Certification was all the rage when I first embarked on a
career in the IT field more than 10 years ago. Employers and clients clamored
for the magic paper certificates to verify skills. In those days, the term
“paper certification” was used widely to describe an IT pro who had
attained certification through a test, yet they may not have had any real world
experience. Microsoft recognized the pitfalls of such tests with recent
announcements about changes to its certification offerings.

Keeping up with .NET

One of the most common complaints about Microsoft
certification is the lack of focus on real-world skills. A developer passes a
series of multiple-choice exams to attain certification. The ability to guess
and the proliferation of so-called braindumps (i.e.,
test takers often post comments online about their testing experience) has
water-downed the merits of certification. Microsoft’s next round of
certifications for the release of .NET 2.0 and related tools promises to better
gauge an IT pro’s experience as well as knowledge.

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Choose your path

The next generation of Microsoft certifications strives to
showcase your knowledge in specific areas and technologies. Certification will
include three career-related paths that allow IT personnel and those involved
in the hiring process to more easily evaluate a person in these areas:

  • Technology (MCTS): Allows persons
    to demonstrate expertise and knowledge with specific products and
    technologies. These exams more closely resemble the first iteration of
    .NET exams, testing only knowledge and not job skills. A
    technology-related certification can typically be obtained with one to
    three tests.
  • IT Professional/Professional Developer
    (MCITP and MCPD):
    The professional tract builds upon the technology
    path and usually includes one or more of the technology exams. It targets
    the comprehensive skills of IT professionals with a focus on one job role.
    These skills include design, project management, operations management,
    and planning, and they are contextual to the job role.
  • Architect (MCA): The top of the
    certification heap is the architect. These professionals possess a minimum
    of 10 years of advanced industry experience with three or more years of
    experience as a practicing architect. In addition, they possess strong
    technical and managerial skills. Microsoft considers these individuals as
    part of an elite community. This level is not easily attained and is only
    granted via a peer review process of previously certified architects. This
    includes an oral review and mentoring with an existing architect.

One certification does not trump another—it just depends on
your job role. If you need a person with thorough BizTalk
knowledge, then a person with that MCTS-specific certification will be a great
asset. On the other hand, a MCA may be well-versed in technology but possess no
BizTalk experience.

Also, Microsoft recognizes that certification should take time
(i.e., a developer shouldn’t be able to attain a certain level with a few days
of testing). So keep in mind that achieving MCA status is a marathon and not a
100-yard dash.

Current professionals

As a MCSD .NET, I was curious about the latest .NET release
as well as its certification options. I achieved the certification when .NET
was first introduced, so it has been a while since I’ve stepped in a testing
center. Thankfully, Microsoft will continue to recognize my certification and
other certifications too—as long as the related products and technologies are

Of course, you may want to upgrade that SQL Server 7.0
certification while SQL Server 2000 remains in high demand. The certification FAQ
can answer most of your questions about certification. For example, I’ll need
to pass two new exams to upgrade my MCSD .NET to MCPD (Microsoft Certified
Professional Developer): Enterprise Applications Developer. The tests are
expected to be available in mid 2006.

Be prepared

As a professional who has tackled my fair share of exams, I
can offer some advice. For starters, don’t bother getting certified if you don’t
have any real experience with a product or technology; nothing better prepares
you than working knowledge of the material. There are a variety of testing resources
via books, CBTs (computer-based training), Web sites,
and more to prepare you for testing day.

One word of caution on illegal testing resources that may be
obtained via various online outlets: Microsoft punishes those it catches. One
of the first things you do when taking an exam is agree to keep the test
material confidential. There are many examples of individuals being fined and
having credentials revoked when discovered.

Are you ready?

With the release of the latest versions of Visual Studio
and SQL Server,
Microsoft is presenting many certification options. The company’s three-pronged
approach to certification allows individuals to showcase product knowledge as
well as industry experience.

Personally, I am interested in the technical path to display
knowledge as well as learn about new products. In addition, the professional
line allows me to demonstrate my all-around job skills. While I do have more
than 100 years of industry experience, I’m not sure I’ll be standing in front
of my peers for the architect level any time soon.

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