Premium or Low Fat?

I promised to share my experiences with test preparation products in this week's column, but something else has come up. The SQL Server Magazine editors forwarded a letter that addresses certification issues, so the editors thought I was the right person to deal with it. The letter writer seemed confused about the difference among classes, exams, and certification. If many other people share the writer's confusion, then more discussion about basic certification details is in order.

First, classes never are the same as either exams or certifications. Classes are simply one way to prepare for an exam, but not the only way. Some people find that they can learn better in a focused 3- to 5-day period with a live instructor available to answer additional questions. Others much prefer self-study at their own pace, at their own place. And some people prefer classroom training as the first step in learning a new technology, but for follow-up learning, advanced information, or upgrade details, they prefer to work on their own. Whether you choose to take a class at a Microsoft Certified Technical Education Center (CTEC), a Microsoft Authorized Academic Training Program (AATP) facility, or a training center not directly certified by Microsoft, you should be aware that—unlike final exams at a university—the exams are never based on the classes. What can be additionally confusing is that the exams often have the same names as the official Microsoft classes. For example, for SQL Server, there's a Microsoft Official Curriculum (MOC) class called "System Administration for Microsoft SQL Server 7.0," and Exam 70-028 is called "Administering Microsoft SQL Server 7.0".

If you search Microsoft's Training and Certification Web site for a particular exam, you should find a list of preparation suggestions. The list presents a description of the skills that the exam measures and the classes you might find helpful in acquiring those skills. Notice that no exam lists only one course. It's crucial that you pay careful attention to the list of skills being measured for any exam you are considering taking. In addition, you shouldn't take an instructor-led course just to pass an exam. With a good instructor, you can expect to learn real skills and troubleshooting techniques that will help you actually do a job, not simply pass a test.

Second, in general, exams and certifications aren't the same. The one exception is the Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) certification, which you can attain by passing one exam. Before October 1998, only certain exams qualified, and these were primarily the core OS exams. Now, passing almost any one, nonretired exam certifies you as an MCP. (The only exceptions are Exam 70-058: Networking Essentials and Exam 70-240: Microsoft Windows 2000 Accelerated Exam for MCPs Certified on Windows NT 4.0.)

However, most of the certifications that I see questions about are what Microsoft calls the "premium" certifications, which include MCSE, MCSD, and Microsoft Certified Database Administrator (MCDBA). All of these certifications are designed to demonstrate a broad range of competencies, not just the ability to pass one exam. If you check the certifications page of the Training and Certification Web site, you'll find enhancements to these premium certifications, such as MCSE+Internet.

One specific question that the reader who prompted this discussion asked was, "What is the difference between the 'Implementing a Database on SQL Server 7' class and the MCDBA certification?" To me, this is like asking, "What's the difference between tomato sauce and lasagna?" Taking and understanding the material in a course can be a good first step toward gaining the skills required to pass one exam, but certification requires multiple exams covering a much broader array of skills than can be gleaned from one course.

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