Category Archives: 2664

Seriously cheap exams in Australia

If you’re an MCP in Australia and you haven’t passed any exams over the past couple of years (since July 1, 2007), then Microsoft has an offer at the moment to let you do an exam for only US$25 (until June 30, 2009). Ok, so that means the price really depends on the value of the Aussie dollar, but either way, it’s not a bad opportunity.

The offer is only on for a very short time, but why not check out and see what you can do? I’m thinking it’s a nice opportunity to knock over one of those Upgrade exams to get yourself from MCITP:SQL2005 to MCITP:SQL2008. You don’t get a second shot with this one, and you can only get one voucher – but it’s so cheap you may as well try it.

Things You Know Now

This blog meme is doing the rounds… I’ve been tagged at least twice now (Jason Strate and Greg Linwood), so I suppose subconsciously I’ve been thinking about this stuff for a few weeks already.

Since I do a lot of training, I tend to explain these things to my students anyway. I have a lot of opportunity to stand up in front of people and tell them important stuff – so this kind of thing definitely comes up now and then.

Things I wish I had known years ago (career-wise that I would teach new people in the SQL field)

The Importance of technical communities

I remember when Craig Bailey wrote about his ideal role. It wasn’t new stuff – I had heard it all before, but it certainly got me thinking about how people can influence where they are in that Venn diagram. For Craig, he wanted his ideal role to be a job that he was good at and that he enjoyed. Obviously to be a job, someone has to be prepared to pay him sufficiently too.

Being good at something you enjoy isn’t hard, and you can invest your own time (outside of the job that you don’t enjoy) developing your skills. For people in IT, I suggest they pick a particular area they find interesting, and start getting their skills up. If they can become expert-level in that area, then great.

The next problem though, is moving that skill into something that lets you can earn money. Community can help that. Community can help you develop your skills, because you’re spending time with other people in your field. But as you become an expert, presenting at community events, developing a profile, you find yourself being differentiated from the rest. If nothing else, people know you have presentation skills. Every presentation can become like a job interview – showing your skills and ability to communicate information to clients, colleagues, whoever.

Presenting isn’t easy, but there are plenty of other communities that can help develop those skills. You can get along to a ToastMasters group, or offer to do presentations in a group to which you already belong.

You might be the best in the world at what you do – but you need to get out there. I enjoy the technical communities, and run the Adelaide SQL Server User Group because I enjoy it. But I can’t deny that it’s been useful for my career. Now, I’m wishing that I had got involved many years ago.

Enjoy public speaking

According to the old saying, more people are afraid of public speaking than death (so at a funeral, they’d rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy). But it’s a useful skill to have, so learn to enjoy it.

Keep in touch with old friends

This isn’t quite so career-related, but is actually very important for your career nonetheless.

There are people that I haven’t seen in years, who I have no idea how to contact. Facebook (and the internet in general) has proved very useful for that, but still there are many people that I wish I could find. Most of them are just people I would like to spend time with now and then, but some are people that I’d happily offer to do some work for. And perhaps some of them would contact me to do some consulting if they knew how to reach me (clue, there’s contact information to the side of my blog site!).

Far too many people fall out our lives, and it’s sad. I’m still not great at it, but I do think I should take the time to write people letters now and then (emails, Facebook comments, Instant Messages are all fine too – I’m just talking about touching base to keep the contact there).

Certifications aren’t worth studying for (but they are worth taking)

I used to study for exams. I first became a Microsoft Certified Professional back in 1998, passing an exam called “Architecture I”. Since then I’ve passed over 30 exams, and earned plenty of certifications. But a few years ago I worked out at that it’s just not worth studying for these things.

A MCP exam is not like high school or university. If you fail, you can just try again. Fails don’t appear on your transcript, only the passes do. It’s like your driving test – if you fail, you just try again. Once you pass, you get access to the roads like everyone else.

If you spend weeks studying for a MCP exam, you probably won’t even improve your chances of passing – you’ll just be spending precious family time trying to learn those things to get you past the line. You might even start losing sleep over it.

Nowadays, I tell my students (and myself) to care less. Plenty of people say “No, you don’t understand – I can’t fail at anything.”, and I understand that. I’m not particularly good with failure either. But I’ve learned to not care so much. I don’t want to waste time sitting an exam only find that I fail (or spend $180 on the privilege), but I also don’t want to waste time studying for an exam that I could probably pass anyway. With the Second Shot offer that is often around you’ve paid for two attempts, so go into the first one blind.

The amount of time you invest in getting a certification is largely the study time. So if you can reduce that, the certification becomes a lot cheaper – in which case, it’s probably worth taking the few hours to give it a try. If you do fail, you know you have a weak area, so you can improve that with study – just don’t bother studying before the first try.

[Edited: I should make it very clear that I definitely approve of learning new skills, and preparation for an exam is a great prompt for this learning. Better still is learning for the sake of getting those new skills, with the focus being an upcoming project or new role. My advice above is focussed on people who have the skills necessary to pass an exam.]

