Microsoft Makes Certifications More Meaningful

Well, a week later and I've finally recovered from Microsoft TechEd 2006. I received a lot of nice feedback from last week's commentary, which I'll use to guide the next several issues of Windows IT Pro UPDATE. Many readers were interested in the changes to Microsoft's certification process. Here's what I found out about that topic at the show.

Microsoft began rolling out its new generation of certifications late last year in conjunction with the release of Microsoft SQL Server 2005 and Visual Studio 2005. This is the biggest overhaul to the Microsoft certification program since it started 15 years ago, and the company tells me that it has certified more than 3.3 million people in that time. The bulk of these are Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) certifications, though a lot of people also completed just single exam Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) certifications as well.

As most of you probably know, Microsoft's certification process has been overhauled before. By the late 1990s, Microsoft certifications were considered too easy to obtain, and too many people with good exam cramming skills but no real world experience were loading up on certifications in order to obtain higher paying IT jobs. The result was a surplus of credentialed workers with little actual real world skills. Those issues are largely behind us today, but as Microsoft seeks to enter more and more markets, it's finding that it needs to adapt the certifications to meet today's needs.

The new certifications are being rolled out over time as new products are released. After the first wave of new SQL Server 2005 and Visual Studio 2005 certifications, Microsoft began working on the second wave, which will consist of Windows Vista, Exchange Server 2007, and Office 2007. After that, a third wave will arrive to cover Windows Longhorn Server. The new certifications will ship day and date with the products they cover, and thanks to a new testing model, you'll be able to check out Microsoft's copious online training documentation and tools in the months leading up to each product's release. For example, if you go to the Microsoft Learning Web site (see below), you'll see an astonishing amount of Office 2007 content that was just recently released.

Compared with the old MCSE-style structure, the new certifications are more modular and are technology and job-role separated. For each product, there will be a core certification and then various technology specializations on top of that. For example, if you want to become certified in SQL Server 2005, you could pursue a Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist certification (MCTS: SQL Server 2005), which proves a certain knowledge in implementing and maintaining SQL Server-based databases. This certification requires a single exam (Exam 70–431), which is supported by two classroom courses, two sets of e-learning documentation, and several Microsoft Press (and, no doubt, third-party) books.

On top of that core certification, you can pursue a technology/job role-based specialty. SQL Server supports three such Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP) credentials: IT Professional: Database Developer, IT Professional: Database Administrator, and IT Professional: Business Intelligence Developer. Each of these certifications has its own set of exams, classroom training, e-learning resources, and support books, of course.

If you're a database administrator, then, you might be interested in MCTS: SQL Server 2005 followed by MCITP IT Professional: Database Administrator. And that, folks, makes for a lot of text on your business card. For some, that's exactly what they're looking for. But the fact that every specialization for every product has its own unique certification title is going to make things interesting going forward.

Microsoft is currently working up similar modular certifications for Vista, Office 2007, Exchange 2007, and Longhorn Server, though the latter is still a ways away from being finalized. What's incredible is that the bulk of the content that Microsoft is putting up for its next-generation exams is both free and is being made available earlier than ever before. If you're looking to prove your worth on Vista, for example, you won't have to wait until it ships late this year.

I did get one interesting tidbit about Vista: Microsoft is splitting the job roles into both consumer and enterprise categories, which is a first. The consumer certification for Vista was designed with the participation of consumer electronics giant Best Buy: The company wants its Geek Squad home support group to be fully certified on Vista so that it can properly support this OS when it rolls out with new PCs in early 2007. Presumably, other corporations, like Best Buy, will follow suit. It's an interesting idea.

If you're looking around the Microsoft Learning site and don't see the content you want, more will be coming online in conjunction with the Microsoft Partner Conference that's happening next month. And if you want an uber-certification, support gods can sign up for the new Microsoft Certified Architect (MCA) certification, which requires a PhD-like board review consisting of a board of experts who make up the certifying authority (think "Star Chamber"). MCA, naturally, is more rigorous than other certifications and literally requires contestants--er, sorry, candidates--to literally architect enterprise-class environments. Only the very best need apply.

Microsoft Learning

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