My Reflections on Exam 70-410

Reflecting on my first Microsoft exam in several years, I'm taken by the changes that have occurred in my absence. I had reviewed the test question format, and the objectives listed as being relevant for the exam. Still, I found myself ill prepared for this exam, despite over 15 years of experience doing this kind of work for a living. Test NDAs prevent me from talking about the exam in detail, but I have a few thoughts I wanted to get out that I don't think violate that confidence, and which might be of help to others contemplating this exam series.

Before that I wanted to make one casual comment about testing facilities.

My test monitor was 20". Maybe 19". And for someone used to throwing rdp sessions and other things to a second monitor to refer to them while I work, trying to read and review the exhibits for an environment I'm unfamiliar with while taking a timed exam is well... frustrating. Are larger monitors, or even second monitors so exorbitant a cost that we cant have them in our testing centers?

How I Prepared
Looking at the objectives the topics seemed to be the kind of thing I've been comfortably doing for many years. There wasn't a lot of concern. My original intent was to source my learning material for free off the Internet, and fill in the gaps for new features and elements that I hadn't had much (or any) experience deploying in real life. There are blog topics, Microsoft articles, etc that pretty well cover everything on these exams. Unfortunately, I got terribly sick in the (relatively) short amount of time I had allotted myself to study. In the end, I ended up spending $20 for a kindle book from Microsoft Press called Exam Ref 70-410: Installing and Configuring Windows Server 2012 R2 hoping to speed up and focus my studying on specific areas where I felt I was weak.

The book covered the specific test points much more pointedly that traditional Microsoft course-ware, which tends to be more general training and labs. It rambled in a couple of places, but it was a good purchase.

I stayed away from practice exams (which cost 1/3 as much as the exam, and I fear stray dangerously close to the idea of "brain dumps" which are forbidden by Microsoft). I managed to find a few free flash card collections, both online and available from a free app on Google Play. Mostly the questions were poorly written, often by people who clearly didnt speak English as a first language. I don't RECALL after the fact that any of the questions / flash cards I saw were actual questions on the exam, nor did they even particularly fit the format of the questions I got. I definitely wouldn't rely on them as a guide to what to expect.

That said I think flash cards are still a good way to study and evaluate what you do and DON'T know.

The Results
I passed. But I could have done a lot better. Ultimately, my general understanding of topics like DNS and DHCP and Active Directory were almost of no immediately obvious value.  I was expecting a general exam.

What I got was something altogether different.

Here are five elements I'd highlight.

1. Powershell
These questions are hyper-specific about the implementation of these concepts IN Windows Server 2012 R2. Those coming with a hands-on Server 2008 background will likely benefit at exam time, with one very important caveat.

If you (like me) run small enough environments (even though I have 50 VMs) to use the GUI tools and you don't make much (if any) use of Powershell you WILL be in for the same rude awakening I had.

You absolutely must know your powershell commands for the various operations. This shouldnt be a surprise to anyone. Microsoft has said for years they think everyone should be using Powershell. Its just with the GUI option I think a lot of us have just chosen to take the easier road.

2. Visualize Your Experience
Be able to recall specific elements of firewall (or other system) configuration WITHOUT visual aids. So often I rely on visual cues in the GUI and wizards to remind me of what I need to provide to the server, or where I'm going next. Without those cues I found it much more difficult to remember the specific elements that were included. I found myself closing my eyes and replaying old scenarios where I had performed the operation to form a kind of "memory palace" where I could evaluate what I had been doing. I'm certain that's what Microsoft intends to happen, but its definitely difficult, and something you should practice BEFORE the exam. In the future, I will be replaying these scenarios in my mind just before I go to sleep.

3. IPv6
Its been 10 years PAST the time they all thought we'd be rushing to implement IPv6. NAT saved our bacon, but it's also made us complacent. I still don't have IPv6 in my network. Microsoft expects you to know it, or at least be able to recognize the prefixes for the major classes of IPv6 addresses (multicast, public routable, private routable).

4. Combo Points
A couple of the questions came in the form of an exhibit with multiple tabs / elements (ie group / group policy / AD information) or (group / NTFS permissions / Share permissions) and asked you to interpret outcomes for specific users or groups. Each answer is worth 1 point (whatever that is) so if you don't understand the underlying concepts, you're going to stack up some missed points pretty quick. My suggestion?

Make doubly sure you understand what happens when you combine these elements together.

Beyond the exam, these are actually elements you'll use day in and day out if your setting up and administering microsoft networks of any size or shape.

5. Dont cherry pick your subject matter
Everything on those objectives are fair game. Yes, there were sections that didn't appear at casual contemplation to have been asked about at all. As a veteran system administrator when I look at the exam objectives I think the 70-410 exam is very reasonable and practical in what they expect you to know. Study it all, and don't roll the dice in trying to guess what may or may not be on the exam. Its all worth knowing.