Exam Reviews

70-301: Project Management the Microsoft Way

This Microsoft Solutions Framework 3.0 exam is less technical, but requires some solid analytical thinking in order to pass. Even if you're an MSF practitioner, don't take this exam too lightly.

Microsoft Solutions Framework 3.0 is possibly one of Microsoft's best kept secrets. Although many operations professionals and developers may be aware of MSF, the word hasn't spread much further outside that circle. For the uninitiated, the MSF is Microsoft's best practices on how to design, develop, and deliver IT projects. While generally geared toward development projects, the framework can be applied in a variety of settings.

In this article I'll cover the scope of the MSF exam, 70-301: Managing, Organizing, and Delivering IT Projects by Using Microsoft Solutions Framework 3.0, and highlight how it is a particularly good test of real-world experience.

If you're coming at the 70-301 exam from the MCSD .NET track, note that it has a different focus than many of the others — you have to be able to think beyond code (there is none) and apply experiential knowledge to situations instead. You may find that what you observe in the day-to-day management of operations is perhaps the most useful knowledge in preparing for this exam. In that sense, this exam is most similar to the MCSD Solution Architecture exam (70-300; more on that similarity later).

70-301: MSF Practitioner

Reviewer's Rating
Developers who have a less technical approach and background will probably find this right up their alley; analytical IT professionals who manage projects will also find this exam to cover many relevant subjects. There is no substitute for experience and practical knowledge on this exam. That said, understanding the framework will require study as well as the ability to apply it.

Exam Title
70-301, Managing, Organizing, and Delivering IT Projects by Using Microsoft Solutions Framework 3.0

Who Should Take Them
Elective for MCSD .NET or MCSE on Windows Server 2003

Availability
Live as of October 2004

Courses
1846: Microsoft Solutions Framework Essentials, 3 days.
2710: Analyzing Requirements and Defining Microsoft .NET Solution Architectures, 5 days.

Exam Objectives
http://www.microsoft.com/learning/exams/70-301.asp

There is no question that 70-301 targets those who are overseeing IT projects. Microsoft has included it in both the MCSD and MCSE tracks as electives and it seems to be geared for MSF specialists within those tracks, although it still useful for those who will never lead an entire project, such as developers and operations staff. Even firms where the MSF is not utilized will benefit from a thorough understanding of MSF as a possible project process or an augmentation to current procedures.

For the most part, the rest of the MCSD and MCSE exams cover very different material. However the MCSD Solution Architecture exam (70-300) is somewhat similar. If you have already taken 70-300 (and, by the way, if you're on the MCSD .NET track I would highly recommend taking it before 70-301), make sure you have the relevant project process sections from the 70-300 mastered. They are a good "first run" at MSF subject matter.

Both exams look for application of material rather than simple reiteration of information. However, despite their similarities, the MSF questions on 70-300 are, as you'd expect, significantly simpler and you'll have to be able to go far beyond basic understanding in order to be ready for the 70-301. The coverage on the stages of MSF given in its accompanying Microsoft Press book are also relevant but only just scratch the surface.

Building a Project Team
At the heart of the MSF process is its team model. Familiarity with assessing team readiness, scaling teams (both up and down), and recognizing how to schedule team members across phases are all key concepts covered.

When it comes to issues of assessing team readiness, knowledge can be acquired from both the MSF team model as well as real-world experience. You'll need to be able to apply your understanding of what is required for each role to selecting team members based on the strengths they have shown.

Tip: Know who's doing what for each phase. Important on the exam as well as in real-world implementations of MSF.

Scaling teams is also important in Microsoft's team model. The MSF is intended to be applicable for teams ranging from 3 to 70+ members (ideal numbers are in the range of 6 - 15, although MSF is more easily scalable upward than downward).
In order to scale teams upwards you should understand the two types of teams: functional teams and feature teams. Functional teams are, as the name implies, focused on a single function (e.g. a team of developers). Feature teams are a subset of the lead team and members cover various roles focused on a particular feature (e.g. a team working on only print features of an application that includes several roles).

Tip: Know the different options for scaling: particularly know why you'd choose one setup instead over another.

Scaling down is done through combining different roles-an understanding of which roles can be combined, which combinations are ideal, and which should be avoided is important. Although these generally follow basic logic, knowing the purpose of the roles and understanding potential conflicts of interest will assist in making decisions about the best role coverage.

"Unbalanced" teams are another important aspect of team concepts. In an ideal world, every role would be present all the time, however in reality there are often situations when select roles are not present. You should know what roles are especially needed during various stages-practice thinking through how to handle situations where team members might leave (or only be present for some of the phases).

Any program manager needs the ability to create and revise team schedules. While you'll not necessarily be asked to create a detailed schedule, you will need to know how to prioritize competing priorities. Often this involves trade-off matrices, but you'll need to be able to balance this with risk management practices and other competing requirements.

Throughout the exam you will need to know the MSF milestones, but for scheduling you'll not only need to have mastered the milestones, you will also want to know what they accomplish and how they interact (how scheduling one will affect other events).

Tip: Know which team roles interact with various outside personnel (operations staff, customers, users, help desk, etc.) during a project.
Facilitating the Risk Management Process

On the whole, this exam focuses on real-world activities. The risk management section is no different. You'll need to be very comfortable determining, assessing, and assigning risks. You should also know different properties of risks as well as stages in the MSF risk management process.

