On the value of certification.

Recently I sat two of the new Microsoft Security exams, Security Operations Analyst (SC-200) and Identity and Access Management Administrator (SC-300). These two exams are number 9&10 in my Microsoft certification journey and number 17&18 over the last two years. As beta exams, I won’t receive my results for eight weeks, ample time for me to finally get around to writing a post on the my journey and the overall value I got from it. Buckle up, because I didn’t know I had this many certification thoughts in me!

My certification journey started as I began developing my Azure skills. I had recently moved from being an on-premise focused engineer, dealing with VMWare clusters, SANs, general Windows infrastructure and all the fun stuff you get on premises. Azure was so new to me and I felt like a complete bonehead. Cloud seemed hard and I felt stupid. I’d taken some technology associate exams when I worked as a service desk analyst and stopped my initial foray into study as I dipped my toe into the whole MCSA/MCSE ecosystem. I enrolled initially into the AZ-100 exam, half skeptical that I would drop my studies in a similar manner.

What I ended up finding was an accessible ecosystem, where I was able to develop myself and learn new technology. For that first exam, I spent a three weeks or so preparing – mostly watching Nick Colyer on ACloudGuru (Actually just re-branded skylines academy content). I sat at home and completed the exam quickly scoring an 885. To say I was stoked was an understatement. I quickly booked my AZ-101 a week later, feeling buoyed by a decent result & a shorter set of content. The 101 exam prep was only ~5 hours of video at the time.

The day after booking my AZ-101, Microsoft announced the newer AZ-103 type exam, with the caveat that AZ-100 holders would automatically receive the associate certification. I was a little annoyed initially, but the decision did take the pressure off my 101 exam. I really wished it didn’t, as I really struggled in this one. I remember sitting at my desk on the second question having a mental meltdown, because I had absolutely no idea about some app-service question. I thought I barely passed that exam, however I managed to luck my way into an 894. According to the scoring, I was better at web than I was at systems & network management. This was (and is) wrong. Hooray for bell curves I suppose?

At the end of this process, I had two things on my mind; One, the systems admin (AZ-100) exam was way too easy. I knew I would expect a system administrator to know more about Azure than what I was tested on. This would become a theme for me as I continued to take further certifications. Two, the labs were quite literally a lifesaver and will be for a lot of other people. I can’t speak for my readers, but having used all three cloud providers, I can without a doubt say that the Azure portal is the most user friendly. The lab scenarios would ask me to configure X thing on Y service. The entire time, I knew if I didn’t know how, I could just hover over the various blades of that resource, and have information fed to me about what each option would do. I’m almost certain I passed the 101 exam in this manner.

Following on from my associate success, my supportive employer suggested I move onward to the Azure Architecture focuses. Still feeling like I didn’t know enough Azure, I was quite happy to take the exam support and move up. AZ-300 and 301 followed a similar pattern, albeit with more study videos. This is probably the laziest way to prepare for an exam, because I found I would just watch content and hope you remember it – Labs were time consumign and I could just watch the instructor anyway. I did do my best to apply any learning in my day to day, so I was still getting some hands on, but not in the same manner of old where labbing solutions out was almost mandatory.

The Solution Architect expert exams followed a similar process to my Associate admin exams, with the 301 first (reviews said it was easier) and the 300 second. I passed the 300 comfortably and the 301 barely. At this point, I was pretty well engaged and committed to further exams. This was for a couple of reasons; I enjoyed learning about new things, even though I could not always see an application in my day to day. My employer was happy to pay – I could do nearly any exam for free, provided I passed on the first attempt. Finally, I liked the community recognition it gave me as someone adaptable and willing to learn.

Following the Architect certication, I went on to achieve another 6 Microsoft certifications (hopefully 8 soon), 4 AWS, 1 GCP, 3 Okta and 2 HashiCorp certifications. I’m not afraid to admit, that certain exams were taken only on a request from my employer – Namely HashiCorp Vault Associate & GCP Associate Cloud Engineer. While I’ve used both products in production, they are not something I’m super passionate about. This is the nature of working for a service provider. Sometimes a channel partner requires certification and you will be asked to assist in that process.

Hardest & Easiest Exams?

Of the twenty or so exams I’ve so far taken, the most difficult were Okta certifications, with the easiest being both HashiCorp exams.

