My impressions of the AZ-301 Microsoft Azure Architect Design exam.
This is a follow-on to my previous post about my AZ-300 exam experience.
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.
My preparation for this exam differed from the AZ-300. You’ll notice that key phrases in the AZ-301 objectives include “choose”, “identify”, “design”, and “recommend”. This should indicate that the exam will cover knowledge of design choices and trade-offs among various technologies. The AZ-300 exam objectives contained more action-oriented words such as “configure”, “provision”, and “manage”. Without seeing the actual exam I could tell that the AZ-301 would focus more on knowing available technology options and when one should be employed over another. Therefore my preparation would focus even more on documentation and less on ‘hands-on’ configuration.
My study materials consisted largely of the same set as from my AZ-300 preparation. I spent most of my time in two sources: Pluralsight videos and Microsoft Docs. I’ll reiterate my glowing review of Microsoft Docs. The site contains a wealth of information, fairly well organized, and they have been very responsive with questions on the few occasions I have found issues or deficiencies in the text. Also with Pluralsight - they have a large library of up-to-date videos for the new exam series that appear to cover all of the objective areas. There are probably other very good sources of informational videos and I’m not exclusive to Pluralsight. I have a personal subscription and limited funding to explore other producers. My main point is that you should seek out as many sources of information that you reasonably can. Each resource will present the information differently and some may “speak” to you better than others.
You should consider seeking out peer blogs on objective material as well. However be sure to check the date on any articles that you review and consider older material with suspicion. Cloud technologies change very quickly and material that is over a year old should be verified. That timeframe can be even shorter depending on the material. You’ll have to make a determination based on how mature the particular technology is. Very mature features such as basic IaaS networking functions will have somewhat less recent changes than something more cutting-edge like serverless.
All four of the Microsoft exams I’ve sat have been faithful to the objectives. While there is still a large body of knowledge covered under the objectives, I did not find any questions that seemed to come from nowhere. Nothing left me with that blindsided feeling of a totally unexpected question. You’re going to cover a lot of material to be prepared for this exam. But don’t worry about needing to know anything outside the objectives.
While I didn’t anticipate any “hands-on” work in this exam, I still exercised a considerable amount of labbing. My primary goal was actually learning the material, not the accomplishment of certification. I come from a networking background with additional knowledge in application delivery that I picked up out of necessity to help deliver better solutions to developers. But being a cloud solutions architect covers so much more. Web applications, APIs, containers, serverless/functions…these are all areas that I originally knew about, but had little under-the-hood understanding. At the start of my preparation I created a sheet of all exam objectives, and ranked them according to exam weight and my level of knowledge. Most of my preparation time was spent in my weak areas to gain a better understanding of those technologies. After consuming some videos and documentation, I would deploy the technology using either a documented example or just one of the templates available in the Microsoft Azure quickstart templates site. This allowed me to explore the resource a bit, seeing all of the available options that are available. Videos cannot cover all of the available options and it is difficult to absorb these by documentation alone. Exercising examples multiplied my knowledge in new areas and enabled learning functions that could not be gained through passive review.
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.
This exam was much shorter than its AZ-300 counterpart. The time allowed is the same but the types of questions are different. Time is allotted for exam center prep, reading the Terms, and providing comments on questions at the end. The exam environment provides the total number of questions and a running “progress” indicator while you are taking the exam. As with any other exam use this to manage your time appropriately. Some sections allow you to flag questions for later review. The exam environment will allow you to go back to those questions and reconsider your answers at the end of that section. I used this function in the few instances the question wasn’t totally clear to me, or multiple answers initially made sense. I’d consider the question for a short time and pick the answer that seemed best based on my initial reaction. Then I’d flag it for review. Once I finished the section I could consider the exam time remaining along with my exam progress to determine how long I wanted to review the questions I flagged.
As with my experience on AZ-300 the exam felt faithful to the objectives and the available materials are sufficient to prepare the candidate. The questions also matched the spirit of the exam both in objectives and title. This was truly a design exam, covering consideration of requirements, trade-offs among competing technologies, and selecting the right attributes of chosen technologies. While this does require some memorization of options available, it doesn’t overly frustrate by focusing on trivial knowledge. It felt like a good blend of questions that could reasonably be expected of an Architect familiar with the product.
I passed this exam, which in combination with the AZ-300 now bestows upon me the title of Microsoft Azure Solutions Architect. But this is just a milestone in the journey for me. I feel it is one of the initial steps in broadening my knowledge of cloud solutions. I’m using the knowledge gained here as a stepping stone. This scouting mission exposed me to a broad variety of Azure technologies that I never would have explored through simple on-the-job tasking. Now I’ve seen many of the things Azure has to offer, and have already developed a list of technologies that I want to explore deeper. Some have immediate applications in my job function. Some may not have immediate impacts, but are critical to the solutions we support and understanding them will allow me to build optimized solutions in the future. It also provides a foothold into understanding similar products from other cloud environments. As I branch into other provider spaces I can leverage this knowledge and jump into the details of other offerings quickly. This certification path could benefit anyone looking for a structured way to learn a variety of core Azure technologies.