Tip: Be sure you can distinguish between risk mitigation, contingency, and management plans.

Additional Information

 

Envisioning a Solution, Planning a Project
Being able to envision and plan a project is a key part of the MSF practice. You'll need to be familiar and comfortable with creating project plans, vision statements, and scope documents. Make sure you walk through all envisioning deliverables.

In particular, it is important to be able to map business goals to scope, and to work backwards through this process (traceability). Scope must always be constrained-there are often difficult questions to address regarding which elements to keep and which to leave for a future version. Make sure you can provide answers for why you make these decisions in a given situation.

For scope decisions especially, but also for many MSF application questions, answers are not usually straightforward. Selecting scope, planning risk, and scheduling items all require careful thought to apply the practices to a situation.
Once scope has been defined, controlling it is important. Implementing plans for and managing change control will ensure that scope is only changed as needed.

Tip: All MSF phases will get coverage but the envisioning and planning phases are particularly critical. Pay careful attention to these.

Developing
The MSF developing phase is more than developing code; it is also developing core project requirements such as training materials, release plans, and testing plans. As such, it is the main production phase on the process. Previous phases exist to ensure that the appropriate work is completed and that future phases focus on polishing and delivering the work during the developing phase.

One area that can be tricky is understanding what testing is done in the developing phase and what is done in the stabilizing phase-make sure you can distinguish between these.

Developers: pay special attention to this phase. You'll naturally focus on the phases that you have less experience with, but don't make the mistake of thinking that you can skip studying the developing phase because of your development experience. You'll need to know how the MSF developing phase is set up and structured, and how it proceeds.

Stabilizing & Deploying
There may be a temptation for IT operations professionals to assume familiarity with deployment and therefore neglect studying this area: be sure to know the MSF process that applies to your experience. You're likely to find much overlap as well as a few important elements that differ.

The stabilizing phase centers on testing all aspects of the solution. One of the main goals is running a pilot test, so make sure you are familiar with which role is responsible for different elements of testing (test, triage, resolution, etc.), as well as the different bug-based interim milestones (convergence and bounce).

You'll also need to know how site deployments take place. The order of various activities is important for running a successful site deployment.

Tip: While not listed on the exam requirements, you might be asked about different types of testing. If you're not familiar with developing & testing, be sure to spend some time looking at these to know their function and purpose.

Future Directions
While I did say that MSF isn't all that well known, this is definitely changing. Visual Studio 2005 Team System implements the team model in MSF 4.0 (note: this exam is on MSF 3.0). You can use other project management approaches but it comes pre-loaded with the MSF 4.0 agile system.

Whether a new exam for MSF 4.0 is slated is unknown. So far, the list of new-generation MCP exams shows no visible evidence of such an exam.

It is interesting to note that this is only the second version of the MSF exam. The original MSF exam, 70-100, went live in the summer of 1999 and was finally retired on June 30, 2004. Prior to that, an "MSF Practitioner" endorsement could only be obtained through an interview.

10 Things to Practice
  1. Project Teams: Scaling. Practice generating different types of feature and function teams.
  2. Project Teams: Combining. Given different possible team members, look at what risks are present in different combinations of roles.
  3. Practice defining different properties for risks and calculating exposure.
  4. Know all deliverables well but especially all documentation. If you can describe in two to three sentences the purpose and contents of each deliverable, you'll be doing well. Know in what stage they are completed and their purpose (i.e. "what problem do they solve or help avoid?").
  5. Download the MS testing innovations and walk through them. You're likely to encounter problem types that you may not have seen on other exams.
  6. Mentally practice mentally "jumping into" projects mid-stream. You'll need to be familiar enough with all the material to "skip ahead" to any phase in any role.
  7. Practice which roles are doing what in each stage. Also make sure that you can identify which activities belong in a particular phase and how they are distributed across different roles.
  8. Practice "theory application". Most answers on the exam will not be straight-forward. You'll need the ability to take a large body of information and balance the relevant points (usually several) in order to derive an application.
  9. Overall: If you haven't had much experience with MSF in your day-to-day work, make sure you spend time determining the responsibilities of the team roles. You're probably familiar with the MSF role activities but you may not be accustomed to thinking of them as separate roles or by their MSF names.
  10. A solid understanding of the key principles underlying MSF and the main purposes of the entire framework will aid you.

Returning to the Real World
Real-world experience will serve you best for this exam and, unless you work at Microsoft, the MSF process will likely be quite unfamiliar to most of you taking it. However, changing your current process to be more similar to MSF will not be that difficult as MSF is, in some ways, just a specialized collection of what was already being done in the world of project management.

If after working through all the practice material you find you're skeptical about passing, you may want to wait until you complete one or two projects using MSF. This may be especially true if your main responsibility is not IT project management.

It may seem obvious but it is a good idea to have a thorough knowledge of the white papers. The exam tests your knowledge of the concepts found in them as well as your ability to apply them in real-world situations.

This exam is great for sharpening your understanding of project management, and understanding the MSF material will improve any project that you work on, giving you an edge in your work, regardless of your role. Good luck!

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