DBA Certification Secrets:

How to Pass the Tests

by Howard Fosdick                                                                                   © 10/2005

Our previous article in this series, “DBA Certifications Compared,” contrasted the DBA certifications for Oracle, DB2, and SQL Server. The article highlighted the differences between the three DBA certification programs and gave you the information you need to decide which  might be right for you. The article described exactly what tests you take to obtain each of the three leading DBA certifications.

This article tells you how to prepare for the exams. You might think, “Isn’t that really just about studying?” Au contraire!  Most certification candidates find that their test score on the first exam is much lower than what they achieve on subsequent tests. This means understanding what the tests are like and what to study for them is critical. Knowing how to approach certification before you go into your first exam dramatically increases your chances of success.

This article reveals “certification secrets” — hints and tips that most candidates wish they knew before they started the certification process. First, we describe what it’s like to take the DBA exams for Oracle, DB2, or SQL Server, and we discuss what you need to do to pass them. Then, we provide detailed recommendations on what you should study to become a certified DBA for Oracle, DB2, or SQL Server.

As others may have a different take on how to approach the tests, we include pointers to other information sources that you can read, too. Ultimately, you will form your own opinion of what you need to learn and a strategy to get you there. Our goal is to get you started.

Each vendor sets its own rules for certification. The vendors reserve the right to change their certification programs at any time. In practice, they tend to alter their programs when they release new versions of their databases. Check the vendors’ certification Web sites shown in table 1 to keep up  with their program regulations. This article discusses the certification rules current for Oracle 9I release 2, DB2 Version 8, and SQL Server 2000.

 

Vendor certification Information

Oracle      

www.oracle.com/education/certification   or  www.oracle.com

DB2

http://www.ibm.com/certify  or  www.ibm.com

SQL Server

http://www.microsoft.com/traincertification/mcp/mcdba/default.asp  or www.microsoft.com

Table 1: Vendor certification Information.

What It’s Like to Take the Tests

For all three vendors, you go online to a testing company like Prometric to sign up for taking an exam in your town. The day of the exam, you go to the test site with two forms of picture identification. They assign you a PC with the exam software, and away you go. The exams are multiple choice (correct guesses count!). Oracle has stated its intention to evolve to “scenario-based testing,” and Microsoft has stated that SQL Server exams may eventually be “adaptive” (dynamically judge your knowledge by feeding you harder or easier questions depending on your responses). But at the time of writing, all tests are still multiple choice. Before taking any test,  visit the vendors’ Web sites for details such as the number of questions on the exam, how many you need to correctly answer to pass, and the time limit in which you have to work.

The exams give you plenty of time to answer the questions. When you click on the Done button, the test software takes you to a screen that immediately tells you whether you passed or failed, and it allows you to print a copy of your score on the LAN-attached printer. What if you run out of time? The test screen freezes, and the software forcefully takes you to the pass/fail screen. If you pass, all vendors send you your DBA certification (suitable for framing) in the mail along with other “certification club” goodies. These typically arrive several weeks after you certify.

Certification exams ask highly detailed questions. From this come the first two testing “rules of thumb”:

The exams test (and therefore value) specific product knowledge rather than your general abilities as a DBA.

How tough are the tests?  The vendors don’t publish the “pass rates” for their exams. The International DB2 Users Group once stated that about 75 percent of candidates pass the DB2 exams, while various sources estimate the pass rates for Microsoft certification exams are about 10 percent lower. Oracle’s pass rate is thought to place between these two.

Your statistical chances of failing any one test are a little greater than 25 percent. From this, another rule of thumb: don’t get rattled when facing tough exam questions. Most candidates must narrow down the possible answers to a question before they finally select their answer. There probably won’t be many questions in a test for which you immediately “know” the right answer just from reading the question.

Be aware, too, that the tests contain tricky questions. If you don’t read all the answers before selecting one, you may select a technically-correct answer that is not the “best” answer. You must get to the point in your studying at which you understand the way the vendor looks at their database product to select what they consider the best answer to each question.

Why are the pass rates so low?  It’s because the questions are so specific. At their best, they ensure you really know the product. At their worst, they degenerate to little more than a game of database “trivial pursuit.” You can be a highly-effective DBA in your daily job but do poorly on these tests if you don’t memorize specifics. Unlike the real world, you can’t “check the manual” or do a quick look-up in the product’s “online help” when you’re taking an exam.

