My impressions of the AZ-300 Microsoft Azure Architect Technologies exam
About two years ago I took a new role in my client’s Engineering department. I spent about six years in Network Operations though much of that time was performing network engineering as the organizational model hadn’t stood up an engineering team responsible for handling infrastructure projects. As the Engineering team’s role started to grow, and opening presented and I took the opportunity to expand my skill set. It would provide exposure to other technical areas in the organization such as Windows, Linux, Storage, and Virtualization. As a bonus there were strong indications that the team would be doing some work on cloud design and implementation as the organization received pressure to move workloads to commercial cloud environments. That effort soon took off at rapid pace, and I found myself quickly diving deep into Azure technologies to meet some ambitious deadlines.
I passed the 70-535 exam some time ago and as I was preparing for 70-533 I found that this exam series was being retired for the new role-based certification system. Microsoft offers a transition exam, the AZ-302, for those who have passed 70-535 and want to certify on the new role-based model. Although I was eligible to go this route and was making preparations, my employer offered the opportunity to attend a week-long course for AZ-300 free of charge. Free training, additional time to dive deeper into the technologies, and…free? Sign me up! My pursuit of the certification was primarily as a mechanism to learn more about various Azure technologies and not driven by a requirement to be certified by a certain time, so taking the long route was not a problem.
If you’re reading this from the perspective of jumping fresh into Azure and taking this exam, my experience will differ from yours. I’ve have a couple of years experience with Azure (mostly in IaaS work) and have been fortunately to work closely with some sharp folks from Microsoft Consulting Services and Premier Field Engineers. During our initial dive we also had ‘fast-start’ training and some one-on-one time with a PFE going over our design and options to fulfill particular requirements. My preparation for the AZ-300 exam must take that into consideration as I know some of the deeper knowledge that I brought to exam day, especially in my stronger areas around virtual networks and ExpressRoute, were direct results of this early experience.
My learning style strongly prefers reading to first understand the basics of the technology, then a bit more to understand how to initially set it up. Then I’ll complete some hands-on work to really set the concept in my mind. I cannot absorb the material from reading alone, especially just reading the general overview of a technology because many times it is worded so vaguely that I cannot understand how the tech can be applied in practical terms. I’ll also take in some video material but I find that is more useful as a secondary reference after I’ve done some initial reading. It often moves too slowly for me and I usually need to flip back and forth through material while I am taking in concepts for the first time. This is easier to do via a document than trying to skip through a video.
For Microsoft exams I’ve found the Microsoft Docs to be the best source of preparation material. Microsoft has done a great job with this documentation, and for the three Microsoft exams I have taken, the objectives map directly to the docs available here. I haven’t felt the need to purchase books related to the exams. I’ve found that a web search of the exact text from the exam objective will often result in references to the material in Microsoft Docs. Many of these are quick reads and I highly recommend following related links in those documents if they are closely related to the objective. For example if the exam objective relates to “implement Azure storage replication”, I’ll read the document on Azure Storage Redundancy and fan out to the related material on each redundancy method. The Docs also have example and ‘How-To’ sections that can guide initial hands-on lessons to complete an initial test. Don’t just stop with following the How-To. Take some time to explore all of the options available. Be curious and look up some of the features if they aren’t readily apparent. Even just hovering over the information icons and reading the tool-tips will often give you an understanding of the configurations that are available.
Aside from the Microsoft Docs, I have a subscription to one of the popular video-on-demand providers that I’ll use to supplement reading and hands-on labs. When I started studying for AZ-300 the provider had not updated their material for the new role. Reflecting on this I found it much more valuable to use VOD as a supplement and secondary reference on specific areas I was weak in, rather than using it as a primary training method. I bookmarked videos and would skip to chapters specific to areas I needed additional information. Having different sources of material helps, as each source will present in a different way. A change in perspective can kick something in my brain that helps understanding of the material.
Finally I attended a week-long “boot camp” style course focusing on AZ-300 material. It covered a lot of material in a short amount of time and focused on areas related to the exam objectives. One could probably take such a course and pass the exam if the labs and study material were closely followed. However I don’t feel such a course alone leaves one with a good understanding of the material. I took the course near the end of my preparation so it had good impact on refreshing some material and reinforcing material I was weak in. But there were still things covered in the course that I lost in a short period of time. Learning a new skill or concept takes time, repetition, and practice that a boot-camp style course cannot provide. I find them valuable but in support of other methods of preparation in a longer “campaign”.
Hands-On: If you have access to an Azure account through work, school, or some other (legitimate) source - fantastic! Take advantage. If not, sign up for a free Azure account. There are many things that you can do with the free account to prepare. Finally, don’t be afraid to spend a little bit on some Azure services to prepare for this. Bookmark the Azure Pricing page and refer to it before spinning up new services. Be careful on what you spin up - don’t go crazy on large database instance or a 1000-node scale set. A good part about cloud is that it is easily available and has granular billing so you can spin up services for a quick lab, then spin them back down without spending much.
I’m not going to go into extreme detail on the exam to avoid violating non-disclosure and because…it’s an IT exam. Most IT professionals have taken a certification exam and have an idea what they are like. I will give my general impressions of the exam experience and quality, but understand it’s one person’s interpretation.
It’s a bit long - Listed at 210 minutes its the longest exam I’ve sat since the Fundamentals of Engineering in my college days. The actual exam isn’t quite that long. Time is allotted for exam center prep, reading the Terms, and providing comments on questions at the end. But be prepared for it taking some time. I finished with only a few minutes left due partly to some time-management blunders on my part and incomplete preparation due to long hours at work. I made the mistake of not fully reading tasks in one of the simulations, so I had to re-do some work to complete one of the objectives. (Lesson Learned - Read all requirements / tasks before completing simulations!)
It is well-documented - When it comes to matching objectives, preparation material, and actual exam questions, Microsoft has done the best job out of the vendor certification programs I have experienced. There were some questions that felt ‘wonky’, but at no time did I feel like the questions were outside the scope of the objectives, or the question wasn’t adequately covered by available preparation material. Seriously - read the Microsoft Docs and get some hands-on practice.
It’s practical - I’ve taken operational (AZ-100) and architecture (AZ-300, 70-535) exams and felt they fairly covered material representative of the role. While you might think of architecture as being “wide and shallow”, the exam does go pretty deep into some of the technology areas, crossing the line into more operational material. I have mixed feelings about this, but the exam pages do note that they expect candidates to be experts in one or more areas of Azure, which would include operational knowledge. Again I felt the level of questions matched the exam spirit.
I passed the exam and am excited about continuing to explore the topics in the AZ-301 to finish out the certification. Overall I feel the exam closely followed the objectives, and available preparation materials (mostly free!) are easy to find and adequately cover all objectives. Using it as a means to an end, I feel I’m getting the benefit of learning a wide range of the large number of Azure services. It certainly doesn’t cover all Azure services or even all categories of Azure services, but it covers the majority of services that I’m likely to see and work with on a daily basis. Those not interested in certification could use the objectives and associated preparation material as a general plan to become more familiar with the cloud services that Azure offers.