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Certification Exams: Is there a value to failing?

Although it is not something I am proud of, I have failed a number (the exact number is quite secret!) of certification exams.  I am not proud of this fact, but the reality is I have taken a number of exams that I have been unprepared for, and that is a sure-fire way to come up short.  I have always (not true… since becoming more enlightened, maybe!) felt that if I was going to shell out USD$125 to fail an exam (Actually, the first two were at USD$100) I should at least walk away with something… the consolation prize should not simply be a sheet of paper telling us that we failed.

So then what can we gain from failing?  We can learn what we need to concentrate on in order to actually pass the exam.  Let’s say you are a desktop deployment specialist for his company.  You are responsible for the deployment of systems across the country, which you do using the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit 2008 and System Center Configuration Manager 2007.  Your manager informs you that there is a new deployment exam available (70-635) and that the new department policy is that all deployment specialists must obtain the MCTS: Business Desktop Deployment to be eligible for promotions or bonuses.  You schedule the exam, and as you sit there taking the test you realize that you do not know a lot about Windows Deployment Services, managing images for multiple languages, driver groups, and MDOP.  Crud, that makes up about forty percent of the exam, and lo and behold you fail.

You could hang your head in shame as you walk away from the testing centre… or you can go back to your office and learn what you are missing; you can set up a lab environment to deploy images in French with Windows Deployment Services; you can implement driver groups, and learn everything you need to know about MDOP, and you can go back to the testing centre a few days or weeks later and retake the exam… and pass.

I am ashamed to say that there are a couple of exams that I have failed and have not yet gone back to rewrite… with an emphasis on the word yet.  Most of the titles I have failed I have gone home, brushed up, and retaken successfully a few days (or weeks) later.  They are all things that do not apply to what I have been doing… but don’t worry, I’ll get to them!

It is simply a matter of attitude… ‘Why the heck would I have to know that?’ is the wrong attitude; if for no other reason, then you have to know whatever that is in order to pass the exam.  I know someone who failed an exam by fewer than twenty points – often a sign that he missed it by a single question.  He came out and said ‘I know what I got wrong… I’ll just retake the exam tomorrow and change that one question that I got wrong!’  He did… and failed by fewer than forty points – probably two questions.

Don’t waste it… if you find an exam tough, then you should be taking notes on the sheet they give you.  1) Windows Deployment Services.  2) Multiple Languages… and so forth.  Of course you have to surrender that sheet when you are finished the exam… but if at the very end you reread your notes, you should remember a lot of what you are missing when it comes time to study.

With Microsoft’s Second Shot Free promotion you can actually fail the first time for free… though I do not recommend this as a goal.  When you are prepared for the exam, register for it using the promotion, and then do your best.  If you fail, it costs you nothing to go home and study some more, and then rewrite it.  If you pass, then you get a pleasant surprise, a new certification, and a discount on your next exam.

Thomas Edison was once interviewed about the electric light bulb.  He did not get it right on the first shot… in fact it took him over two thousand tries and when asked he said ‘I never failed… I just learned two thousand ways how not to make a light bulb!’  Use that attitude when taking your next test.

… and good luck!

I’m back in the (WServer) News :)

imageOne of my favorite publications about the Windows Server ecosystem is WServerNews.com, which I get delivered to my Inbox every Monday morning.

Several weeks ago the Editor of WServerNews (Mitch Tulloch, who refers to me as The Other Mitch), posted a question earlier this summer from a loyal reader asking about his career path.  He asked the community for their opinions to pass along.  I read the question, and pinged Mitch to tell him that I would be responding.

I sat down to write a quick response, and fifteen hundred words later I fired off my email response.   Mitch replied back ‘Wow, way too long to post into a comment, can we publish it as an editorial for a future newsletter?’

That newsletter was published today.  I think my answer will be helpful to many, so please feel free to check it out! –M

Read the editorial by clicking here.

