By Val Bakh
In the previous article of this series, we discussed the general issues pertaining to Microsoft certification exams. The conclusion was that to pass the exams, you need to prepare for them. But how? What are your options? What materials and tools should you use to study?
The general strategy for any kind of studying is to find one or more sources of relevant information, read them, try to understand, and then test your new knowledge by applying it to practical situations. In the past, choosing the right study materials was relatively easy. For some Microsoft products, there were comprehensive Resource Kits; for others, the original product documentation provided by Microsoft contained all you needed to know in order to master the product. For example, the Windows 95 Resource Kit was a huge paperback with over 800 pages containing all sorts of conceptual and specific information, including detailed click-by-click instructions accompanied by the relevant screenshots. Its follow-up, the Windows 98 Resource Kit, had over 1,000 pages. After perusing such a book and playing with the operating system (OS) for a few weeks, passing the exam was a breeze. The Windows NT 4.0 Resource Kit consisted of several printed volumes and, complemented with reading a few sections from the OS’s built-in Help, was good enough for the entire MCSE six-exam marathon. The culmination of this trend was the Windows 2000 Server Resource Kit, a monumental six-volume set that introduced Active Directory and was by far the best source for the new MCSE track.
Regretfully, the next OS Resource Kit, for Windows XP, was the beginning of the end of the good tradition. When Windows XP came out, there was no printed Resource Kit at the time and the electronic version was, for some reason, hidden in an obscure foxhole on a TechNet CD. Had it not been for a colleague who stumbled upon it by mere chance, I might have had to learn Windows XP the hard way.
When Windows Server 2003 came out, there was no Resource Kit for a couple of years. When the first version was finally released, it was nothing remotely resembling its mighty predecessors. All it contained was a collection of supplementary tools for performing some auxiliary tasks. It looked like Microsoft had decided to abandon the Resource Kit model that worked so well in the past. But the built-in product Help (also known as Online Help) for Windows Server 2003 was still pretty good; you could learn a lot from it, and you could still pass the exams with it. Eventually, in 2005, Microsoft released a complete Resource Kit for Windows Server 2003, but it was too late for many users who could have benefited from it.
The main factor that made the old resources—the Resource Kits and product documentation published approximately up until 2005—so valuable was their systematic approach. Each of them had a proper structure that made it easy for you to establish a logical sequence in which to move from topic to topic and, while reading up on one feature or functionality, to always know where exactly you were in relation to the rest of the product. The documentation was written so that you could learn all or most of what you needed to know about a product, usually without the need to have any serious exposure to its previous versions or to be constantly referred to a multitude of additional sources. Practice exams have always been an important part of the exam preparation process, but in the past, they only complemented the comprehensive Resource Kits, product documentation, and Online Help, which laid a solid foundation for your learning and formed the backbone for any additional training. If you had a question about how a product worked or if you needed to resolve a technical problem that you encountered while doing your job, your first step was to go to the documentation, and most of the time you would find the answer there.
It’s hard to tell what exactly caused Microsoft to abandon the model that seemed to work so well in the past. Whatever Microsoft’s rationale was behind the change, the quality and usefulness of its technical documentation started declining about a decade ago.
Windows 2000 Server Resource Kit came out in time for the release of Windows 2000, but the transition from the simplicity of Windows NT to Active Directory probably overwhelmed Microsoft technical writers. Apparently, they were unable to produce any additional Windows 2000 Server documentation in a timely manner and must have decided to put it off until the next version of the operating system. As a result, when the complete, almost 5,000-page-long Windows Server 2003 Resource Kit finally arrived in 2005, it did not come alone: the belated Resource kit was complemented with the Deployment Kit and the Technical Reference. Some might think the more the better. In one sense, it was; it never hurts to have a comprehensive source of technical information on a subject of interest sitting on a bookshelf for occasional reference. However, the sheer volume was so huge that it became difficult to find specific information that you needed at the moment, and the fact that bits and pieces on each topic were spread across multiple publications was not very helpful either.
At about the same time, the world was actively transitioning from print media to the Internet. People started becoming reluctant to pay hundreds of dollars for multivolume printed book collections, whose useful lifespan did not exceed two or three years, when they could find the same information on the Internet for free. As a result, Microsoft started moving away from the Resource Kit model.
The Windows Server 2008 Resource Kit appears to be the last one for a server OS. It came out right on time, in 2008, but became obsolete only a year later, when Windows Server 2008 R2 was released. Although the version designation, 2008 R2, might create an impression that it was just some minor enhancement of the original 2008 version, like another service pack, in reality, the differences between the two OSs are so significant that I think Windows Server 2008 R2 deserves an independent version number, such as Windows Server 2010.
At the time of this writing, at the end of 2014, I am not aware of any Resource Kits for the latest versions of Windows Server, such as 2008 R2, the original version of 2012, or 2012 R2. The last Resource Kit that I know about is one for Windows 7, published more than five years ago, at the end of 2009. Reportedly, it’s a great book but with too many dependencies on other technical sources and—surprisingly?—lacking many topics that IT pros tasked with deploying and maintaining Windows 7 computers would definitely want to have been included.