Reading execution plans, and understanding indexes

I’ve always been good at solving problems with T-SQL (or PL/SQL for that matter) – I just took to it naturally when I got into databases. But it took me several years to actual venture into understanding what the query is actually doing when it runs. Now, I look at the execution plan for every query I write, as default behaviour, and I consider the indexes that I want up front.

Perhaps it’s because I was a programmer first, but I had always trusted the compiler to do things the right way. I had looked a bit past my code when studying Prolog at university, but it took me a long time to make that my default behaviour.

So when I find people who are just getting into T-SQL, I encourage them to look at the execution plans, and start getting a feel for what’s going on behind the scenes. You can often improve a query without looking at the execution plan, but if you want to write really good T-SQL and have well-performing queries, you need to make the execution plan part of the process.

The significance of BI to businesses

I was involved in data warehouses in some of my first projects when I left university, I just didn’t realise at the time. I first got involved in SQL Server in version 6.0, and quite early on I migrated a system to 6.5, and created a data warehouse to allow for various reports. In hindsight, I was making a data warehouse. I had an ETL process, calculated aggregates, considered the dimensions and granularity, all that. But it wasn’t called a data warehouse, and I only realised a few years later that it really was one.

If I had’ve realised, then I’m sure I would’ve jumped into the BI space much earlier. Companies love BI – it’s one of the most empowering areas of database technology for any business.


I’ve picked a few things here – and I hope people somehow get some benefit from reading it. I have put it in my ‘must read’ list to find other people’s responses, because I’m sure there are things that I’m still to learn.

Tagging some other people: Simon Sabin, Jamie Thomson, Deepak Kapoor, Grant Paisley

Reasons to consider certification

I saw a link to a report by TechRepublic giving reasons to value certification in 2009. The idea behind the piece is that we are in a time of economic crisis, cutbacks and the like, and asking the question about whether or not people should be looking for certification or not.

Most of the points made come down to differentiating yourself from the masses. For individuals I would have to agree. If you are trying to get a job, and are looking for every possible argument to get yourself in the door, certification can’t hurt (don’t expect to beat someone with experience though). But from a company’s perspective, should a company be looking to train employees (and encourage certification)?

As a trainer, I’m going to flippantly say “Yes, you should send all your staff on training…”

…but don’t worry – I’m going to try to back it up as well.

At the moment, almost every company in the world is trying to cut costs. Whole departments are being sacked if they’re not being effective. And one thing that might differentiate your department from the next one could well be the skill level. You need to lift your game to be able to compete at the moment, so why not get your whole department trained up in an area that concerns you. If your team writes software, make sure they’re writing software as well as possible. If your team is in sales, you had better make sure that your salespeople are as good at making that deal as possible. Training can help with this.

And actually, certification can help too. If there is a certification available in a relevant area, and someone has the time to go and sit the exam, then get them to do it. It rarely costs much, and it will probably help your department if you can say “Our people are getting stronger”, or “Our people are active in professional development”. Not to mention the confidence boost associated with passing an exam, or the added knowledge gained by studying (if required).

If you’re reading this and thinking “Well my boss doesn’t see it that way…”, why not ask if getting certification might help the department’s viability? If the answer is no, then you’re probably no better off. But if the answer is yes, well… you might get some training and some new skills.

70-113, the Virtual Lab exam, gives Microsoft Certification new hope

We all know what’s wrong with Microsoft certifications. The multiple-choice format means that people can cheat too easily, and over the years, the questions have often felt too specific, asking the kinds of questions that proper IT professionals just look up in Help systems like SQL Books Online.

To help address this problem, Microsoft started to come up with simulation questions. They were used in some Windows NT exams, and most notably for me (as I helped write them), in the core SQL Server exam 70-431. These were Flash-style applications designed to look and feel like the real applications. This is good, but they’re not error-prone (people who have sat 70-431 will know of a particular error in one of the drop-down boxes), and they can only really test usage of the UI. Definitely an improvement on multiple-choice though, and when writing these questions, special effort was made to find things that would make cheating very difficult.

The biggest problem with simulations is that people have different ways to achieve their goals. “More than one way to skin a cat” as the expression goes. This is increasingly so with technologies like PowerShell coming into almost every area of server administration, and particularly applies to developer exams where the goal should be achieving something to satisfy a unit test rather than answering a particular knowledge question.

And especially for SQL Server. Most DBAs will use T-SQL to perform the tasks they do on a daily basis. Some will use Management Studio, others will use sqlcmd, or pre-created scripts. Recently, quite a few people will have started using PowerShell, particularly if they are already using PowerShell scripts to maintain Exchange and Windows. Therefore, testing becomes more difficult.

70-113 fixes this problem completely. Whilst I don’t expect to have passed (it’s an exam about Active Directory, which I only know a little about), I thoroughly enjoyed the overall experience. It asked me to configure a couple of servers according to a set of instructions, and then actually gave me connections to the machines. And they were complete machines. Obviously I didn’t have Internet access, but I did have the Windows Help system. This alone would have got me past a few hurdles, as I could look up a few things that I couldn’t quite remember.

