A couple of weeks ago I went away to a “boot camp” to prep for a set of Microsoft certification exams.  After a few years of plugging away at .NET programming, I got budget approval to take a class to prep for the MCTS ASP.NET 3.5 certification.  I’ve always wanted to do it and every now and then we get a RFP that has a line item about having MCP’s on staff.

There are two exams, the first one is 70-536 (Microsoft .NET Framework – Application Development Foundation).  The second one is 70-562 (Microsoft .NET Framework 3.5, ASP.NET Application Development).  When you pass both, you get the MCTS certification.  From there, you can take additional exams for more certifications.

I’ve been doing .NET programming for a few years, but it’s been pretty much self-taught all the way.  One of the goals of getting the MCTS certification was to learn where my strengths and weaknesses are.  About 2 years ago, we bought a self paced training kit for the MCPD exam.  After spending some time with the books and practice exams, I knew I needed some serious prep time and with out any interruptions.

I’m easily distracted by bright shiny objects.  I have the attention span of a mal-adjusted 4 year old.  This exam prep time would not be done at home or in the office.  I needed to get away from here.  After a brief search on the Internets, I found a company that offered “boot camp” courses.  Training Camp offered a 7 day boot camp course for getting the MCTS ASP.NET certification.

They provided a seven day schedule of instructor led review, labs, and self tests. Their package included hotel accommodations, training material, two exam vouchers, plus breakfast and lunch.  The training material included the Microsoft Press self-paced training guides.  The 70-536 guide weighed in at 750+ pages, while 70-562 was a bit bigger at 1000 or so pages. The price was reasonable, compared to sessions offered by other vendors.

I made arrangements to take their course at their PA location.  I planned on renting a car and driving down from Albany.  Accommodations would have been at the fabulous Fernwood Hotel in Bushkill, PA.  The training would have been at the Training Camp facility, not far from the hotel.

After paying for the course, they sent back a list of videos to watch to prepare for the class.  They were not from the TrainingCamp company, but freely available from www.asp.net.  You can find them here.  That felt a little bit cheesy, but on the other hand they didn’t need to reinvent the wheel.

A week before the course was supported to begin, they canceled it.  They didn’t have enough people confirmed for the course.  They did have one in Orlando, starting the following week.  So it was off to Orlando.  Suprisingly, this ended up being a good thing.

The training was in the hotel that I would be staying in, the Marriott Courtyard out at the Orlando airport.  Since this was a remote location for Training Camp, they were using laptop computers.  It’s much easier to ship laptops around than desktop computers.  We were issued the laptops on the first day and we got to hold on to them 24/7.  This meant, we could use the laptops to study the labs and self-tests in our hotel rooms after dinner.  If I had gone to the PA session, I would have use the PC’s in their labs.

The instructor was top notch.  If you ever go for training through Training Camp, ask for the sessions taught buy Bill Chapman.  Just google “Bill Chapman MCT”, he knows the stuff and knows how to teach it to you.  He was a big reason why I passed the exams.  The man has more certifications than I knew even existed.  I think Microsoft makes up imaginary certifications just to trick Bill.  It wont work, he’s that good.

We started at 8am every morning.  After lunch, we would go to around 5pm.  Then we were cut loose to find our supper.  After dinner, We were expected to study the exams and take the practice exams, with lights out at 10pm.  It was very draining. By 10pm on the first few nights, my brain was toast and I went to bed.  No TV, no touristy type of things.  Just studying.

We spent 3 days on the material that would be in the 536 exam.  The fourth day was exam day.  We had 18 people in the class, on the fourth day the first 10 of us trooped in to take the exam.  The exams are scored from 0 to 1000, with 700 being the passing score.  Based on the practice exams, I was running at at 85%-95% correct.  I felt good walking into the exam.

And then I got hammered with the actual exam.  The license agreement that I accepted when I took the exam precludes me from discussing any of the questions, but I can say that the material on the test did not match what we had been prepping for.  There was considerable overlap, but there was a lot of stuff that I had not seen before.  I passed the exam, but it was not pretty.

Apparently, as we found out afterwards, Microsoft had updated the exam the week before.  They do that, not often, but enough to keep the exam current.  They focus the questions more on the newer technologies and start dropping the questions on the older material.  We just had the misfortune of getting a new exam before the study material had caught up.  Only two of us passed that exam.  After the exam, we were handed the second exam study guide with the instructions to start reading it.  That took care of Thursday.  Friday morning, we would tackle ASP.NET.

Most of the people who had failed the exam opted to spend their remaining time studying for that exam and then retake it on the final day, instead of taking the second exam.  We had two exam vouchers, you can retake a failed exam.  According to the instructor,the 536 exam is one of the harder Microsoft exams.  If I had failed it, I think I would opted to retake it and study for 562 on my own time.

We had Friday and Saturday to review the materials for the second exam.  I woke up on Friday with a bad cold.  Headache, runny nose, sore throat, body aches, it was not a good way to start the day.  We ripped through the prep book at high speed.  We had the afternoons and evenings to do the labs and take the practice exams.  I don’t do too much work with ASP.NET, I really needed the study time.  I was so wiped out from the cold, I went to bed right after dinner on those two nights.  On Saturday, I took the practice exam a few times and scored in the 35% to 40% range, well below what I needed to pass.

We had all Sunday morning to prep for the exam.  We had to start the exam by noon at the latest, but you could take it anytime after 8am..  I woke up Sunday morning feeling physically horrible, but mentally fit.  I had the choice of taking the exam now or go home with the test voucher and take it at a later date.  I decided to take the exam now and if I failed it, to find out where my weak points were and retake the exam later.

I went in to take the exam right after breakfast.  I went in with a bag of cough drops, no sense bothering the other people taking their exams with my hacking.  The exam proctor smelled the cough drops and asked for one.  On the way into the hotel, a bug had flown into her mouth and she wanted something drastic to get that taste out of her mouth.  Personally, I would have gone for something a little less toxic tasting, but it worked.

One of the lessons that Bill had drilled into us was if if you think you will fail the exam, you will.  I went in with the attitude that I will pass this exam.  And I did.  It wasn’t my best score on a test, but it was a passing score and that’s what counted.  I had now earned the MCTS certification.  I went back and thanked Bill and then went to airport to get an earlier flight home.

The boot camp wasn’t cheap, but I know I wouldn’t have passed the exams without attending it.  The instructor was excellent and being away from home without any distractions allowed me to study without interruption.  Being able to study in my room was a nice bonus, if I ever do one of these things again, I would try to it in the same way.