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TOPIC: Long reading but hopefully insightful - learning, preparation, exam

Long reading but hopefully insightful - learning, preparation, exam 2 months 4 days ago #25395

  • Attila Novak
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Dear Colleagues!

I just completed my PMP studies and concluded my exam on last Friday. The way how many of the earlier aspirants’ experience and advise helped me getting here, I'd similarly like to share my approaches to support your preparation from the angle of my personal view. Remember, what I write is based on my experience and situation, it is not either good or bad, neither it is the best or worst to everyone. Use that the best way you can. Below I will touch my background, motivations, learning approaches and last but not least my online exam experience. While some of this may become less useful once the PMP structure changes very soon, I believe many things are transferrable. It is a quite long write up – quite some pages if you printed - which I apologize for to those who are tired reading long posts; I got a lot to share though, so I get started.

My background is rooted in the software industry with roughly 20 years of experience. Starting as a software developer, then had been doing about 10 years of day to day project management, last - while keeping and extending product responsibilities – worked as the functional manager in the recent 10 years.

My motivation was two-fold; even if actual project management activities were less of my focus during the past period, I wanted to deepen my conceptual knowledge base and test my practices, so I can better benefit my teams and clients. Plus, I'm old enough for that my roots are planted in predictive methodology ground and while I’d been doing a lot of agile, I highly value hybrid, context-sensitive methodologies that marry the best of the two worlds while consider industry, corporate and product attributes.

I considered earning a PMP certificate by end the of October the very first time and I quickly learned that the exam structure is just about changing without a plenty of information regarding what the actual changes would practically mean to me as a candidate. Listening to others' experience the ideal preparation time seemed to be around 16 weeks so the half of this that was available didn’t appear too much. After short thinking I decided I should give it a try so discovered the requirements and the exam more.

Concept 1: purchase PMI membership. The first year membership fee is fully absorbed by the discount of your exam which you get in exchange for the membership. In the unlucky case one would fail the first attempt, considering the re-examination fee discount is a reasonable saving already. Additionally, the membership comes with quite some useful stuff, including PMBOK and other PDF eBooks licensed to you. Last but not least, you get access to a free mock exam, which is invaluable (in spite of all the frustration which it will certainly cause to many people) – more on this later.

Concept 2: track progress starting with the baseline - I filled in the 120 question sample test without knowing anything about the official material, just using past experience and common sense. I roughly scored 60% on this, and on some other smaller test sets too, so I considered this is where I depart from.

While I built on the experience of many other PMPs, I didn't always follow the advices I read; I recommend cherry picking those recommendations that you feel would really benefit you. Like every baby is different - everyone's learning methodology and dynamics is different. I quickly tested / realized that the online PM-PrepCast content really well reflects the concept of the PMBOK Guide, so even if most advices suggested studying the PMBOK is very important, I decided to mostly trust and rely on the online stuff which I was about processing anyway and let the simulator tell whether I really need to read that long book. To be fair, later I identified a couple of pieces that I couldn’t quite get first, but my PMBOK reading didn’t really go much beyond 30 pages altogether.

I was lucky enough to be able to dedicate time to my studies in front of my PC, I would say 3-6 hours a day including at least one of the weekend days. My method was the same as how I studied in the school: created detailed notes with all the relevant information from Cornelius' presentations. Practically built up a compact version of the PMBOK Guide with some additional details from the internet where I felt I need some more details to capture the point of a tool or technique. After completing a knowledge area, I re-read my notes once or twice and right after that I filled out the assessment till the experiment was fresh, getting some instant feedback. I could realize reasonable progress over my baseline, I could score between 65 - 80%, depending on how well my existing knowledge resonated with the new concepts that I was learning. By the time I finished the lessons, my notebook counted like 90 typed pages, many charts, tools, illustrations, tables, equations, sample calculations beyond the concepts and the ITTOs included. This took me about 4 weeks - making notes added about 50% extra time beyond the actual length of the videos. When I finished listening and processing all video recordings, I got about 3 weeks left till my planned exam date before Christmas.

Another frequent recommendation which I personally didn't follow either was - having my self-developed study book - purchasing and reading other PMP textbooks. I just didn't want to allocate time - which I didn't have much - for something I felt redundant. Of course, testing yourself against multiple concepts and approaches is a good thing, but if you don’t have much time – at least based on my case – what you find on PM PrepCast seems to be good to go and take the exam.