Certification Questions from a reader

I often get questions from readers and followers about different aspects of the IT Pro world.  If the answer is a simple one- or two-liner then I answer directly, but when the question is complex and the answer could benefit others I like to share that with the blogosphere.  This week I received this question:

I have a lot of IT experience but I am just now starting to accumulate some certifications. I am in a program now after work that ends in January 2014 where I will earn A+, Net+, MCSA Server 2008, and CCNA. I then plan to take 20417 to get MCSA Server 2012 and then MCSE Private Cloud. I hope to have all this done by the end of 2014. Is there a high demand for SCCM/Private Cloud certified individuals? Does SCCM seem better than VMWare ESXi or vSphere? Would you recommend that I also learn a Citrix equivalent virtualization? Thanks for answering my questions.

Firstly I am always glad when people with ‘a lot of IT experience’ decide to pursue certifications.  I have said many times that certifications demonstrate that you have respect for your profession and are willing to not only learn the right way to do things, but also to quantify that by taking and passing exams.  If you do not know how strongly I believe in certifications then frankly you have not been paying attention.  So congratulations on taking the first step!

Everyone learns differently, and while I am not usually a fan of programs that promise a plethora of certifications at the end I am not going to dismiss any method of learning.  The important thing is that you are doing it!  I don’t think that anyone has ever told me that they plan to get their MCSE: Private Cloud and their A+ certifications in the same paragraph, but that is also the choice of the learner; if the program that you are enrolled in starts with A+ then by all means man do it!

I suppose the real questions for me are as follows:

  1. Is there a high demand for IT Professionals certified in System Center Configuration Manager?
  2. Is there a high demand for IT Professionals with the MCSE: Private Cloud credential?
  3. Are Microsoft’s Private Cloud certifications more valuable than VMware’s assorted certifications?
  4. Is there any value to learning Citrix virtualization?

All four of these are valid questions, and I will gladly answer them in turn.

1) Is there a high demand for IT Professionals certified in System Center Configuration Manager?

System Center Configuration Manager 2012 is one of the most important solutions that many IT Professionals can learn.  The certification (TS: Administering and Deploying System Center 2012 Configuration Manager) is certainly a valid one, and anyone with experience (and certifications) in Configuration Manager are definitely sought after.  However it is important to realize that System Center 2012 is actually divided into seven components, and ConfigMgr is only one of them.  Frankly you did not mention it anywhere else in your question, so I can only assume that you made the common mistake of referring to System Center as Configuration Manager.

2) Is there a high demand for IT Professionals with the MCSE: Private Cloud credential?

The MCSE: Private Cloud is to date the certification that I am most proud of.  It requires candidates to first pass three exams to earn their MCSA: Windows Server 2012, and then two more exams – Monitoring and Operating a Private Cloud with System Center 2012 (246), and Configuring and Deploying a Private Cloud with System Center 2012 (247).  All of these exams are tough, and passing them requires dedication, learning, and most of all experience with the products involved (including Windows Server 2012 and six of the seven components of System Center 2012).

As private and hybrid clouds are certainly where companies are heading, these certifications will put you in good stead to earn a good living.  I do not know a lot of people who have these certs who are out of work, or who are not earning a good living.

3) Are Microsoft’s Private Cloud certifications more valuable than VMware’s assorted certifications?

This is a tougher question.  I have been a VMware Certified Professional for several years, and based on this cert I could earn a good living.  On the other hand I see more companies moving toward Hyper-V, and as I stated people certified in Microsoft are not going hungry.  However here’s the thing: The vast majority of vSphere installations in the world rely heavily on Microsoft technologies because the operating systems and application servers are all Windows-based.  Because of that the MCSE: Private Cloud cert would still be beneficial to administrators in a vSphere environment, whereas the VCP would not be valuable to an admin in a Microsoft-only environment.  With that being said, VMware still has a huge install base, and knowing their products will never hurt.  Also when it comes time to migrate from vSphere to Hyper-V a working knowledge of VMware will only benefit you!

4) Is there any value to learning Citrix virtualization?

The answer to this question is, of course, it depends.  What do you want to work on?  According to the latest Gartner Magic Quadrant of x86 Server Virtualization published in June Citrix is really not focusing on the server virtualization business the way they once did.  With that being said, if you are interested in Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) then it is hard to go wrong with Citrix.  It is important to know that Citrix partners heavily with Microsoft on VDI, and knowing both will be hugely valuable.

