How I passed my Azure Certification (MCP) Exams

There are countless resources just a quick search a way that will list all the things you should study in preparation for a particular exam. Likely you will find Microsoft Virtual Academy courses, TechNet/MSDN articles, blog posts, books, practice exams and much more. Let me be clear, those are all super useful.

However, I will share how I passed the exams, which is not to say how you can or will, but if you are like me (just a bit?), maybe this will be helpful.

Commitment

I plan to write a post about this topic but the short version is this. I do better under pressure especially when there is a hard deadline. If I say “oh yeah I’ll study and eventually schedule the exam”, what I actually mean is “I’m never going to prioritize studying because there are a million other things to do and the exam isn’t scheduled anyways”. This can apply to many things in my career ;) So first thing I did to prepare for the exam? I booked it! Nothing like a hard deadline to force the right behaviour or as my old manager and mentor says “it’s a good forcing function”.

Going analog

Analog
Just some of the books & printed documentation I consumed in preparation for Azure Architecture 534 exam

I love tech, I love gadgets, I can code all day and go to bed and read my Kindle until I pass out, then I wake up and immediately check my phone, turn on my Sonos and well you get the idea… However, I still need good old fashioned tactile, highlightable, scribblable paper for serious studying or information processing.

Why? I have some theories, but it’s always been my go to study/information processing strategy. I think, partially anyways, that it’s because we all think too fast now a days. We don’t absorb information so much as we merely process it at the level we need to at the time we need it and move on. At least that’s what I certainly do.

Writing something down, or reading it on (actual) paper, slowly, and highlighting the relevant bits or scribbling a question, note or interesting tidbit in the margins commits it to my memory far better than reading it off a computer screen, and has the added benefit that I likely will recall it later (like during an exam!)

So here’s what I did to prepare for the last 2 exams I took:

Get the books

Yeah I know, they aren’t cheap, and yes, these books will likely become out of date (especially for Azure), and if you read the book you will not know everything and totally pass. But for me they were totally usefull in a “omg I have no idea what this chapter is about I better go learn more or try it out myself”. I can review a chapter and decide if I need to spend more time on it based on the amount of highlighting and scribbling (as you can see in the above photo it usually is a lot). The book wasn’t the end all be all resource I was hoping for but rather a great getting started resource that allows you to identify areas you should focus deeper on.

Take a practice exam

No, not the sketchy ones that are copies of the actual (or old) exams, which is totally not cool and against the T&C’s but rather the Microsoft Official Practice tests from Measure Up.

Measure Up allows you to simulate the actual exam style (time limited, 50 or so questions, score at the end etc.). What I like to do is setup the custom mode with all the questions (150+) and the ability to see the correct answer any time. Why? What I do is answer the question and immediately check my answer. If I got it wrong, or I don’t really know why the one I selected was right (either it was a good guess or process of elimination) you can scroll down to find the related material that Measure Up gives you for each question.

So now I have related material directly tied to something I got wrong or didn’t really know. From there I decide is this something I can just commit to memory right away or should I print it and really go through it. Also a good idea is to actually do the thing in question (setup a VM through PowerShell using Desired State Configuration as an example).

After I finish going through all the questions I get down to studying! Grab some coffee, go to your happy place and start going through the mounds of printed or bookmarked material! Yes, I print off a LOT of documentation, and yes it’s less than ideal, however this is what works for me, YMMV.

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

So by your second or third pass through the practice exam you are going to know the right answer, but do you really know the right answer? I challenge myself to justify the answer in my head such as “The answer is 5 Upgrade Domains because the default number of upgrade domains in Azure is 5” or “They will need a site to site VPN because in the requirements they said they needed everyone in the office to have access to the resources in Azure” or possibly “They need Azure ExpressRoute and an ISP with MPLS instead of a site to site VPN because the requirements said they did not want the hybrid cloud setup to use public internet”. Be honest with yourself here, do you really know why the answer is the correct answer? If not, highlight it in your notes and get back to studying!

Other study tips

  • Dedicate a lot of total and contiguous time this
    • Personally I liked blocks of 2-4 hours which let me focus on a few chapters/areas a night
    • When doing the full practice Exam, you will likely need 3-4 hours
    • I spent at least 3 full days just on reviewing materials and doing labs in Azure
  • Take a lot of notes, write down details, acronyms, related services, order of operations etc.
  • Pay attention to configuration options and scale options
    • Do you know the difference between free, shared, basic & standard web apps are?
    • Do you know what VM size a developer would need to support Visual Studio and a development environment? Hint: you should
    • Do you know how much data an Azure SQL Database can hold vs an Azure Table?
  • Focus on ancillary technology as well. For the Azure Architecture exam, as an example, you really need to know AD, AD-FS, Dir Sync, AD DPM etc.
  • Hands on is the best experience so if you can try and actually do the thing you are studying (setup a VPN, scale websites, create a test HPC node etc.)

Exam Day

So the big day has come, you have studied, your highlighter and pen are out of ink, you can calculate subnet IP ranges in your sleep, when you close your eyes you see network diagrams and can visualize Network Security Groups and ACLs, you can spin up an entire production service of web apps, cloud services, highly available storage tied together in a resource group through PowerShell? You’ve got this!

Take notes

Read the question, no really it. What are the requirements, did they specify a quantifier like 4 websites or 5TB of storage etc.? These are all likely important details. As they say “the devil is in the details”, or in our case “the path to the right answer is right in front of you”

Pay attention to the details

Unless the question is specifically about a technology, the process to configure/stand up the service or a PowerShell script, then often the right answer is process of elimination based on the details provided in the question or in the technical requirements as well as understanding the actual technology itself. This is super important! If you are trying to decide “Do they need Azure Storage Queue or Azure Service Bus Queue” the answer will be in the details such as “The azure website needs decoupled and fault tolerant communication to a worker role”, so in that case Azure Queue, but if “the azure website needs to securely send messages to a windows service on premise in a decoupled fashion” then a Service Bus Queue with message security enabled is the answer.

Take your time

You have plenty of time, use it to review questions you aren’t sure of, there is a means to tag a question for review. So if you are stuck or just not sure answer as best you can, tag it and move on, then review it again when you are done that section. Re-read the question and supplemental details in full and start by excluding answers you know to be false, because you know they are false because you know the technology ;)

Good luck!

@marc_gagne

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