The site has been a bit quiet over the past month as I’ve been doing the groundwork to complete the last two exams of my MCSE: Desktop Infrastructure certification. I lost momentum when my source of exam vouchers dried up, and that thing called life got in the way. With some renewed free exam voucher offers and some discounted exam packs, I was gently prodded back into action and am happy to report that I got through the two post MCSA Windows Server 2012 electives that I needed, so it was time to relax for the holidays. Or so I thought…

That’s when invitations for the two beta exams came through, and here are the links to the exam descriptions if you haven’t seen them already.

71-346: Managing Office 365 Identities and Requirements

71-347: Enabling Office 365 Services

If you take a look through these descriptions, you will see that they cover a huge range of different products and technologies across the Office 365 spectrum, which is the strength and the weakness of these exams. Other people have called out their ongoing concerns about exams that expect one person to be an expert in so many things, so I will discuss them differently. I did both of these exams this morning without doing any real preparation for them, and though it will be a while before the results come through. I can say that in their current forms you won’t get through them easily without preparation. There were questions that I had no idea how to answer, but I wouldn’t say they were hard questions. They were just questions I wasn’t prepared to answer. I felt the same way when I did an Exchange exam on a whim after several years of only dealing with single Exchange Server scenarios in SBS environments. I just wasn’t prepared.

The following will get polarized responses from those I know, but I can understand that the exam writers want you to put effort in to pass exams, and force you outside of your comfort zone when it comes to exam preparation. I view the exam process as not necessarily about demonstrating what you know, but also what you are capable of learning. In many cases it’s what you are capable of learning in a short time frame, with knowledge you may never need to apply. Just like most other exams we encounter in other aspects of life.

There are a few problems areas with the exams I see which I will call out, so I will discuss those during the rest of this post.

Specificity Of Job Role

This is the one that upsets most people who have taken these exams or their predecessors, but I’m okay with this aspect. As I mentioned above, having to learn something in preparation for an exam isn’t unusual, and should be something that exam takers embrace. If you think of job role specificity as being pigeonholed, and learning new things as allowing you to expand into new and exciting territory, then you probably agree with me here.

Anytime somebody calls themselves an expert on a broad range of technologies they are setting themselves up for challenges, and Office 365 is about as broad a feature set that a single product can have. The variation in questions within both exams meant that I had sections that I thought I knew very well and was able to get through them without thinking, but they were few and far between. Everybody will encounter a few questions like this in the exam, with some people being able to draw on their non-Office 365 experience to get them through some questions.

To PowerShell or not to PowerShell, that is the question

This problem isn’t unique to Office 365 exams, I’ve seen it in repeatedly in Windows exams as well. Microsoft has been promoting PowerShell as one of the most critical technologies for IT Pros to learn, but then exam questions ask you about the user interface and where to find that option. If this is something that can be achieved in PowerShell, should you get a choice of answering the questions as a PowerShell question or a UI question? If it can only be done one way or the other, then specific is fine, but sometimes a bit of focus is needed.

It’s not Ask The Experts, it’s The Experts Ask Us

While I do expect to have to learn about exams, the exam writing team need to keep each other in check when approving questions. The PowerShell proponent needs to remember that many people cut and paste PowerShell commands as needed, and don’t memorise them, so more than likely they won’t need to memorise each of the cmdlets. Just because another expert has a focus on SMB customers doesn’t mean that exam takers know anything about the non-E plan capabilities. I think it’s even a stretch to assume that most techs would really know the differences between the different plans at all. especially in larger organisations. How many people outside of a large Lync practice would know Lync PowerShell commands? Exchange I would expect, but I don’t see Lync scripting skills being at the same level in the community at large.

How would I recommend this be improved? Perhaps a tiered approach to Office 365 certifications, letting the user choose the product track they want to go down to achieve certification. Sure, you would need to know some basics about all of the Office 365 components and scenarios to progress, but you won’t have to try to know everything for each exam just in case. Splitting it out into more exams comes at a cost though. There will be those who aren’t happy with having to do more exams from a cost and time perspective, but it could be as little as one additional exam as an elective.

When is now?

I would have answered a few of the questions in different ways if I knew of the timeframe in which the question was being asked. This is one of the risks of exams based on products that have fluid capabilities like Office 365, which has had many features and requirement changes already. This is also something that has to be watched when you are pulling together your own study materials – make sure you know not just the current requirements, but what the requirements were for previous versions. This is only going to get worse during the life of the exam.

In Summary

As I now take a look at the specifics of the skills being measured in the exam descriptions, they do cover what is in the exams. The problem is that most of us will take a look and think we know something about that, but we don’t know enough. I predict that most people will find an area or two in the exam which they are comfortable with, which not surprisingly matches their skillset.  There were more than a few areas I thought I knew that were covered in a way I hadn’t encountered, and I know that I will have a few forehead slapping moments when I encounter something exam related, which has already happened today.

Some posts from others on this topic…