Conclusion

Certifications are great, and having a plan is important.  I always appreciate questions like this because frankly people never know what they don’t know.  Questions demonstrate an individual’s recognition that they are not omniscient, and that seeking guidance is a good thing.  Frankly I wish i had done so when I started on my path to certifications – had I done so I likely would have hedged my bets and gotten some Cisco and other certs in addition to my Microsoft ones!

Good luck and go get ‘em… I look forward to hearing your thoughts at the end of this part of your journey!

Microsoft Certified Career Day!

Our industry moves fast! There was a time when if you learned a system you e set for a long time.  Now Microsoft is releasing operating systems every three years (client AND server), and the management tools are constantly evolving.  A carpenter who takes a year off work may be out of practice, but will remember his way pretty quick.  An IT Pro who is out of the loop for that long has a steep learning curve to step to… just to get back to where he was.  Automation with PowerShell and System Center Orchestrator is increasing the ratio of servers to administrators, and that means that people who once thought they had a secure position may be fighting for their jobs, or even find themselves looking for a new one in a market where there are hundreds of others in the same boat, fighting for the same jobs.

In a world of ones and zeros, how can we stand out from the crowd?  What can we do to make ourselves worth more to a IT potential employer than the rest of the pack?  Experience is great, but once you are out of work it is hard to build while pounding the pavement.  What can we do to increase our value and marketability?

GET CERTIFIED!  Certifications demonstrate not only that you have the respect for your profession to learn to do things right, they also give you the chance to show that you are up to speed on the latest technologies… even when the company you were working for wasn’t.  Are you an MCSE? Great! But hiring managers now understand the difference between an MCSE on Windows Server 2003 (2000? NT4??) and an MCSE: Private Cloud.  If they are looking for someone to lead them into the future they are not looking for someone who only knows the past.  That is why we as IT Pros are constantly updating our certs, even at a cost of $150 per shot.  It is not usually for our current company, but rather for our next one.

Microsoft Learning is hosting an on-line certified career day on March 12, 2013.  The day will begin with a live, interactive panel discussion with IT managers and industry experts who will discuss how the cloud is redefining IT recruitment and the growing need for up-to-date certifications. 

The panel will be followed by an exclusive interview with special guest Mark Russinovich, Microsoft Technical Fellow. Next, attend the technology focused sessions with Windows Server 2012 and SQL Server 2012 product group experts.

Attendees of Certified Career Day are eligible to win an Acer tablet with full Windows 8. Event capacity is limited so register now!  Click here and you are on your way!

msl

Want to be an MCT? Start Here!

I had a conversation this week with someone who was asking me about becoming an MCT.

I know I am a good presenter, and I know my stuff… what do I need to do to become a Microsoft Certified Trainer?

Becoming a Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT) was, for me, a turning point in my career.  It opened a lot of doors, and made a lot of things possible for me.  I remember hesitating for several months, because I did not think that my most advanced certification at the time (MCSA) was sufficient… and there was no clear guideline that I could find to confirm it.

I spoke with several MCTs, including some who worked for Microsoft Learning.  The clearest guidance they could give me was that you needed ‘a senior certification’ in order to qualify.  However nobody could confirm what that consisted of.  I later surmised that it meant any cert on supported technology that was higher than a simple Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP)

Today there is a list of requirements listed on the Microsoft Learning website (http://www.microsoft.com/learning/en/us/mct-certification.aspx), along with a list of benefits, and a link to the program guide and application process.  However I noticed that the list seems to be short… it has not been updated with the latest certifications.  So to help out, I am going to add a few certs to this list, and if anyone at Microsoft Learning gives you guff about it, just tell them I said it was okay Winking smile -M

  • Microsoft Certified Solutions Master

  • Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert

  • Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate

  • Microsoft Certified Solutions Developer

  • Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer

  • Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator

  • Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator: Security

  • Microsoft Certified Desktop Support Technician

  • Microsoft Certified Microsoft Certified IT Professional

  • Microsoft Certified Professional Developer

  • Microsoft Office 2007 Specialist

  • Microsoft Office 2010 Specialist

  • Microsoft Certified Business Management Solutions Specialist

  • Microsoft Certified Business Management Solutions Professional

  • Microsoft Certified Master

  • Microsoft Office 2007 Master

  • Microsoft Certified Architect

  • Please Note: The Microsoft Certified Database Administrator (MCDBA) is not on this list.  I do not know if that is by design or by error, but I hope one of my DBA friends out there can help to clarify for us!

