Cert Blitz 1/3 – MTA: Introduction to Programming Using Python

Passed the Microsoft 98-381 exam this morning, ‘MTA: Introduction to Programming Using Python’,  the first of three certs ticked off in my 10 week certification “blitz”.

Wasn’t expecting any problems with this one, more of a way to ease into a study schedule and bag a cert for knowledge I already have, but it was complicated by the fact that I had to do an emergency PBX migration this morning from 1am – 7am, and take the exam at 11am! 2 hours sleep in the past 24 hours made it a little bit tougher than it probably should have been.

Why Bother With This Exam?

Why bother with an “Introduction” cert almost 10 years into an IT career?

For most certifications you determine a skill you want to develop to further your career, and focus your study on passing a specific exam. For this exam it was the opposite approach, and more a case of “I’ve messed about with Python for a few years, how can I gain acknowledgment of the skills I’ve picked up without too much additional study?”. While searching for free courses to do during Covid lockdown, I came across ecollege.ie, who were offering a free course and free exam voucher for “MTA: Introduction to Programming Using Python”. Perfect!

Would I recommend this cert to anybody looking to get into software development, even as a Python developer specifically? No! I don’t think any employee looking for a software developer will care about your introductory MTA certificate, they’ll be more interested in your college work and github page, and rightly so.

But I would recommend this cert to sysadmins and network engineers, particularly if you’re applying for jobs that mention “automation/programming knowledge a bonus/advantage”, or want to go down that route. This exam is a nice introduction to the basics of Python, and signals quickly to any employer, recruiter, or HR staff sifting through CVs, that you have some kind of foundational knowledge in a programming language, and by extension automation. Obviously you’ll want to be able to back that up with examples of scripting work.

The Courseware

A little on the course itself; ecollege.ie is provided by SOLAS, an Irish state agency providing free further education opportunities to Irish citizens. They have a number of free IT courses, one of which was MTA 98-381. It was an excellent course considering it cost me absolutely nothing.

The progression through the modules is clearly laid out, everything studied for was 100% relevant to the exam, and there was a very active student/lecturer discussion forum. The course prepares you well for the exam, and by the end of it you will have completed a number of mock exams; one set via MeasureUp, and a much better and more realistic set provided by ecollege.ie themselves.

The only negative would be that the modules are a mish-mash of documents and videos from various online sources, even some YouTube videos. There’s no unified series or instructor, and the quality of the various sources can vary.

If you’re not based in Ireland and unable to avail of the free course, I can safely say that any introductory Python book or video series will prepare you well for this exam in terms of skills tested. The only advice I would give is to make sure you do plenty of practice exams, as you are as much against Microsoft’s exam questioning style as you are against your Python knowledge!

The Exam

The toughest thing about this exam (besides lack of sleep!) was undoubtedly time management. I heard it mentioned multiple times on the course’s discussion forum, and they were absolutely right.

I had 45 minutes to complete 38 questions, I believe you can have up to 40. By the time I finished the last question, I had 8 minutes left to review. I believe that might have been the tightest of any certification I’ve taken.

Some general tips and advice:

      • Make sure you do plenty of relevant 98-381 practice exams. The questions can have a lot of filler text and irrelevant information that you don’t have time to read. Doing practice exams will prepare you for quickly scanning through the question and identifying the information you need.
      • Indentation can be your friend, especially for the drag & drop questions. Even if you have no clue what the correct commands are, the indentation can reveal the correct placement.
      • There are areas that Microsoft love to question you on that even experienced programmers are simply going to Google or “trial and error” to get right, which you won’t have the luxury of. For example, datetime formatting. Make sure you know your %d from your %D!
      • The exam loves trying to catch you out on mix/max values of functions that return a value from a range. Make sure you know if the likes of random.randrange and random.randint are inclusive or exclusive of the maximum value.
      • Don’t spend too long obsessing on a single question, you just don’t have time. Eliminate obviously wrong answers if you can, follow your instinct, and flag the question to revisit at the end if you have time.
      • Microsoft, and just about any company offering official certs for that matter, seem incapable of providing a nice, clean, uncluttered exam interface! It’s incredibly frustrating having to scroll around back and forth between the question and answer panels because they don’t fit on the screen. Make sure you take advantage of the resizing bar between the two areas, which can help alleviate this issue a little.
      • Watch out for questions that ask you to select one or more answers. With how cramped the question and answer windows are, having to scroll around each, it’s easy to miss this.
    • Next up is AZ-104, Microsoft Azure Administrator!


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