Microsoft has made some fairly big changes to its certification program. If you’re in the midst of pursuing accreditation — or you’re thinking of heading down one of the new paths — check out this rundown of new features.

Microsoft’s products weren’t the only items receiving a makeover in 2008; certifications saw significant changes as well. In addition to several new tracks, Microsoft introduced some long-sought features to its accreditation program.

What prompted the changes? Redmond executives say IT managers indicated that the number and variety of credentials made it difficult to understand which best suited their organizations, while individuals pushed for accreditations that enabled them to better stand out.

Microsoft’s new generation of certifications aims to address these concerns with accreditations that more accurately measure and describe an individual’s real-world skills, making it easier for hiring managers to identify the specific talent they require. The changes kick in with the client and server products succeeding Windows Server 2003.

Keeping the changes straight can prove confusing. Here are 10 aspects of Microsoft’s revised certification program to help you get up to speed and make the right decisions.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

#1: New logos can be customized

Whereas one icon was used in the past to denote a specific certification and potential broad area of expertise — such as with an MCP who could denote skill associated with anything from Windows 98 to Windows XP — the new-generation certifications feature customizable logos. While that may not seem like a big deal at first, it’s a major improvement for certified professionals seeking to differentiate themselves from others on their Web sites, their stationery, and their business cards, not to mention consultants’ advertising.

Legacy logos used for Microsoft Certified Systems Administrators (MCSAs), MCSEs, and others remain valid. But a new Logo Builder enables candidates earning new-generation credentials to denote their specific areas of expertise.

For example, a new Technology Specialist’s logo will feature the Technology Specialist logo on the icon’s left side. But space at the right-side will now be reserved to indicate the specific job role (such as server administrator versus enterprise administrator) or technology (Windows Server 2008 versus Microsoft Exchange Server 2007) the certification covers. This should help ensure that new-generation credentials are more easily understood and prove more relevant to the holder and to human resources staff, hiring managers, and IT departments.

#2: MCTs are affected

Changes to Redmond’s certification program affect Microsoft Certified Trainers (MCTs), too. While MCTs need not earn new-generation certification to maintain their current MCT status, many will find they must now earn new, specialized certifications to teach the new courses.

MCT competencies require only new Professional Series credentials; technical specialist credentials will not be necessary to serve as an MCT. However, Microsoft’s new generation certification paths require that their courses be taught by appropriately accredited instructors.

Instructor requirements must be met within 90 days of a Professional Series accreditation being introduced. MCTs who don’t meet the competency requirements in time will not be authorized to lead training courses until they earn the required certifications, at which point they will be reauthorized. You can find out more about MCT competencies on Microsoft’s Web site.

#3: Exams are changing

Certification candidates can expect big changes in exams, too. Microsoft claims the new Technology Specialist exams, for example, delve more deeply into the features, functions and how-to skills required to effectively manage product technologies. Redmond training staff always encouraged candidates to have real-world experience with the technologies they’re attempting to gain certification for; that hands-on expertise now becomes even more important.

In addition to other traditional certification preparation efforts, candidates will now be required to complete three weeks of comprehensive classroom training for some accreditations. Taking a page out of other vendors’ programs, some credentials (such as those within the Master Series path) now require also passing a hands-on lab examination. Others, such as those within the Architect Series path) require passing an oral examination presented by a board of certified architects.

All the new examination elements, along with more emphasis on exam security, are designed to add rigor and value to Microsoft certifications and increase relevance of the certs in the marketplace.

#4: You can maintain your current credential path

What should candidates do if they’re already working toward a different certification? Microsoft recommends IT professionals follow their current certification paths to completion, saying that the certification remains a relevant credential and upgrade options will be available.

Older certifications that did not carry retirement dates remain valid. Thus, there’s no need to renew an older credential (such as a Microsoft Certified Professional or MCSE accreditation) that didn’t retire.

If IT pros are worried that they may not be able to devote the time, energy, or resources to maintaining one of the new-generation certifications, they might want to consider refocusing their efforts to complete their current path. But the newer credentials are likely to provide greater distinction, so someone who has just begun a certification path might want to weigh migrating to the new certification path instead. For more information on Microsoft’s certification paths, see this overview.

