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.

This post will fall into the “well duh…” category for a lot of people, but sometimes we need a reminder.

rsync in action

I got myself a new laptop recently (more on that another day), and wanted to back up filesfrom my old desktop to a portable drive, potentially for loading onto the new device. The main thing I wanted to back up was my photo library; most of the rest of my files are in the cloud/git repos, but I have a large “pre-cloud” library of family photos and consolidated backups from old computers that I’ve not managed to sort through and upload anywhere yet, so I wanted to make sure I had a copy of it. The library is hundreds of GB of various file types, from media to all sorts of metadata files used by the likes of iPhoto.

Try as I might, I could not get the library to transfer using the Windows 10 file explorer. Transfer speeds were abysmal (less than 20Kb/s for a USB-C drive capable of ~1Gb/s), and it would keep hanging on various files. When this happened, it would with a retry/skip action, so needed human interaction to keep going. At the speeds I was seeing it would’ve taken several days to copy over – and if the copy failed I had to start from scratch. Basically, Explorer it wasn’t a viable solution.

Last night, as I was dozing off to sleep, my brain reminded me that rsync exists to synchronise two directories, and WSL makes it easy to use on Windows. There are probably a billion Windows utilities that will do the same job, but I already have rsync in my WSL setup, so why complicate things further?

My source folder is E:\Pictures, and the destination drive is D:\. In WSL, this translates to /mnt/e/Pictures and /mnt/d/ respectively. There are a great many options in rsync, but I find -avz is a useful starting point for most jobs, and tend to only deviate from that if an initial run fails or I have a specific need. All in all the command I used to backup my photos was:

rsync -avz /mnt/e/Pictures /mnt/d/

Simplicity in itself. A few hours later – instead of days – and my library is safely backed up to the external drive and ready for its future home.

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!

You know when you have something nagging at you, where it’s “I should be doing this, I want to do this, but I just don’t have any drive”? That’s been me looking at this editor most days for the last 2 months. Ennui, I think they call it. But not really through boredom in my case. Just the overwhelming sense of *waves arms at everything* getting on top of me a bit lately. So now that I’m managing to get some words out, what have I been up to?

Training

At the start of September I virtually attended a four-day, Microsoft-delivered training course, covering AZ-104: Microsoft Azure Administrator. The course itself was good, with great instructors. It was also a nice change of pace to the relentless project work I’d been doing. The one knock against it was there was too much content that could be covered in the four days that in reality we only covered a fraction of what could be in the exam.

As the instructors acknowledged – the course by itself is not enough to pass the exam; it needs more practice, reading, and knowledge. Which is to be expected, but I don’t think I appreciated just how much more would be needed.

Right now, I’m scheduled to take the exam at the end of November, but I’m not feeling like I have enough time with everything that’s going on in the race towards the end of the year. I’ll give it another week or two of trying to get into my groove with regards to study and revision, and if I’m still not comfortable then I’ll reschedule to early next year.

I should have attended an AZ-204 course at the start of October, and sat that exam… today, I think… but I rescheduled that one last month when I realised what was involved in the AZ-104 exam. I also felt that the project was too busy at the time to justify leaving my colleagues a person down for another week of training so soon after the last one. AZ-204 is still in my plans, it’s just been moved down the road a bit.

Work

I can’t go into my project work, at all, but the other things going on at work have been both weird and rewarding.

The first was I was asked to record a short (thirty seconds) video on the positive experiences I’ve had over the last year – a kind of “yes, this last year and a bit has been rubbish, but there were good points” feel good piece – my video was largely on training and personal development. It was combined with several others and played as part of a video package at the annual meeting which kicks off our new financial year. So a video of me in my tiny home office, talking quickly about how I’d achieved several certifications in the last year, played to several thousand colleagues in the UK. Even though I knew the video was coming during the livestream, it was incredibly bizarre to see myself onscreen.

In a similar vein I was asked to give a seven minute talk on training and development to a couple of hundred colleagues in an account-wide all-hands call. I seem to have acquired a reputation for thinking about this topic a lot while also putting things into action, and it was insights on this “doing part” I was asked to get across to my colleagues. I plan to write a blog post on this in the future as it’s something I’ve been mulling over in my head for a while and deserves a longer-form expression.

