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The thirteen tips on taking tech tests


The thirteen tips to take tech tests

Yes I can speak Cloud…I learned it from a book.

The Light Brigade

Half a league, half a league,

Half a league onward,

All in the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!

Charge for the guns!” he said.

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

The Charge of the Light Brigade I., by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

A seemingly unimportant footnote in British history - especially when compared to the grandiose political (re)volution called Brexit - and yet immortalized in art. Makes you wonder who will capture the adventures of the Theresa Mayflower and Long John Boris as they leaves the safe Schengen harbour in order to rediscover the route to Avalon

The Charge of the Light Brigade refers (obviously) to the charge of the British light cavalry against Russian forces during the the Battle of Balaclava on 25 October 1854 in the Crimean War. The charge was futile and resulted in a huge number of casualties - but one can argue such is war. In this specific case, either miscommunication or deliberate misinformation that caused a light cavalry brigade to charge a full complement of well placed and defended Russian guns. A captain, frustrated at the fact that the brigade had seen very little action, delivered written orders verbally which resulted in the afore mentioned charge even though the intent was preventing the capture of a couple of cannons by the Russian troops.

I will refrain from drawing any analogies. For anyone interested in history in general - and how chance and stupidity have played a pivotal role in shaping history - I can recommend the following book: The Hinge Factor. But once again - this is not what this post is about.

The thirteen tips to take tech tests

In my career so far, I have taken and passed an awful lot of tech tests - I reckon about 50. And even before that, I had a particular knack for doing multiple-choice or multi-response tests. And even though much can be said about thelack of value of certifying people based on the results of a multiple-choice tests, this necessary evil will most likely be a part of our profession (Architects, Engineers, Consultants) for years to come.

So I decided to spill my proverbial beans and share thirteen tips on taking tech exams:

Think

As in other fields of science before us, we are currently experiencing a “linguistic turn” within information technology. Greater abstraction leads to concepts and ideas becoming first class citizens when we talk or write about solutions. The more we drift away from actual silicon, the more important logic and reasoning become. And what is true for infrastructure also applies to programming: the rise of higher level programming and scripting languages is a move from away from machine language to human language. Or Ruby.

This means that in order to understand modern IT, we need to be able to reason, grasp concepts and constructs, and master interpretative reading. If you look at it that way, the current method of testing is actually a blessing in disguise. Where it made little sense to have a multiple choice question on programming in assembly or on how to properly connect a SCSI terminator, it makes a lot of sense to have one on which data storage service to use to store a JSON document given requirements x and y and constraint z.

Another advantage, at least within a realm of knowledge such as cloud computing, is that after you understand the concept, that knowledge can be applied to more then one solution. Object storage is object storage.

So think. And don’t mix up the realms. A Lambda function is certainly not a lambda function.

Time

Might be stating the obvious, but take your time. And I mean that in a very literal sense. Of course, start studying early enough, be on time, don’t get stressed before the exam because you might be late (Note: if your are late, almost all test centers let you start later without impacting the amount of time available for your test). What’s more important is that you take your exam at the time you are at your best - and unburdened by anything else. Even if it is your first exam, there must be something else you’ve accomplished in your life, some point where you knew you were the best you could be. Try to mimic those circumstances.

If that means you need to take your test early in the morning, late in evening, during a busy or a quiet week at work, do it! It doesn’t matter - take your time and own it.

Thrift

Most exams have a time limit. And with that limit comes time pressure. And for most of us, there is also a set amount of time we can spend studying for an exam. In both cases, be thrifty with your time.

So during the exam, don’t be afraid to skip or guess answers for questions that are factual and you just don’t know. By factual, I mean that the question requires you to choose one fact out of three or more facts as opposed to questions where you a need to apply your knowledge to solve a problem stated in the question. And even for the latter questions - if after reading the question and the answers you are not even close to finding the right answer - skip or guess. Don’t flag them all for review. Guess.

I would only consider reviewing a question if I believe another question later in the test will gave the answer away (Microsoft was traditionally really bad at this) or if I believe that 2 more minutes of thinking will help me deduct the answer. And even then I would not reserve any time for review, but only look at them if I have spare time at the end (and feel that I might need some points to pass). Depending on the exam, you will have somewhere between 2 and 3 minutes per question, and some of those questions will have multiple paragraphs of text.

As for studying - make informed decisions on the material to use. For more on what sort materials are available and what I think is worth working on, see “Training”.

Tenacity

Once you are in there, behind the screen wondering why you need to agree to another NDA or T’s and C’s - or as in my case you are not even there yet because you are forced to hold up your secondary ID for such a long time that your arm starts to cramp - do not despair. And if, after 20 questions, you start to wonder which cloud this test was about (because you haven’t seen a single acronym that looked familiar), do not go gently into that good night. You paid for your 170 minutes and your 60 something questions, so what if you just had some really bad luck and got the 20 hard questions first. Buck up, take some deep breaths and carry on!

