Choose Your First Certification Exam Wisely

As I peruse the articles that I have written over the past ten years I occasionally come across one that is interesting or relevant today.  I wrote this article when I was working with CertGuard, and it was published in November, 2006.  If you are an IT Pro starting down the path to certifications, this may be relevant to you! -M

<November, 2006>I have gone on and on about the importance of that first cert exam, but I have read a lot of comments recently that made me realize how important exam selection can be to that successful first exam.

If your decision to get certified is based on professional necessity – i.e.: your boss said you need to get certified in order to keep your job, the choice may have been made for you, i.e.: ‘We have Windows Server 2003 running our networks, we want you to pass 070-290: Managing and Maintaining a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Environment.’ Simple and done, you know what your first exam is.

If you have made the decision yourself to follow a certification path on your own, or your bosses have given you incentive to get certified, you should pick your first exams wisely, because they can be a real defining factor in the future of your certification path. (If you have read my articles you will know that I picked the wrong exams for my first two tries when I started out, and instead of getting certified within weeks or months it took about sixteen months for me to pass my first exam, another fifteen months until I passed my second.

A lot of us (yes I said US) think that we know more than the average bear and love a challenge, we decide to do something stupid like pick one of the hardest tests to write first, figuring that once the hard ones are done you can coast. THIS IS A BAD STRATEGY. Cert exams are not only tough, but they are also (probably inadvertently) designed to be cumulative to some degree or another. That is, information you learn for 70-290 may appear in 70-291, or be expected knowledge whereas information specific to 70-291 will never appear in 70-290. If you study for the first and pass, that means you will probably have a good basis for that assumed knowledge in the second exam.

Before everyone jumps all over me I know and agree: Microsoft Certification Exams are not linear, and there is no official ‘recommended path’. That being said there is that fall-over knowledge. An OS or Server exam would not cover routers and sub-netting (at least not in depth). The Infrastructure exams on the other hand will assume that you know Server inside and out. The core exams are numbered (nearly) sequentially for a reason, and any competent counselor will tell you to start at the bottom and work your way up.

Of course for these examples I have taken what I know best – the MCSA/MCSA courses as my example. However if you want to start slower than that – maybe you do not have a great deal of knowledge or experience in servers but know that certifications are the way to go then Microsoft recently released a cert that may be more your speed. The Microsoft Certified Desktop Support Technician (MCDST) material is based entirely on Windows XP and the applications that run on it, while teaching a decent introduction to Active Directory technology (on a relatively desktop-centric basis). If you consider yourself a real Windows XP guru then these two exams will be a good launch-pad for a successful certification path. A number of friends of mine have gone this way to start out, and have been proudly signing their names as My Name, MCDST, MCP and that’s okay – I know that when all I had was MCP I signed it everywhere!

In short find the exam that you have the most background understanding of, study until you are ready, then go get certified. Every exam is a stepping stone to something greater but it is a long process, and there is no advantage to starting the hard way. Nobody will ever be more impressed that you passed Infrastructure before Server or Active Directory before Desktop. If you know Active Directory better than anything then by all means try that exam first, but chances are you will want to start smaller. MCP take a single exam, and (as I learned the hard way) it might as well be the easier exam to get your feet wet – don’t try to drink from a fire hose!

Good luck and now go out and get certified!

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