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A Guide to Azure Certification

Aidan Finn

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Cloud Computing

As we’re currently going through times of economic uncertainty, an Azure certification can really help IT pros stay ahead of the curve. You may think that getting IT certifications are not worth the time and effort. However, if you’re interested in Azure and willing to future-proof your career, getting an Azure certification can really help.

In this post, I will explain why there is value in getting certified for Microsoft Azure, the available qualifications, and how to prepare for the different exams.

I recently passed two Microsoft Azure exams – for partner competencies and self-measure – so I will share some of my experience here.

What is Azure certification?

I am aware that, like all things cloud-related, this article will be out of date as soon as the editors publish it. However, I’ve recently discovered Azure exams that I’ve never seen mentioned before, and I’ll tell you everything you need to know.

There are a lot of Azure exams falling into different tracks. Most of you reading me are probably an infrastructure/platform engineer like me, and you should focus on the Azure administrator (AZ-104/AZ-10x) exam and maybe the Azure networking solutions (AZ-700) exam.

You will find a developer track, a security track (which includes a lot of Microsoft 365 content), and more. Some of the exams, such as the ones I have mentioned, are quite general but there are also specialized exams. An example of such an exam is the Azure Virtual Desktop Speciality (AZ-140).

What is an Expert certification?

Exams can be combined in a track to achieve an Expert certification. Some examples include:

  • Azure Solutions Architect Expert: This is achieved by passing Microsoft Azure Administrator (AZ-104) and Designing Microsoft Azure Infrastructure Solutions (AZ-305). This is a good one for Azure generalists.
The path to Azure Solution Architect Expert
The path to Azure Solution Architect Expert
The path to DevOps Engineer Expert
The path to DevOps Engineer Expert

The value in the certification process

I sat my first Microsoft certification exam around 1998. I failed that exam. It was a horrible experience, and it set my opinion that has remained mostly unchanged about Microsoft exams in the years since.

Most of the questions were poorly written in terms of grammar and clarity. The demands were commonly unclear. All too often, the answers were either based on marketing, out-of-date material, or wrong.

Since then, I’ve sat exams where I know that I am an expert on a subject and appear to know the content better than the people who submitted the questions for the exam. My last Hyper-V certification was fun because many of the “correct” answers were out of date thanks to a Windows Server Service Pack that changed graphics and memory management. In the era of the rapidly changing cloud, questions & answers can rapidly go out of date.

As an interviewer, I am always worried when a CV/resumé has too many certifications listed on it – I assume that the candidate has rote learned a lot of facts that they have no understanding or contextual knowledge of. I am convinced that there are people who are good at exams because they understand the “puzzle” and are good at rote learning.

I am not a fan of the certification process. But I realize that it is a “necessary evil”. I previously wrote that I was unemployed from 2001-2002 and I used Microsoft certifications to change my career path.

Getting a Microsoft certification can really change your career
Getting a Microsoft certification can really change your career

If you are job hunting, your first hurdle is a human resources staffer or an IT manager that has little knowledge of the work or understanding of the necessary experience. Those people judge candidates by certifications – either you have them or you don’t; it doesn’t matter if you have built the latest/greatest cloud thingy for a large SaaS enterprise using GitOps and Terraform – you don’t have AZ-104 so you can’t do the job! I know that’s stupid, but that’s how it is.

Engineers, consultants, or developers working for a Microsoft partner will face pressure from management to sit exams. The Microsoft partner program awards competencies to partners as a measure of capability – a dumb process that is mostly based on company size and sales figures, if you ask me. Each competency requires a minimum number of staff members that have current certifications in certain areas.

Finally, a certification is a measure of achievement. You might want to use it as a self-measure, like a jogger who runs to keep fit. Or your employer might use it as a measure of providing you with time and/or budget to train on a subject.

Booking an Azure certification exam

An exam must be booked online. You typically start the process from the Microsoft certification site, which will link you to a booking system run by Microsoft’s certification partner, Pearson VUE. You have two possible exam venues:

  • A test center at a physical location
  • Sitting the exam online

If you choose to visit a test center, you will be checked in on the day of the exam, asked to leave all your belongings in a locker, and be given a “white pad” and markers for temporary work. You are escorted to a PC where you will be signed in and then sit for the exam.