Nowadays, most of Microsoft’s documentation is published on the Internet as part of TechNet Library or MSDN Library. There is also a multitude of stand-alone articles at Microsoft Support, various guides and labs at TechNet Wiki, so-called white papers at Microsoft Download Center, and a whole universe of individual blog posts (usually without any noticeable signs of having been properly edited) within the TechNet and MSDN frameworks. There is very little structure left in all that documentation, which makes it nearly impossible to learn anything in a systematic manner. Without some external guidance, like the advice of a more experienced colleague or a specialized training product, it’s hard to know where to start your learning process and in which direction to move. This became especially true when Microsoft retired the Classic view in TechNet Library and MSDN Library in favor of what they call the Lightweight view. The navigation pane in this view deliberately obfuscates any structure that might still exist in those libraries. Topics often appear in the navigation pane in alphabetical order by title rather than in a logical sequence that they should be read in. Moreover, they are usually written as stand-alone articles not intended to be part of any logical sequence. Most of the time, all you can do is search for specific technical terms and, if you find something relevant, acquire a very limited amount of information that is often difficult to link to other pieces that you may have learned in the same manner. It’s like always landing on tiny isolated islands, whereas your goal is to get to a mainland. There is a significant lack of meaningful conceptual information, such as the “ideology” behind a particular product or feature: why, where, and when it is intended to be used. Occasionally, quite to the contrary, all you can find in TechNet Library on a new feature introduced in the latest version of Windows Server are a couple of conceptual articles and not a single word about the whereabouts of that magic button that you should click to start using the feature. Instead, you might find a link to a place where you can download a description of a test lab, but test labs usually follow a very narrow path of a simplified scenario, which is not an adequate substitute for good-old-fashioned “Using …” and “Configuring …” Online Help topics.
A special prize in the deficiencies category undoubtedly goes to this one: Whenever you try to learn something about a particular product, you are almost always referred back to earlier versions of that product. For example, if you go to the section in TechNet Library that is supposedly dedicated to Windows Server 2012, the first topic you encounter is named What’s New in Windows Server. Well, if you have worked with Windows Server 2008 for a few years, then you probably can start learning the 2012 versions by finding out what new features they include. But if you are at the very beginning of your career and if Windows Server 2012 R2 is the first OS you are working with, then how are you going to learn it? First learn the original version of Windows Server 2012? But with the existing documentation, that is impossible without learning Windows Server 2008 R2, which in turn requires knowledge of the original version of Windows Server 2008, which in turn requires knowledge of Windows Server 2003. Because its predecessor, Windows 2000, was the last version that had fundamentally sound documentation, why not start with that one? By the time you finally get to Windows Server 2012, there will probably already be a couple of newer versions. Not to mention that Microsoft no longer supports Windows 2000 and you will likely not be able to even install it on modern hardware. Learning something in this manner is absurd. You shouldn’t have to learn everything that happened since humans discovered fire if all you want is to manage a bunch of computers running the latest version of Windows Server.
Another common malady afflicting this new generation of documentation is that there are no clearly defined boundaries between different versions of an OS or another product. For example, sometimes, Microsoft’s writers copy a piece of the documentation for Windows Server 2008, change its title to make it appear as part of the Windows Server 2012 documentation, but neglect to adjust any terminology, procedures, or even references to the 2008 version. And sometimes, they don’t bother to even copy a topic to the Windows Server 2012 documentation; instead, they simply add a reference to Windows Server 2012 to the Applies To: line under the topic’s title and leave the topic in its original location, in the section for Windows Server 2008 documentation. Not to mention the fact that topics pertaining to the original version of Windows Server 2012 (or 2008, for that matter) are intermixed with topics pertaining to the R2 version, making it pretty much impossible for you to build a clear picture of the differences between the two versions. Assuming that you have somehow managed to locate the topic that you were looking for, reading it is likely to cause more confusion rather than clarify anything for you. From the beginning to the end of the topic, you can’t stop wondering whether what you are reading does indeed apply to the specific version that it claims it does.
The situation with the documentation for some other major Microsoft products, such as SQL Server, Exchange Server, System Center, and Visual Studio, is somewhat similar. The documentation for each Microsoft product adheres to its own model, but the same general principles as those for the OS documentation still apply. It has become increasingly harder to learn any product in a systematic manner and without already possessing knowledge of the product’s previous versions.
So, what should you do? If Microsoft’s documentation is unsuitable for learning the fundamentals, then what about third-party materials? If you looked really hard, could you maybe find a good book or two? There are two types of books you might be interested in: ones that describe a specific OS or another product and various exam self-prep guides. Both types share a common problem: they are way too general. The latter are too perfunctory and do not provide deep enough knowledge of the subject to answer all exam questions, some of which can be very specific. And the former are not focused on the relevant exams at all.
Another problem to keep in mind is: Where do you think the authors of those books learned the stuff they are writing about? The only place where any information about a Microsoft product can originate is Microsoft. This means that anyone who decides to write a book about a Microsoft product will have to learn the product by reading the very Microsoft documentation that we’ve just characterized as ill-suited for learning. I wouldn’t say it’s impossible, especially for those who started their IT careers a decade or two ago. But as a general principle, how much trust can you have in a story that is being relayed by someone who heard it from someone else, especially if the latter is known to be a poor narrator?
If Microsoft’s documentation is not very good for proper learning and third-party books are not sufficiently detailed or trustworthy, what else is left? That depends on your exact goals. Learning an OS or application so that you can work with it requires a different approach than learning the same OS or application so that you can pass a certification exam. To pass an exam, you need to find a way to focus your studies on the topics included in the exam. The best way—at least in my personal experience—is to use practice exams. A good practice-exam product should be able to limit the scope of your studies to what you really need to know to pass the exam and should also guide you through the maze of the present-day Microsoft documentation. So, in my opinion, the roles of the original documentation and third-party books on one hand and practice-exam products on the other hand have reversed compared to their roles in the past. Now practice exams (not all of them, of course; only the good ones) have become the best primary preparation tool, whereas books and documentation are better suited to the role of a complement.
How do you know whether a particular practice exam is legitimate and, if so, whether it is good or bad? That is what we are going to discuss in the next article. Bear with me, and you will get your answers.