Geek of all TradesMicrosoft's New Certifications: What They Are, Why They Matter
You know this feeling. It’s the emotion you feel during what can be the longest wait in any IT professional’s career. Specifically, when you’re taking that certification exam, it’s the five-second eternity between clicking Finish and fi nding out your score. In those seconds, memories of weeks ormonths of late nights, studying, and hard work will probably flash through your mind as the Prometric servers calculate your test results—and your career's future.
Many questions flow through IT professionals' minds when they're taking certification exams: Do I really know the subject? Have I studied enough? Will I pass or fail? But these questions only relate to the exam at hand. Others will likely run through your mind as you go through the entire process: Will all this extra work benefit my career? Will I get a pay raise, a promotion, or a new job as my reward?
No one can definitively answer these questions. However, Microsoft's own certification program has been around for a long time, starting with its earliest exams on Windows, with literally millions of IT professionals certified in the following years. By passing Microsoft's series of exams, you prove to yourself, your employer and your peers that you deeply understand the underlying technology in your Windows environment. You also prove that you understand the job role that's been assigned to you as an IT professional.
New Paths for Certification
One important step on the path from zero to certification hero is understanding all the the steps required to meet your goals. This understanding is critical because of the sheer volume of exams available in Microsoft's testing portfolio. Taking the wrong exam wastes time and effort. Thus, your first challenge is mapping out the certification path that makes the most sense for your job role.
First, a little history: Microsoft's certification program has grown and expanded dramatically in the years since the first Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) exams were offered. Tests are regularly released and later retired as the technologies involved come and go.
Even entire certifications have seen their lifecycle fully realized. Most notably, the venerable Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) credential is gone for all iterations but Windows Server 2003. Why eliminate the MCSE, long the goal of virtually every Microsoft cert-seeker? In many ways, the premiere certification met its end because of its name. The term "engineer" is a protected word in many states and countries, holding a specific meaning that wasn't part of Microsoft's testing goals. Its use caused a legal exposure for Microsoft and its testing program.
But the name wasn't the MCSE's only problem. The original MCSE was a first step in providing a premiere certification that demonstrated to employers what you knew. What it didn't do well was focus on specifics. Once you obtained the MCSE, that credential was bestowed regardless of which path you used to get there. Netting that MCSE required taking a series of specified exams along with an additional set of electives. Nowhere in your MCSE credential was it easy to see that, for instance, your experience focused more on Exchange than on clustering or on SQL than on IIS.
Replacing this monolithic MCSE is a new certification program that's designed to better identify where your skills lie. The new program also includes additional tiers designed to validate your maturity and experience with Microsoft's technology.
Microsoft's new certification path starts with the Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (MCTS) certification, which is bestowed upon individuals who take one or more exams focusing on a specific Microsoft technology. These exams might relate to a particular product and version, such as Exchange Server 2007 or SQL Server 2008.
In most cases, taking an MCTS exam in one product/version combo nets you its MCTS certification. For example, if you pass the exam 70-642, "MCTS: Windows Server 2008, Networking Infrastructure, Configuring," the actual certification bestowed will be the MCTS: Windows Server 2008 Network Infrastructure Configuration. As you can see, with each MCTS exam you take, you also increase the number of MCTS certifications that you've achieved.
While industry newcomers might spend all their time accomplishing specific stated tasks directed by someone else, senior professionals find themselves moving toward the larger needs of solving business problems.
The Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP) certification is designed for just those individuals. The MCITP consolidates a series of task-focused MCTS exams beneath a single job-role-focused MCITP exam. While not necessarily a capstone, this job-role exam tests whether an IT professional can analyze business requirements with an eye toward building an architecture that fulfills their needs. Passing the MCITP's job-role examination requires the knowledge and experience gained through a higher-level engineering of IT systems.
For Windows Server 2008, two MCITP credentials are currently available, with others still in progress. The MCITP: Server Administrator requires two MCTS exams and a single job-role exam (see Figure 1). It's designed as the core credential for senior professionals who primarily work with servers. Those who work in larger, more complex environments can further validate their knowledge and experience by obtaining the MCITP: Enterprise Administrator credential. This credential requires four MCTS exams as well as its own separate job-role exam (see Figure 2).
Figure 1 The MCITP: Server Administrator Roadmap
Figure 2 The MCITP: Enterprise Administrator Roadmap
Other as-yet-unreleased credentials are the MCITP: Enterprise Desktop Administrator and MCITP: Enterprise Desktop Support Technician, both scheduled to become available later this year. These credentials offer a specific focus for individuals whose job focuses less on an environment's server infrastructure and more on its desktops. Their required exams will validate an individual's understanding in topics such as deployment and desktop management as well as the ability to successfully resolve desktop issues. Another planned release is the MCITP: Virtualization Administrator, although details about this Hyper-V-focused exam remain unclear.
In looking through these certifications and their requirements, you'll notice that the new MCITP credentials specifically tailor your stated certification toward what you do in your daily job. As a result, the new certifications make it much easier for current and potential employers to understand exactly where your skills lie.
One critical—and, in some circles, controversial—new facet of Microsoft's certification program is the introduction of exam expiration. As mentioned earlier, MCTS exams test not only a technology, but a version of that technology as well. For that reason, all MCTS exams will eventually expire as the technology they test against goes out of its lifecycle, typically 7 to 10 years after the product's initial release. This means that the MCTS on Exchange Server 2007 that you take today will evaporate at some point in the product's future, taking your MCTS certification with it. In some cases, this will also affect your MCITP. Microsoft will provide an upgrade path to maintain your certification status when that time comes.