The Okta exams were not difficult due to the content covered, but because to their format. Okta uses a format known as Discrete Option Multiple Choice (DOMC). If you read the blurb on DOMC, it’s all about fairness and integrity. Test takers only ever see 50-60% of the total exam, so it becomes a lot harder for dodgy “dumps” websites to steal the questions wholesale. This being said, I found the question format stressful. I was extremely used to using various exam techniques to solve some solutions where I wasn’t comfortable and this was taken away from me. You have to know the content well for DOMC exams. The other problem I found was my anxiety levels were increased, due to uncertainty on future options. DOMC is really good at ensuring you know a platform well, but if you know it too well, expect to feel stressed. You always want to select the best answer, but you don’t know if it will be presented. I distinctly remember stewing on a DOMC question about sign-in data. I knew the prompt of “you can get this x info from the system log” was not the documented/published way of getting this info, but I also knew it was possible to extract system logs and parse them to obtain the relevant data. In a scenario where you don’t know that the “correct” answer will be presented and a wrong selection means all your progress through the question is null & void, this is horribly stressful. You’re punished for knowing more. I also found a woeful lack of third party content available for Okta exams, which would have been quite challenging if I didn’t have employer support.

I think the HashiCorp exams were easier mainly due to the maturity of the program. Currently, you can complete exams on Terraform, Consul and Vault at an “Associate” level. I found the ones I took to be a bit more aligned with foundational concepts and understanding of what the products were, rather than how to use a product in anger. Similar to the Microsoft 900 series. For their price, I’m definitely not upset about the difficulty level, $70 is the most affordable exam I’ve taken. I would be interested to hear the thoughts of other people on this one, because often taking on new technology as a more experienced cloud engineer can be a bit misleading – Your past experience will help you pick up the tech a lot faster (Cloudformation -> ARM Templates -> Terraform is an easy example).

Bumpy ride?

I’ve heard from a few people that their experiences were pretty rough. I have to say, in the scheme of things I feel I’ve gotten off lightly. In lab scenarios, the worst I’ve had to deal with is a wait time for resource deletion (I made a mistake). For everything else, it really depends on the delivery method in question. My AWS & GCP exams were completed in person, an experience which I would not choose over remote proctored. It’s just a hassle for me to get out to a testing center and it’s nowhere near as nice or comfortable as my home office. For remote proctored, I’ve had a couple of testing issues/shoddy check-ins. Nothing that can’t be worked through by chatting to the various providers. My biggest bit of advice in these scenarios is just to stay calm and work through the various support processes.

Value?

For me, the value of certification is just now becoming debatable. I’m a fair bit more experienced than when I started. If I was starting the same certification journey from scratch, I think it would be a hard sell. I wouldn’t have the “I suck at this” mentality that I originally struggled with, or the “Need an entry level job” driver that people starting out have. All up, I’ve spent about $2000 out of pocket on various labs, training material and certifications. If I include what my employers have reimbursed me for, I’m well over the $5000 mark. For this investment, I’m glad to say I’ve had a couple of things happen.

  1. I’ve increased my own skills in the technology I care about.
  2. I’ve developed a network of like minded people around me.
  3. I’ve increased my employment opportunities.

Of these three things, the first is self explanatory; Studying something tends to make you better at it. As a social benefit, I found that as I posted and shared my thoughts on the certification journey, people engaged more freely and even connected with me just to chat on the cloud journey. Showing passion definitely encourages other people to engage with you. Generally I found that I was able to learn from these people too. Some people even reached out regarding the journey that might be right for them – The answer for this question is always, find something that you love. As for the employment opportunities, certifications are a great way to get noticed by recruiters & hiring managers. I receive in-mail on LinkedIn about once every three weeks based on not much else than my certification record – I don‘t think this is a good thing and I don’t like it. What you learn in a book/video/lab is always different from the real world. I’ve met people who have 20+ certifications who I would judge to be technically inept, while I’ve also met people with 0 who are absolute cloud wizards. My advice to anyone looking for a job is to show your passion through blogging, GitHub or community engagement and THEN look at getting certified. Just focusing on certifications will get you noticed by lazy and ignorant recruiting firms and through some HR filters – it won’t get you a job (In my opinion). Passion and experience are way more important here.

Closing Thoughts

If you’re still with me after this rambling 2000 word or so monologue, thank you. Hopefully this post has provided you with some insight into cloud certification. As for me, I plan to continue with my journey, albeit with some exams I think will be the most challenging yet. I’m currently preparing to take the ISC CISSP and the Certified Kubernetes Administrator. I’m still getting value out of this process and I plan to for some time to come. Until next time, stay cloudy!

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s