With SQL Server, examinees will have SQL Server Books Online available, but that’s like it is in the real world. If asked to create a particular type of trigger, you can remind yourself of the syntax for that. If asked to make sure that a backup uses the COPY_ONLY option, then you can look up where that goes. But this is the problem. In 70-113, the information provided seemed to give away a little too much. It explicitly told me what to use for many of the options, but I would’ve preferred to have had it describe something akin to “Make sure that the full backup you take doesn’t affect the next day’s regular differential backup” rather than “Use the COPY_ONLY option”. This way, it can test the knowledge of the system, rather than whether or not you can find the appropriate checkbox.

The other area that I would like to see is a combination of question-answer and virtual lab. I’d like to be given the connection to the server, have to configure various things, but then also answer questions. “How much free space is there in this file?”, “How many times has the index with IndexID = 3 on table X been scanned?”, etc. This would not only test whether you know how to configure the system, but also whether you know how to find information – a very important skill which isn’t really tested yet.

70-113 is definitely a step in the right direction, and I encourage everyone to give it a try (today is the last day you can register for it). Don’t feel like you need to pass, just do the exam and provide comments about what you think.

Time to try some exams? Second shot is back

I always tell people to do exams during Second Shot season.

Reason being – it makes the first one a practice. Don’t bother studying, don’t bother stressing, just go and see how you do. Then you can sit it a second time for real.

Feel like giving it a go? Register at before booking.

Looking for more? Well, the SQL 2008 exams won’t be around for a while, but there are a lot of other options out there.

How Jim McLeod passed 70-444

Jim McLeod is a DBA, and a good friend of mine. And today, he is due congratulations, because he passed the exam 70-444 – Optimizing and Maintaining a DB Admin Solution in SQL 2005. Now he only needs to do the Infrastructure Design exam (70-443) to become MCITP:DBA.

Did he take one of the courses I teach, that Microsoft recommends to do before trying the exam? No.

Did he spend hours in study, looking for those small things that he would need? No.

Did he download one of those illegal copies of the exam? No, of course not. That would be cheating, and Jim’s not like that.

So how did he pass? Easy. He’s a DBA by trade, and good at his job, too! So he just booked in, sat the exam, and passed it easily. The certification wasn’t trying to trip him up with tricky questions, it was just trying to find out if he really does have DBA skills. Jim does, so he passed!

Congratulations again, mate.

The best way to pass a Microsoft certification exam

For a limited time only, Microsoft are giving you the chance to have a second shot at any IT professional, developer or Microsoft Dynamics exam. Brilliant!

The way this works (and the way I encourage all my students to do this) is that if you register for this offer and then take an exam, you can take it again some time later for free. Yes, free.

So now let me ask you – which one are you paying for? The first one, or the second one?

It may feel like you’re paying for the first one, but don’t be fooled. You’re actually paying for the second one. The first is just a practice. A chance to get a feel for the exam, a chance to find out how to target your study. Don’t lose sleep over the first one. If you use the product, don’t even study. Just rock up and see how you go. When you leave, you’ll have a piece of paper telling you the areas you didn’t do so well, plus you’ll know in your head that you need to study up about some particular area.

Don’t consider that you get a free ‘second shot’. Consider that you get a free practice exam, that comes with the bonus of giving you credit for the real one if you pass. The lack of stress in the first one will actually give you an increased chance. These exams are not a ‘single-shot only’ thing, like university or high-school. Accept that the first sitting is a learning experience, and pay for the second.

Latest news on 70-431 simulation questions

I got some news this week about the core SQL Server 2005 exam. A bit of an update from someone who has recently tried 70-431. He sent it to me having read my previous post on the matter.

“I took the exam last week and got all the M/C questions right, but did horribly on the simulations. I figured out couple of them, but I couldn’t do the others. Ended up with a score of 220. This is the first certification test I’ve encountered that used such a large set of simulations (15 on the test I took).

“Good job! I had no business passing this test, since I know nothing about SQL Server. This will add a degree of difficulty to the certs, but not insurmountable.”

I wish this guy a bit of luck with the exam, but I’m very pleased that despite his knowledge of the multiple-choice questions (he must’ve had inside knowledge to get 100% right) didn’t help him pass.

My tip for you (reader) is: Use the product! And if you have been using the product for a while, just try the exam. Worst case, you fail and can try it again once you’ve used the product some more. Don’t bother cheating – if you’re worth your stuff, you should be able to pass the exam easily.

Only 71 people have MCITP:BI

Mitch Wheat sent me this. According to, there are only 71 people in the world (well, at the end of June) who have achieved MCITP:BI. This means passing the two exams 70-445 and 70-446. You could be one if you use SSIS, SSAS, SSRS and do a bit of Data Mining. Doing some of the courses like the ones offered by Solid Quality Learning might help too, of course.

Pearson Vue no longer offering Microsoft exams

You can only book to do Microsoft certification exams through Pearson Vue until the end of August. From then on, you have to choose Prometric. More information can be read at Vue’s website:

Personally, I find this a real shame. It’s good for us candidates to have a choice. I’ve preferred Vue over Prometric in recent years, and it was Vue who provided exams at TechEd Australia. I don’t know the reasons why Microsoft have taken this approach, but will post again once I have found out something (assuming the information I find out is public).