If you opt for an online exam, you should prepare in advance. You will be told to download a tool to test your PC, which you should do before you book. Your desk and surrounding area must be clear – you will be asked to photograph the area before you sit for the exam – I was brought into a chat by an online proctor and asked to use my external webcam to show the area in greater detail, including demonstrating that the power supply for my laptop’s external monitors was disconnected.

Preparing for an Azure certification exam

Microsoft certifications are built mostly around rote learning chunks of text from online sources – many of the questions quote directly from those sources’ texts. There are two sources of information that are used:

You also have the option of attending training courses. I found that official Microsoft training is expensive, and a course does not teach enough to pass an exam. However, I have young college-leaving colleagues that have attended Microsoft University (a benefit of a Premier support contract with customized training) and have achieved certification quite quickly – this leads to comments about paper qualifications without experience.

If you follow the link for any exam, such as AZ-104 Azure Administrator Associate, you will find information on how to prepare online for free or through paid instructor-led training.

There are countless study guides shared by the online community, each mapping the exam requirements to online study materials. One person really stands out, John Savill: his Technical Training YouTube channel is full of lessons and exam tips. The videos can be quite long, but a lot of people prefer (or need) video training instead of text-based training.

You will also be able to find practice exams online. They can be useful for those who have never had the pleasure of sitting through a Microsoft exam before.

It's really important to prepare for Microsoft certifications exams
It’s really important to prepare for Microsoft certifications exams

Passing an Azure certification exam

One of my exams was the Azure fundamentals certification (AZ-900). That’s a relatively easy exam, with lots of questions about the concepts of Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) and Platform as a Service (PaaS). There were no surprises in the format, it was a simple text-based multiple choice exam. I got my result a few seconds after completing the exam.

The other exam was the Designing and implementing Microsoft Azure networking solutions (AZ-700) exam. This is “my specialty” in Azure, so I went in feeling as confident as I ever do in a Microsoft exam (not very, really!).

There was a mix of question types:

  • The usual multiple choice questions.
  • A single scenario where there were multiple solutions offered and you had to say if they solved the issue or not. You could not go back to previous questions in this section. Don’t be shocked if none of the offered solutions works.
  • A couple of complicated scenarios with mixtures of issues that really test your knowledge of routing, peering, and connectivity.
  • A hands-on lab that I was not expecting.

The hands-on lab launches you into an Azure Portal experience, assumably in a real Azure tenant. There were around a dozen tasks to complete – some of which take a long time to process in the backend. None of the tasks was particularly hard – unless you normally work using infrastructure-as-code and haven’t done this work in the portal recently (that was me). I have two tips here:

  • Read that task carefully and do exactly what it asks – pay special attention to names.
  • Don’t wait for long-running tasks. You can check off tasks as complete; use this checklist system to come back and inspect those tasks later. I nearly ran out of time because the list was quite long.

The lab work is inspected either by a human or some automated process. This meant that I had to wait about one hour to get my result.

Renewal of an Azure certification

Once upon a time, Microsoft certifications were valid for as long as the product was supported. However, Azure is a product that’s constantly changing and adding new capabilities at a regular pace.

To reflect that flux, Microsoft cloud certifications are valid for one year. If you want to keep your Azure certification, you must sit a renewal exam (which you can do online) every year to prove that you are current with the technology.

Conclusion

I sound like a bit of a Debbie-downer about Microsoft certification at the start of this article. I do not enjoy exams. I do not have a puzzle-solving mentality. My learning approach is to understand, not to rote-learn. You can understand that the Microsoft certification process is not my cup of tea.

However, as I have previously posted, Microsoft certification saved my career and it is a necessity for job hunting and participating in the Microsoft partner program. Finally, seeing that pass result on the screen and getting your Credly badge to share online (LinkedIn and socials) gives you a buzz and a sense of achievement.

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