Preparing for (and passing) the Salesforce Certified Platform Developer I Exam (WI19)

(Originally published at InfoWorld.)

I’m ambivalent about certifications. Because I spent enough time in school for the equivalence test validation to be embedded in my psyche I have enough certificates to fill a two-inch binder clip. Because I have been working in the real world long enough to know what most of them truly reflect, I actually display them all in two-inch binder clip with a sticky-note on top that says “Pick One”. Anyone who has multiple certification knows that not all are of equal value in terms of proof of knowledge. I have one from an enterprise vendor that is a household name, very fancy looking with a hologram in the middle. It is the result of showing up for class every day for two weeks and the check clearing. Yet I learned a great deal achieving it. Another was acquired as a pre-requisite for continued employment following a merger, which was easily achieved with no study and only a third of the allotted test time. The next took a solid year of daily study and was taken in hopes of leveraging it to leave the employer that required the previous one. 

My most recent certification was one of the more difficult to study for: The Salesforce Certified Platform Developer I (WI19). While I have plenty of practical experience working with Salesforce, there are many aspects of the product that are required knowledge for certification that just haven’t come up for the businesses requirements I have been fulfilling. However, I enjoy working with the product and Salesforce has done a good job of convincing decision makers of the value of certification as an indicator of ability that I wanted to have it to please those decision makers. So here is how I went about it.

Trailhead

Trailhead is an invaluable resource for learning Salesforce, regardless if you are seeking certification or not. I use it all the time to keep up on new and updated features and whenever I run across a requirement where a tool that I’m not thoroughly familiar with may be helpful. Also, in 2018, Salesforce move the certification verification to Trailhead as well as the maintenance exams.

If you have not already created a Trailhead account, do so before reading on. If you already have a free Developer org, sign up at Salesforce Trailhead. If not, go to the Developer Edition site and get yourself one first. Pro tip: Don’t use your email address as your user ID for the Developer org, even though that is the default value on the sign-up form. User IDs must be unique to all of Salesforce, not just the org.

On Trailhead, navigate through the menus under Credentials > Certifications then to the specific certification you are interested in (or jump to the Platform Developer I (PDI) page). Here you will find the Exam Guide, which is a good way to understand the structure of the exam. There is also a link to a Trailmix. Trailmixes are groupings of Trailhead training modules and super badges created by Salesforce and other Trailhead users. These are a great way to begin preparation for a certification. If you have been working with Salesforce, many of the modules will be topics you are already familiar with. Skip those according to your own confidence level. I will add this personal anecdote about skipping Trailmix modules: The second-lowest score I received on the exam was in a category I work with regularly. The exam questions were about aspects that I no longer consciously think about, similar to how it may be hard to give directions with street names for a route you travel daily because you traverse them on autopilot. A refresher may be useful.

Udemy

I used Udemy to great success for the Salesforce Administrator’s exam by taking an excellent preparation course taught by Francis Pindar and then a practice test course with three practice tests. Preparing for the Developer’s exam was a bit more daunting, mostly because the nature of the exam has evolved in the last couple of years and the courses have not caught up with it.

Before you get sticker shock looking at the Udemy courses, here is the strategy to pay a reasonable price for Udemy courses in general. Create your account on Udemy and take one or two free courses (there are many worth doing). Eventually (at longest up to three months) you will receive and offer for all courses for a flat rate per course that is quite reasonable. If your employer has a discount program that includes Udemy (such as Fond), you can get an even better price. I only paid $9.99 per course through my company’s Fond program.

As of this writing, the best Udemy course I found for the Developer’s exam is Salesforce Platform Developer 1 Certification Course by Deepika Khanna. It seems to be an Apex developer course that was later re-purposed for certification prep. As such, most of the content is there, though it may not be clear how it translates to the exam. There are also several course files that are not referenced in the course. One of these is a practice exam that has all of the answers in Word. Most of these questions are also in Salesforce Certified Platform Developer practice Tests, so I suggest you not read the Word document until after you have gotten everything you can from the practice exams.

I had taken another prep course on Udemy that had a great outline, but I did not find it a good learning resource as evidenced by the abysmal score I achieved on the first of the two practice exams.

The practice exam on Udemy is not the greatest, though it does reflect the actual exam process well, if not the questions themselves. There are a lot of spelling and grammatical errors in the practice exams and the mistake I made was to assume that an incorrectly spelt answer was automatically wrong. The spelling issue is not seen in the actual exam, so it is just an issue with the practice exam author.

Another lesson about practice exams is to avoid the temptation to take them early. There are only so many questions and you can end up memorizing the answer to those rather than learning the topic well enough to answer similar-but-different questions on the actual exam.