#5: Existing certified pros are not automatically entered in new tracks

Those candidates already certified or working to complete a different certification path will find they are not automatically transferred or somehow migrated to the new credential program. The new-generation certifications constitute new training and exam methods, and many boast new lab or review board requirements. Those professionals interested in earning Microsoft accreditation must recognize the new tracks are just that: new tracks that require passing new and different exams.

#6: Second Shot enables free exam retakes

Another certification change is Microsoft’s Second Shot benefit, which offers candidates discounts and free exam retakes. The trick is to get registered before December 31, 2008.

Registered candidates passing Microsoft certification exams before December 31, 2008, on their first attempt are eligible for a 25 percent discount on a different exam. The discounted exam must be taken before February 28, 2009.

Second Shot also extends benefits to those failing a Microsoft exam. Registered candidates who fail a certification exam on their first try can attempt a free retake until June 30, 2009.

#7: New certifications introduce lifecycle policies

For the first time, Microsoft is introducing certification lifecycles. New Microsoft certifications, including the Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (MCTS, which is the designation attached to the new Technology Series), MCITP, and MCPD accreditations, will all retire when mainstream support for the corresponding technology retires.

Such certifications will then be listed on official transcripts as retired credentials. When credentials retire, they can no longer be used to download marketing materials, logos, and other related information. Holders of older credentials, including Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP), Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), and Microsoft Certified Application Developer (MCAD), are not affected.

#8: New-generation certifications emphasize four series

The new-generation certifications are broken into four series:

  • The Technology Series helps IT pros showcase specific technology skills, knowledge, and expertise. IT managers should have confidence that a Microsoft Technology Specialist is “consistently capable of implementing, building, troubleshooting and debugging a particular Microsoft technology.” Typically, one to three exams must be passed to earn this non-job-role specific designation, which will expire when Microsoft suspends mainstream support for the related product or technology.
  • The Professional Series helps IT pros showcase skills, expertise, and knowledge in a specific job role, such as project management, operations management, and planning. IT managers should have confidence that, “by validating a more comprehensive set of skills, these credentials give candidates and their hiring managers a reliable indicator of on-the-job performance.” Typically, one to three exams must be passed to earn this designation, which will expire when Microsoft suspends mainstream support for the related product or technology.
  • The Master Series helps seasoned technology professionals denote their ability to design and implement complex business solutions. Microsoft touts the new program as being advanced and requiring experience-based training and testing. Candidates must pass prerequisite Technology and Professional Series exams, attend and complete three weeks of classroom training, and pass a qualification lab exam. This designation is focused on a single technology platform, such as Microsoft Exchange Server 2007, Windows SQL Server 2008, or Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007.
  • The Architect Series is for seasoned IT pros with 10 or more years of technology experience (with three or more years experience as a practicing architect). Candidates must possess both strong managerial and technical skills. Designed by the architect community, the certification requires candidates to pass peer review boards. Candidates must work closely with an MCA mentor and pass an oral review before a board of certified architects and must regularly refresh the accreditation.

#9: Two Professional Series credentials are available

Two credentials introduce the Professional Series, and more may be added. The first two are Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP) and Microsoft Certified Professional Developer (MCPD).

MCITP accreditation is available for a variety of fields of expertise. Job roles include database administrator, consumer support technician, server administrator, and enterprise administrator.

MCPD accreditation is for programmers who plan to develop applications using Visual Studio 2008 and the Microsoft .NET Framework 3.5. Three paths are available: MCPD: Windows Developer 3.5; MCPD: ASP.NET Developer 3.5; and MCPD: Enterprise Applications Developer 3.5.

#10: New-generation certifications have a threefold goal

Microsoft says that its new certifications emphasize technology skills and job roles. The new accreditations are designed to minimize the overall number of certifications, while enabling IT professionals to highlight their specializations. The program’s certification changes encompass three goals:

  • Microsoft is working to better target its accreditations while keeping them flexible. Toward that end, the new certification tracks tend to be shorter and more focused on specific, common job roles.
  • Redmond’s training executives seek to protect and improve rigor (thoroughness) and credibility. Look for new testing technologies, such as the performance-based testing introduced with some Windows Server 2003 exams, to become more prominent. And by better matching tracks to real-world job roles, Microsoft hopes to bolster credibility.
  • Microsoft is aiming for relevance and simplicity. Lifecycle policies are being introduced for the first time, which among other changes will help aid relevance. Redesigned accreditations and logos, meanwhile, will better communicate demonstrated skills and knowledge.