Clarity: MCSA vs. MCSE: the what and why

This article was originally published in June, 2012. Due to the relevance and current interest in certifications I decided to republish. -MDG

When I found out that Microsoft Learning was (again!) revamping the certification stack, I thought to myself that after all these years it might be time to stop chasing certifications.  After all, when they created the MCTS/MCITP model I had to essentially start from scratch, and if they were doing that again it might not be worth the effort.

Let me clarify that statement… Certifications are extremely valuable and necessary to an IT Pro, but at a certain point you have proven yourself… I have by now passed over 35 Microsoft exams, and expect that by now people know that I am established.

I stated in an article earlier this month that certifications are not for our current job, they are for your next job.  Unfortunately, as a contract worker, I am always working for my next job.  That means that I always have to maintain my certifications current, or at least I cannot let them get stale… Once I became an MCITP: Enterprise Admin on Server 2008 I might have gotten away with not taking my exams for Windows Server 2012… but because the new generation revolves around solutions rather than products I expected I would need at least my MCSE: Private Cloud… then people looking at my credentials would know I knew at least Windows Server 2008 R2 and System Center 2012.

Cert StackI like the way the new certification ‘pyramid’ is designed.  The ‘junior certification’ is the Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate, which is product-focused.

As I stated earlier, the requirements for an MCSA: Windows Sever 2008 are the same requirements you previously needed for the legacy MCITP: Server Administrator.  It is three exams, and you are certified.  I assume that when Windows Server 2012 comes out there will be a new MCSA for that platform, and I have no early insight into what that will look like, nor how many exams will be required.

My point is this though.  Now that the junior certification is now three exams deep, it is going to be harder for people to claim the title.  When I first got certified any exam you took earned you the title Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP).  I knew people who passed one exam, and coasted on that certification for years.  Heck, I was one of them for about a year… at least the first exam that I took was for Windows 2000 Professional, and not a sales-related exam, which gave you the same MCP title.

That problem was supposed to be resolved in the next generation, the MCTS/MCITP era.  At the beginning there was talk that not every exam would earn you that MCTS certification, and I believe that on the dev side there were a couple of those.  However on the IT Pro side there was never an exam that did not give you a cert… so when I passed three exams to get my MCITP: Virtualization Administrator cred, I had three certs, including two MCTS and the one MCITP.

I was asked this morning by Veronica Sopher of Microsoft Learning what I thought of the 70-246 exam, and my first response was it was ugly.  However that was my way of saying that it was tough, and that it tested your knowledge of a lot of different products in a relatively small number of questions.  In truth I am glad that it was as tough as it was (now that I have passed) because it means that Microsoft is trying to make earning your senior certifications more difficult, which means that you will really need to know your stuff.  A step in the right direction, no doubt!

As for the Master level – the Microsoft Certified Solutions Master – I assume this is still going to be out of my grasp, until I decide to take a job running the infrastructure for a major international company.  I like what I do, so I don’t know that is in the cards.  However If you are an MCSM (equivalent to the former Microsoft Certified Master / MCM) then you are certainly recognized as a very top expert in the technology.

If the MCSM is anything like the old MCM then you not only have to know the technology, you then have to spend several weeks in Redmond on the Microsoft Campus learning from the product team, and then have to pass a series of exams and boards.  There is a reason they are called Masters… it is not for the faint of heart!

I appreciate Microsoft Learning’s revamped certification plan.  It makes it harder to ‘just get by’ and easier to distinguish IT pros by the exams they have passed.  I think it’s a step in the right direction, and look forward to seeing what other MCSE tracks will be revealed as the next generation of Windows operating systems launch later this year!

Getting Certified: Things have really changed!

This article was originally published to The Canadian IT Pro Connection.Boy has it been an exciting year… Microsoft’s busiest release year ever!  On the IT Pro side we have System Center 2012 (a single product now, but truly seven distinct products for managing your environment!), Windows Server 2012, Windows 8… we have Windows Azure (which for the first time is really beginning to show true relevance to the IT Pro and not just the devs), and of course the new Office (both on-prem with Office 2013, and in the cloud with Office 365).  There is of course Windows Phone 8, Windows Intune, and the list goes on.

