The MCM lab exam – two days later

December 23, 2012

Readers of my blog, or followers on Twitter will know I took the MCM Lab exam a couple of days ago. I let people know I was doing the exam, rather than doing the ‘normal’ thing of doing it in secret and hoping no-one found out until a successful result had been published.

Oh, and this post has been approved by the MCM program’s boB Taylor (@sqlboBT) as not-breaking NDA. Nothing herein should be seen to imply that a particular topic is or isn’t in the exam.

So how did I go? Well… I made a bunch of mistakes, I wasted a lot of time, I even left some questions incomplete, and so I assume I’ve failed. It’s a horrible feeling, I can tell you. I went in not knowing what to expect. I knew that I’d worked with SQL Server for a lot of years, and felt like I had a good grounding in all the various aspects of SQL Server that I might have to know – but on the day, in the stress of having a laggy remote desktop session, a Lync connection which had dropped out just beforehand, being told that ‘everyone’ fails first time but that I was probably going to be one of the exceptions…, well, I didn’t feel like it was my day.

If I’d had that day at a client site, it would’ve been fine. With extra time, I have no doubt that I would’ve been able to get through things. I could’ve raised questions when I didn’t feel exactly sure about what was expected. I could’ve pointed out how much I’d done to help address a situation and found out if they wanted me to continue hunting for other potential issues. I could’ve asked for more information. I could’ve written a document describing what I had in mind to solve the particular problem to confirm that the client was happy with it. You don’t get any of that in exam situations.

I found myself doing things the ways that work in the real world, but not having somewhere to turn when it turned out that the information was clearly not quite there, turning a simple situation into a trickier one. In real life, I’d’ve turned to the face peering over my shoulder and said “I thought you said it was that thing.” Instead, I wasted time looking for what it actually was.

I found myself making changes to databases that I wouldn’t make in the real world without first running those changes past someone, or at least making sufficient disclaimers along the lines of “I would recommend making this change, but there’s always a chance that something else will see the impact of this…”

Now, I think I could go into the exam, and even faced with a different set of questions, have a better picture about the style of thing that would be asked, and be better able to identify the danger-items – those things which could lure me away from staying on track. It’s not the same with consulting, because you can always ask as soon as you consider there’s a potential problem. Just like the mechanic who says “So, there’s a rattle… do you want me to spend some time looking into this? If so, is half an hour okay?”, I can ask my clients if there’s something which doesn’t smell right. In the exam, you don’t get that luxury.

If you’re going to take the exam, I would recommend the following approach:

  • Start by going through the questions, making notes about what they’re asking you to do and how much time it’ll take. Move the list of questions to the side, because switching from one window to another will simply take too long.
  • Once you’ve identified ones that you know will be ‘quick’, do them. But if one stops being quick, leave it and come back. You’re not in danger of leaving it unfinished completely – there’s 5.5 hours that you’ll be remoted in, and you’ll be coming back in about 30 minutes. But you don’t want to find that you spend an hour on something which you anticipated would be a ten minute job.
  • Whenever you leave a question, put it back in the list at an appropriate spot. If you think it’s still quicker than the question on XYZ, then fine, put it above that. But be ruthless about how long you spend on each task. If something doesn’t work the way you expect, do some troubleshooting, but don’t treat it as if your client depends on it. Your exam result will suffer more because you wasted time, than if you left it incomplete. You could end up finding that the XYZ question actually turned out to be simpler than you thought.

I hope I passed, but I really don’t think I have done.

I’m confident I blitzed quite a lot of them. There were plenty on the list that I moved through quickly, and others that took me longer than I expected, but I still finished. It’s just that there were a certain number that I assume I didn’t finish satisfactorily – simply because if it were my database that I had got a consultant in to fix, I wouldn’t’ve considered it complete. I mean, hopefully I hit the key things on some of those, but I can’t tell.

I know I definitely got some just plain wrong. The things that weren’t working, and I didn’t have time to get back to. I was getting hungry by the end of it, and was feeling stressed about the amount of time I’d wasted on other questions.

Assuming I need to retake it, I have to wait until 90 days after this attempt. That’s March 20th.

So what will I do between now and then? Well, I might check through the various guides about the things that stop things from working the way I expect them to. I’m not saying what didn’t work, but imagine there’s some technology that you’re familiar enough with. To use Tom’s example, peer-to-peer replication. I know how to set that up – I’ve done it before. It’s actually very straight forward. But if you do what you always do and you get some error… well, that might be harder to troubleshoot. In the real world there are plenty of ways you can troubleshoot online, but in an exam, it’s just Books Online and what’s in your head.

