Become a Salesforce Certified Platform App Builder

This is about my journey to pass the Platform App Builder certification exam. Yours will probably vary, and I hope this article is part of it.

For me, Platform App Builder is my third Salesforce certification. I passed the Administrator exam in 2018 and the Platform Developer I certification in 2019. 2020 I was too focused on expanding the Logic20/20 Salesforce Capabilities to study for an exam.

I have admitted in the past, and will repeat for clarity here, that much of my blogging is driven by having searchable notes on how I accomplished something so that when I need to do it again I can readily remind myself of what worked. My certification posts show a pattern that is working: Work with the tool, takes a course, take a diverse set of practice exams, then do it for real. Patterns are great for planning, though the devil is in the details, and I will get to those in just a moment.

Before getting to the good stuff, it is important to note that there is a key part of the pattern that is missing from those previous post, perhaps the most critical aspect: a genuine interest working with the tool that I want to be certified in. The value of this is clear from my first certification for the WebLogic Portal (RiP). I didn’t study for it at all, I just took the exam and passed (barely). I took the exam because it was required by the company that acquired the product. I had passionately worked with it for several years, and expected passing would be easy. It wasn’t, because certification exams are more about knowing things than doing things. Doing them does help to know them, just not as much as I would have thought. Anyway, it is that interest in doing that motivates me to acquire the knowing necessary for certification.

As a mentor, I frequently hear the same concern from people that are learning something new outside of their day-to-day work: It can be difficult remembering things by only reading or hearing about them. Learning exercises are often not enough as they are structured for success and the simple step-by-step instructions become a validation in following instructions rather than an acquisition of the knowledge necessary to perform the task. One thing I had done to rapidly accelerate my abilities in WebLogic Portal was to spend an hour each morning reading the community posts and answering questions. Not only questions I already knew the answer to, but also the ones I did not, by figuring it out, validating it, and then responding. Years later, I applied this technique again after becoming an Informatica Cloud Master. As many people know, solving real-world problems helps to lock in the learning. What I learned with WebLogic and Informatica is that there a plenty of real-world problems to solve beyond my own daily work.

In the case of Salesforce certifications, I can honestly say the best study technique was getting in to the Top 10 on the Trailhead Community Answers Leaderboard.

Beyond the community participation, the App Builder certification was the first one where I did not have frequent “ah ha!” moments while taking the trainings. The first (and last…I repeated it a day before the exam) training I took was the free one Salesforce offers on their Certification Days page. It is certainly worth taking for the pattern tips of how the exam questions are structured, such as (paraphrasing) “If there is a choice that suggests anything other than a declarative approach, it isn’t that one” and “Watch out for choices with multiple parts where most are correct. They must all be correct.”

I’m still a big fan of Udemy. I am also frugal, so I enrolled in Mike Wheeler’s Salesforce Platform App Builder Certification Course during one of the frequent sales. It’s a good course, though a lot of material is dated and it gets a little annoying to hear him complain about features that have long since been improved. The course does not include a practice exam, but I have found that courses that do have few more than the number of questions on the actual exam. The problem with that, is that there are way more questions available, and each exam consists of a random set of questions (within the ratios as described in the official study guide).

The App Builder Certification is one of the more popular ones. I think this is partly attributed to it being in the “Developer” category of certifications while requiring no knowledge of coding, and partly because Salesforce heavily emphasizes that coding isn’t necessary and should be avoided. Having been a consultant for a software vendor, I understand the value of declarative solutions because it is safer for regular vendor updates. I will also say that knowing nothing about the implications of technical choices can be a huge disadvantage even if everything is done declaratively. But I digress…

The practice exam package I went with from Udemy was Salesforce App Builder Practice Test [325 Questions] WINTER’22. There is great diversity in the questions, though there are several that are the same general question with subtle differences. They are spread through 5 timed tests. I didn’t do the actual math, but I think that while the total of all questions are in the correct exam ratio (23% Fundamentals, 17% UI, 22% Data Modeling, 28% Logic & Automation and 10% Deployment), I believe only 2 of the sets are correctly spread across topics. For me, reporting is a weak other (I generally delegate that work), and I found myself failing some of the practices where reporting questions were too heavily waited.

