Book review : “MCSD Certification Toolkit (Exam 70-483): Programming in C#”

Introduction

I’ve recently passed the Microsoft 70-483 “Programming in C#” certification which is one of the entry point into the .Net and WinRT developers certification cycles.
To be well prepared I’ve read the two books entirely dedicated to this certification : MCSD Certification Toolkit (Exam 70-483): Programming in C# and Exam Ref 70-483: Programming in C#.
I strongly recommend you read both of them if you intend to pass the certification.
Indeed both have been my main material to prepare for the certification and they have perfectly done the job.

This article is a complete review of MCSD Certification Toolkit (Exam 70-483): Programming in C#.
This is the first book you should read because I think this is the one that will best prepare you to get the certification, but paradoxically the worst from a technical point of view, and you will quickly understand why.

It’s unfortunately the biggest flaw of this book: it contains a lot of technical errors, ranging from the basic misuse of words that only experts will spot and innocuous for neophyte, to bad practices, including wrong affirmations, and this is more annoying. And sometimes inside a section you have both some really good content along with really bad content.

This article is not a complete errata, because I’ve not taken note of every single error, but I’ll try to illustrate the main issues in order to establish a typology without being exhaustive.

I’ve chosen to present the worst content first, the bad practices, to go to the best, the good practices, because this book is equally full of really good technical content that is perfect for the certification and in your daily job as a developer.

The bad parts

Some bad practices

Teaching bad practices, especially when a big part of your audience is made of non experienced developers, is probably the worst thing a technical book can do.

However, let’s be honest, fortunately there is few bad practices in this book and as it does not pretend to be a technical reference this is not unacceptable.

As an example naming conventions are often not respected, so we have methods named displayName, concatenateName or square, which would imply that the author of this code is a recent Java defector. I won’t judge it as I’ve myself followed the same path and it took me some time before I completely accept and apply these conventions.

Less innocuous is the modification of the state of a value type instance which demonstrates an unfamiliarity with the subtleties of this category of types. But in the author(s) defense a minority of C#/.Net/WinRT developers are aware of this “issue”.

Still concerning value types the book states it’s better to use arrays of references than arrays of values because values would be copied. It’s completely wrong because arrays are themselves reference types so are manipulated through references, hence in both cases there is no copy involved. Then this is not a good reason to use the “by reference” semantics, though by default this is the one we should choose.

As for the design of classes the book mixes business data with purely technical treatments, like accessing a database, instead of decoupling them.
Decoupling is yet the ABC, and would has cost nothing there, so there is no reason not to demonstrate it to beginners.
But in the book’s defense the certification’s questions are far from being exemplary in this regard.

Finally when demonstrating ADO.Net most of the examples don’t leverage the using block to control the range of the connections and commands objects, though this best practice is discussed later in a dedicated sidebar.

Some errors

A little less serious are purely technical errors like the affirmation that the current element in a foreach loop must have the correct type, which is wrong, and it’s kind of “dangerous” and the source of a lot of bugs: foreach implicitly converts the value if the type is not correct: e.g. double to int.

Some illustrations are wrong: e.g. for extension methods the book speaks of extending the Math class which is useless because it can’t be instantiated because it is a static class, and it’s really no luck for the authors because this class is more an exception than the rule, so a really bad draw.

partial” classes are described as generating many files inside the same assembly whereas they are all aggregated by the C# compiler in a single class whose byte-code is integrated as a whole to the assembly.

We also “learn” that we can set an instance of a value type to null which is completely wrong: null makes sense only for a reference to an instance of a reference type (and nullable types).

The book states that instances of value types are always stored on the stack: wrong, they can be inlined inside instances of reference types in the heap, but this is a popular belief in the community so we can’t blame the authors.

More anecdotal we are taught that the int type can store values up to 4 294 967 286 whereas the limit is half of that.

More annoying, but again a popular belief, the book states there is 2 ways to pass parameters: by copy for value types and by reference for reference types, sounds good but wrong, all is done by copy, including copy of reference for reference types, and if you want to pass by reference you must use dedicated ref and out markers.

