Sunday, January 20, 2013

Book Review: Packt Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2011 Customization & Configuration (MB2-866) Certification Guide

 

Introduction and Disclaimer

As they did this time last year, Packt have asked me to review one of their online books in exchange for a free download of it. Again, if you are interested in buying it, here is the link.

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I have known the author, Neil Benson, online and offline for at least a couple of years with most of our real world contact happening at the MVP Summit.

He is a man I have a great amount of respect for and demonstrates he is a man of refined tastes in two ways:

  • he has partnered up with an Australian woman
  • he has a passion for excellent scotch

As with the last Packt review, the timing of the review is impeccable. The MVP Summit is less than a month away and I am sure there is a wee dram or two in it for a complimentary review. Despite such excellent prospects, I will try to be as impartial as I can.

The Microsoft Certification Process

The Microsoft certification process is an interesting quirk of working with Microsoft products. The idea is certification demonstrates familiarity and knowledge of the product. In theory it shows a level of expertise in a specific product beyond that of the uncertified. Neil talks about this in the preface.

In reality, while the Microsoft Official Curriculum (MOC) and course are excellent for learning an aspect of a Microsoft product, one can put the exam code (in this case “MB2-866”) into a search engine and find “Actual Tests” for less than, say, the cost of this e-book I am reviewing. These are very similar to the tests given for certification and the unscrupulous could easily memorize the answers to 80 specific questions and pass without any real-world experience with a product.

A couple of factors encourage this poor behavior. Firstly, Microsoft recently changed the rules for organizations to be a certified gold or silver partner with them. One part of the criteria is a certain number of certified staff. With time being money, this puts pressure on organisations to take ‘short cuts’.

The second factor is the nature of the questions. In my case I received training on Dynamics CRM back when it was Microsoft CRM 1.0 beta. I have consulted with the product since v3.0. However, despite implementing many CRM 2011 projects and being considered an expert with the product, I still fear not being able to pass the exams. Why? Because the questions are written to trip you up or they cover aspects of the product which are easy to discover when it is front of you but are not often memorized. For example, a configuration question could be “What is the default starting value for custom option sets?” Off the top of my head I have no idea. Do I know how to find out with the product in front of me? Sure. Have I ever needed to know this? No, but it is a legitimate question in the sense that it relates to the product and has a well-defined answer.

Am I suggesting you ignore books such as this one and get a '”brain dump”? Not at all. If you need to “tick the box” it is an option, but if you are working with a product (Dynamics CRM) in the capacity the exam covers (customization and configuration) a brain dump will do you no favours. If you are studying to work with a product, get the MOC materials, do a MOC course or get a “MOC-proxy” such as this one. If you are nervous even after studying, there is always the option of ‘sanity checking’ your knowledge with a test exam but I never recommend they be used, even to my staff, for anything other than to uncover weaknesses in an already established body of knowledge.

Finally, the MB2-866 exam is not a coders exam, despite the title. In this case, customization and configuration refers to setting up the environment e.g. configuring audits and currencies and modifying the system through the interface without code e.g. adding new fields or forms. The skills tested are those required to do things like set up pre-sales demos, configure a system ready for coding or provide on-site ad hoc modifications to a client.

The Reviewers

The four reviewers for the book are:

  • Michael Ferreira
  • Joel Lindstrom
  • Tanguy Touzard
  • Jerry Weinstock

I do not believe I have met Michael but I know the other three very well and even shared a room with Tanguy at last year’s MVP Summit. What I can say about these gentlemen is they are all existing or former MVPs so they know the product and value their reputation (given this is the measure by which we get renewed). They have strong reasons to make sure this book is as good as it can be.

Overview and Structure of the Book

The book is just over 300 pages. The chapters are:

  • Preface
  • Chapter 1: Overview of Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2011
  • Chapter 2: Configuring the System Settings
  • Chapter 3: Configuring the Organization Structure
  • Chapter 4: Entity an Attribute Customization
  • Chapter 5: Data Modeling Using Entity Relationships
  • Chapter 6: User Interface Customization: Forms, Views and Charts
  • Chapter 7: Auditing
  • Chapter 8: Solutions
  • Chapter 9: Sample Certification Exam Questions
  • Appendix A: Answers to Sample Certification Exam Questions
  • Appendix B: Answers to the Self-test Questions
  • Appendix C: Introduction to Microsoft CRM Training and Certification

If we compare the size to, say, Matt Wittemann’s CRM 2011 Administration Bible, we see it is about half the size (although the last 100 pages cover preparation and a sample exam, rather than exam content). However, this one is a lot more focussed, covering only the topics needed for the exam e.g. installation is not covered here but is in Matt’s book. Using Matt’s as a benchmark it seems, in the areas it covers, this one is quite comprehensive.

