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  • The New Microsoft Certifications: What Do They Mean For You?

©By Kevin Murray and Rick Gregory

Microsoft has been phasing in a new certification framework over the last couple of years and there are a lot of certifications and acronyms circulating. A lot of people aren’t sure how the old certifications map to the new certifications or which path they should take. This overview provides a look at the new certifications and how they impact Microsoft IT professionals.

Under the previous certification plan, anyone who passed an exam for any Microsoft technology became a Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP). Even though an individual tested on a specific technology, the MCP Certification did not designate the technology in which he was certified. This is one problem Microsoft attempted to correct with the new framework. Another was that the MCP never expired, even if the technology was retired.

The new Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (MCTS) certifications replace the MCPs and are tied directly to specific Microsoft technologies. There are currently at least 22 MCTS certifications and new ones will be introduced as Microsoft introduces new technologies. MCTS certifications will be retired when mainstream product support for the product expires.

The ultimate goal for many MCPs was to become a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE). The MCSE was the premier Microsoft certification, but two problems emerged as the certification matured.

First, MCSE was essentially a generic certification that never expired. So if an individual achieved MCSE certification in NT 4.0, he is still an MCSE today, although those skills are no longer in demand.

Second, in order to become an MCSE, an individual had to pass a series of exams, each of which would award a separate MCP certification. So every MCSE has at least five to seven MCP certifications and often has more. It grew to be a complex system that made it difficult for an individual to differentiate himself in the market and for employers to determine in which skill sets a potential employee was qualified.

The MCSE is being replaced by the Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP) and Microsoft Certified Professional Developer (MCPD) certifications. The Professional certifications validate skills required for successful performance and are tied to job roles. They require recertification every three years.

The New Certification Framework

The new framework is comprised of three levels that Microsoft refers to as series: the Technology Series, the Professional Series and the Architect Series.

The beginning level is the MCTS series which allows professionals to target specific technologies and demonstrate their skills, knowledge and expertise. These certifications typically require one to three exams and are focused on a key product or technology. They do not cover job-role skills and the MCTS certification will be retired when Microsoft ends mainstream product support for the technology. A complete list of MCTS certifications is available on the Microsoft website.

The next level is the Professional Series certifications. The Professional certifications validate a comprehensive skill set required for successful job performance, including design, project management, operations management and planning, that are contextual to the job role. By validating these skills, the certification is designed to provide a reliable indicator of on the job performance.

The MCITP replaces the MCSE, the Microsoft Certified Server Administrator (MCSA) and the Microsoft Certified Database Administrator (MCDBA) certifications and adds additional areas of specialization. The MCPD replaces the Microsoft Certified Solution Developer (MCSD) A complete list of MCITP certifications and MCPD certifications is available on the Microsoft web site.

The Professional Series certifications typically consist of one to three exams and have one or more prerequisites from the Technology Series. They focus on a single job role and require recertification every three years.

Microsoft has added a third level, the Architect Series, which is a more advanced certification than Microsoft has provided in the past. Microsoft Certified Architect (MCA) candidates must have a minimum of ten years of advanced IT experience with at least three years as a practicing architect. They must work with an MCA mentor and pass an oral review conducted by a Review Board of MCAs. The MCA certification is a much more difficult certification than Microsoft has ever had in the past, and it is like likely that relatively few professionals will aspire to this certification.

The MCA program consists of two sets of certifications each of which have multiple tracks. They include database, infrastructure, messaging and solutions. You can find detailed information on the MCA certifications on the Microsoft web site.

Improved Testing Scenario

The original MCP and MCSE exams were not easy, but they were relatively straightforward multiple choice exams. While real world skills were a big benefit in passing the exams, a number of people were able to learn the material well enough to pass the exams without having experience in the technologies or job roles. There were some boot camps that focused only on passing the exams, not on transferring any real world skills. Microsoft is changing the exams for the new certifications to address these issues.

They have developed a very large bank of questions for the exams and individuals will have only a subset on any given exam. Many of the exam questions are no longer multiple choice. They include a variety of questions including simulations, drag and drops, active screen questions and others. These types of questions are difficult to replicate, so we should be seeing fewer brain dumps for these exams. You can find descriptions of all the question types and demo them on the Microsoft web site.

This type of exam requires in depth product knowledge and experience working with the technology. Even for the experienced practitioner, it will probably require some level of self study or training. It will be much more difficult for an individual with no experience to go to a boot camp and pass all of the exams in a one or two week period. Boot camps may be a viable path for someone with experience who doesn’t have time to study for the exam, but it is not going to be an easy answer for the inexperienced.

Certification Options

Individuals with previous certifications should choose an upgrade path whenever it is available. With the upgrade path, Microsoft has combined the questions from two or three separate exams into a single exam. The individual still covers all of the technology, but since it is combined in one exam it saves on time and expense.

The new framework provides many ways to tailor a certification, but basically you can decide to follow a generalist path or carve out a niche.

The generalist path for most people in the IT space will be the MCITP Enterprise Administrator or Server Administrator. Employers will look for a minimum of MCITP certification since this is the IT certification that says you have the required job skills. Beyond MCITP, the Technology Certifications allow an individual to differentiate himself.

Allowing people to choose a niche was a major goal of the new framework and it provides many options. A Popular early niche has been to earn the MCTS in SQL Server 2005 along with the MCSE certification on Windows Server 2003 to specialize in database administration. Another would be collaboration, with an MCITP Enterprise Messaging Administrator certification with MCTS certifications in SharePoint 2007 and Exchange 2007. Although niche specializations may not provide as many opportunities as a general certification, they are potentially more lucrative.

Benefits of the New Framework

  • The MCITP three year refresh will drive continuous skill updates.
  • It will be easier for individuals to demonstrate their skill sets and easier for employers to ascertain in which technologies and job roles individuals are certified.
  • It allows individuals to follow a generalist path, or specialize in a single technology.

As the new framework becomes established in the industry, the value of Microsoft certification will increase. The exams are more complex and focus on real world skills. While this will require more time and effort for individuals, over time it will increase the value of the certification. The technology certifications will validate skills in demand by employers and the professional certifications will confirm that candidates possess the necessary job skills to be successful in a real world environment. The transition may be inconvenient or difficult for individuals in the short term, but in the long term it will be a positive move for individuals and for the industry as a whole.

Kevin Murray is Vice President and General Manager of IT Products at ASPE Technology. He has an extensive background in Microsoft training and certification

© Copyright 2008 Bluestone Media, LLC

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