But more original is the fact that “abstractmethods would be referred to with the synonym “virtualmethods whereas they are two concepts related but distinct: an abstract method can be considered as virtual, but not in the other direction. So maybe an issue with the understanding of fundamental concepts of object oriented programming concepts which would confirm my hypothesis of a strong Java bias: Java developers are those who use the more virtual methods but also those who less understand what they are and how they differ from abstract methods (relatively to C++ and C# developers). Paradoxal? No when we know that by default all the instance methods are virtual in Java so a Java developer will never have to write the word “virtual” whereas C++ and C# developers must be explicit.

Some approximations

While I agree that some simplifications are harmless for the novice and can avoid throwing too many information at once or making them doubt, I consider that ideally one should not prepare a certification only for the sticker but above all to confirm a real expertise, and to learn new things, and this requires some technical accuracy.

Here is an example of this kind of harmless error that demonstrates a lack of full understanding of the language: the last part of the for loop is described as carrying on an instruction expressing counting (++, *=, -=…) which is wrong, it can even be missing.
Of course a lot of talented developers can have a brilliant professional career by believing that without any consequence on the quality of their work and their productivity.

Another example of the same type is the description of the while and do-while loops as two completely distinct entities whereas they are the two faces of the same coin.

Similarly when presenting for the first time the extension methods it is said that their purpose is to extend classes without recompiling them, which is only a relatively anecdotal point.
Fortunately in this case the correct definition is given in another section, hence the importance of reading the book entirely.

Comparing the for loop and the foreach loop the book states the latter is there when we don’t know the number of elements whereas this is more the lack of an indexer that will decide of the use of foreach, and indeed some collections expose their length but don’t provide an indexer so are best iterated with foreach.

It’s a pity that developers with this amount of experience uses such approximations as confusing the IDE and the platform: it is said that Visual Studio calls the constructors whereas of course this is the role of the CLR, Visual Studio does not even compile the code.

Unfortunately developers who are not curious and have never developed outside Visual Studio don’t understand that when we develop this kind of applications we have 3 actors:
.Net or WinRT which is the underlying platform that provides the types library and the runtime environment (for .Net)
C# that is the programming language using a compiler that generates some binary code, like byte-code running on the .Net platform
Visual Studio which is a productivity tool (IMHO the best) which interfaces with C# and .Net/WinRT using tools like MSBuild.

According to the book the “volatile” marker is there to indicate that the data could be modified by other components that our code, it’s only partially true, because it shines outside of this context (see another of my articles: Synchronization, memory visibility and leaky abstractions)
There again the authors are forgiven because it’s the kind of subtleties you understand by practicing a little parallel programming and the majority of .Net and WinRT developers can develop completely ignoring it, and that’s a good thing.

Similarly seems like the authors are not aware that & is also a valid boolean operator, the difference with && being that it does not bypass. Unfortunately one of the test question is dedicated to this issue so the test is wrong, which is ironic because at the start of the book there is a long introduction to how tests are designed for the certifications, and one of the prerequisites is they must be non ambiguous.

Some topics seems not well understood like ORMs which are described as graphical tools whereas this is not at all their primary use case, as is demonstrated by Entity Framework which took a U-turn with the “Code First” workflow.
As for NHibernate it is said to be an ORM dedicated to other databases and languages whereas its first use-case is the interaction with SQL Server from C#

Some word misuses

Usually words misuses are not serious, except once again for novices who need to remember rigorous definitions, in order to have points of reference helping them in their learning and the consolidation of their knowledge.

As an example System.Int32 (alias int in C#) is referred to as a class instead of simply a type (to avoid speaking about value types), probably a reminiscence of Java and its Integer type which indeed is a reference type.

Concerning C# structs some fields are defined but are referred to as “properties” which will confuse beginners because later in the book the properties themselves are of course referred to with this same term.

Often the book uses the term “class file” instead of just “class”, probably another reminiscence of Java which indeed only allows a single public class per source file, but even in Java this is not an accurate term.

Similarly the book speaks of interface instances instead of interface references, but an interface cannot be instantiated, so again confusing for beginners.

Another not completely mastered topics is the BackgroundWorker: the Invoke method is used in the events handlers ProgressChanged and WorkerCompleted whereas the purpose of the BackgroundWorker is precisely to avoid that by automatically capturing the context, and invoking the handlers on the UI thread itself.

