When I joined Microsoft in August of ‘20, the only experience that I had with Azure was that I knew how to spell it. At a high level, I knew that the fundamentals between AWS and Azure were the same. I was lucky to have incredible mentors at Amazon who raised me right in building my cloud skill set. I recognized that there would be differences, and that I would learn the new platform the same way. I created an account through the Azure portal in one browser displayed on the left half of my screen, and viewed my AWS account on the right half. With the AWS to Azure services comparison documentation in another tab, I started building out one resource at a time. When I first joined AWS, a colleague of mine reminded me that every public cloud is comprised of the same three basic components: compute, storage, and network and that helped guide me as I learned AWS. I knew that the same applied to Azure, and started my journey.

Azure was different. In some areas, it was better, and in some ways, it wasn’t. The most significant difference for me (and one that I continue to struggle with) is that the cornerstone of Azure is Azure Active Directory (AAD). For as long as I can remember, Active Directory was my nemesis. It’s probably the reason I spent more time administrating Linux hosts. In AWS, IAM provides a concise set of controls that are responsible for authentication and authorization of principles against the platform. AAD, in comparison, is responsible for many more features. While AADis Microsoft’s cloud-based identity and access management service1, it is capable of a lot more, inherently by its design. For the professional without AD experience, discovering the robust integration between Azure and AAD was overwhelming.

Weeks turned into months, and I continued to learn about each of the core services in Azure. I compared them to the services I knew well in AWS and practiced configuring them similarly. I continued using Microsoft’s Learning site for official guidance, and leaned on peers that I was working with to fill in the solution architecture gaps. The challenge with learning individual services is that you treat them as standalone entities. In the real world, they are rarely configured as individuals and part of a larger solution.

Enter the AZ-303 and the AZ-304, the two gates to obtaining the Azure Solutions Architect Expert certificate.

Both exams are designed to measure your solution architecture skills in unique ways. The AZ-303 focuses on implementation of solutions, versus the AZ-304, which focuses on the design of solutions. For those of you that are reading this who are veterans in the industry, you understand the nuance between these two definitions.

In February, I registered for both exams, two weeks apart giving myself the time to prepare. I thought that reading through the public documentation, performing the exercises on learn, and experimenting in my own subscription would be enough to achieve a passing grade. I was wrong. I failed both exams.

When I reviewed the score report, I was expecting the areas for improvement to be with Identity (and Security) correlating it with my weakness in AAD. While there were questions that were AAD specific, it wasn’t the reason I didn’t pass.

For the AZ-303, I needed to improve my data platform knowledge.

For the AZ-304, my monitoring and business continuity knowledge.

Earlier this month, I took both exams again, and passed.

For the AZ-303, an area of improvement, data platforms, became my strength.

For the AZ-304, similarly to the AZ-303, monitoring turned into a strength, closely followed by business continuity.

While I will admit that failing the exams on the first try gave me a baseline of where I should focus my study, the most significant impact on my scores for the second attempt came from real world experience. Over the past few months, I spent the majority of my time working with customers in defining their strategic design and implementation plans for observability and business continuity in Azure. Their real world requirements reinforced the book knowledge that I had gained in my preparation for the exams.

Through this process, I learned and was reminded of why I love this industry. While the technology may change, the experience of actually using them in the real world is where there is value. (The sentiment is absolutely applicable to any industry) As always, I will continue to build my personal trove of experiences to draw on for reference.