Delivering the talk itself didn’t make me as anxious as I’d expected. I didn’t stutter and uhm-and-ah as much as I might once of. So I’m getting better at this, at least. I did find it all went very fast though; I think we were running behind so the person controlling the slides sped things along at a clip, faster than I’d practiced. By the end of it I was quite out of breath. I think in part it’s because I’m highly conscious of breathing too hard while wearing a headset, so I breath quite shallowly when not on mute. But that’s something I can work on – my breathing while delivering a talk.

Hobby

Not much to report here, really. I started on an Armies on Parade entry, which is usually one of the hobby projects I’m most able to focus on and work through each year. But this year isn’t going to happen. I managed to get the barest base of a board created; just a 22″x30″ board in a retro flocked style. I started on pieces of scenery to decorate the board with, and managed to get the army to parade on it built and primed… and then I just seemed to stop. I’m not entirely sure why, but every time I thought about painting or making progress I just… didn’t do it. So I’ve resigned to not completing Armies on Parade this year. Hopefully I’ll be back to it in time for next year.

I’ve also made a few small inroads into items in my backlog, and not *just* by adding to it (although I have done more of that than I’d like). Assembling the odd kit here, priming something there, maybe making small progress on basecoats. But never much of anything, and certainly not getting anywhere near finished. I said in the talk I gave recently that “even small steps add up” and I feel I need to remember that myself. The only real issue is I have so much stuff “in flight” right now it’s hard to juggle it all or store it conveniently and safely when it’s not being worked on. I think I’m getting to a point where some things are going to have to be packed away – not permenantly, but properly out of the way – to give me some breathing room. Maybe that will give me the headspace I need to make some proper progress. Or maybe some dedicated time off to work on things might be an idea? I’m not sure.

Wrap-up

So that’s the major events I want to get into from the last couple of months. Hopefully it won’t be another couple of months before I manage to get the words out again – I really want to write that personal development article, for one thing – but with the way things seem to be right now I can’t make any promises

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’m studying for the MS-900 exam (yes, yes, I know I said I was going to take a break from exams…), and one thing I’m really struggling to reconcile in my head is that all of the security-related questions are much more technically in-depth than any of the questions I remember getting in the security-focussed SC-900 exam or its preparation material. In fact, a lot of the questions seem to be more in-depth than the equivilent tests for most of the other Fundamentals-level exams I’ve studied for.

Like, SC-900 didn’t touch on Password Hash Sychronisation, or Pass-Through Authentication at all (at least, not by name). Like all 900-series exams it covered the area broadly, but at a relatively shallow technical knowledge level.

It’s not a big thing, but it’s enough of a WTF moment whenever it comes up that I often doubt myself when answering the practice questions, because I should know this. So far I’m finding MS-900 to be one of the harder Fundamentals exams to prepare for. Not quite as bad as PL-900, but it’s getting up there. I’ve generally found the practice exams to be harder than the real thing (to help you learn the material), so it could be an element of that at play.

I guess we’ll find out on Monday morning!

We got our fully fibre-optic internet connection fitted and activated today. The engineer arrived promptly, just after 8am, and despite the previous engineers making his job more difficult by fitting the connection point in an awkward spot he managed to finish everything within an hour and a half.

Before they left, the engineer ran a speed test on the line, and it reported a maximum speed of roughly 940Mbps in both directions. For comparison, our previous “half fibre” maxed out at around 63Mbps down/30ish up. So 900+Mbps is the confirmed upper bounds we can expect (in theory), and in line with what the ISP is promising.

In reality, things have varied wildly from device to device. I should note here that the engineer’s test was done over ethernet, and all our devices are WiFi-only. Most are up to WiFi 5 (AC) standards, but we do have a few still on the older WiFi N.

My iPhone 12 posts results anywhere between 350-575Mbps down. My older 9″ iPad Pro gets around 230-305Mbps down. My creaking, old, desktop PC was getting 44Mbps until I remembered I had a WiFi AC USB adapter I could use to upgrade the internal N adapter – at which point it started getting around 141-215Mbps. Curiously, both the iPad and desktop get upload results up to around 120Mbps higher than their respective download speeds. My work laptop (which is more or less on top of my desktop) gets around 450-475Mbps in both directions.

This isn’t intended to be a “first world problems” moaning post about not getting the absolute maximum speed. I know WiFi is much slower than a wired connection, and I know that different factorsaffect the speed an individual device. Rather this is just me noting how surprised I was to see such a large discrepancy between devices of broadly similar capability – many of which are sat right next to each other as they’re being tested.

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.