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Advice From a Fellow Developer: How to Navigate Toward Earning Microsoft Certifications

After 28 years in the mainframe world, the prospect of learning a whole new tool set was a bit daunting. Like it or not, familiar tools such as Adabas, Natural, MVS, etc., offered ever-dwindling development opportunities.

After 28 years in the mainframe world, the prospect of learning a whole new tool set was a bit daunting. Like it or not, familiar tools such as Anabas, Natural, MVS, etc., offered ever-dwindling development opportunities. Time to head onward, to C# and .NET!

Getting Certified Without Becoming Certifiably Crazy

Originally, I sought the Microsoft Certified Professional Developer (MCPD) designation in Windows Developer 4, Web Developer 4, and Windows Azure Developer, which together requires seven different tests. After submerging myself into learning C# and .NET, I came up for air. Reality check: Getting certified in all three areas was a massive undertaking. In truth, I may have been certifiably crazy even to consider it.

Evaluating Learning Methods by Efficacy, Time and Money

My learning style is best suited to an interactive analysis with topic-specific examples. However, finding reasonably priced interactive training was challenging, so I tried to learn the old school way: by reading. First stop: the Microsoft help text available through Visual Studio. Unfortunately, this wordy source had numerous topics, while lacking examples and explanations about hands-on use. After hours of reading, I felt water-boarded with information.

Next stop: books tailored to various certification tests using Safari Books Online. Books and sample questions are “free,” meaning bundled into the monthly subscription cost. Better than help text, but still verbose and, well, boring. For me, reading long books on screen is hard, while paper allows me to underline, circle, etc.

Going the classroom route came next. Attending a few of Microsoft’s free deep dive classes on Windows Azure and Windows 7 did help somewhat. Be warned: these very fast paced sessions can hinder comprehension of the information deluge. On the plus side, they did pinpoint key areas which boost comprehension of subsequent topics. Meanwhile, I enjoyed interacting with other students.

Classes, part two. My one week class on Windows Presentation Foundation taught me a great deal. Feeling confident, I sat for Exam 70-511 – “TS: Windows Applications Development with Microsoft .NET Framework 4,” only to fail. Not passing my first Microsoft certification test really freaked me out. The class costs $2600, and does not include sample test questions. (Via Safari, I had found sample questions and practiced with dedication.) The test itself cost $150, with no free retake option. I just ran out of time, leaving some questions unanswered. Another door closed.

Moving on, the best “free” training turned out to be video-based sessions on the ASP.NET website for MVC 3 from Pluralsight. Great learning experience! It influenced me to focus on web-based certifications, instead of all things .NET. I began creating a web-based, MVC-flavored replatform of mainframe applications I’d originally authored or rewrote. Building it solidified my new knowledge. However, I still worried about getting certified for web development.

Heading for the Finish Line

Lastly, I attended the MCSD: Web Applications .NET 4.5 Certification Bootcamp in Sarasota, Florida. It was my first choice all along, but carried a hefty price tag. Completing this Bootcamp certifies knowledge of Visual Studio 2013, HTML 5, CSS 3, MVC 4, Javascript/JQuery, .NET 4.5, Entity Framework 5/6, Web API, and WCF. A great choice for two reasons. One, Microsoft recently added certification for the Microsoft Certified Solutions Developer (MCSD), instead of the MCPD, which is being phased out. Two, training is compressed into ten days, with interactive guidance, and testing occurs during the same time. The “all-inclusive” cost, excluding evening meals, provides a fixed-cost certification solution. It was fun to ask questions and study in groups. Through interaction with other programmers, I quickly identified my training “gaps,” such as object-oriented design patterns. They also shared fundamental rationales that explained why, and when, to do things a certain way. Final result? Passing all three exams on the first try!

I do recommend a Certification Bootcamp. Add a few days before or after the classes to enjoy Sarasota. During my ten-day December stay, I never hit the beach. Might as well have been in Timbuktu. At least I took a picture of an alligator.

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