Preparing for Microsoft exams: how and why

The value of certification is a constant hot topic for many people; a search for certifications on stack overflow alone returns over 27,000 results, and adding the exact phrase “worth it” still returns almost 800. I’ve never been responsible for hiring people or been asked about certifications, so I have absolutely no comment to make about whether they’re helpful for finding a job.

Where I find certifications helpful is in setting a deadline for myself. Since 2011, I occasionally needed to write SQL code and wanted to learn more about SQL, but I never did because it was never a priority. A few years ago, I signed up to take exam 70-461: Querying Microsoft SQL Server 2012; because I was paying for it (my company will reimburse exams only if you pass), I finally had the incentive I needed to sit down and learn the material. I never bothered with the other exams in the certificate, because the certificate wasn’t what was important to me; what I needed was to learn the material that was covered in that first exam.

So that’s my primary motivation for looking at certifications: as a way to encourage myself to study. After five years as a professional programmer, I feel like I still have a ton to learn, so I’m in favor of anything that helps me to focus.

Right now I’m looking at Microsoft’s exam 70-483: Programming in C#. Looking over the list of topics covered, I see some stuff I know reasonably well, and some stuff that I’ve never learned because it’s never been something I’ve needed to use. Here’s the key part, though: it all looks like stuff I would like to know, that could very well be useful to me at some point. So this is actually stuff I’m interested in learning; the test just helps me find the areas I need to know more about.

For example, I see that one of the topics covered in the exam is performing symmetric and asymmetric encryption:

Choose an appropriate encryption algorithm; manage and create certificates; implement key management; implement the System.Security namespace; hashing data; encrypt streams

The theory behind this is all stuff I studied in school, but I’ve never had any reason to use it in practice. As it happens, Pluralsight has a two-hour course called Introduction to Cryptography in .NET, which I expect will go into way more detail than the exam will. This is what I mean about focus: Pluralsight has just a ton of content that I find interesting, so having a list of topics that I need to cover helps me decide which courses to take first.

When I took the SQL exam, one thing that helped me relax was having the second shot offer, which lets you retake an exam for free; even though I didn’t need it, it was helpful to know that if I somehow screwed up and failed the exam it wasn’t going to automatically cost me $150. The most recent second shot offer expired a few weeks ago, so my plan is probably going to be to start reviewing this month and be ready to schedule the exam next time the offer comes around again. Or if it’s not available by this summer, I’ll probably take the exam then anyway.

In areas as diverse as finishing my PhD and learning to write a SQL query, setting a deadline is what helped me get it done, and that’s why I plan to pursue certifications.

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