Exam Thoughts 70-441

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I registered for the Beta exam of 70-441 mostly with the intention of reporting on the experience and my impressions of the exam. If you are expecting this to give you the inside tips on what you need to know to pass, then you will be sorely disappointed. I am bound by an NDA to not disclose the content of the exam, and I cannot give you specific clues on what's on the exam.

But I'll tell you what I think.

Preparation

Most of you probably have seen something I've written and know that I have quite a bit of experience with SQL Server 2000. I've used it since Beta 2, been very successful in a number of environments and have spent a lot of time learning about it. So I'd consider myself a general SQL Server DBA, an 8 or 9 on a scale of ten. I understand the product pretty well.

In terms of SQL Server 2005, I haven't done much work. I have installed Beta 2, CTPs from Oct 2004, Dec 2004, April 2005, June 2005, and September 2005 as well as the RTM release. My workings with the product are probably limited to a hundred hours or so, mostly clicking things, checking the validity of some writing, and doing some simple T-SQL and security exercises for the QOD. I've read lots of articles, both on this site and others, but I haven't dug deeply into them beyond reading the content. On a scale of 1 to 10, I'm probably a 3. Somewhat knowledgeable, but not really. So when I registered for the Beta exam in November, I got some links for preparation, intending that I'd do some cramming to see what I could learn.

I didn't.

In fact, I didn't change my routine and when I got the reminder a week before the exam, Thanksgiving Friday in fact, I decided to go in blind to see how well a SQL Server 2000 guy could do. So I didnt' change my routine, didn't follow links and study, no practice tests, etc. I didn't even write my EXECUTE AS article for the magazine since someone else covered it in a good amount of detail already. The most preparation I really had was all the QODs on schemas.

The Exam

The first thing is that the setup looked like the same old Prometric Windows based testing exam. The screens still look like Windows 95. Enter your ID number, agree to the NDA, etc. But from there it quickly changed with the first question screen.

I got a message that this first section of the exam contained x questions and that I should read the background and answer the questions, etc. You can guess what was there, but when I went to the next screen, I had a question that didn't make sense. It was a question and answer choices, but there was no context from which to answer the question. Then I realized there were buttons in the corner that would take me to background, business requirements, techincal requirements, etc. This was basically a fairly long description of a business with a variety of requirements or statements, perhaps some table definitions, security expectations, etc.

You had to read the information and based on it, answer a series of questions. I had from 8-15 questions on a particular business or case and 4 or 5 sections (can't really remember). Granted this a beta exam, so I probably saw most of the pool of questions and I'd expect based on past versions, for the live exam to be 2 case studies with 25-30 questions.

I had a variety of types of questions, multiple choice, choose 2 or 3 of x, answer all that apply, drag and drop, ordering steps, etc. And I could go back and look at the case background during any of the questions in that section, and I often did, flipping between the question and the background. I could also go between any of the questions on that section at any time, but once I finished a section, I couldn't go back and review a previous case study.

The content was definitely geared more towards DBArchitect or DBDeveloper than DBAdministrator, which makes sense for this exam. There were lots of "how do you design" some part of a solution meeting requirements. Whether this was a table, a performance item, a type of solution (SSRS or SSIS or SSNS), or security, I thought this was a pretty good exam. I thought there were specific clues in the background that would lead you towards a particular answer and they were tricky without being unfair. I don't remember any memorization type questions like "what's the most memory SQL 2000 Standard can use?"

Knowledge Testing

I think this was a good design type exam for solutions. But not for SQL Server itself. Too many questions hinting at SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS) or SQL Server Notification Services (SSNS), which seem more like add ons than Integration Services (SSIS), which seems like a core product. I was disappointed in how little, or few, questions were devoted to detailed decisions on table design, triggers, specific T-SQL functions, etc. Instead this was really more of an architect for platforms based on SQL Server 2005.

So how did I do? I think I passed, which is scary. For someone like me, that is knowledgeable on SQL Server 2000 and databases in general, I'd have thought that I'd struggle more with maybe writing a Common Table Expression (CTE) or Table Valued Function (TVF), or knowing how to use the TOP or MAX operators in their new forms. Instead I think I could, or you could, pass this with some good base knowledge and careful reading of the background information.

Over all, I think I had about 50 questions, give or take a few. And there were really only 3 or 4 that I had no clue on. And these were SSRS or SSIS specific to a level I just had to guess at. There were also more questions than I would have liked on designing for specific types of application interactions. I don't want the line between DBA and developer blurring that much to the point where a DBA developer needs to understand how to write Windows Forms or .NET applications.

It's a Step

I do think the format is great. Not just memorizing abstract answers, but actually having someone give you business requirements and technical ones in the context of a real application and company and working with it. My one caution is that the descriptions are fairly long. A good 2 pages of text to read and remember. I can read a 200-300 page novel, like a Patterson or Parker, in a couple hours. And I stressed a little with the first few case studies. So if you can't read and absorb fast, start practicing.

I did make some comments after the test that I thought a slightly more detailed, but maybe only 1 case study would be nice. In a test situation, you are under pressure, but having to read and work with one case study quickly (each section had a time limit) and then drop it and absorb another one is hard. I think 1-2 case studies max would be a good amount for a test.

I still think these exams should be more detailed and split apart. I think a database developer who's writing for an application should have a detailed understanding of T-SQL and RI and how the various features of SS2K5 work and not worry about security, replication, and SSIS. Put that in a separate exam, maybe even shorter and do the add ons as $50 additions to your certification.

So I'm both pleased with the direction, but disappointed with the content. However, it doesn't look like those of you looking to upgrade your certifications should be too worried about your SQL knowledge.

Just your test taking skills.

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