In my home country, when one is going for getting a driver license, there is a reasonably substantial theoretical exam about traffic rules and situations before they can sit behind the steering wheel and start practicing actual driving. To support the preparation, there is a several hundred page exercise book with thousands of questions. I, that time filled all, and it served me very well on the exam. The PMP concept reminded me to that, so I decided to spend the rest of my time with filling in sample exams, and understanding where the gaps are with strong focus on the lagging areas, rather than striving for complete excellence on each areas that seemed to be good enough without additional learning. By the way, running a bit ahead, my reasonably long professional / management experience wasn't clearly only of my benefit during that process. But more about this later.

Concept 3: Test, test, test. As closely to the expected test experience as you can (i.e. prefer timed full length simulations).

I didn't do shorties, when I sat down for testing, I always did full 4 hour long simulations. I did this once for developing my focus and endurance, and also for making sure my time management fulfils requirements. Not being a native speaker, I needed to focus on this latter aspect to make sure I don't get much behind the schedule, since if I needed to catch up, overly big stress was building up. My test results fluctuated just a little bit, I was very happy to see that they were roughly 80%, which confirmed my study method and developed some confidence, so I kept going. I tried to do at least one test - evaluation cycle in each 3 days, which enabled me doing 4 + 1 tests, 1000 questions in other words.

My early test result - based on the consensus I read, in particular that if you consistently can hit roughly 80% in simulator, you have fair chance to pass the real exam - encouraged me to book my exam to just 2 weeks later.

Concept 4: identify where your weaknesses are, spend time on analysing why, so you can develop techniques to succeed on the exam (not necessarily by actually learning more and more, but rather figuring out what you miss to answer right, where is your disconnect from the PMI philosophies). I.e. focus your effort on distilling information and developing simple rules that helps you on the exam.

While the overall simulator assessment / feedback is very nice and useful, I developed an Excel that provided me with more granular feedback (attached, hope it gets through as it is xlsx, not xls) on my strengths and weaknesses (btw. this is something that I'd recommend to consider for inclusion, Cornelius, as I bet I'm not the only one who would find beneficial). I created a matrix: knowledge areas in columns, process groups in rows, and calculated my result % by manually filtering the questions down according to the 10 x 5 criteria so I could calculate my success ratio (like Initiation x Scope; Planning x Scope; Executing x Scope, etc.). It exactly pointed out what I need to really look into, pointing out few processes for each matrix cell. I applied coloring rules according to the BT, T, AT ranges. I put my mock exams on different sheets, so paging between the tabs I could easily compare the dynamics of my development. This, even doing manually, was not that much work, It took about 15 minutes after each 4 hour long exams. So I didn’t only knew I have challenges in Stakeholder management, but I could understand more precisely which particular processes I need to revise. And I most focused on these before took the next round, using my personal notes as primary sources.

That time, already searching for answers on the typical questions, like how close the simulator questions are to the real exam; what result you need to feel somewhat confident; why are those tricky, misleading wordings part of the world at all. And that time I just realized that there is the Exam Prep Test from PMI that comes with my membership, and of which question set was told has been refreshed in 2020. I read many overheated discussions about how – well – strange some question there are, but the consensus was that it is very beneficial to take that test if not for else, familiarize myself with the question wording. Plus, the Exam Prep was told to be more challenging than the real exam, so it is useful to set an estimated bottom boundary of you knowledge at the moment.

Concept 5: Take the PMI Exam Prep test, ideally after you took 3-4 PrepCast simulations, but minimally a week before your PMP exam is scheduled.

After my nice 80% PrepCast simulations, I hardly could score 68%, it kind of cooled me down. Moreover, some of the questions were such - even reading the many times irrelevant explanation in the PMI simulator - couldn't be justified. The outcome was that I was extremely frustrated and uncertain with a decreased level of confidence, which to say 2 days before my exam was scheduled was sub-optimal. My advice based on my experience is: don't crash based on the Exam Prep results, but let yourself some more time than I did. It is not like the real exam, but it is a good education tool to prepare for the real exam. The way how I would explain is the following: much of the gap between PrepCast and PMI simulator result is coming from the fact, the PMI one is intentionally somewhat "unfair" in many cases (please don’t hook to my wording, that’s how I felt). It is overly conceptual, and - according to me - at least sometimes misinterpreted even in the solution / explanation. Some feedback on the forums is saying, the real exam difficulty is somewhere between the PrepCast and PMP simulator. I would say that, this is probably fair assessment assuming that you took both of them (i.e. develop the lessons learned from the PMI simulator too).

