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We Studied, We Passed, Was It Worth It?

By Andy Warren,

Back in November I posted Review of Developing Windows Based Applications for VB.Net and C#.Net. One of the points I mentioned in the article was that the company I work for requires all developers to become MCAD's within 12 months of hire.  I also promised to report back on the effectiveness of the book - which brings us to this article.

In addition to the MCAD within 12 month rule, we also require developers to pass the VB.Net exam within the first four months. Because it was a new requirement, that meant all of us had four months. Because three out of six developers had never taken a MS exam we decided to meet once a week for an hour at lunch to review a chapter, ask questions, look over sample code. Each developer was assigned a couple chapters to study in detail so that they could lead a lunch time discussion and all developers were required to have read the chapter prior to the session. This worked out pretty well. Invariably there would be a point (often many) that someone was not clear on that someone else could address. In some cases we'd head back to a dev machine afterward to take a look at some code to prove a theory. This kept everyone on track and kept them from getting too far off track, it's all too easy to get busy with work/life and leave the studying to the last minute.

Does this indicate the book is weak in some areas? A fair question. Our group comprised two senior developers, one mid level, three junior developers, so we had the range of experience, and the resulting range of questions. Overall I was very satisfied with the book and thought it did a good job of covering what I ended up seeing on the exam.

Transcenders were an option, but we mandated that they could not be used until the study group had completed all chapters (scheduled to end with one month remaining to the deadline). We wanted them to pass the exam, but we really wanted them to learn as much about VB.Net and how it differed from VB6 as possible. Clearly a computer based exam simulation is a great prep tool. Part of it just getting the feel for how the testing software works, the different question types, getting into an exam frame of mind. Every time I've used Transcender I've always ended up exposing a couple areas where I was weaker than I thought, not due to lack of study but rather because the book I used didn't cover it adequately or at all - or it just didn't sink in!

So how did it wind up? Two developers had the time line extended because of internal delays, the remaining four passed. Three on the first attempt, one took two tries. I attribute the two tries to exam jitters rather than a lack of knowledge. I polled each as they returned, each thought that the Transcender had made a difference and that we should use it from the beginning for the next exam. From their perspective it makes total sense, their goal is to pass the exam, they have a lot riding on it. From my perspective the last thing I want is them just learning the prep software and passing the remaining exams but not spending the time with the book and the tools to really learn what's going on. Is that last fair? Could you know nothing about a subject, use prep software and pass the test? Probably not. Yet I am sure that if you get too much of an idea of what's on the test, you'll spend less time studying the things that you think won't be on the test.

The other point to look at is did taking the exam help us move to .Net? It did. Everyone has acquired decent familiarity with the tools and understands the basics of data access (pretty important in a corporate environment). Senior level developers still write better code .Net than the juniors do, still apply more advanced techniques than the juniors do. We had hoped it would also raise the skill level (quality/elegance of code/solutions) but I can't tell that it did. Not unexpected, but we were hoping. Learning to write good code takes practice, review, introspection - hard to pick that up in a few months. We're using .Net for all new projects now, there are a couple of older apps we'll rewrite once we've acquired more experience.

One unanticipated benefit was that all the new certifications gave our CIO something to brag about a little, good press doesn't hurt any department!

For the next exam Developing and Implementing Web Applications with Microsoft Visual Basic .NET and Microsoft Visual Studio .NET we'll use another MSPress book, MCAD/MCSD Self-Paced Training Kit: Developing Web Applications with Microsoft® Visual Basic® .NET and Microsoft Visual C#™ .NET, I'll report back on it once I've had a chance to finish reading it. We've also decided to study individually this time. This is partially due to workload and scheduling, but also because we need them to learn to study on their own. We'll still meet informally to answer questions about problem areas, but not much in the way of dedicated training time at the office. Will it work out as well? We'll have to see!

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