Category Archives: 3322

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.

Improving Your T-SQL Arsenal – slides

I’ve given this presentation a couple of times at user-groups now – last week in Adelaide, and this week in Melbourne. I posted the scripts to my blog recently, making them available to people who heard this talk at TechEd Australia at the start of the month, so now I’ve got around to uploading the slide deck as well.

I actually plan to blog about many of the tips too, so watch for that over the next month or so. I’ll try to do at least one a week for a while, if not more. Obviously some will become longer articles, while some will be quite short. Much of the material gets covered my Advanced T-SQL Querying and Reporting course too – so feel free to check that out some time if you can.

Orr-some time with Geoff

Geoff Orr spoke at the Adelaide SQL Server User Group yesterday, and according to the feedback (and attendance), it was a very popular session. He discussed various options around SSIS configuration, and threw in some jokes as usual.

Of course, he may need to update the talk soon, as it seems the next CTP of SQL 2008 will have many new SSIS features. Keep your eye on for when it comes out. I’ll certainly be checking them out, and making sure I highlight them when I run the SSIS courses (and this) next.

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.

Free SQL training at events in the UK and Australia

…and I’m not even referring to the User Groups which run regularly. The ones I’m referring to are SQLBits and the SQL Down Under Code Camp.

SQLBits was in the UK last weekend, and was a massive success. I would’ve loved to have been able to attend, but it’s a bit far to travel (I guess about 12000 miles). They had over three hundred attend, which is fantastic! Adelaide User Group regular Martin Cairney was there, and presented the talk he gave in Adelaide earlier this year. It seems to have been received well.

And this coming weekend is the SQL Down Under Code Camp in Wagga Wagga. It should be a great event, with well over a hundred people there. If you’re able to get to Wagga, I thoroughly recommend it.

Code Camps galore

We all know that Adelaide hosted Code Camp SA recently – it was a great success, and some people even wished I was there!

TechEd is coming up of course, but now there are two code camps scheduled for October, on the same weekend (13-14) and at the same venue! Yes, that place is Wagga Wagga – one Wagga for each event.

Firstly, and most importantly I’m sure, is the second SQL Down Under Code Camp. But the other one is the Security Camp Oz. With me doing the SQL Security talk at TechEd this year, I’m sure I’ll have a good reason to attend both!

Also in October, but the weekend before, and in the UK, the SQL community is hosting SQLBits. These guys have three streams (Dev, DBA, BI), and promises to be a fantastic event. I only wish I could be there. I’m sure Tony, Simon, Jamie, Jasper and Chris will do a fantastic job.

Seems wherever you are, October will be a big month for training.

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).

4 questions to evaluate people’s passion

I’m going to find this topic very interesting when I’m training people more and more. Kathy Sierra gives us four questions to judge someone’s passion for their work:

  • When was the last time you read a trade/professional journal or book related to your work? (can substitute “attended an industry conference or took a course”)
  • Name at least two of the key people in your field.
  • If you had to, would you spend your own money to buy tools or other materials that would improve the quality of your work?
  • If you did not do this for work, would you still do it (or something related to it) as a hobby?

Some of this comes down to Mitch Denny‘s concept of a night-programmer, but Kathy has expanded it to cover any field. I guess if I’m asking these questions of people in courses I’m running, then the answer to the first question is “I’m in one”, but I think it’s very different to if I were to ask the people who attend my user-group.

Some people who attend courses are there because they want to be, but others might just be there because their employer has sent them. User-group attendees are generally taking their own time to be there, which generally makes them more passionate. I hope that even if the attendees of my courses came simply because they were made to, they will catch some passion and leave being able to answer those questions better. Perhaps they’ll even do another course soon because they will have caught the bug of Professional Development.

These questions also rank right up there in ways to evaluate whether a potential employee is a good match or not. If you hire someone who is passionate about their work, then you might get challenged as an employer occasionally, but you’ll probably also get a better worker, someone who comes to work wanting to do a good job, rather than someone who just sees each day as waiting for the weekend. I’m all for ‘working to live rather than living to work’, but if you’re passionate about your work, then you probably enjoy your work more and probably have a better work ethic to boot.

My first Solid Quality course is scheduled

If you’re in Melbourne during the last week of March and want to learn about how to effectively write queries for SQL Server, then this course is for you.

The course was written by Itzik Ben-Gan, who is one of the legends in the SQL Server world (and now my colleague!), so it’s a very high quality course. And of course, it’s not as if I’m new to the material myself, having been involved in helping people learn about T-SQL for many years myself. I’m really pleased that this is the first course I’ll be teaching under the banner of Solid Quality Learning, and if you want to join me in celebrating, then register soon!