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What I did on my winter vacation…

Headline: I passed my Microsoft Certified Professional Developer exams using my vacation time and my personal funds to pay for the course.

I’ll talk about several different areas that might be of interest to other as well as “journal” about why some of this happened.

What was I thinking? (Or – Why I Did It)

Going for Gold

It was all a big mistake – but not really. In September I was focused on my company becoming a Microsoft Gold Partner. In September there were requirements for certifications of personnel in order to achieve that Gold Partner status. I was trying to figure out how to get others motivated to do all that studying and testing. I then realized that I’m at a different point in my life than many others. I am not going to my sons’ baseball or basketball games or helping with homework. That is the way many of my colleagues spend their evening hours. So I got this brilliant idea – why don’t I get certified.

.NET 3.5 in San Francisco

Having never worked on a Microsoft certification before I didn’t even know where to begin, so I searched for companies that provided training to become certified. One company I kept running across and for which I kept seeing good reviews was Training Camp. So I signed up for one 14 day course followed by a 3 day course reaching Professional Developer on .NET 3.5 to be held after Thanksgiving in San Francisco.

.NET 4 in Bushkill, PA

As I began preparation for the training I started looking into the Microsoft Windows technology. Most of the Windows training for .NET 3.5 was focused on WinForms applications. Being a person that works more with Silverlight as well as WPF (Windows Presentation Foundation) I found that after 2 consecutive evenings I could just not get motivated to study WinForms… However, I did get motivated to see if Training Camp had any .NET 4.0 training yet. That was mid-October and I did indeed find that 1) they did offer .NET 4.0 training, 2) it was in January in Pennsylvania, and 3) Training Camp would be happy to let me apply my money to the .NET 4.0 class and drop out of the .NET 3.5 class. I’m focused on .NET 4.0 which is where I spend all my time and I can help ensure Microsoft Gold Partner status. Now my motivation was much higher!

What do you mean a certification is no longer needed?!?

Given my desire to help achieve Microsoft Gold Partner status I would routinely check the site to see what we were missing and try to help meet those requirements. In early November when I went to the site I saw that Microsoft had completely revamped their site and the requirements for our company. Now certifications of individual developers was not a requirement! What?!? I’ve already committed funds to the training!

Over the next several weeks I thought long and hard about whether I wanted to go through with this. I knew what Training Camp’s refund policy was (you can apply to a different class, but not get a refund). Did I want to try to get an exception to their policy? After all – this was my personal money and the requirements did change… After lots of soul searching and some very encouraging words from my wife I finally decided to go forward with the training anyway. I’m sure we could have come up with some more entertaining ways to spend that money, but again she was very supportive – of the money as well as all the time I was already spending to prepare.

How I Prepared

So with that decision finally made I continued with my preparation. My wife started to kid me stating, “Isn’t the course supposed to teach you all this? You’re going to show up and know it all already!” I assured her that was not the case and that the course was more akin to a preparation course for the SAT – you’d better not wait until the review session to try to learn it all.

To prepare I got a copy of the following books:

  • Pro C# 2010 and the .NET 4 Platform by Andrew Troelsen
  • Pro WPF in C# 2010 by Matthew MacDonald
  • Programming the Entity Framework by Julia Lerman
  • Pro ASP.NET MVC 2 Framework by Steven Sanderson
  • Windows Communication Foundation 4 Step by Step by John Sharp
  • Framework Design Guidelines by Krzysztof Cwalina and Brad Abrams

While I did not make it through each book cover-to-cover, I did make quite a bit of progress. I also had all these on a Kindle so that when I went on vacation over the Christmas holidays I was able to just bring my Kindle along. Otherwise that’s probably 15 to 20 pounds of books.

The Training Camp Experience

Great Teacher

Mickey Mullin was the instructor for the Microsoft .NET 4.0 MCPD (Microsoft Certified Professional Developer) course. Mickey is not only very knowledgeable, which you would expect – he is also an excellent and animated presenter. Covering data access, web applications, windows applications, and WCF (Windows Communication Foundation) all in 14 days is a lot.

Conflicting Objectives

If you’ve not read all this post, I’ll recap the source of “conflicting objectives”. Basically, after changes in my situation I was attending the class to learn more than to become certified. The objective of the course and virtually all my fellow students was to pass the certification tests. This only became an issue for me when we would hit an area that did not appear to be covered heavily or at all on the test. The mantra of, “It’s not on the test, move on!” or “It’s not likely to be on the test, I don’t want to get confused or fill my head with too much information.” was strong. There were 2 or 3 other students that actually were interested in a deeper understanding, we were in the minority. We would usually get together at breaks and work to understand.