With all of these new versions out many IT Pros will be looking to update their certifications to remain current, while many more will be looking for their first certs.  For the first time in six years Microsoft Learning has completely changed the way you will be looking at certifications going forward.  If you are like me (and so many others) and do want to get certified in the latest and greatest, then you will need to know what is out there, and how certifications have changed with the newest product cycles.

Solutions-based Certifications

In the last few years Microsoft Learning focused on what they referred to as task-based certifications (MCTS) and job-based certifications (MCITP).  However IT Pros started to see more and more components in learning and exams that were not actually in the product – so for example an exam on Windows Server might have included a question on the Security Compliance Manager (SCM) and System Center.  Although it made sense to the SMEs writing the questions, the unprepared found themselves facing questions that they couldn’t answer, and a resounding chorus of ‘we didn’t realize we would be tested on that!’ was to be heard across the blogosphere.

This year the new certifications have been revamped to be solutions-based.  That means you are not focusing on a role or a product, but rather on the solution as a whole, which will very often include technologies not included in the product, but that are complimentary to it.  Microsoft’s Solution Accelerators are a good example of this.  The Solution Accelerators are a series of free tools available from Microsoft and include the Security Compliance Manager, Microsoft Deployment Toolkit, the Microsoft Virtual Machine Conversion toolkit, and others that are free downloads and may not be required knowledge to everyone, but every IT Pro should know about them because they really do come in handy.

Additionally you are going to see a strong interdependence between Windows Server 2012, System Center 2012, and Windows 8.  After all very few companies have only one of these, and in fact in any organization of a certain size or larger it would be rare to not find all three.

Of course it is also likely you are going to see questions that ask about previous versions of all of these technologies. ‘Your company has 25 servers running Windows Server 2003 R2 Enterprise Edition and 5000 desktops running Windows Vista Business Edition…’ sorts of questions will not be uncommon.  This will make some of us scour our archived memory banks for the differences between editions, and may seem unfair to IT Pros who are new to the industry.  Remember that every certification exam and course lists recommended prerequisites for candidates, and 2-3 years of experience is not an uncommon one.  To that I remind you that you do not need a perfect score to pass the exams… do your best!

What was old is new again

In 2005 Microsoft announced the retirement of the MCSE and MCSA certifications, to be replaced by the MCTS/MCITP certs.  During a recent keynote delivered by a guest speaker from Redmond I heard him say that this was actually Canada’s fault, and unfortunately he is partly right.  The Quebec Order of Engineers won their lawsuit regarding the usage of the word engineer in the cert.  While it may have made their lives better, it complicated the certification landscape for a lot of IT Pros and hiring managers who never quite got used to the new model.

SolAssoc_WinServ2012_Blk SolExp_PvtCloud_Blk

In April, 2012 Microsoft Learning announced that things were changing again… we would again be able to earn our MCSA and MCSE certs, but they would now stand for Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate and Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert.  In fact they thought it was a good enough idea that although they were intended as next-generation certs, they would be ported backward one generation… if you were/are an MCITP: Server Administrator or MCITP: Enterprise Administrator on Windows Server 2008 you immediately became an MCSA: Windows Server 2008.  You were also immediately only two exams away from earning your MCSE: Private Cloud certification.

associate-blueMicrosoft Learning bills the MCSA certification as ‘the foundation for your professional career.’  I agree with this because it is the basic cert on the operating system, and from there you can jump into the next stage (there are several MCSE programs available, all of which require the base MCSA to achieve).

Of course now that Windows Server 2012 has been released, so too has the new certifications.  If you want to earn your MCSA: Windows Server 2012 credentials then you are only three exams away:

Exam # Title Aligned course
70-410 Installing and Configuring Windows Server 2012 20410
70-411 Administering Windows Server 2012 20411
70-412 Configuring Advanced Windows Server 2012 Services 20412

Instead of taking all three of these exams, you could choose to upgrade any of the following certifications with a single upgrade exam:

MCSA: Windows Server 2008

MCITP: Virtualization Administrator on Windows Server 2008 R2

MCITP: Enterprise Messaging Administrator 2010

MCITP: Lync Server Administrator 2010

MCITP: SharePoint Administrator 2010

MCITP: Enterprise Desktop Administrator on Windows 7

The upgrade exam is called Upgrading Your Skills to MCSA Windows Server 2012, and is exam number 70-417.

expert-blueMicrosoft Learning calls the MCSE certification ‘the globally recognized standard for IT professionals.’  It demonstrates that you know more than just the basics, but that you are an expert in the technologies required to provide a complete solution for your environment.

