I have been an IT Professional for over two decades. In that time, I have seen and experienced many changes in the IT landscape. Such changes included the move away from Novell to a fledgling company called Microsoft, the shift to something called Active Directory, and the explosion of virtualization. However, none of those changes was as significant as the current shift to the cloud that the IT industry is experiencing today. With such a colossal shift underway, it only made sense that I, as a Microsoft guy, continue to evolve by learning Microsoft Azure.
I woke up one day back in October and figured it was time to start developing my Azure skills. Because I learn best by doing, I decided to teach myself Microsoft Azure by building out my own Azure lab environment. With five kids, a wife, a couple dogs, and a busy IT career, I wanted to make sure that whatever work I put in was worth it. I mean, with so much going on around me, I only had so much time available to “learn.” As such, I wrote down my goal–obtain Azure certification by the end of the summer.
The first order of business, I figured, would be to determine which certification I should pursue. After reviewing the exam objectives for each of the three Azure exams, I determined that the 70-533 exam (Implementing Microsoft Azure Infrastructure Solutions) made the most sense since it focuses largely on infrastructure (and I’m an infrastructure guy).
After deciding where I wanted to focus my efforts, it was time to get cracking. By offering a $200 Azure credit to new accounts, Microsoft makes it easy to get started for anyone trying to learn. I went out to the Azure website and provisioned my tenant. Within five minutes, I had my tenant provisioned and was ready to begin teaching myself Azure. As I stared at my blank Azure dashboard, I scratched my head and thought to myself, “okay, now what?”
How I prepared for the 70-553 exam: Building my first Azure lab
I pulled up the 70-533 exam objectives and created a checklist of them in Excel that I could use to track my learning activities. That scared me bit–the exam covers there were at least 50 objectives and sub-objectives! I started with something easy. I went into the ARM Portal and deployed my first Resource Group, my first Virtual Network, and my first Virtual Machine. My very first “lab” was complete. I could now say that I knew how to deploy virtual networks and VMs in Azure. I could also say that I was “hooked.” This new “Azure” thing was awesome!
I have never been one that gets “excited” over technology. I always viewed it as a career–not much else. Azure was different. For whatever reason, beginning with that first lab, working in Azure seemed “fun.” This enjoyment made for an outstanding learning experience.
With my new “environment” up and running, it was time to expand it, so I spun up another virtual network and VM using ARM templates. For me, this came somewhat naturally since I actually began my IT life in programming. Although it took some trial and error, I eventually figured out how to use the ARM templates. I was a week into my Azure training and I could already deploy basic resources using the portal and ARM templates.
Developing My Azure Skills
Over the next few weeks, I would continue growing my lab environment, piece by piece. I got my ideas from Microsoft’s own documentation. I would search through their Azure documentation that covered “how to do this” and “how to do that,” and I would follow that documentation to build out different solutions in my lab environment. For example, I would track down documentation that covered things like deploying Azure Desired State Configuration (DSC) and deploying Azure Backup. I would then deploy such solutions, documenting things along the way–even going as far as making my own how-to videos.
As I built out my environment, I launched UnderstandingAzure.com and began blogging about my labs and exercises. The process of reading the Microsoft documentation (for lab ideas), implementing the documented solutions in my lab, and then writing about my process and results really helped me retain what I was learning. My learning environment was like an assembly line. I would take the ideas in via Microsoft’s documentation, implement them in my own lab environment, and then write about them on my blog. By the end of the year, I knew more about Azure than I ever thought I would. My strategy of “read it, implement it, write about it” was paying off.
As I checked off more and more of the simpler exam objectives on my Excel spreadsheet, that meant that most of what was left included more advanced objectives–VPNs, Storage, HA, Scaling, Web Apps, etc. Instead of attempting to learn a new skill every day, I dialed my expectations back a bit and focused on trying to learn one or two new skills per week. Since the skill sets I was attempting to learn were growing more complex, so too were my labs.
Putting It All Together
In March, I put together what would become my favorite lab. I built a few virtual networks and VMs in my Amazon AWS environment (I was dabbling with AWS a bit on the sidelines). Next, I built a separate environment in Azure. My goal was to use the Azure Site Recovery service to migrate my AWS virtual machines to my Azure environment. I figured if I could pull that off, it would be a huge boost of confidence.
After about a week of trial and error, reading the documentation, and re-reading documentation, I was able to get my Amazon VMs completely migrated to Azure using Site Recovery Services. The entire exercise resulted in a 10-page “This Is How I Did It” article on my blog, which has easily become the most popular article on my website. It was my first “real-world” exercise.
By May, I was building HA solutions with Availability Sets, Traffic Manager, and Load Balancers. Another cool lab that I put together was a multi-tier, multi-region website that was HA on the web front-end via load balancers, availability sets, and a Traffic Manager. The website displayed content from a back-end text file that resided on two different VMs, also completely HA’d. Once I was sure that my HA’d website could sustain two server outages, I added Azure AD to the mix and allowed only Azure AD accounts access to the website. It was a slick setup, and I learned ALOT about several different Azure resources and solutions.
By the time June rolled around, I had checked off virtually all 70-533 exam objectives on my Excel spreadsheet. After a few more labs, I purchased a practice exam and began preparing to sit 70-533. I figured I would be ready by the end of June.
The 70-533 Practice Test
My test-prep is a bit more in-depth than most. While many candidates strive to memorize questions and focus on the ones they get right, I focus on the questions I get wrong and I learn from them. I never rely on memorization. After I answer each question, I immediately display the correct answer, and I make heavy use of Google for any that I get incorrect (or have to skip). I NEVER guess at an answer. Answering a question correctly simply by making a lucky guess doesn’t teach me anything.