For me, not being native speaker, different things were challenging in the two simulator concepts; PrepCast questions tend to be trickier and longer than my real PMP exam experience and I got to read many of them multiple times before I could really build up what it is being asked. That’s not bad, as it helps to progress faster in the real exam. On the other hand, the PMI Exam Prep is difficult, because a) it is often very different from the real life experience, and b) builds on overly conceptual ideas; here is one example that I built on one of the publicly available mock test questions which was most painful of all for me: conflict with a very important external stakeholder of a subcontracted company, critical to address soon, what you do to address? Write mail, call, meet in person. Well, my choice was call. Which is wrong, as the right one is meet, because " it is urgent, and the fastest opportunity to speak is personal meeting " – the justification said. Well, of course I understand the efficiency of the varying communication methods, but in this particular context if it is about quickness, and it is about an external partner potentially located in a different country (or even in the neighbouring building), arranging a personal meeting – practically beginning with a phone call or writing an e-mail to request in person meeting - just can't be the fastest approach under any circumstances than picking up the phone and in 5 minutes speaking with the stakeholder. Not mentioning that everyone is picking up the phone in such situation. And there are quite some similar questions, btw. much more than on the real exam. This brings me to my next 2 concepts that I wouldn't have been able to develop without going through this first time really frustrating learning path.

Concept 6: Don’t let your experience guide your answers if they conflict with PMI's world, which is somewhat sterile, and while in fact packed with realistic project challenges, illustrates an environment where a PM can act ideally.

Concept 7: Analyse your wrong answers in the PMI simulator and define rules based on your root misconceptions (from the PMI POV) about how you would have answered those type questions right. This helps adjusting your real life reflexes which you should, for the exam. It helped me tremendously to rule out wrong answers, or point out the most probably best candidates.

I did the PMI simulator just 2 days before my exam, and I got really frustrated and uncertain by the time I finished. Then I developed these concepts and I'm certain it added at least 5 - 10% right answers on the top of my result which I would have achieved without them. This easily would have been make or break. One of mine rule was, for instance (which is part of the PMP education, but not necessarily recognized as such important key idea): PM is Proactive – and this has many quite well framed implications in situational exercises. Translate this to the context of the question (and here I don't want to suggest particular recommendations, something worked for me may be a wrong advice for others). Yet one example just to illustrate what I mean: if there are several seemingly good responses to address a misunderstanding, very much realistic in real life, if you are explicitly proactive, you may first strive for facilitating, understanding, speaking in person, showing empathy and helping, rather than regulating, punishing, or escaping from the situation without really addressing the root cause. When your are prompted to address an issue, usually you are looking for an answer that goes beyond documenting or investigating.

Concept 8: once you developed your concepts, revisit the PMI simulator - it can be filled out several times. Don't mind that you already saw the questions, just try to answer them based on your new rules. If you will have the same experience like I had, you will be surprised how much better you are answering them than initially, how clear some of the previously wrongly answered questions will be, and how much less frustrating you will find them.

There is one good news: the real exam questions - while I'm not saying they are easy - clearly phrased, no tricking wording that touches the boundaries of unfairness at all. For me, all were clear even comparing to the PM PrepCast simulator wording, and significantly clearer than the PMI simulator questions. You can really focus on the questions and the situations they explain to develop your best choice.

When scheduling the exam, think about your habits, not about what others recommend in terms of timing; some people feel more energic in the morning than in the afternoon. I, in particular, tend to lack good sleep in such stressful situations. I like to give time to check the computer and software. So my ideal choice was the early afternoon, just after lunch. This way I even could sleep a bit before noon to fix the bad quality night sleeping; and I could address my Hyper-V related issue which I just recognized in the morning, despite I tested my system before multiple times.

Concept 9: test your system several times, and once a bit before the online exam check in, then make sure not to shutdown / restart the computer. If you had to, test your system after it again. A Windows update for instance can create a situation which you want to avoid; If you use virtualization on your machine, like Docker, or Hyper-V, make sure to disable (not just Stop, Disable) the related Services in the system, as they are proven to conflict with the exam system components even if this is not pro-actively advertised.

In my case, most of the time the system test worked properly. And just 2 hours before my test was scheduled a test attempt failed. After some browsing I found some hints (basically the above advise), and after reading about several technical / exam freezing experience, I strongly believe in many cases the background virtualization services caused the problem for the people. They may sleep in the background, and with no previous sign they may just get activated when for instance something is happening in your Docker and it needs to invoke them. Then the exam system detects conflicts, and unfortunately fails to handle that gracefully. If you are not doing virtualization, or software development related things, and have no clue about what this section is referring to, don’t be overstressed, it is unlikely that you are impacted. But if you are like a software project manager with a lot of stuff even on your home PC, this may give a good hint and ring the bell.

Concept 10: arrange and clear your desk to facilitate fast starting - which is not that fast even in the best case.