The first IT Pro MCSE cert announced focused on virtualization and the System Center 2012 product.  Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert: Private Cloud launched first because System Center 2012 was released earlier in the year, and the Private Cloud cert could use either Server 2012 or Server 2008 certs as its baseline.  If you already have a qualifying MCSA certification (such as the one outlined above, or the MCSA: Windows Server 2008) then you would only require two more exams to complete your MCSE:

Exam # Title Aligned course
70-246 Monitoring and Operating a Private Cloud with System Center 2012 10750
70-247 Configuring and Deploying a Private Cloud with System Center 2012 10751
70-6591 TS Windows Server 2008: Server Virtualization 10215A

1This exam can be taken instead of exam 70-247 until January 31, 2013 to count towards the Private Cloud certification.

The next new-generation MCSE cert for the IT Pro is theMCSE: Server Infrastructure.  Like the first one the basis for this cert is the MCSA.  Unlike the Private Cloud cert, the MCSA must be in Windows Server 2012.  The required additional exams are:

Exam # Title Aligned course
70-413 Designing and Implementing a Server Infrastructure 20413
70-414 Implementing an Advanced Server Infrastructure 20414

Are you starting to worry that your current Server 2008 certs aren’t helping you toward your goal?  Never fear… the following certifications are upgradeable by taking three exams:

MCITP: Virtualization Administrator on Windows Server 2008 R2

MCITP: Enterprise Messaging Administrator 2010

MCITP: Lync Server Administrator 2010

MCITP: SharePoint Administrator 2010

MCITP: Enterprise Desktop Administrator on Windows 7

Which exams?  I’m glad you asked.  The upgrading IT Pro needs to take:

Exam # Title Aligned course
70-413 Designing and Implementing a Server Infrastructure 20413
70-414 Implementing an Advanced Server Infrastructure 20414
70-417 Upgrading Your Skills to MCSA Windows Server 2012 20417

In other words, you will be upgrading your pre-existing cert to MCSA: Windows Server 2012, and then taking the remaining exams required for the MCSE.

The third MCSE that will be of interest to IT Pros is the MCSE: Desktop Infrastructurecert.  As with the others it requires the candidate to earn the MCSA: Windows Server 2012, and then take the following exams:

Exam # Title Aligned course
70-415 Implementing a Desktop Infrastructure 20415
70-416 Implementing Desktop Application Environments 20416

If you previously held the MCITP: Enterprise Desktop Administrator 7 then you can upgrade by taking the following exams:

Exam # Title Aligned course
70-415 Implementing a Desktop Infrastructure 20415
70-416 Implementing Desktop Application Environments 20416
70-417 Upgrading Your Skills to MCSA Windows Server 2012 20417

There are actually five other MCSE paths, which are:

MCSE: Messaging

MCSE: Data Platform

MCSE: Business Intelligence

MCSE: Communication

MCSE: SharePoint

That I do not discuss these is not a judgment, simply they are outside of my wheelhouse as it were… If you would like more information about any of these, visit Microsoft Learning’s MCSE landing page.

The Unfinished Pyramid

You will notice that the MCSA and MCSE pyramids that we use are progressive… the MCSA has one level finished, the MCSE has two levels finished.  That is because there is another level of certifications above these, which is now called the Microsoft Certified Solutions Master.  This is the highest certification that Microsoft Learning offers, and only a few individuals will qualify.  It is a real commitment but if you think you are ready for it, I would love to point you in the right direction.  Personally I am happy with my MCSE: PC and don’t expect I will ever be a Master.

At present there are four MCSM tracks:

MCSM: SharePoint

MCSM: Data Platform

MCSM: Communication

MCSM: Messaging

It should be noted that of these only the MCSM: Data Platform is currently available; the others will be made available in 2013.

