3 Tips For MS Certification Hands-On-Labs

Here are my three tips for improving your results in a hands-on-lab in Microsoft certification exam:

  1. Read the task description carefully.
  2. Optimise your time.
  3. Review your work.

About Hands-On-Labs

If you’ve sat a Microsoft century exam over the past quarter century then you are familiar with the traditional format:

  • Either a simple scenario or a case study.
  • Multiple choice questions where you select one best answer or multiple answers that are correct or part of the best solution, or sometimes ordering the steps.
  • “Correct” answers that are wrong and “wrong” answers that are right depending on feature/update releases and when the question was probably written.
  • Trick questions that are quite unfair.

I sat the AZ-700: Designing and Implementing Microsoft Azure Networking Solutions this week and was surprised to see a hands-on-lab at the very end. Before the lab appeared I had approximately an hour left in the exam. When I was finished, I had 5 minutes left. The exercises were not hard, especially for anyone used to deploying Azure networking resources, but it was time consuming and there were a lot of tasks to complete.

The lab appeared at the end of the exam. It provided a username and password. The instructions do not offer a copy/paste feature in the Azure Portal which is embedded in the test. But you can click the username and password to get them to appear in the log-in screen. The absence of copy/paste means that you need to be careful when you are asked to enter a specific name for a resource.

The lab was made up of a number of exercises. Each exercise was discrete in my exam – no exercise depended on another. Each exercise had a description of differing complexity and clarity. Some were precise and some were vague. Some were short tasks and others were long-running tasks.

I found myself answering a comment on LinkedIn this morning and thought “this would be a nice blog post”. So on with the tips!

Read The Task Description Carefully

Just like the multiple-choice questions, the exercises are probably (I’m guessing) written by Microsoft Certified Trainers (MCTs) who may or may not be experts in the exam content – this sort of comment often makes MCTs angry and defensive. It’s clear from the language that some of the authors don’t have a clue – this is where MCTs say “leave feedback” but I would have spent another 2 hours leaving feedback when I had a family to get home to!

A task might have multiple ways to complete it. I can’t share specifics from the exam, but one of the tasks was very vague and offered no context. Without thinking too much I thought immediately of 3 possible deployments that could solve the issue. Which was right? Were all 3 right? I guessed with the one that would require the least work – it felt right based on some of the language but I was reading between lines and trying to think what the author was thinking.

Read the task instructions carefully. Take notes of things to complete – use the dry marker pens and boards you are given and check steps off as you do them. If a required resource is named, then note the case and duplicate that in your lab – Azure might drop it to lower case because that’s what it might do for that resource type!

Don’t jump to any assumptions. Look for clue words that hunt at requirements or things to avoid. In the unclear question that I had, there was one word that lead me to choose the approach that I took. I’ve no idea if the answer was right or wrong, but it felt right.

  1. Read the task carefully.
  2. Take notes on actions to create a checklist.
  3. Re-read the task looking for clue words.
  4. Verify your checklist is complete.
  5. Tick off items on the checklist as you work.

Optimise Your Time

I had 12 tasks (I think) to complete after answering dozens of multiple choice questions. I had an hour or so left in the exam and that hour flew by. As I said earlier, some tasks were quick. Some tasks required a lot of work. And some tasks were long-running.

In my exam, the tasks were independent of each other. That meant I could start on task 2 while a resource for task 1 was still deploying.

The Azure Portal can offer several ways to accomplish a task. You can build out each resource you require in individual wizards. Sometimes, the last “big” resource that you need has a wizard that can deploy everything – that’s the method that you want. Practice is your friend here, especially if you normally work using infrastructure-as-code (like me) and rarely deploy in the Azure Portal. Find different ways to deploy things and compare which is more efficient for basic deployments.

There are certain resources in Azure networking that take 10-45 minutes. If you have a task such as this then do not wait for the deployment to complete. Jump ahead to the next task and start reading.

You might find yourself working on 2-3 tasks at once if you use this approach. This is where tracking your work becomes critical. Earlier, I stated that you should track the requirements of a task using a checklist. You should also track the completion status of each task – you don’t want to forget to complete a task where you are waiting on a resource to deploy. Each task has a “Mark As Complete” button – use it and don’t consider the lab as complete until all tasks have green check marks.

  1. Practice deployments in the Azure Portal.
  2. Choose the deployment method that will complete more of the task requests in less time.
  3. Do not wait on long-running deployments.
  4. Track task completion using the “Mark As Complete” button.

Review Your Work

In my exam, the tasks normally did not instruct you to use a resource name. So I created names using the naming standard that I am used to. When I had completed all the tasks – all had green check marks – I decided to review my work. I read through the task requirements again and verified the results in the Azure Portal. I found that one task asked me to create a resource with a specific name and I had created it using my normal naming standard. I fixed my error and continued to check everything.

When you have finished your work, go through the exercise descriptions again. Confirm that the checklists are complete. And compare the asks with what you have done in the Azure Portal to verify that everything is done as it is required.

  1. Read the task descriptions again.
  2. Compare with your checklist.
  3. Compare with the results in the Azure Portal.

My Experience

It took me a few minutes to get over the shock of doing a hands-on-lab. I dreaded every minute because I have heard the horror tales of labs being slow or crashing mid-exam. I also was glad of blogging and lab work – in my day job I rarely use the Azure Portal to deploy networking (or any) resources.

But once settled in, I found that the labs were not difficult. The asks were not complicated – they were a mixture of vague and detailed:

  • How to decide what to deploy wasn’t written down.
  • Only one task had a requirement to name 1 resource.

The thing that really shocked me, though, was that I did not learn my result at the end of the exam. The normal Microsoft exam experience is that you confirm that you are finished the exam, you spend a few painful seconds wondering if the program has crashed, and a result appears. Instead, I was told to log into http://www.microsoft.com/learning/dashboard later in the day to see my result! I had to drive home and then take care of my kids so it was 90 minutes later when I finally got to sign in and navigate to see my result – which was a pass with no score shared. So I guess that I did OK in the labs.