To prepare for 70-533, I went through the entire collection of practice questions on my first pass through the practice test. I think there were 150 or so. I answered the ones that I thought I was certain of and left the ones I was uncertain of blank, displaying the correct answer to each question as I went through the test. When I finished the first pass, I was left with about 75 incorrect or blank answers. Those 75 questions represented my weaknesses.
Using a cool feature of the practice test engine, my second pass included only the answers I had left blank or gotten incorrect on the first pass. This second pass was where the final test prep really got serious. As I worked through the second pass, I immediately got some of those 75 questions right simply because I understood the explanations and information I googled after getting them wrong during the first attempt. I repeated the process I followed during the first pass, reading explanations and researching any question I answered incorrectly. At the end of the second pass, I was left with about 45 questions that were still incorrect.
Answering every question correctly required another two or three passes over the course of a week or so. I then cleared my test history and went through all 150 or so questions again. This time, I only needed two or three attempts to get everything correct. At this point, I felt confident that I could pass the real exam, so I scheduled it for Friday morning of that week, giving myself two days to do any last-minute preparation. Scheduling exams in the afternoon does not work for me. Doing so gives me too much time to psych myself out before I actually take the exam!
I spent the day before the exam going through my practice test again, following up by reading Microsoft documentation for the areas where I felt weak. The cool thing about Microsoft’s documentation is that you can Google almost any exam objective and turn up a decent-to-good how-to document or explanation. I wrapped up at 7 p.m., relaxed the rest of the evening, and went to be early (before my normal 11 p.m. bedtime).
On the morning of the exam, I woke up at 7 a.m. and ate a half-decent breakfast. I am not a breakfast person but I knew the exam had the potential to be a 150-minute nightmare so I wanted to make sure I wasn’t starving halfway through on top of everything else. I perused my practice test one more time, focusing on the questions that gave me the most trouble, and then headed out to take the 21st Microsoft certification exam of my long IT career.
My career Microsoft exam record going into that Friday morning was an impressive 19-1, with my last (and only) failure coming over 15 years ago–a Microsoft clustering exam. The pressure was on. I know, I know, keeping a tally of “wins” and “losses” sounds silly, but I’m a competitive guy and I’ve played sports all my life so a won-lost record simply makes sense to me. If nothing else, it makes me even more motivated to succeed. I mean, who wants to break a 15-year winning streak?
I’m a superstitious guy, so I always take my exams at the same testing center. I checked into the testing center 15 minutes early and actually got started on the exam 5 minutes in advance. Game on!
I sat down at the testing station and the screen told me that I would have two hours and just over 40 questions to answer. I began the exam and things went south almost immediately. The first five or six questions focused on storage topics that I had not really hit too hard during my preparation. Worse yet, they were not questions I was able to mark and go back to. It was do-or-die right out of the gate. To be honest, I was fairly certain by the 20-minute mark that I was in serious trouble. The questions were difficult – as they should be.
The exam covered the public objectives well. Too well. With about 20 questions left, I figured I was going to have to “run the table” to have any chance at passing the exam. I can only imagine the chuckle that I was providing the proctor. Talking to myself, shaking my head in disgust, etc… I must have provided some serious comedy relief for this guy. I’m glad at least someone was having a good morning!
The Sprint to the Finish Line
Coming down the home stretch, I hit a slew of questions that were easy for me. Luckily, I’m good with PowerShell and can understand syntax and make sense of it! My constant review of ARM Templates also came in handy. After answering the last question, I went back to review the nine or so questions that I had marked for review along the way. To be honest, I’m not sure why I even mark questions for review since my policy is to NEVER change an answer unless a later question reveals the answer. This almost never happens though.
I reviewed my marked answers and changed just one–which I later determined was correct the FIRST time. Ugh. After hesitating for a few minutes, I hit the End Exam button and waited a week for my results to display on the screen. Well, it felt like a week. It was actually closer to 15 seconds. During those 15 seconds, I prepared myself for the dreaded YOU FAILED screen and for my record to fall to 19-2. To my pleasant surprise, I got the CONGRATULATIONS screen. I passed–by a wide margin! A double fist-pump was in order!
After some technical difficulties prevented the proctor from printing my results, I asked him to confirm that my results were, in fact, recorded. It would not have shocked me in the least if the results somehow were not recorded–that’s my luck. However, he confirmed that they were indeed recorded so he sent me on my way with a congratulatory handshake and told me I could print my results at home later that day.
It was a definite slugfest but Azure could not defeat me. My 15-year pass streak remained intact!
Trust the Process
I have been taking industry certification exams for over 20 years, and my preparation has always been the same. I start by learning the exam topics either through a course or through my own lab environment. When I feel that I am ready to start thinking about the exam, I purchase a practice test from any number of vendors and I hammer that practice test hard, taking and retaking it until I pass with a score of 100%. I read (and work to understand) the explanations for any questions I get wrong and I NEVER memorize answers. My preparation strategy for the 70-533 exam was no different. If you are planning to sit any of the Azure exams, do yourself a HUGE favor and take advantage of the $200 credit that Microsoft provides. Microsoft is practically GIVING you a free lab to work in. There is absolutely no reason why you should not be taking advantage of this opportunity.
When you decide to learn Azure, start out slow and pick a handful of exam objectives that look easy to master and master them in your lab. Just Google them and find Microsoft “how-to” documentation that covers each objective. Knock out all of the low hanging fruit first, and then start tackling the more difficult concepts one at a time until you have mastered every exam objective listed. Once you have done that, move onto a practice test and master that by following the exam-prep strategy I outlined earlier. If you can answer every practice question correctly, you are probably about as ready for the exam as you will ever be.
Trust the process. It works.
If you’re interested in taking the 70-535 Azure exam, take a look at this post How I Prepared for the 70-535 Azure Exam by Albert Qian.