Preface

The exam syllabus link in the document did not work for me, but you can get an overview of the exam here:

http://www.microsoft.com/learning/en/us/exam.aspx?id=mb2-866

From this, we see the topics covered in the exam are:

  • Configuring a Microsoft Dynamics CRM Organizational Structure
  • Managing Users & Teams and Security
  • Customizing Attributes and Entities
  • Customizing Relationships and Mappings
  • Configuring Auditing
  • Managing Forms, Views, and Charts
  • Implementing a Microsoft Dynamics CRM Solution

which closely mirrors the chapters in our book.

The preface is clear this is a book of what you need to know, rather than a book of best practices, such as the CRM Field Guide (plug, plug) which Neil was also an author for (as was I). This being said he does slip in the odd best practice where it makes sense.

The preface explains there is a “Test Your Knowledge” section at the end of each chapter and a sample 75-question test exam at the end of the book. The preface is also crystal clear that this test exam is NOT a brain dump but simply an exam in the same style as the official one.

While no guarantees are given, Neil makes it clear that he firmly believes learning the content of the book is sufficient to pass the exam.

The preface gives a brief description of the chapters (which I purposely skipped over so I can give you my own overview without interference) and outlines what you need in addition to the book i.e. a working CRM environment to play in.

All good so far…

Chapter 1: Overview of Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2011

This chapter covers areas including:

  • The technical architecture of CRM (in a way that means even I now understand what multi-tier architecture is)
  • Supported and unsupported customisations. This is about as technical as you need to go for the exam. In short, while no coding knowledge is really required, it suggests you do need to know where that code can be applied and what layers of the architecture can be modified. The reason for this? If you are designing a CRM system, you need to know where codeless changes end and coded changes begin and the broad limits of what code can so in a supported fashion
  • Deployment options (and their differences)
  • Customization security roles (system administrator and customizer and the difference between them)

There is also a nice summary of the chapter at the end (and at the end of all the chapters). If you are already knowledgeable about CRM and want to know if it is worth reading a chapter, this summary could be a good place to start; If you learn something new, the chapter might be worth the effort.

There is no ‘Test Your Knowledge’ section for Chapter 1 which makes me wonder whether this is examinable or not. Either way, it is a good foundation for CRM in general and the content that follows.

Chapter 2: Configuring the System Settings

This chapter begins with a blow-by-blow review of the system settings you can set for CRM. This is quite dry but absolutely necessary for an exam e.g. can the report categories be modified and how?

The chapter then gives some context to the settings in terms of Outlook and even covers the options a user can set for the Outlook client.

Finally, the chapter talks about which settings can be bundled into a solution and migrated to another CRM system.

Probably not a chapter to read if you are sleepy but comprehensive none the less.

Chapter 3: Configuring the Organization Structure

This is, essentially, the security chapter and it is quite a large topic these days given security is affected by:

  • Business unit structure
  • Record ownership (user or team)
  • Security role setup
  • Field security settings
  • Form security

All these elements must come together in a CRM solution to ensure the right information is delivered to the right people and sensitive information is contained, as required. This is not a trivial topic to cover and is much more complicated than it was back in the version 4 days.

What I do like is Neil’s emphasis that the business unit structure is not there to reflect the real divisions in the organization but is there to manage security. Too often people set up business units for no better reason than it reflects the org. chart. Keeping it simple and setting it up purely to manage security needs will always pay dividends in the long run.

In terms of licensing, Neil is clear; he sticks to what you need to know, no more. As he correctly points out, with all the deployment options, licensing is a complex beast (to the extent there are organisations out there whose sole purpose it to provide advice to ensure you are correctly licensed with Microsoft products).

He covers one of the more complex aspects of the 2011 security model: team ownership. Even the most battle-hardened CRM veteran gets tripped up by this so it is good to see a no-nonsense summary.

Security role setup is covered and, again, a few best practice tips are given e.g. “copy a role, do not create from scratch”. Neil also covers the behaviour of security roles when they are assigned to users.

Finally, Neil covers what is left e.g. things like form security.

In terms of a text summary of CRM 2011 security, this is one of the best I have seen. Whenever I am asked by a client to describe security in CRM, a shiver of dread runs through me. Neil has tackled the job and made it seem effortless. This chapter and a trial instance of CRM and you will be a CRM security guru.

Chapter 4: Entity and Attribute Customization

For me, this is the core of CRM customization. In transforming an out-of-the-box CRM system to a practical system, I believe getting the data structures right and setting up the fields right is essential. This chapter covers the creation of the entities that make up those structures and their fields (linking the entities comes in Chapter 5).

