I admit that certification doesnít make one an IT superhero but itís something every developer should consider. While I was earning a handful of certifications back in the late 1990ís some of my colleagues were inclined to minimize their importance but I can honestly say Iím glad I put forth the effort and expense to get certified. It helped me then and itís a good idea now in these days of fierce competition over jobs.
Unfortunately, time marches on and the exams I once passed have been retired, making my certifications somewhat meaningless. That was my motivation for making 2009 the year to return to the certification track. I decided to ease my way into it by taking the Microsoft Access 2007 Application Specialist (MCAS) exam. The following is what I learned along the way that might prove helpful for others seeking an MCAS certification.
Some people donít believe that certification is worth the time and expense but they would do well to consider a few of its benefits.
1. Clients and employers are impressed by certifications.
Right, wrong or otherwise, the fact that youíve demonstrated a level of competence by passing an exam is recognized and appreciated by those who pay you.
2. Preparing for certifications teaches you things you would otherwise never learn.
I learned a dozen keyboard shortcuts and other UI tricks while preparing for the Visual Studio exam, not to mention other very important stuff that Iíve since forgotten.
3. Passing an exam elevates you professionally.
It makes you feel great to nail an exam, as well it should. Obtaining certifications helps you reach higher as an IT professional and can add direction to your career.
What Certification(s) for Access Developers?
Some might argue that the real answer to this question is that there arenít any certifications for Microsoft Access application developers and they would be correct. The exam I took was #77-605, Using Microsoft Office Access 2007. Note that this is a curriculum for users, not developers. A complete explanation of the exam is available through this link:
One reason I wanted to take this exam is because I havenít had much occasion to use Access 2007 in production and I wasnít as familiar with the new user interface as I really should be by this time. I found the exam preparation to be good motivation for me to familiarize myself with this version of Access.
The other reason I wanted to take this exam was to jump-start my certification process. The other exams Iím looking at as an Access developer are actually SQL Server exams. The majority of my current desktop applications use SQL Server as a data store so I work with SQL Server all day long. The next exams on my list are:
* #70-431 SQL Server 2005 Implementation and Maintenance
* #70-441 SQL Server 2005 Database Solutions Design
* #70-442 SQL Server 2005 Data Access Design and Optimization
How to Prepare for Certification?
The first stop should be at the source of the exam: Microsoft. The following links will get you started and even direct you to exam study resources, some of which I used in my preparation.
Another way to prepare for certification is to take a course from one of the many accredited training companies. Iíve done this before, but only when the technology was completely new to me and I was effectively starting from scratch. Training can be expensive and it usually caters to the lowest common denominator with respect to level of complexity, so Iíve tended to stay away from paid coursework. However, if training is included in your company benefits package then by all means, take advantage of it.
Exam preparation books, in my opinion, provide the best return on investment. A decade ago, Sybex books and Exam Cram were hands down the best resources and I currently possess a Sybex book for each of the SQL Server exams mentioned above.
For the Microsoft Office Access 2007 exam, I relied upon a book with a long title, published by Wiley:
Microsoft Official Academic Course
Microsoft Office Access 2007 Exam 77-605
I could not have been more pleased with this resource. Itís well written and generously illustrated. Lessons covered are mapped to the matrix of skills tested on the exam. It comes with a CD which includes copies of all the database files referenced in the lessons. The text is focused on preparing you to do well on the exam. The scenarios you are asked to complete are the exact sorts of things you are asked on the actual exam, though itís clearly not the result of a collection of brain-dumps.
Brain-dumps, by the way, are created by those who, upon exiting an exam, jot down all the questions they can remember. Get enough people to do this and you will, ostensibly, have all the questions ever asked on an exam. It is neither legal nor ethical, and I donít endorse it as an exam preparation method.
This brings me to the exam experience itself. This was a ďhands onĒ exam, quite unlike those I took a decade ago. The exam asks you to perform an action that a typical Access user might be asked to do. Add conditional formatting, create a query, compact a database, etc. You perform these tasks in an actual working copy of Access 2007, with all the user interface features and menus, including the Help menu. The exam is timed, so the more you read the help file, the fewer questions youíll get through, but youíre free to click around until you find the correct answer before you submit the results.
I experienced two issues while taking the exam that undoubtedly lowered my score. One question asked me to apply conditional formatting to change the text color to brown. I was told that the color brown was in the upper left corner of the color pallet. However, the color in the upper left corner was white, not brown and that left me uncertain what to do. I chose brown (in the lower right corner of the pallet) and I believe it was counted as incorrect.
The other issue was that the computer on which I was taking the exam lost Internet connectivity while I was on a question that required pulling a database template down from the Microsoft website. The create database action failed and I could not complete the question. The computer was subsequently restarted and the exam resumed at the following question. Another one probably counted against me.
How Did I Do?
In the end, I scored 87 on the exam and passed. (I believe I was told that a score of 65 was the required minimum.) In the end it didnít matter in my case. The exam is pass/fail and you donít get any benefit for a higher score, but I was able to vent my frustration over these questions in the exam exit interview.
Overall, it was a great experience for me. The book sells for around $70, the exam cost me $89 and I spent about a week of evenings in preparation. I can now add the Microsoft Certified logo to my emails and tell the world Iím an application specialist. But more importantly, Iím on my way to gaining more certifications. With one win under my belt and a resolve to better myself, Iím ready to take on the SQL Server 2005 exams.