If you fail a test, all three vendors allow you to re-take it. The rules vary on exactly how this is done so see their Web sites for details. You must pay the exam fee again to re-take any test.

What Should You Study?

To pass any of the three vendors’ DBA exams:

    1. Study a recommended certification book
    2. Take “Practice tests”
    3. Get hands-on product experience

Omitting any of these three steps greatly reduces your chances of passing.

If you visit the vendors’ Web sites, all emphasize the role of their educational courses in preparing for certification. The motivation is revenue — vendors typically charge about $500 per day for in-class training. (Your costs will also include airfare and hotel if you travel to class). For those new to the product with which they wish to certify, classroom training ranges from “useful” to “essential.”  Courses are not necessary for experienced DBAs. If you work with the product, you probably do not need classroom training to pass the certification tests.

Which certification study guide should you choose? In general, look to publishers who print a “series” of books covering all the exams for that vendor. For example, Oracle Press publishes a set of books, one per exam, each of which covers a different Oracle DBA exam. Publishers who print an entire “exam series” offer consistency among the books in the series and are intimate with the needs of certification candidates.

Before buying any book, get on Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble and read reviews by those who have used that book to help them certify. You’ll get uncensored feedback from people just like yourself. These Web sites also post lists of books that compete with the one you’re looking at in their “people who bought this book also bought…” section.

Some candidates like to buy two certification books covering the same exam. Their theory is that this guarantees coverage of all exam topics, and they feel that by reading the same material twice, from two different perspectives, they’ll learn it better. Our view is this is great… if you have the time.

“Practice tests” are mock-ups of the real exams. Usually they’re distributed on CDROM and accompany certification study guides. Others are accessible online for free from the database vendors, or may be purchased from third parties. Interactive practice exams give you the best simulation of “the real thing.”  But the sample certification questions included at chapter-end in many certification books are worthwhile, too.

Getting hands-on product experience is essential. If you’re lucky, you work with the product. If not, you’ll want to install it on your Windows or Linux PC. All three vendors offer free trial versions of their databases from the Web sites in table 1. Many certification study guides come with trial versions of the products on their accompanying CDs.

In any DBA certification effort, you’ll want to integrate yourself into the online community for that database product. Some key Web sites that support all three DBMSs include DBAzine, Database Journal, the Pipelines, Database Trends, Database Toolbox and DBA-Village. All have “tabs” or sections specific to Oracle, DB2, and SQL Server. These sites support online “forums” where you can ask technical queries and participate in problem solving as you learn. Other popular online forums include DB Forums and the product-specific users’ groups we mention below.

Web sites that cover certification in general include Cramsession.com and Certification Magazine.

Let’s talk specifically about how to pass each vendor’s DBA exams.

How to Pass the Oracle Tests

The most popular series of study guides for the Oracle exams are published by Oracle Press and Sybex. Both are available through booksellers like B. Dalton or Barnes and Noble or via the Web. Be sure you like the book you intend to buy before you buy it … you’ll be spending weeks studying it!

Cramsession publishes one-chapter “study guides” for each test. Use their terse summaries to  complement a good certification book. Some cramsessions are free in HTML format, while others can be purchased as PDF downloads from Amazon for under $10 each. An alternative is to listen to audio CDs or tapes on your way to work, available from a company called AudioWhiz. (Full disclosure — the author wrote Cramsession titles for the Oracle and DB2 exams and the AudioWhiz Oracle titles.)

Oracle Corporation provides a wealth of free information for certification candidates. The Oracle Technical Network (OTN) lets you download any Oracle product documentation including the manuals. You can also download a trial version of Oracle to get the hands-on experience you’ll need to pass the tests. Among the many free OTN resources are the articles in Oracle Magazine.

Don’t confuse OTN with Oracle Metalink. Metalink is intended for those supporting Oracle (installs, upgrades, and so on), so access is restricted to those having an Oracle Support contract. It’s a great resource, but it is not oriented toward DBA certification and you certainly do not need access to it to certify.

The International Oracle Users Group (IOUG) Web site contains technical articles in its SELECT Magazine and hosts active Web forums, and of course, IOUG runs conferences (just as Oracle Corporation does with its Oracle World and Developer Days conferences).

Our biggest single recommendation for passing the Oracle exams is to acquire and study some good practice exams. 