The Value of Certification
Despite all this information about certifications and exams, nagging questions remain about the ultimate benefit of all that work. Studying and sitting for the five exams for the MCITP: Enterprise Administrator is only worth the effort if you stand to gain from the experience.
Some organizations, particularly those in larger enterprises, have direct benefit programs in place for individuals who successfully obtain certifications. But in today's economic climate, these cash benefit programs are likely to keep shrinking. At the same time, however, a challenging economy provides the perfect opportunity to validate to your employer—or possible future employers—that you know the right stuff to do your job.
In December 2008, technology research giant IDC commissioned a study looking at the organizational performance of more than 2,000 teams of IT professionals. The study concluded, quite impressively, that: "Unequivocally, certification, as a measure of skill, showed a positive correlation to performance improvement." Researchers also stated that 75 percent of IT managers studied believe that certification is important to team performance and 66 percent believe that certification improves the level of service and support offered to IT customers.
While these results don't directly state that certification will help you get that promotion or pay raise, they do indicate that those who certify provide greater benefit to their businesses. In today's economy, that can be a significant competitive advantage.
One statistic relating to the tangible benefits resulting from a completed certification path comes from the 2007 MCP Customer Satisfaction Survey. In that survey, 71 percent of respondents said they believe that Microsoft certification helped them receive promotions or raises from their current employers. In a 2006 Redmond magazine survey of 1,280 IT professionals, 43 percent of respondents reported salary increases associated with obtaining Microsoft certifications. Forty percent cited certification as a factor in improving their ability to find or keep jobs and obtain promotions.
In addition, I've personally experienced the power of certification as a career-enhancing activity. Having sat for more than 30 exams over my nearly 15-year career, half of which were a part of the Microsoft program, I've seen how certification has advanced my own career in many ways. Though the return isn't always immediate, certification has provided a much-needed foot in the door in numerous situations. As a technical manager, I've also observed the higher level of professional maturity and skill brought to the table by certified individuals. In my opinion, certification works.
In creating a comprehensive certification program that shows exactly what you know, Microsoft has also created one with a measure of complexity. The MCTS and MCITP certifications discussed above are only a small fraction of those available today. MCITP credentials are also available with focuses on database administration, database development, business intelligence development, enterprise messaging and enterprise project management. Each is yet another manifestation of the technology-plus-job-role focus explained above for server and enterprise administrators. With all these options on the table, it's especially important to clearly understand each certification's requirements before you start.
For deeply experienced individuals in search of "extreme" levels of skills validation, Microsoft provides its Microsoft Certified Master (MCM) program. The MCM is designed to reflect individuals with skills and experience at a sort of "super-MCTS" level. These extremely highly skilled individuals have experience in niche topics associated with the particular technology that relates to their MCM certification. According to Microsoft Senior Certification Manager Jim Clark, MCMs are "the top 1 percent of the consultants out there. Out of 6.2 million MCPs in the world, only 400 of them are MCMs."
Like MCTS credentials, MCM certifications are both technology- and version-focused. Currently, only five MCM credentials are available: Exchange Server 2007, SQL Server 2008, Windows Server 2008: Directory, Office SharePoint Server 2007 and Office Communications Server 2007.
"Although we present our certifications as following each other, with the MCM, they don't necessarily. You don't exactly go from MCTS to MCITP to MCM," Clark explains. "Without the context of having experience in extremely niche situations [such as enterprise deployments with complex infrastructures], candidates won't do well in attempting the MCM."
One reason for this disconnect between the MCITP and the MCM has do to with certification requirements. Obtaining the MCM requires a dramatically larger investment than either the MCTS or MCITP. To obtain the MCM, candidates must attend three weeks of required learning sessions and complete in-class written and lab exams along with qualification lab exams. The requirements are intensive, as is the workload required of candidates. As a result, however, successful MCMs can expect the highest levels of professional respect from their businesses, their peers and, in the case of consultants, their clients.
Aligning Technology with Business
While it would be inappropriate to call it the highest tier of Microsoft's certification program, the Microsoft Certified Architect (MCA) could be called its final tier. The MCA program is designed as the process-oriented equivalent to the MCM's technology focus. Microsoft's MCA program is extremely exclusive, requiring the preparation of a competency document and a review board interview before a professional can even register for the program.
Unlike each of Microsoft's other certifications, the MCA isn't exam-centric. To obtain the credential, candidates undergo a three- to six-month process during which they prepare documentation that includes work history, an architectural solution case study, and information on instances where program competencies have been used in production. The MCA is a board-certified credential, with the "final exam" being a review-board interview. In those interviews, candidates are required to defend their documentation in much the same way board-certified physicians complete their training.
Functionally different in its goals than the MCM, the MCA is intended for those who focus on aligning technology with business processes. As Clark puts it: "MCAs talk about solving business goals at a very high level, without actually focusing on the technology itself. It's the job of the MCTSs and MCITPs to actually solve the problem. If you consider the MCMs as the 'super-MCTS,' then you could consider the MCA as the 'super-MCITP.'"
I Summon the Vast Power of Certification!
Most IT professionals will never elevate their knowledge and experience to the level of an MCA or even an MCM. But these highest-end credentials exist to provide a stepping stone for those who want to validate their experience at the highest levels. Most of us will fulfill our own career goals by maintaining our technology and job-role certifications at the levels that make sense for us.
In the end, that's what is primarily important when it comes to choosing the certification path: ensuring that your level of certification keeps pace with your individual job responsibilities as well as your overall career. Maintaining the correct level of skills validation is the key to guaranteeing the best return on your certification investment.
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