What do you call someone who graduated last in their class? In this case, me! I recently took Microsoft Exam 70-433 (MCTS: Database Developer 2008), and am pleased to report that I passed. I’m happy to offer up some of my thoughts as well as tips for those who might take it in the future.
Scoring – Why Bother?
So you know how I just said that I passed? That’s a half-truth. The other half is that I exactly passed. The minimum passing score was 700, and that’s what I got. I feel pretty dumb, however I’m sure I would feel a lot worse were my score 699.
I’ve never been a fan of Microsoft’s scoring method for these exams. They never say what the maximum possible score is, nor is there any quantitative breakdown of how you received the score you earned. 700 is passing, but out of what? 900? 1000? They include bar graphs on the result sheet for each of the major subject areas, but I’d still like to see some numbers. For the results Microsoft provides and the almost nothing that can be gleaned from them, they might as well just skip the numeric score altogether and simply return whether you passed or failed.
How I Studied
My study method was incredibly simple – I didn’t study. Now I know if my mother reads this she’s going to tell me how it serves me right for just barely passing if I didn’t study, but hear me out for a second before sippin’ the Hatorade, ok? There’s been lots of good debate over the usefulness of certifications compared to real-world experience. Brent Ozar (blog | twitter) has a great blog post about how certifications are icing, but not the cake. Anyone can buy the study kit, lock themself in a room for a while and pass the test. I was more interested in seeing if I could pass the test based on what I know right now without doing any cramming. After all, if I really know my stuff, studying won’t be necessary, right? So I purposely did nothing other than read over the list of skills measured on the 70-433 exam page at Microsoft Learning. While I did pass, I probably won’t use this exact same method again in the future and will instead try to find a happy medium between cramming and no preparation at all.
Another thought about that “skills measured” page I linked to above: I’m not sure how accurate it is with respect to topic weightings. The test I took had 55 questions. There’s an awful lot of topics and skills listed on that page, and I realize it’s rather unlikely that all of them will be covered in only 55 questions. From my perspective, it sure seemed like there were a disproportionate number of XML questions – far more than the 12% listed there. 12% of 55 is 6.6, and while I didn’t keep count, I’d be willing to guess that probably 10 questions dealt with using XML-related functionality – most of them in ways that no sane DBA would bother. In the same way that owning a hammer doesn’t mean that every problem is a nail, SQL Server having XML features doesn’t mean that everything to do with XML should happen in the database. Application servers make XML parsing/searching/manipulation a lot easier in many cases!
Eliminating Stupid Answers
To me, test taking skills are things like keeping track of time, pacing oneself, knowing when it’s appropriate to skip a question and move on, and eliminating stupid answer choices – pretty much everything you can (legally) do during the test to help improve your score without actually knowing the material. Good test taking skills can really save your tushy at times, and Microsoft exams are no exception. I’ve found there to be a fair amount of just plain stupid answer choices in Microsoft exams, to the point where I’ve made a game out of finding and eliminating them. I usually don’t have much trouble dropping 2 choices from each question. If you can do this, your chances of choosing the correct answer greatly improve. Would you rather pick a random answer from 4 choices or from only 2? Here’s a made-up example and how I’d go about solving it:
Steve is querying the “Widgets” table for the top five widgets in terms of sales. What syntax should he use?
A) SELECT TOP (5) FROM Widgets ORDER BY Sales;
B) SELECT TOP (10) FROM Widgets ORDER BY Sales DESC;
C) SELECT TOP (5) FROM Widgets ORDER BY Sales DESC;
D) SELECT TOP (5) FROM Tools ORDER BY Sales;
The first thing I always do is play “which of these is different?”. In this case, B screams out to me because it’s selecting the top 10 instead of the top 5. The question’s asking for the top 5, so B is out. Similarly D is also different, as it’s selecting from the Tools table – everything else is selecting from Widgets. Once again, referring back to the question, we know that D can be eliminated. Now the only remaining choices are A and C. Even if you’re clueless as to the meaning of the “DESC” keyword, your chances of choosing correctly are twice what they were before.
All in all, this exam was alright. I wish I would have done better, but am happy that I passed. Next up for me will be exam 70-451 (MCITP: Database Developer 2008) which I hope to take in April or May. I’ll be sure to write about it when I do.