In that regard, Tom’s guide on what he didn’t do is useful. His “Don’t try to get every answer” is very important. But I would also point out that you should start to try them, in case they turn out to be easier than you expected. Just because it’s on P2P (continuing Tom’s example) doesn’t mean you won’t get it. Tom described shouting at the screen saying “Seriously? Is that all you’ve got?” – this is why you should try the ones that you figured would be harder. Don’t start with them, but a few hours in, don’t just focus on the time-wasters.

Tom described ‘not studying alone’. I discussed various things with people leading up to the exam, more so than studying per se. There’s another person who I know is taking the exam soon, and we’ve talked a bit about the various technologies. Like “How are you at TDE? What’s your clustering like?” – that kind of thing. He has environments set up where he’s practising a bunch of tasks. I didn’t. I did skim through some of the videos, but not many, and it was really only skimming. I found myself being slightly interested in the video where PaulR demonstrates how to set up replication with a mirrored subscriber. I watched it a couple of times because something wasn’t sitting right – I figured it out though… in the exam you don’t want to be using scripts for everything (the GUI would be much better – not that I practised at all), but also, the error that he gets at the end… it’s because his script tries to remove the subscriber from the wrong server. In the GUI, he wouldn’t’ve had that problem (reminds me – I should mention this particular mistake to him, although I’m sure he knows about it and just doesn’t have an easy way to change the video). I didn’t end up watching most of the videos – even the ones on Resource Governor. I looked at the titles, and figured it would be fine to skip them. I listened to one on Clustering Troubleshooting in the car as I drove home from town, but just kept thinking “Right – I get all that… but is that enough for the exam?” I can’t say whether it was or not, but I can tell you that I didn’t do any further study on it. I also watched the Waits demo, and the slides on Log File Internals (but mainly out of curiosity about a different problem I’d had a while back).

I didn’t read the books. I’ve read a couple of chapters of Kalen’s SQL Internals before, but didn’t finish it. I haven’t even read the book I wrote recently (well, obviously the chapters I wrote – I read them lots of times).

Of Tom’s advice on what he did to pass (doing the reading, watching the videos, writing things down and teaching others) I really didn’t do any of them. But I do spend time teaching others in general. I’m an MCT – I teach from time to time (not as often as I used to), and that sharing aspect is important to me. I explain to people about how to tune their queries. I explain why indexing strategies will work for general performance gain. I explain why security is important, and the keys to avoiding SQL Injection. Even today I spent time explaining the roles of Replication Agents to someone (who later told me that they’d heard that stuff before, but it just made more sense when I explained it). Teaching comes naturally to me, and I’ve always done it. But I didn’t do any of that with this MCM exam in mind.

My advice on how to pass this exam – use SQL Server for fifteen years. It’s what I did. Studying might work for you too, and if that’s what you’ve done, then you may well get to leave the lab exam feeling a whole lot more confident about your result than me.

I actually did leave feeling very confident about my result. I’m confident I failed. But I also know that I could pass it tomorrow with no extra study – by avoiding the time sinks that are in there – and I wish I didn’t have to wait until March to retake it.

I’ll post again when my result becomes public, to let you know how I actually did.

Of course, I hope I’m wrong.


This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Simon

    Good luck rob.  From my point of view the single biggest thing to be aware of is the fact there are no half marks. You must complete 100% of the scenario to score.  I didn’t know that first time round,  I wish I did. I’ve just taken the exam for a 2nd time. I’m hopeful, but then I was the first time too!

  2. Rob Farley

    Right – but also, don’t let that thought make you obsess about finishing. It’s better to leave a question than waste an hour on it. You can always come back to it later.

  3. Marco Russo (SQLBI)

    Rob, thank you very much for your comments – I think they are very useful to everyone wants to take the exam.

  4. Paul S. Randal

    I love this: "My advice on how to pass this exam – use SQL Server for fifteen years.". This is who we wrote the lab exam to target.

  5. Jaime Tarquino

    I know the feeling I also did fail the first time 🙂

  6. Rob Farley

    Well, I still hope I’ve passed. Most of the material that you’ll read about this exam will tell you that you should study a lot for it – but my experience wasn’t like that. I know that if I need a retake, I won’t be studying for it, I’ll just use my time better. It’s not as if there’s an actual client who has actual downtime.

  7. Steven Ormrod

    Congratulations! I enjoyed reading your posts about your experience with the exams.

  8. Bodhisatya

    Isn’t 15 years too long a time?  i think someone using SQL Server for 15 years should be an MCA. i am someone who is preparing myself for MCM exam and i strongly feel that MCM board should throw more light as to what we can expect on the exam…

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