Other practice exam sites

The site I got the most from for drilling on test questions is a ProProfs Quiz, appropriately titled  Salesforce Platform Developer 1. Questions are added and updated occasionally. There were 131 questions available the final week before I took the exam. The same spelling issues seen on the Udemy practice tests are there, and many of the same questions. I also noted questions from the course quizzes from the exam preparation course I took, though not sure who copied who there. One thing to be aware of is that not all of the questions have the correct answers. Believe it or not, that is a good thing if you use the strategy I did. Every time I took the exam, I would research the questions I missed to better understand the concepts. This helped a lot. I also would save the final page with the answers to a PDF that I stored on my phone and reviewed when idle.

Some other useful practice sites:

  • Salesforce Certification Dev 401 #1 (also on ProProfs Quiz) is for the older exam. Most of the questions are still relevant, as the new exam has more topics than the old one.
  • Salesforce Certified Platform Developer 1 Quiz at Salesforce Tips, Tricks, & Notes is short but some of the questions are really hard. The order of events question was especially helpful in getting this topic down.
  • Simplilearn’s Free Salesforce Platform Developer I Practice Test is very hard, probably because they sell a certification preparation course. It requires some contact info, but I found they only send you ads a couple of times. No telling if they sell the info, though. Which is why I keep an anonymous account for such registrations.

Key topics to study

  • There are many questions related to Triggers and Order of Execution. Memorize this as best you can.
  • Knowing the Data Model well will boost your score. If you are good at memorizing things, the link will be sufficient. Otherwise, hands on experience (at work or on Trailhead) is the best way to embed the key points into your subconscious. I studied this the least and it was my highest scoring area from a combination of project work and Trailhead modules. YMMV.
  • Apex Testing has a multitude of sub-topics and there are some over-lapping concepts that can be confusing if you don’t regularly use this aspect of Salesforce.

Test Taking Tips

(This is a bonus section for readers of my LinkedIn or Solutionist blogs)

The process of answering the test questions is just as important as the approach to preparation in ensuring a passing score. I first go through the test quickly, reading each question and response options and answering those that are immediately obvious to me. I then go through a second time, answering the questions skipped the first time through and marking for review any that I don’t feel 100% confident about. An advantage to this approach is that sometimes one question is worded in such a way that I easily remember the answer and it reminds me of the correct answer to another, related question.

I then go back and review all of the questions marked for review, re-read the question and answer and asses my confidence. I do this in order of the exam questions because I still might leave it marked for review on this pass. The ones I was still unsure of on the review I then re-review. Finally, I go through the test from start to finish, reviewing each answer.

While this may sound very time consuming, I usually still finish with 20 – 30 minutes to spare.

Some final comments about certifications

The Salesforce employment market is heavily slanted towards certified applicants, so if you really like working with Salesforce and aren’t already in your dream job (or are a consultant who is always pursuing new clients), Salesforce certification is a must have. The Salesforce Administrator certificate I find the easiest to achieve, and if you are serious about Salesforce development I recommend getting both certificates because knowing enough administration to be certified will help you in designing better components.

No matter how hard or how easy a certification is to obtain, almost all are proof only of knowledge. In general, the application of knowledge is where the value is. As someone pursuing certification, continue your learning after certification. I find participating on the support discussions and completing Trailhead modules regularly to be a good way to grow beyond the day-to-day tasks.

And for employers, please weigh overall experience with certification achievements. Someone that has years of technical experience on multiple platforms and coding languages will be able to become very proficient in Salesforce in a short period of time, and someone with several certifications who has little experience outside of Salesforce and all within a small variety of orgs may not be the right fit for a complex implementation.

Finally, my own score on the exam was not in proportion to my actual capabilities. The exam results are broken down by category. In one case I scored very low in an area that I use regularly and frequently advise others on. In another case I scored quite high in an area I rarely use and most of my learning was academic. Having previously passed the administrator’s exam, it is no surprise that my best categories were the areas that overlap.

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© Scott S. Nelson

How do you guys become a great programmer?

Someone asked on a group chat recently “How do you guys become a great programmer?” I riffed the following in response in one of those rare moments of metaphorical clarity:

The same way you get good at a video game. Get in and play. Look things up on Google when you are stuck. Talk about it with others who are also learning or have already mastered. Read related blogs and try other games (languages) to get a better understanding of the common basics. Also, people do these things with games because they enjoy playing more than just winning. Programming works best that way, too, when you think of projects as levels.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditlinkedinmail


© Scott S. Nelson