Fixing Certification with Specialization and Expert Levels

As you've read in this column before, I have two major complaints about Microsoft's certification programs. First, the certification process doesn't guarantee high-level expertise. Second, Microsoft certifications are too generalized. Having one process that simultaneously attempts to certify many people and demonstrate a high level of expertise is impossible. For example, Microsoft has only one MCDBA certification, and it doesn't differentiate between competencies in development, administration, or business intelligence (BI) areas. Yet, those areas require completely different skill sets.

The marketing benefits of Microsoft (or any vendor) having many certified professionals are clear. You can spin large numbers of certified professionals to indicate significant market penetration, a reliable workforce, industry excitement, or almost any other message. Unfortunately, I believe Microsoft's certification process will continue to be seen as a marketing exercise until the company invests in building a certification process that differentiates between competence and expertise.

However, Microsoft seems to be making progress in specializing its certification programs. In August, the company announced new specializations ( that apply to the Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA) and Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) tracks. Each track has two new specializations that focus on messaging and security. For example, the MCSE message specialization focuses on designing, planning, and implementing messaging infrastructure based on Microsoft Exchange Server. The MCSE security specialization focuses on building secure computing environments on the Windows platform. Each specialization track claims that candidates successfully passing the tests would have at least one year's experience in the specialty, which doesn't necessarily equate to true expertise. Still, having a 2-year-old and a 6-month-old at home, I recognize that everyone starts with baby steps.

I've also run across some interesting information about database certifications. You might have seen the database certification poll that Microsoft is running through SurveySite at . I encourage you to respond to the survey. Microsoft plans to use the information it gathers from this survey to redesign the certification process for SQL Server. I don't have the right to complain about Microsoft's certification programs unless I'm willing to help improve them, so I responded to the survey—and so should you. The URL will be active only until November 7, so don't procrastinate!

The certification process will never be credible or reflect true expertise as long as Microsoft continues to market a one-size-fits-all skill level. Although Microsoft seems to be making progress in the area of specialization, it isn't emphasizing expertise enough. Being an expert implies a skill level beyond average, which means that, by definition, most people aren't experts. Perhaps the company should offer different tests and tracks geared toward intermediate-level and expert-level certifications. As a starting point, I'd like to see Microsoft make the test score part of your certification record, then base your certification level on that score. I don't have all the answers, but the current system doesn't provide a credible way of testing advanced levels of expertise.

Let me know what you think. Does Microsoft need better certification programs? What concrete steps would you like to see Microsoft take? Share them with me—and with Microsoft.

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