The value of practice exams is not memorizing the answers (don’t, because they change to avoid just that). The value is in learning weak points and shoring them up with some reading or Traihead modules.

As I mentioned, the App Builder is a popular certification, and there are a lot of other offerings on Udemy for practice exams. I made the mistake of buying one several months before using it and could not get a refund. I did get a refund on another that looked really good in the description but was outdated and contained several answers I knew were wrong. There are also several free video dumps on YouTube, and I found that many were also inaccurate, besides being the wrong medium for this type of studying (at least for me).

So, to summarize:

  • Get interested in what you are studying for
  • Attend one of the free Salesforce prep trainings (you also get a discount on your exam with the training!)
  • If you don’t get to build apps often at work, go help people on Trailhead to gain practical experience
  • Pick a good training course on Udemy when it is on sale and check it right away for quality and get a refund if it sucks
  • Pick practice exam set on Udemy with lots of questions and check it right away for quality and get a refund if it sucks
  • Follow me on Trailhead (not really necessary, but you may find some interesting answers)
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© Scott S. Nelson

Techniques to Prepare for and Pass the TOGAF® Certification Exams

There is a great deal of discussion at the various virtual gathering places of Enterprises Architects (and those that want to be) on what certifications are the most important to have. The answers vary a great deal, mostly depending on perspective. Those who are already EAs respond with the assumption that everyone has almost as much education, experience and influence as they do, and recommend the pursuit of areas that will enhance their abilities. Then there are those who own a particular framework who suggest that the certification they offer is the most desirable for any EA (which I sometimes agree with except for the “most” quantifier). Then there are the practical bunch that point out that TOGAF® is the most widely recognized certification and the framework that many of the others are based on. In essence, if you are competent in TOGAF® you can easily become competent in most other frameworks.

Background

Once someone suggests TOGAF®, the thread moves to how to pass the certification (though many other threads about other frameworks and why certifications don’t matter will continue even though the original poster is ignoring them by this point). I recently achieved TOGAF® certification, and wanted to share how I did it before I catch the disease that seems to affect many TOGAF®-certified EAs where they mutter about how easy it is and just take a course or read a book. I also like to write, so you’ll have to suffer through some of my prose to get everything that worked for me (and some things that didn’t).  However, if you are as impatient with my writing as I am with most others, you can skip to the end for the outline and links. Go ahead, it won’t hurt my feelings…much.

I’m also not going to go into a deep review of the exam structure or material covered. This is more about where to get the material and how to use it than the material itself. The structure of the exam will be reviewed in terms of how to approach in a manner that will help you pass, and the material will only be referenced at a high level for context.

While I have worked with enterprise architecture for a dozen years, it has always been with the various custom frameworks of clients and employers (when any at all) which tend to use internal terminology and definitions. For example, one employer labeled “Information Architecture” as the practice of how users interact with information and focused on the use of wireframes, navigation and content taxonomy. Another employer referred to “Information Architecture” when they were discussing the design, designation and distribution of data and its containers. Neither organization listed “Information Architecture” in a glossary, so if you didn’t happen to already know their definition you could become very confused (and appear very stupid) in discussion about “Information Architecture” and the organizations capability to contribute Subject Matter Experts on the topic. Having been confused and appeared stupid in training class for an employer’s internal Enterprise Architecture Framework over this difference in nomenclature, when the time came to chose between TOGAF® Level 1 training and TOGAF® Level 1 & 2 training, I opted for the first. For my particular learning style, this was a good choice, even if made for (perhaps) the wrong reason.

Approaches

If your learning style leans towards interactive exchange with an instructor and other students or you have no experience with TOGAF®, I would highly recommend taking a Level 1 class as a starting point. Level 1 focuses mostly on the terminology of TOGAF®. In TOGAF® terms, Level 1 is the Preliminary phase of the ADM. The Level 1 exam covers all phases of the ADM, and touches on all of the other sections to assure that an individual certified at this level can have a conversation about TOGAF and not be totally lost. The exam is multiple choice, and the questions are at least twice as hard as any of the practice exams I have seen. So if you opt for the classroom instruction, review the course materials thoroughly afterwards. Many courses will give you the exercises performed during the class broken out by sections. I found it helpful to repeat the exercises to note which areas I did not score perfectly in and review those topics again.