Also at the very top of the pyramid there is one more level – the Microsoft Certified Architect (MCA).  There are currently four MCA certifications:

MCA: Microsoft Exchange Server

MCA: Microsoft SharePoint Server

MCA: Microsoft SQL Server

MCA: Windows Server: Directory

Achieving the MCA requires a lot more than just exams.  It is a long and grueling process which in the end will likely leave you drained, but with the highest certification that Microsoft offers.

I should tell you that these last two senior certs are not for most people.  They are only for the very top professionals with in-depth experience designing and delivering IT solutions for enterprise customers, and even then only for those who possess the technical and leadership skills that truly differentiate them from their peers.

Keep it up!

Several years ago Microsoft Learning tried to retire older MCSEs – Windows NT and such.  They were unsuccessful because had they done so they would have breached the terms of the original certification.  In other words, because they never told candidates in advance that they would retire them, they couldn’t retire them.  It is not uncommon for me to hear from someone who is an MCSE, but they haven’t taken an exam since the 1990s.  In fact the logo for MCSE on Windows NT is the same logo as for MCSE on Windows Server 2003, and those MCSEs will be allowed to use that logo forever.

In 2006 they made it a little easier to differentiate.  Not only would certifications be by technology (MCITP: Enterprise Administrator on Windows Server 2008) but they would, in theory, be retired with support for that technology.  So an MCITP on Windows Vista would not be able to use the cert past a certain date.  Unfortunately I found that people did not refer to their entire cert, they would simply say that ‘I am an MCITP!’  In other words, without some clarifying it was pretty difficult to determine what technology they really knew.  Additionally it is not uncommon for some pros to have several MCITP certs, making it quite difficult to list on a business card or e-mail signature.

Now Microsoft Learning has really made an improvement to this issue.  The new MCSE certifications will require that you show continued understanding of the latest versions of the technology area by taking a recertification exam every three years.  While there was some talk of this with the MCITP program it did not come to fruition.  Today however this recertification requirement is clearly outlined on the MCSE pages.

While recertifying may seem like a bother for some, as we discussed earlier it is something we choose to do every three years to remain current anyways.  For those of us who do want to always remain current it is nice to know that we don’t have to start from scratch with every new product cycle.  For those for whom remaining current is not as important they will always be able to say ‘I was an MCSE, but I let my certs lapse.’  It shows that they do know the technology, just not necessarily the most current version,  This should be sufficient for a lot of people who often tell me ‘my clients don’t need the latest, and are not going to upgrade every three years!’

What About Small Biz?

I spent several years specializing in SMBs.  The first time I took a certification exam I remember coming out of it upset about questions that started ‘You are the administrator for a company with 500 server…’  No I am not!  At the time I couldn’t even fathom what that would be like.  So when Microsoft Learning started writing exams for SBS I was glad not because I wanted to limit myself (I didn’t, and am glad of that today) but because I knew that there are lots of IT Pros out there who do work exclusively on smaller networks.

I do not know what will become of SMB-focused certifications now that Windows Small Business Server 2011 is to be the last SBS release.  I do not have any insight into whether there will be exams around Windows Server Essentials, but could envision a cert around the tying of that product with Windows 8 and Office 365.  I have not been asked, but it would make sense.  However I have heard from a lot of SMB IT Pros that certifications are not as important to them and their clients as we feel they are in the enterprise, and I accept that; the needs of the larger do not necessarily align with the needs of the smaller.  However only time will tell if Microsoft Learning will address this market.

So in the end, should I get certified?

I have long been of the opinion that certifications are key for any IT Professional who is serious about his or her profession.  It shows that they have the respect for their profession to be willing to prove not that they know how to do it, but to do IT right.  Certifications are not for IT hobbyists, or people who dabble.  They are for the professionals who earn their living in IT, and who wish to differentiate themselves from other candidates for jobs, contracts, or promotions.

Whether you have been working in IT for years, or are fresh out of school and looking to embark on a career in IT, there are likely scores if not hundreds of candidates who will be competing with you for every job.  Why not take this opportunity to distinguish yourself?  No matter how much some people will denigrate their relevance, I have spoken to many hiring managers who have confirmed for me time and again that they are a key indicator of a candidate’s suitability to technical positions.

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