Turn

This might be a bit controversial but next to skipping and guessing (and not marking questions for review), I am vehemently opposed to going over questions that you’ve already answered and changing them. Think about it - you thought that was the right answer or you made a guess the first time you went over the questions. And that was before you spent a good hour wading through the proverbial quicksand. There are not many people that will be better at picking the right answer after that. Don’t turn round and look back…

Lot’s Wife

But Lot’s wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt

Twos and threes

Often the answers will tell you just as much as the questions do. If you look closely enough you can see certain patterns emerging - something which is rather unique to tech test and generally make them easier. Often an answer will consist of a combination of things, such as services and technologies, and the only difference between the answers is that one answer gives the combination x,y,x, another x,z,a,b, the third y,z,c and finally a,b,c.

When I am faced with those type of questions I try to look for the service or technology that should certainly be part of the answer. Most of the time that allows you to drop at least one or two answers. Next I would look for contradictions within in the answers - if x and y have overlapping functionality or can’t ever be used together, then I can drop any answer containing both of them. If you take into account that one answer will often be absolute nonsense, this helps you narrow it down to two or three answers (or just leave you with the right one).

Talent

An inconvenient truth. Some people are born with a talent for multiple choice type tests, some are not, and others experience near anaphylactic shock when confronted with a capital A, B, C or D. But in essence, there is nothing more to it then interpretative reading, logical reasoning, common sense, and having a general idea of the concepts and subject matter. Some might add hands-on experience, though your mileage on the latter may vary. see Tangible). I honestly believe that, if you apply the tips in this article and prepare properly, even the most multiple-choice-challenged should be able to pass an exam.

Tangible

DISCLAIMER: I would never dare to suggest that any of the tech vendors would attempt to indoctrinate us to use only their solutions for just about any problem.

But in general I would advise a certain degree of detachment from the real world when taking tech tests. Sometimes the right answer to a question will not even work in the real world - or not without quite a few extra steps or even third party tools. I’ve done exams made by our friends in Redmond where 30% of the exam was about technologies that I never ever encountered in the wild (and I’ve actually seen MS IPAM being used in the wild, so go figure).

Let it go, and drink the Kool Aid, unless you are taking a Google exam. They are the only ones that actually seem to want you to be aware of the fact that there are circumstances under which the built-in or native services are not the only right choice. Also see Third-party tools.

Themes and tropes

Really important but often overlooked. Each exam will have each themes and tropes. And they tend to change over time. In the Windows 7/Windows 2008 era (and even beyond that), every exam had questions with regards to VPN and WWAN encryption. And the answer was always PEAP. And if that answer mentioned other components, you could be pretty sure that they were part of the answer of other, seemingly unrelated, questions. AWS did something similar with stressing the importance of read (Elasticache) or write caching(SQS) instead of handling everything on a database level. This was all part of their strategy to “help” people migrate from their Oracle and MS SQL databases. Similarly, in recent AWS exams, you can see the move from Kinesis and an ELK Stack solution to Cloudwatch Logs.

It is the same the other way around. Often the applicability or suitability of older technologies is de-emphasized to such an extent that you can safely ignore any answer that mentions that technology. For instance, most cmdline binaries for Windows management immediately became second-class citizens the moment Powershell reared its object-oriented head, even though using the older utilities is often a lot easier and quicker. This is, however, also the point. You need to be very aware of the limitations of each solution because there are always questions trying to fool you in to choose a technology such as Powershell as the solution to a problem that can’t be solved, or is not supported by, Powershell, for example.

And because the themes are often consistently applied, you can greatly speed up answering questions while retaining a fairly high accuracy. So be sure get a feeling for the currently active themes or tropes and their changes (and, yes, you could also call these paradigms and paradigm shifts, but doesn’t start with a T now, does it?).

Tropes

Third-party tools

Rule of thumb - Microsoft will never promote the use of anything which could be considered a third-party tool in their exams. If it is mentioned in a question or answer, it is to distract you or to point out the obvious superiority of the MS provided services. The same goes for AWS, however, here the scope is even broader because, to be honest, there is very little that cannot be consumed as a service through AWS. I’ve seen one or two questions where native OS scripting was actually preferred over AWS services, but that’s it.

Thorough

Come prepared. Take your IDs, check that they are valid, and check that they are accepted. Be on time. Be at the right test center. Check your name on the confirmation email when you schedule the exam. Check all the other details. Twice. Also before the exam - track changes to the exam outline, subject matter, or form (case studies, labs, multiple-choice, multiple-select). You don’t want to find these things out while taking the test. And you really don’t want to fail a test and find out afterwards that that could have been prevented.

Track your time, track your progress during the exam. And most importantly track how many questions you feel you answered correctly. This should give you a feeling of calm and provide the comfort of control. Or dread when you are doing really badly - in that case focus on other happy thoughts such as the unpredictability of the actual scoring system for these tests. But the point here is that, as with just about anything from sports to recovering from injures, the right state of mind can really have an impact on your performance.

Don’t review questions. But if you do mark them for review, go back and answer them! And please do check that you selected everything you should select. And that you answered all the sections. Even do the silly evaluation questions at the start of at the end.

Don’t be Bill. Be thorough.