There should be a checklist which the proctor follows, and if - based on your check-in photos - the environment seems to show incompliance, you are contacted in the chat to address those. Which is fine, but it tends to require you to wait before your anyway challenging test begins for 30 - 40 minutes with no feedback, no ability to reach anyone (your computer is already locked, even the “click here to chat” button is disfunctional, which is not very elegant as it is displayed exactly for such cases for you). In my case, after I got the "your exam is scheduled to begin in 15 minutes screen" I waited for 40 minutes to see the initial chat message from the proctor. Even if the exam browser-lock software itself disables the potential secondary display, I had to disconnect and show that in the webcam; I had to unplug the printer on my desk; I had to remove the paper from the printer tray and show as putting away; I had to remove a box from under my primary display that I use to improve workplace ergonomy by lifting my screen a bit; So it is better to avoid all these if you can and take the fast track check-in to start.

Hoping that you pass, there is a meaningless format single line congratulating right after finishing your exam. It disappears once you click OK / Close or similar. I didn't realize that I should print, or print screen; while if you order an eraser or pencil online, you immediately receive confirmation in e-mail; for the PMP exam this screen content is your only proof of evidence that you have completed the exam until PMI sends the official report to you assuming seamless data transfer from the exam centre. So don't make the mistake I did. Save it before closing, otherwise you will have even bigger difficulty in the unlikely and rare, but not impossible event when there is something wrong with the administration between the exam centre and PMI. In my case btw. after finishing the exam by Friday night my time (morning PST for PMI), I got the PMI feedback on Saturday afternoon my time i.e. in 24 hours which was really nice, especially spending the weekend already.

The above journey and concepts helped me to achieve 2T, 3AT that I'm really happy with. I learned for 8 weeks from the concept to the exam, which is below what most people recommend, but if you can dedicate 4-5 hours a day including at least one of the weekend days, it is very possible to not “only” pass, but also learn a lot useful things.

Concept 11: Some final practical advises to conclude. Focus on the content and use of major artifacts and the philosophy, not on memorizing bullet lists, just think of the simulator question logic. I literally spent 0 time on memorizing inputs, outputs, the hundreds of bullet items. I just can’t. Even in the high school I couldn’t memorize many historical dates or complex math formulas. I rather learned the baselines, and derived the rest on my exams. So memorizing the lists was not an viable capability for me, and I was happy to notice it is not the point for PMI either, at least anymore. Of course the most important collocations will “stick” on you while reading, learning, testing. What is very important though is recognizing what the most important artifacts are, what are their extended and typical use, their content, in what situations (not necessarily just processes) they are used. The process where you are will intuitively come after some practice. Recognizing the context is the important point. For best coverage, make sure to understand all aspects of the Project Charter, Stakeholder Register, WBS and dictionary, difference between issues and risks – in other words the cornerstones of the project success – what we want, how we define, what to handle; that any configuration management related changes start with change request; that the Plans are always about the principals of How, not about the executing What, but this doesn’t mean you don’t need to revise them to find the information about what you need to do – for instance if just joined as a new PM to the team in the middle of the project. Build the sequence of things in your mind, be aware of the dependencies, in a particular situation what is already created, or at least in progress, and what is not. Remember to that whenever a new stakeholder shows up, before doing anything, add to the stakeholder register. Spend time on thinking about closing. There can be tricky related questions about this seemingly trivial area. As per PMI, one of the most important benefit of closing is the knowledge archiving as highlighted across trainings. In the PMI world, there is now real-life-like compromise. For instance when a procurement is delayed but you should be closing under pressure, still need to follow the rules of the integrated change control if this impacts scope, schedule or cost, rather than seeking a constructive solution even if it would work in many real life scenarios, and seems to be acceptable and moreover makes sense. Stick to the conceptually right decision. Think about risk response scenarios, like difference between enhance and exploit which was not always trivial for me. Contract types can also be tricky, not always clear in which context what is the best. Prepare to understand EVM concept, the interpretation of the different indices, practice drawing activity network diagrams. If you spend 2-3 minutes with one or two more complex question, it is fine, there will be quite some that you will be able to answer in half minute. Focus on the tools, their usage, the different charts and visualization tools. The real exam actually was much more practical, than what I expected based on the different simulations I met.

I wish good luck with your exam!

The following user(s) said Thank You: Kyra Czar, Kahlil Bates, David Phan

Long reading but hopefully insightful - learning, preparation, exam 2 months 3 days ago #25453

  • Yolanda Mabutas
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Congratulations, Attila!

Thank you for sharing your experience and insights.
Yolanda Mabutas
OSP International LLC
The following user(s) said Thank You: Attila Novak

Long reading but hopefully insightful - learning, preparation, exam 2 months 2 days ago #25473

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Best read I've had in a long time. Congratulations Attila!
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