The Location

Fernwood Hotel & Resort is located in Bushkill, PA. This appears to be the primary location for Training Camp. I imagine the location is quite delightful in the summer, but was certainly cold in the winter. I’m quite conflicted about the location… On the one hand there isn’t much to do there. It is very quiet and makes for a great place to study. On the other hand, there isn’t much to do there. Overall I believe I would much rather have a location like that than to have it in a place where you are really wanting to get out and sightsee such as Las Vegas or San Francisco.

Also, my family didn’t feel like I was off at some luxury resort without them. It was clear to all concerned that I was there to learn and nothing else.

Complaints

I saved a special section just for complaints. I can think of very few places I’ve been for 14 days and not had ANY complaints. That said here are the items that top my list:

  • AT&T Wireless connections were not good at all
  • Internet access in the classrooms was slow (“hey, pay attention, you’re in class – you’re not supposed to be surfing the internet…”, “But I’m looking up the right Router interface to use for a particular WCF configuration!”)
  • The water froze in our building for a day or so. (It was cold)
  • The shuttle never seemed to come if I would call. There just was not enough capacity for taking the shuttle. The only time I really cared was when I had to carry all my luggage on the final checkout day.

Compliments

  • I already mentioned the instructor, Mickey Mullin, was dynamic and knowledgeable.
  • The staff onsite were very friendly and knowledgeable too. I had no issues with getting signed up for tests.
  • While I missed my Starbucks coffee, the coffee machines there were really quite awesome.
  • I took the Champagne Limousine Service and that was flawless upon arrival and departure.
  • I had some classmates that were great to work with!

A Day in the Life

Before I begin, I need to point out that I did not have a car… Just my feet. And those were covered with boots that had the soles coming off.

The official schedule is a grueling 12 hours, 9am – 9pm each day for 14 days!

Most days I would wake up early… I’m a morning person. Since I usually woke up before the shuttle service started, I would walk from my unit to the classroom building. That was about 1/2 a mile. While that doesn’t seem to bad and was actually quite refreshing when it was 28 F, it was a different story when it was –2 F. While I might arrive as early as 7am, class would not usually start until 9am. At 1pm we would take a quick trip – sometimes walking, sometimes on the shuttle – down for lunch, then run until about 6:30 or 7:00 pm in the evening. Yes there were nights that ran until much later, but Mickey would usually try to wrap up lecture earlier so that we could break for dinner and then begin work on the course labs to learn.

I would then usually walk back to my unit, eat a turkey on rye sandwich, then go to bed fairly early.

All in all this was a pretty demanding schedule. I understand there were some football games during the weekends, but I didn’t really get to see much. We did manage to have the test schedule so that we were done early afternoon on the middle Sunday. I think that was the first time I saw daylight other than the walks at 1pm for lunch.

I never went hungry. I was hoping to lose some weight while I was there, but the snack rooms were always stocked and the lunches were usually quite reasonable.

What I got out of it

The primary takeaways I had were:

  • I am more confident in my software development knowledge
  • I am confident that the key Microsoft technologies I use are the right ones for my problems (Entity Framework, MVC (Model-View-Controller), Silverlight, and WPF (Windows Presentation Foundation)

In a previous role as the Enterprise Architect for Software Development I once gave a talk about some architecture patterns and agile software development practices. During the talk I pointed out some very simple code I’d written and stated, “I was able to do this and I’m not even a ‘real’ software developer.” A very dear friend came up to me afterward and said, “Let me give you some advice. Don’t ever say, ‘I’m not a real software developer’ when you talk. If you’re not a real software developer, then what am I? Chopped liver?” I think I’m far less likely to say I’m not a real software developer after having taken all these tests.

My role is not that of a developer, but instead, the Software Development Director for SMT. I’ve feel that with the significant changes in technologies over the years that I can make much better decisions if I truly understand the technology.

And of course, I already knew I had a very loving and understanding wife. But this situation once again proved the obvious.

Interesting Observations

After taking the first test on Data Access which I found quite challenging I started to reflect on when I last took a test of any sort. If you don’t count a driver’s license test, then the last test that I recall taking was in 1982!

This course was the 3rd formal software course I’ve taken. I had a FORTRAN course in 1979, a C++ course in 1992, and then this course.

Advise for other course attendees

  • I felt the books I had were great for preparation.
  • Don’t go to Bushkill in winter.
  • If you go in winter, bring very warm clothes. Lots of layers.
  • Go with an attitude to learn. (I was impressed with the learning attitude of many of my classmates. For example, there were no trips to the bar the night before tests… given that I took 6 tests in 14 days, that meant very few nights out.)
  • A car might make it easier. But I did like not having to find the place and leaving the driving to others. Besides, I could use the exercise. You decide.
  • Build up your endurance – both mentally and physically. Even if you’re in good physical shape 12 hours of mentally challenging material will wear you down. It helps if you’ve been building up to long days working on mentally demanding software challenges.

Final Words…

No regrets.

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