Trance

This might be a personal quirk - but I do much better if I get into a very concentrated trance-like state. I use music to focus while I’m studying and doing practice exams. I go over practice exams repeatedly to improve my answering speed, and, when I go the testing center, I turn off any form of messaging and listen to the same music that I used to study. All that contributes to being sharp and really focused when I start the test.

Sometimes I go over to the testing center early and run over a couple practice exams again (or more than a couple if didn’t get in those hours before). I always pick the same locker for my stuff, and I always use earplugs. It causes a sense of detachment which I find very helpful when ploughing through the questions.

Training

And finally, training. For almost any test or exam, a plethora of training materials are available. Which type you prefer is really a personal thing, I guess. I am not going to pretend that I can tell what type of people require which type of training, but I will give you my personal opinion on works and what does not work.

You can roughly divide the different training materials into the following categories:

Now not every category requires the same amount of time or cover the breadth or depths needed to pass exams. You also need to make an important distinction between the categories that further your knowledge of a product and those that just help you to pass the exam. Following is a summary of each of the categories with my evaluations:

Category: Exam outlines
  • Time: Negligible.
  • What I think: I check them before even booking an exam or test. And when exams are changing or are being redeveloped, I also try to find to blogs or sites that detail the exact differences.
  • Makes you smarter: Not really. Well, if you don’t understand most of the outline, you are probably not ready to sit the exam.
  • Makes you pass the exam: Yes.
Category: Video courses
  • Time: A lot.
  • What I think: I generally don’t have the patience to sit through hours and hours of someone very slowly telling what I can also find out through other means. But some places, like Linux academy, combine their videos with labs and practice exams, which makes it a much better experience.
  • Makes you smarter: Yeah. But very passively, and because a lot of courses are geared towards passing the exam, the applicability of the knowledge gained can be questioned.
  • Makes you pass the exam: Yes.
Category: Documentation
  • Time: Considerable.
  • What I think: Might be boring or tedious, but, in my book, this is the best resource to use, especially combined with the exam and test outlines. I passed one or two Microsoft exams just by reading Technet.
  • Makes you smarter: Most definitely.
  • Makes you pass the exam: Yes, but it can be hard to focus on the right subject, and you run the risk of going down rabbit hole after rabbit hole of really interesting stuff.
Category: Books
  • Time: A lot.
  • What I think: There are books and there are books. As with the video courses, you have quite a few books which are like expanded exam outlines that take you through exactly what you need to know to pass the exam. But I try to stay away from those and get books to go a little deeper and talk about ideas and concepts first before proceeding to the implementation of those ideas into solutions within a specific technology.
  • Makes you smarter: Most definitely.
  • Makes you pass the exam: Yes, though at cost - time.
Category: Labs
  • Time: Considerable.
  • What I think: Though I’ve focused on question-based tests, we do see some occasional hand-on lab task as a part of tests as well. AZ-302 was 40% lab-task based. I don’t know if this is a trend, but if you do not have any hands-on experience (yes that sounds crazy - but many of us solution architects do not have that), it would really pay off to do some labs. Or do I what I do - build something with the new technoolgy that you’ve built before by using other tools - adapt your terraform plans or scripts to make them work on another cloud or even deploy some sort of quickstart application (wordpress, static html site anyone?). Even a “hello world” function would do. If you like gamification, check out things like Qwiklabs - they even do events where you can find Starbucks vouchers.
  • Makes you smarter: Yes!
  • Makes you pass the exam: Possibly. Depends on the exam and the labs. IaC stuff might not always be worth your time because they don’t test on that too often (though getting your JSON on is always a good idea).
Category: Practise Exams
  • Time: A lot.
  • What I think: AWS offers some great practice exams, and if you pass one real exam, you get a free voucher for a practice exam. They are really representative and sometimes even harder then actual tests. The Linux academy practice tests are also pretty decent, and I like that you can take them more then once.
  • Makes you smarter: It makes you more aware of the possible choices and arguments in favour or against a solution in a very practical way.
  • Makes you pass the exam: Yes, because it trains your multiple-choice skills and gives you some insights with regards possible exam questions.

The other option

And now for the elephant in the room - braindumps\testkings\pass4sure’s or whatever you like to call them. I’ve used them.

  • Would I use them for every test or would I use only them? No.
  • Do I care whether they are accurate or updated? Not really.

I mainly find them useful to practice taking tests in a particular context. If I have the time, I do them over and over until I’m at a proper pace (often doing a couple of different ones once will do the trick). If I pick up some questions that are on the actual test, well, that’s a bonus. But, to be frank, most companies now finally do some proper rotation and renewal of the questions, so its not really possible to get a copy of the current questions. Its also a matter of risk - do you really want to fill your head with questions and answers that might not be current or right (many times I’ve seen a lot of wrong answers in these braindumps) leaving no room for actual factual knowledge?

BTW - I only really use Whizlabs for now because it provides the perfect balance between cost and quality. But if you can get your hands on a copy from a year-old exam, that’s fine too. Just don’t spend a hundred bucks on it and prioritize the other materials.

I hope you’ve found this small essay useful, feel free to reach out if you have any questions or comments!

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Michiel Brinkman

Michiel Brinkman is a Solutions Architect working for Rackspace from Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Multi-cloud certified with a strong engineering background.

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