Some minor issues

As you would expect the book suffers from a blatant lack of proofreading: there is a lot of typos and grammatical errors, but fortunately they never affect the understanding, the context always helping to grasp the content.

Towards the end of the book there is a big bunch of code to demonstrate validation and Windows Forms.
First I don’t understand the purpose of dumping such a quantity of code, secondly it concentrates a lot of bad practices: playing with flying values instead of consolidating them in dedicated types, business code directly in the UI event handlers instead of being isolated in dedicated components, background color of controls used to store business data, the validation state of the form, which is a strange practice.

There again the danger is for novices that might learn a lot of bad practices and apply them in their professional context and even teach them to their colleagues.

Some technical terms are defined in the glossaries of some chapters but are never addressed which may mean that some sections have been simply “forgotten”.

Some topics are repeated: the section on delegates, anonymous functions and lambdas appears 2 times, with two different texts, so probably 2 authors have worked on it without coordination.

Too much time is dedicated to obsolete components like ArrayList now replaced by their equivalent generics classes.

The good parts

Listing only errors would be really unfair because this book is full of very good content, some sections are of high quality, worthy of the best technical reference books.

Some good introductions

First off the book offers a panorama of the tools used for developing with C# in .Net or WinRT, and many sections are small introductions that allows the reader to quickly understand the ins and outs of a given tool.

The introduction to parallel programming is really correct, including a small rundown on the thread-pool and its limitations like the inability to make a join, and another on the asynchronous methods in C# 5.0.

The part on monitors is perfect to revise but a little too short for a beginner discovering the topics who will probably not understand some concepts like the “ready-queue“.

The book also has a good introduction to Entity Framework and illustrates its use with the “Database Firstworkflow which is one of the 3 workflows supported by EF.

LINQ is also well covered and the two syntaxes for building queries are presented: via the mini-language integrated to C# or directly via chaining of methods provided by the Enumerable static class.

The introduction to security is really broad while being quite compact and addresses various topics like hashing, symmetric and asymmetric cryptography, and, amongst other topics, certificates.
It’s perfect for developers who like me “know” these topics but are not completely aware of how to implement them using .Net/WinRT.
And by the way I had one question on this section during the certification exam.

Some good illustrations

As an example the use of the do-while loop is illustrated with a relevant and recurrent use-case: the reading of input from the console.

Similarly the book provides a non-trivial example for the use of an enumerator which helps the reader to understand how the foreach loop works under the hood.

There is also good examples on object oriented programming, particularly on the use of abstract classes and virtual methods, as well as the notions of contract and interface (e.g. with explicit implementations).

To illustrate the importance of reflection the book uses the context of object relational mapping which, besides being a relevant use-case, is a great technical demonstration for novices because in 20 lines of code we have a mini ORM, whereas at first sight we would expect a far heavier implementation.

Some topics really well covered

Some topics benefit from a better attention with some really comprehensive technical elements.

This is the case for strings, their immutability and storage management by the CLR ((interning) being well addressed.

The introduction to the inner workings of garbage-collection is short and of high quality, and especially insists on the non-determinism, illustrating it with the use of files.
This example helps the reader to get a natural understanding of the goal of finalizers/destructors and the disposable pattern.
The explanations are balanced: enough technical depth to correctly understand the inner workings and acquire some knowledge going beyond the certification, without bogging down the novice with too many subtleties, while exposing the rationales and use-cases.
It’s one of the best description of this topic I’ve ever read.

Another example where the content is better and richer than expected for the certification is CodeDOM which benefits from a complete and rich demonstration using C# and VB.Net that goes beyond the canonical example, copy pasted everywhere on the web and books, consisting in compiling an “Hello world” program in C#.

Some contextualization and good practices

To finish you have to know that the book gives a lot of information that help the reader putting things in perspective, along with some good practices
Even if this is not really useful for the certification which primarily evaluates your capacity to use the tools, not to talk about them, this will help every developer to better understand some tools he uses without a real understanding of them.

For example the rationales of enumerated types are really well explained, insisting on the enhancement of readability hence maintainability of code.

Similarly for generic types and methods the book insists on all their benefits like code reusability, type safety and performances.

The introduction of the encapsulation concept is really good, invoking validation and the use of transformations to avoid SQL injections as relevant use-cases, the latter being less realistic but interesting.