Why? The 9i exams only contain about 55 to 60 questions, of which you must get about 35 to 40 correct to pass. A good practice test gives you the advantage of understanding answers to a handful of the most difficult or obscure questions that other candidates miss, thereby virtually ensuring a “pass” for the well-prepared candidate.

Several of the standard certification books contain CDs with practice questions. One good source of over 1,200 questions for all the 9i tests is the OCP Oracle9i DBA certification Boxed Set by Jason S. Couchman. The same author produced a single book containing only questions called Oracle8i Certified Professional DBA Practice Exams, but it doesn’t appear the publisher has made this book separately available for 9i.

We believe that the best comprehensive practice tests are from Self Test Software.   Oracle Corporation itself advertises this company’s practice tests on its Web site. The tests are pricey at $99 each (although you get a 25-percent discount by buying them for four tests; see the vendor’s Web site for current pricing). But my personal experience is that they confer tremendous advantage when taking the real exams. 

Oracle Corp. offers free, downloadable practice tests they call “demos.”  These give you a feel for what it’s like to take the exams — but they are not designed to prepare you for the exams by covering all the material. These alone are not sufficient to give you the practice test experience we recommend.

How to Pass the DB2 Tests

The only series of books on the DB2 exams are published by Prentice Hall PTR. But that publisher prints more than one book per exam, so you still have a choice of study guides. Refer to a list of the relevant titles at IBM’s Web site in their certification booklist.

Our personal favorites are those written by Roger Sanders. His books include practice questions at the end of each chapter and are written in the tightly-organized, comprehensive style popularized by the Exam Cram™ series of books.

IBM offers free DB2 resources through their DB2 Developer Domain Web site (also called “DB2 developerWorks”).  From the site, you can get DB2 manuals, advanced technical guides, or “redbooks,” and of course the trial DB2 product download. All are free.

IBM distinguishes itself among the DBA certification programs by offering a professional set of free study resources specifically developed for certification candidates. Some are GUI courseware while others are PDF-format study guides.

Our biggest single recommendation for passing the DB2 exams is to take full advantage of the free study resources from IBM:

Web sites you’ll want to explore include those for the International DB2 Users Group (IDUG), IDUG Solutions Journal, and DB2 Magazine. Attendees at the IDUG  and the IBM DB2 Technical conferences can take the DB2 exams for free.

For complete information on DB2 resources and how to pass the tests, see the article “DB2 V8 certification: Everything You Need to Know.”  Just search for the keywords db2 certification everything in the search box in the DB2 Developer Domain to retrieve the latest revision of this article.

How to Pass the SQL Server Tests

Like Oracle and IBM, Microsoft offers a wealth of free materials to study for their exams. SQL Server product help (the Books Online or “BOL”) provides the product-embedded manual set for SQL Server. You can get a trial version of the database itself either by download from Microsoft or on the bundled CDROM that comes with several of the popular certification study guides. Visit Microsoft’s SQL Server homepage to get oriented. It contains support information, online forums, articles, utilities, and the like.

Two users groups provide good technical information and forums in which you can ask technical questions: the SQL Server Worldwide Users Group (SSWUG) and the Professional Association for SQL Server (PASS)

There are more certification books available for the Microsoft tests than for any other vendor. Among the book series covering the SQL Server exams are Exam Cram 2, Microsoft Press, Sybex, and McGraw-Hill Osborne Media. Our personal favorite is the Exam Cram™ series, but the others are excellent, too.

Cramsession offers terse, one-chapter study guides for each exam. These are downloadable PDF files for under $10 each.

Many MCDBAs recommend Microsoft’s excellent, inexpensive self-training kits. These kits include “MCSE Training Kit: SQL Server 2000 System Administration” and “MCSE Training Kit: SQL Server 2000 Database Design and Implementation.”At the time of writing, both list at $60 but are widely discounted.

Our biggest single recommendation for passing the SQL Server exams is to buy and study a set of professionally-prepared exam questions

The most popular vendor of SQL Server practice tests is Transcender. Other good practice tests are available from Planetlearn and Pan Testing, and in book form from McGraw-Hill Osborne Media.

Your Next Steps

We’ve given you a running start towards passing your DBA certification exams. But no single article can tell you everything you need to know. Follow the links to other resources to continue your quest. Buena suerte!

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Howard Fosdick is both an Oracle-certified DBA and an IBM-certified DB2 UDB DBA. He has written technical articles and is a popular conference speaker, and he works hands-on as an independent DBA contractor.