make sure you get some honest, constructive, feedback from coworkers.

The important piece is that this isn’t just some onerous process which is mostly for the benefit of HR. An appraisal is guaranteed one-on-one time with your manager to have an open and frank discussion about you and your career. Not just the job you’re doing now, but also what you’ll be doing next and beyond. The appraisal can be thought of as the regular status check on your career ambitions.

This year, my appraising manager isn’t who I directly report to on a day-today basis. They used to be closer to me in the reporting structure, and they chaired my promotion panel earlier this year, so they’re not unfamiliar with me – but they don’t necessarily know the fine details. For example, they knew I had been looking into training and development activities, but didn’t specifically know I had completed four certifications in the last few months; they also didn’t know all of the impact I had been making on my current project – so I had to recount those stories, backed up by the feedback from my colleagues.

It’s supposed to be an honest discussion, so I make sure to touch on the things I feel didn’t go so well – not to dwell on them, but to acknowledge what could have been better and that I am or have been thinking about ways to improve for next year. Showing self-awareness and openness to identifying, accepting and working on your own failings is an underrated skill, in my opinion, and it’s generally stood me in good stead over the years

In return my manager highlighted some areas of feedback that I had glossed over in my own reading, chiefly around leadership skills and my capabilities as a leader. It’s odd; I’m a lead developer who can guide a team to a goal, but I never really see myself specifically as a leader. Cheerleader for the team members, maybe! Yet here I was being asked to think about my leadership style and if there were any leadership-oriented training I would like to do. I hadn’t considered it before the meeting, but maybe I do want to start thinking about what comes after the full-time technical roles.

Finally, I make sure round out each appraisal by asking the appraiser to tell me exactly where they see how I fit into the organisation and what it is they expect from me. Normally you’ll have a sense of this from throughout the discussion, and there’ll usually be a written version of this after the appraisal, but I find explicitly asking the question has some benefits:

  1. It lets you know immediately if you’ve been successful in getting your own message across about the year.
  2. Generally it will give you the more “unfiltered” version of your appraiser’s thoughts. We can’t always help it, but often there will be a difference in how people answer a question directly in conversation with someone, versus how we write it in a document which might be read by others.

You want to use your appraiser’s response to judge where you go from here. It should inform and set the tone for what you do in the year to come.

I won’t give you the response I got to this question, but I was definitely happy with it. It was positive, constructive, and gave me ideas for the coming twelve months. It told me that where I want to get to is well aligned with where the organisation would like me to go, while also suggesting steps to bridge into what comes after the shortterm plan.

And that’s great. Because it meant that the work I put in for this appraisal – and the previous appraisals too – meant that I’ve been able to carve out a space where I can be fulfilled in the sense of controlling my own career progression and what I want to do, while also keeping myself in tune with what the organisation wants and needs from me.

So I implore you: don’t write off the annual appraisal process. Engage with it, learn from it, and use it to your advantage as another tool you can use to build your career.

Microsoft Certified: Security, Compliance, and Identity Fundamentals award badge

This evening I completed (and passed) the Microsoft SC-900 exam, earning my fourth certification this year – Microsoft Certified: Security, Compliance, and Identity Fundamentals.

This certification was interesting in a few different ways – first, it was kind of done “spur of the moment”; I’d passed my other exams and wanted to keep the momentum going, so I booked it without much forethought. Secondly, I’ve done loads of Secure Software Development Lifecycle training and documentation over the last few years, so I feel I might have had a leg-up on at least some of the fundamentals of this topic (pardon the pun). Finally, I genuinely found some of the tools referenced in the training to be quite interesting in and of themselves – something I hadn’t appreciated before diving in.

As per usual, I used my regular mix of Microsoft Learn’s free online resources, supplemented by access to Percipio resources through my work, and this great “cram” video by John Saville.

I’m planning to have a bit of a break before I’m back on the exam trail; I next have some virtual classroom training in September and October, followed by Associate-level exams in October and November, which will be my last for the year.

Now that I’d completed the data side of Azure, I wanted to try out something I was a little less familiar with; I’ve not gone near anything Machine Learning or AI-related in my work so far, so I felt getting at least some exposure to these topics wouldn’t go amiss. I’m glad I opted to add Microsoft Certified: Azure AI Fundamentals [AI-900] into the mix of what I’m studying this summer. It was a fun course, and one I fully recommend.

I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this topic as much as I did. Maybe it was partly a reaction to how little I’d enjoyed the Power Platform Fundamentals course. AI/ML is not an area I see myself working on often, possibly never outside of certification courses, but I don’t think I’d mind at all if someone did ask me to jump into a small project using Azure’s AI platform and tools.

A lot of the exam focused on the Responsible AI priciples, along with identifying the different types of workloads, tools, and models to use. This was one of the easier exams I’d sat lately. It took me around twenty minutes to complete, and I passed with a higher score than I expected.

As far as resources go, I used my regular mix of Microsoft Learn’s free study material, and Whizlabs. The prep for this exam was a little more practical than some of my other exams lately, which is probably why I found it a bit more fun.

This afternoon I passed the Microsoft PL-900 exam, earning my second certification this year – Microsoft Certified: Power Platform Fundamentals.

Let me be upfront by saying: I really did not enjoy this certification. For whatever reason, I just could not connect with the subject matter, and the last few weeks have felt like an uphill struggle the whole way through. Even when I tried getting hands-on with the various pieces of the Power Platform, a lot of it was just plain unenjoyable. Power Automate and Power Virtual Agents seem interesting enough, but Power BI and Power Apps are areas I’d be happy to not have to be around again.

Maybe it was because I didn’t know much about Power Platform before starting (other than a nugget of Power BI exposure in my Azure Data Fundamentals certification), but I really did not expect so much of the course and exam to be taken up by Microsoft Dynamics. At times it felt like a big disadvantage to not have prior knowledge and experience of Dymanics and Dataverse.

Still, sometimes you just have to power through (pardon the pun). To pass the exam I used Microsoft Learn’s free online resources, and both the Whizlabs video course and practice tests. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have passed if I hadn’t made such heavy use of those practice tests. In the end, they were the only thing it felt was making the topic “stick”.

With PL-900 out of the way, I just have one more exam to do from my Summer of Certifications list. AI-900 is up next, and it’s probably the certifiation I’m most looking forward to.