The book puts emphasis on good practices like the systematic use of curly braces even when there is only one instruction, typically for the if block.

Often there is good advices like the importance of not exposing sensitive information through exceptions, and making them serializable if they must cross the boundaries of an app-domain

Finally the book refers to good additional resources like pinvoke.net which is almost essential when working with native interop via P/Invoke (DllImport).

Global assessment

The principal interest of this book is that it presents a large spectrum of topics, and IMHO it is complete with regards to the certification official program.
During the certification I’ve not encountered a question whose topic was not discussed in this book.

Depending on the reader current skills in C#/.Net/WinRT this book will profit him more or less:
– if you are really strong, senior with at least 5 years of experience, then you’ll be able to sort the wheat from the chaff (the nugget from the errors), and this book will be one of your best ally to pass the certification
– if you have an intermediate level, with strong basis this book may help you to reach the next level, because it lists the important technical topics you have to work on,
– but if you are a beginner, ignoring the fact it may be too soon to pass the certification, this book might be dangerous if you naively learn some errors and bad practices, so you must double your vigilance and in case of doubt do not hesitate to ask to experimented developers.

As for me I could divide the content of this book as follow:

  • 75% was made of stuff I knew the book helped me to revise,
  • 15% was about topics I had forgotten and I was happy to have taken the time to read this book entirely because missing 15% of the program is a lot, it represents half the error margin you have for this exam (you must have at least 700/1000),
  • 10% were topic I didn’t know, I may have heard of, but that I had never used like WCF Data Service or the possibility to inline options inside regular expressions, or some best practices I had missed like using labels with #endregion directives

So I’ve really learnt a lot by reading this book, some things less important than others, but every piece of knowledge is good to take when you aim at expertise.

Conclusion

As you’ve seen the content of “MCSD Certification Toolkit (Exam 70-483): Programming in C#” is very uneven.
What I don’t understand is why the ebook version has still so much errors despite the many strong reactions, IMHO often a little disproportioned, of offended and disappointed readers.

So should you read this book?
If you are willing to pass the 70-483 certification the answer is a strong “yes” because this book correctly summarizes all the technical points you’ll need to know to success, and it will help you find where you have some weaknesses you should work on.
This is also a choice by default because there is not really any alternative.

However if you need a technical book to develop you current skills and gain new ones then I don’t recommend this book as you might learn some bad practices, and reading a book being suspicious is really not good for memorization because we tend to not believe anything.

Above all don’t do as other readers who have stopped to read it after a few pages or chapters upset by the accumulation of errors, and for two reasons:
– the quality of this book really enhances chapter after chapter, and while I’ve found a bunch of errors in the first part, I’ve found almost nothing towards the end, as if the first part was written by a novice developer, the middle by a more experimented one, and the final part by an expert.
– even in the parts full of errors there are some important informations and even some nuggets.
So even if you are considered an expert this book will learn you something and it would be a pity to not read it to pass the certification.

What is sure is that this book is the result of a huge work that deserves a lot of respect, and better to have imperfect resources than no resource at all.

My final rating
Rating this book is quite difficult because on one side I consider the accumulation of technical errors and approximations really harmful for the novice readers who probably represent an important part of this book’s audience, but on the other side this book perfectly does the job of preparing the reader for the certification.

If it was a book with the pretention of being a technical reference I would note it quite severely: 5/10.
But for a reader only willing to obtain the certification it is well worth 9/10.
So I’ve finally rated it 8/10, 4 out of 5 stars on Amazon, because I’ve considered that passing the certification is really the point of this book which is not a technical reference, and so I’ve overweighted this aspect.

4 thoughts on “Book review : “MCSD Certification Toolkit (Exam 70-483): Programming in C#”

  1. Hi. Thanks for your great in-depth review of this book. I have bookmarked your site for future reading since you have really great information. :)

  2. Great, thanks very much for your review. I am new to c# but have programmed for many years in unix using c/c++, and on a pc using vb. There are two books on this subject, I think now I will get this book first.

    • If you are new to C# and are looking for a first book then you’d better use another one like “Professional C# 2012 and .NET 4.5″ by Wrox, because as stated in the conclusion the reviewed book is excellent to prepare for the certification but not to learn the language because it contains too many errors.

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