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.

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!

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.

This evening I completed (and passed) the Microsoft DP-900 exam, which makes – Microsoft Certified: Microsoft Azure Data Fundamentals the first certification I can cross off my Summer of Certifications list.

The exam itself was fairly straightforward. It felt like the natural follow-on to the general Microsoft Azure Fundamentals (AZ-900) certification I passed last year, and follows the same multiple-choice/select-the-right-phrase format as AZ-900. For the most part it meant knowing which Azure data service should be used in a given scenario, or what feature in a solution fulfils the need; for the most part it’s usually straightforward to spot, but occaisionally there’s a subtlty in the question which means the seemingly-obvious answer is not the correct one. But may that was just me.

To prepare for the exam I used mix of Microsoft Learn’s free online resources, supplemented by access to Percipio resources through my work, and WhizLabs practice tests. As someone who has been neck-deep in databases for years, I feel I had a bit of a leg-up on some of the more general topics – which meant it was really just the finer points of the specific Azure data solutions I had to learn.

Part of the exam syllabus covered Business Intelligence reporting using Power BI, which might be a good starting point for the next exam in my calendar: Power Platform Fundamentals (PL-900)!

Since last year I’ve made a point that whenever I feel a bit “neurofunky”, I try to do something to invest in myself. The last few days have been a thing so I’ve planned the pathways to my next certification(s), and set myself up with some of the resources I’ll need to get there.

Right now, the plan is to complete the following exams over the next 6 weeks:

  • Azure Data Fundamentals (DP-900)
  • Power Platform Fundamentals (PL-900)
  • Azure AI Fundamentals (AI-900)

At least 2 of those topics are pretty much brand new to me, so it’s going to be an interesting time…

I’ve already booked the exams, to give myself a set timeframe and deadline for each. My employer offers vouchers towards taking these exams, so it doesn’t cost me anything over and above the time and effort investments. Even if the exams hadn’t been free, then I’d have probably booked at least one of these (or maybe more, just spread out over months rather than weeks)

So we’ll see how it goes. I’m excited to learn some new things, but I am conscious I’m going to be under a bit of stress due to the timing.

A Short Introduction and TL;DR

I’m not one to make New Year’s resolutions; the changing of the year is more-or-less just another day to me, and I tend not to assign it significance enough to make goals in advance. That said, I do like to set myself some objectives once I’ve got an idea for where the year might be headed. 2020 was a bit of a disaster on this front, but more on that in a retrospective blog post. Anyway, as I know roughly where I expect the first six months of the year to go, now seems as good a time as any to write down some of those objectives (in no particular order):

  1. Get Promoted.
  2. Get Certified.
  3. Lose the Lockdown Weight
  4. Continue My DevOps Journey

The Objectives:

1. Get Promoted

Shortly before Christmas, my project manager called me up to ask if I’d 1) thought about going forward for promotion, and 2) would I like to be put forward for promotion. About half an hour after that, my Director phoned me up along the same lines. Off of the back of the recently completed performance review exercise, they felt I was working at the level above where I was currently graded, and felt I was a strong candidate to pass the promotion panel.

I was humbled and grateful for the confidence they’ve shown in me, and I hope to reward that faith by successfully navigating the promotion process. I do have to give a presentation, which is not something I enjoy, and prepare quite vigorously (in addition to all my regular work!) but I’m reasonably confident in my ability to get through it all.

As the panel will be held in a few weeks, this is likely to be the first objective I succeed or fail at this year.

2. Get Certified

The Chartered Institute of IT Professionals (aka, British Computing Society/BCS) is something looked at from afar for several years. For reasons best known to the hidden, inner workings of my brain, I never felt like it was something I was “good enough” to join. The BCS was for serious IT Consultants, with decades of experience.

It wasn’t until after the conversations I mentioned in objective one, and in the follow-up promotion preparation that I realised: “hang on, I am a serious IT Consultant with decades of experience (two of them!)”. With that brain obstacle finally overcome, I applied for Professional Membership. It comes across as a serious business: you have to submit your CV for review, and someone has to be willing to vouch for your experience and ability. I was accepted in less than twenty four hours, and as such, I can list MBCS after my name.

But my objective doesn’t end there. Much in the same way other professional trade bodies certify members who meet strict criteria, the BCS does too – this was one of the reasons I had wanted to be a Member of the BCS in the first place. My objective is to earn my status as a Chartered IT Professional.

Looking through the criteria and process, it’s much the same as the internal promotion process I am going through right now. Early 2021 strikes me as an opportune time to get this done.

3. Lose the Lockdown Weight

I’m not sure how much explanation this one needs: with all of the lockdowns, “stay at home” messaging, and well, stress, of COVID in 2020, my weight has gone up a lot more than I’d like. More importantly than that, I’ve felt my fitness and comfort dropping.

In late 2019 and pre-COVID 2020 I was successfully working hard to lose weight. I can’t reinstate the exact same routines in 2021, but I have an exercise bike, Apple Fitness +, and a desire to get back on track.

I’m not asking for any sort of miracle weight loss. Just to feel more comfortable in some of my clothes again, and some signs of improvement.

4. Continue My DevOps Journey

In 2020 I passed my first Microsoft exam for an accreditation. This came as part of a push to learn enough about DevOps and pick up enough skills that I could – at a pinch – take on a DevOps role or otherwise deploy the skills in a useful manner at work. As it was, I landed in my current project instead, and I didn’t get to continue down the path much further.

But I’m conscious that projects tend to come to an end eventually, and DevOps skills demand has only increased over the intervening months. So I want to pick up where I was and take things forward again.

Internally, we offer a DevOps “boot camp”, which is a short, intensive, pathway into the DevOps world. I took part in the first version of the course, but it’s been refreshed and now offers a direct path to two further Microsoft accreditations – both of which I had planned to study for in my free time. I figure that if the company are willing to pay for these, then I might as well take them up on the offer!

The main challenge I’m going to have with this objective is time. It’s a self-study course, nominally over a 3 week period, and then there’s the exams to prepare for after that. With everything else going on at the moment, I simply don’t have the time to spare… and I worry about losing momentum. But this is part of the reason to write it down here – to hold myself accountable!

Wrap-up

So, those are my initial objectives for 2021. Or at least, the formal ones that I’m trying to commit to. I have others that are more nebulous at the moment to write down, and others that probably fall more in the “projects” category than an objective. I might detail those in another post.