If you are one of those people who absorb information very quickly or have been following the actual TOGAF® approach in your day-to-day work, going straight to a combined Level 1 and Level 2 class will probably be more to your liking and benefit. Level 2 of the TOGAF® exam and certification is a deep dive into how to take all of those terms and apply them in real-world scenarios. Level 2 is an open book exam, where a scenario is presented, a challenge is described based on the scenario, and then four approaches are described and your job is to pick the best one. One of the four is totally wrong, and the others have degrees of correctness. The training class I attended had us answer the class exercise questions by putting them in order. While this is not how the exam is done, I found that approach very helpful in choosing the most correct answer on the actual exam. One exam approach that I found invaluable was to break down the question into TOGAF®-specific areas and then see which answer addressed the most of them according to the document.

Don’t let the open book aspect of the Level 2 exam fool you into complacency.  While it does not have the rote memorization aspect of the Level 1 exam, the answers all sound pretty reasonable if taken alone. Also, for those who have dealt with Enterprise Architecture where TOGAF® was not followed some of the answers that sound most real-world are the 0 point responses. The key to this part of the exam is to know the structure of the TOGAF® document so that you can quickly locate relevant sections and verify how closely an answer matches the document. Another point to remember is that in addition to the document, there is a general approach core to TOGAF® which is the collaboration between business, technology, Enterprise Architecture and Project Management.

Of course, there are those who learn perfectly well from only reading (or reading in addition to work experience) and they are welcome to ignore my training course recommendations. In fact, for simply passing the certification exams (as opposed to scoring well, which I have a preference for), you can get by without a course, too, if you follow all of the suggestions described here using the written material and any practice exams you can access.

I would highly recommend taking the exams separately as I experienced some dismay during the Level 2 exam as I noticed which answers I got wrong on the Level 1 exam, which is a distraction.

Planning is Everything

One note from my personal experience is that having taken the path of a Level 1 course and certification followed by a combined Level 1 & 2 course (there was no Level 2-only course available to me at the time) I assumed that I would be able to simply take the Level 2 exam to complete my full TOGAF® certification. Turns out I need to have discussed this with the training company before taking the course as I received a voucher for the combined exam instead of just the Level 2. I could not exchange the voucher, and the testing center would not allow me to take only the Level 2 with that voucher, even though I had taken the Level 1 course with the same training company and the exam with the same exam provider. Fortunately I don’t know if this rigid process would have resulted in my not having been certified if I failed the Level 1 exam the second time around, though I’m sure it would have entailed a great deal of time consuming communications to correct that situation had that been the case. I suppose it is very much in the spirit of TOGAF® to never assume that all parties think about the same model from the same viewpoint.

My Ultimate TOGAF® 9 Certification Preparation Process by the Numbers

OK, so here it is, as promised:

Before the exam…

  1. Read TOGAF® 9 Certified Study Guide
  2. Attend a course
  3. Read the TOGAF® 9 spec cover to cover
  4. Review the course materials

During the exam…

  1. If possible, take the Level 1 exam and Level 2 exam individually
  2. If not 100% positive about the answer, mark it for review
  3. For Level 1, do not spend more than two minutes on any question for the first pass
  4. Complete all answers in the level before reviewing
  5. If you don’t know an answer pick one at random and mark it for review
  6. Once completing all the answers, begin the review with the first question. Some of the answers will now be obvious from later questions, so go through the marked questions quickly the first review and answer the ones you know are confident about
  7. On the first review, do not spend more than 1 minute per question
  8. If not 100% certain, leave marked for review
  9. On the second review, take your time and answer to the best of your ability, leaving those you are not 90% sure of marked for review
  10. Review until you run out of time
  11. For Level 2, list the parts of the question that map to TOGAF® then check each answer for addressing those items. The one that addresses most of those items is the most likely answer

Conclusion

In all honesty I can’t say that any one source for how to pass the exam is going to work for everyone capable of passing. I hope that I have given you one of the better approaches, including the suggestion to look for blog entries and articles and discussion that have further tips specific to your needs. What I have described here worked very well for me, with the key advice I found at one site being to look for the answer that was the most TOGAF®-ish and that was generally the best answer. The studying approaches I described are what allowed me to apply that excellent advise.

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© Scott S. Nelson