At the beginning of December 2022, I had the spontaneous idea to complete a Microsoft certification for the Azure Platform. I worked for about a year as a data engineer on a project for an international pharmaceutical company. The technology stack here included the Azure Platform, specifically Data Factory and Data Lake Storage, but also Azure Databricks and processing data using Python. I had considered applying for a certificate at the beginning of the year, but due to other urgencies, I did not find the motivation to do it in the end. What a misjudgment. Based on my experience, my choice fell on the DP-203 exam, i.e. the exam to become a certified Azure Data Engineer Associate. DP-203 roughly covers the technologies: Azure Storage, Azure Data Factory, Azure Synapse Analytics, Azure Stream Analytics, Azure Event Hubs, Azure Databricks. As a data engineer, I had hands-on experience as far as half of the services are concerned.
Since I had not yet completed an Azure certification, my first step was to look for guides on how to prepare for the exam. Here I found a wide variety of information, ranging from a required learning time of over 2 months to 2 weeks. These values depend on different prior knowledge. Microsoft advises several years of practical experience. In general, I think it depends on the available time of the examinee.
I booked my exam for the next date in about twenty days. This date was optimal because I felt well prepared about a day or two before the exam. To someone with little to no experience, I would recommend about 1-2 months. Especially if you are not familiar with the platform at all and have little time. It may even be a good idea to take the fundamentals certifications.
According to the study guide, the following topics are tested:
- Design and implement data storage (40-45%)
- Design and develop data processing (25-30%)
- Design and implement data security (10-15%)
- Monitor and optimize data storage and data processing (10-15%)
The guide goes into further detail on individual points, but I did not pay any further attention to them. There’s different types of questions that Microsoft uses. Commonly, you get multiple choice questions with one correct answer.
Initially, I divided my exam preparation into three parts: Going through online courses, studying the Microsoft Learn modules, and preparing with practice exams.
I spent the first few days watching the A Cloud Guru course on DP-203 by Brian Roehm and Landon Fowler. In addition, I went through Alan Rodrigues’ course on Udemy. Mostly, I skipped using the labs because of my prior knowledge and watched the courses at 1.5x speed to get a quick overview of the topics. For some people, the labs may provide useful hands-on experience.
In my first practice exams, I achieved a value of about 70-80%, which I could quickly increase to 90%. However, this did not satisfy me.
Using Microsoft Learn
I spent the next few days going through the Microsoft Learn modules that can be found on the exam site. Again, I avoided the labs and skimmed many topics. For a detailed run through you need 40-50h, which I didn’t have.
While I was reading the modules, I tried the official practice exam, which you can buy separately. Here I only scored about 60% on the first attempt. On the second attempt, it was a little over 70%. Too low for me. As a goal, I set myself 95% to prevent the case of unfamiliar and special questions.
About four days before the exam, I finished the last modules of the Microsoft Learn learning path. So I had a few days to prepare with the tests I had. As I kept taking the tests, I made a note of the topics I was having trouble with. These included the different authentication methods for Azure Storage and encryption via Always Encrypted or TDE. To fill my gaps, I read through the documentation until I understood them.
After ten attempts on the official practice test, I increased my average score to over 90%. In order to have seen all 200 questions at least once, I used the study mode to answer all the questions in one test. This cost me two hours, but showed me I had prepared well with 89% correct answers (ironically, my later score).
On the last day of my preparation, I got several 100% results in the tests I had now. I learned nothing new. After having a consistent score of about 97% on all of my tests and solving them in about 5-10 minutes, I knew it was time to stop and relax some more the evening before the exam.
I was slightly nervous, but had a good feeling because of the preparation. In the end, I found the 100-minute exam relatively difficult and on the same level as the official practice test.
There was a case study which took me about twenty minutes to complete. For the normal questions, which made up about 80% of my exam, I often had second thoughts about my answer. I marked 14 questions for review. Last, I had a section with several questions on the same topic, in this case windows when streaming. This was probably the easiest part of the exam. I took the last thirty minutes to review the questions I was unsure about.
Even though I felt I had only just passed, I had passed with 89%, far from the required 70%. I was a bit stunned, but had perhaps also thought too much about the questions. Microsoft does not try to trick you in general.
What remains after passing the exam? First, the realization that I should have taken the exam half a year earlier. Much of what I already knew I could have learned during the exam instead of in practice. Also, some best practices are best learned before doing something, even though I usually consult the documentation first. It’s something else to learn on your own than when you’re preparing for an exam. Further, the knowledge of the other services, which I did not know yet, sharpens the view on alternative approaches.
Taking the exam was worth it for me. Even if some certificates are now ridiculed due to certificate inflation, I could accumulate new knowledge for myself and see it as a confirmation of the quality of my work over the past year. Someone with this certificate and demonstrable practical experience is definitely more trustworthy than someone without a certificate. Just having it without relevant experience seems less beneficial to me. Unless you’re doing it to learn the theory as part of learning the ropes on a project. Anyway, for the new year I have more motivation to learn new things. I still want to take one of the Microsoft Azure specialization exams or another associate. We’ll see what comes after that.