Neil provides a comprehensive review of entity settings and a few more best practice tips. He even talks about where the official courseware is in error and where exam questions may also be in error to match.

He then moves into custom fields (he even explains the difference between decimals and floats and what IME Mode is).

Field level security is covered as is option sets (local and global).

A good high-level review of entities and fields. Again, with a demo system to practice with, this provides the foundation for a good working knowledge for the exam.

Chapter 5: Data Modeling Using Entity Relationships

Neil talks about the kinds of relationships that are permitted and those that are not (fight the good ‘polymorphic’ fight, Neil). He goes into detail such as cascading behaviors and mappings. Finally he talks about ad hoc modelling (Connections).

Again, a good introduction to entity linking which covers the basics for an exam.

Chapter 6: User Interface Customization: Forms, Views and Charts

Moving from the backend structures, Neil now moves into modifying the front end. Firstly, he covers form modification (mobile and client and even calls out read-optimized forms) and form security (answering why role-based forms are not secure).

He then moves into describing the various views used in CRM and how to create new ones.

Finally, he talks about chart creation, how to add them to entities and gives a great table showing the different types of charts with a handy graphic for each one. He also covers exporting and importing charts for customization but, as this is beyond the scope of the exam, does not cover their customization in detail.

An excellent overview covering the essentials.

Chapter 7: Auditing

Neil talks about what the auditing function monitors and some of the limitations of in within CRM. He covers audit configuration and audit security.

A relatively simple chapter but one that covers all aspects of auditing in CRM.

Chapter 8: Solutions

Chapter 8 is the last of the ‘content chapters’. The last chapter and appendices covering the sample exam and preparation information. The idea of a solution is new to CRM 2011 and is a complex subject. However, Neil navigates the essentials with deft elegance, clearly explaining the difference between managed and unmanaged solutions when it comes to deletion and application to a new environment. Neil even provides mnemonics to help the reader remember some of the trickier aspects for solution conflict resolution.

Solutions are complicated to the point many of us avoid using managed solutions unless absolutely necessary and generally not worrying too much about them. However, such an attitude does not pass exams. Neil covers what you need to know to pass the exam and with a bit of practice on a demo environment or two, the behaviour should become a little more intuitive.

Chapter 9: Sample Certification Exam Questions

This is a set of 75 exam questions cast in the format commonly seen in Microsoft exams. While the format mimics the Microsoft exam, the wording in these questions, at least to me, seems clearer than the real thing. However, given the adrenaline that is often running through one’s system when doing a real certification exam, this perception may be biased.

Appendix A: Answers to Sample Certification Exam Questions

These are the answers to the questions in Chapter 9. Neil also provides detailed answers as to why the incorrect options are wrong.

Appendix B: Answers to the Self-test Questions

These are the answers to the ‘Test Your Knowledge’ sections at the end of each chapter. No detailed explanations are given here but one assumes you can always refer back tot he chapter to see the reason for a bad selection.

Appendix C: Introduction to Microsoft Dynamics CRM Training and Certification

This initially gives an overview of the certification courses and exams available for CRM 2011. It then provides one of the most useful sections in the book; a guide to exam preparation, a review of how to book the exam and a summary of what to expect in the exam taking. Neil also includes tips on making the best use of your time in the exam.

Finally there is an index for quick reference.

Conclusions

If you cannot attend the official curriculum course and/or get hold of the MOC materials, this is an excellent substitute. It could also be used to supplement the MOC materials to ensure a completely thorough knowledge of the subject as well as providing some good tips when in the real world.

Overall, I am impressed with the effort Neil has put in. Adding nice touches like Appendix C and the test exam make for a more complete document than, say, the MOC material alone. He has also put in the effort of calling out changes implemented in CRM via rollup updates (and likely to be in your test system) but which were not available at the time the exam was put together.

If you are looking for a cheap version of an administrator’s guide, this is not the book for you. It is very focussed in its coverage and is more intent on teaching the how to modify functionality in CRM than in providing consulting excellence advice. The only question that really matters is whether this book will help someone prepare for the Microsoft exam. In my opinion the answer is an emphatic “yes”. Neil covers all aspects called out as being part of the exam and provides real world guidance for when the reader applies their knowledge in the wild. He also provides advice on maximizing your chances for success when in the actual exam. If you are preparing for the MB2-866 exam, simply put, this is money well spent and complimentary to the other tools usually employed (MOC materials and brain dumps).

If you are keen to give your knowledge a good working out prior to sitting the exam, Neil’s book can only assist. The “Test Your Knowledge” sections and sample exam ensure your knowledge is everything it can be prior to sitting for certification. If you are about to sit MB2-866, good luck.

1 comment:

Samuel Adams said...

All the modules of the book are perfect and explained really well.

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