The End of An Era… Again.

MCSE(rgb)Around 2005-2006, when I was running the Montreal IT Professionals Community, Microsoft announced that due to a lawsuit from the Quebec Order of Engineers, Microsoft would be eliminating the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) designation in the province of Quebec.  As a community leader I rallied against that; my position was that it would create unfair competitive disadvantages to our IT Pros who would not be able to compete with outsiders who did have the credential.  My position was (and remains) that if Microsoft and Microsoft Learning are going to award credentials, they had to be a uniform set of credentials around the world.  Two professionals with the same skillset who have passed the same exams should have the same titles, whether they live in Montreal, Los Angeles, or Uganda.  The New Big Blue reexamined their position, and shortly after making that decision they announced that they would indeed eliminate the MCSE program around the globe.  MCITP(rgb)_1324_1314_1315_539Thus, with the release of Windows Vista and then Windows Server 2008 (along with the SQL and other technologies at the time), Microsoft Learning introduced the Microsoft Certified IT Professionals (MCITP) certifications for job-based certifications… along with the Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (MCTS) credentials for task-based certifications.

It essentially took one generation of technology for Microsoft to revert to the old acronyms… from Windows 7 and Windows Server 2012 onward, MCSA now stood for Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate, and MCSE stood for Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert.  Why nobody at Microsoft Learning a few years earlier thought to replace the word Engineer (the offending word in the MCSE title) with another word that began with E still escapes me, but there it was.  MCSE was back.

microsoft365-enterprise-adminstrator-expert-600x600This morning, Microsoft Learning announced that once again, the MCSE (and MCSA) credentials are going away… and for those of us who have pursued any of the new, ‘modern’ certifications, it was easy to see that this was just a matter of time (see article).  According to this blog post published today by Alex Payne, GM, Global Technical Learning at Microsoft Worldwide Learning, “…all remaining exams associated with Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate (MCSA), Microsoft Certified Solutions Developer (MCSD), Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE) will retire on June 30, 2020.”

The blog goes on to say that only the exams are retiring, and that the credentials themselves will remain active for two years after that;  this means that on July 1, 2020 all MCSA, MCSE, and MCSD (Microsoft Certified Solutions Developer) credentials on your Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) Transcript will be moved to the “Inactive” section.

I earned my first MCSA credential on  May 27, 2005, and have held various MCSA and MCSE credentials for nearly fifteen years.  When they were taken away the first time I was upset.  Today, while I am also upset, I guess I understand.  Microsoft Learning is evolving, and their credentials are too.

With that said, universities have done a great job of evolving over the last few hundred years, and yet they still offer Baccalaureate programs, as well as Masters, PhDs, and Doctorates.  Are these the same today as they were a hundred years ago?  Of course not.  They have been able to keep the title while evolving the skills required to achieve it.

Of course, Microsoft Learning is not a university, and a certification is not a degree.  However, for those of us in the trenches… as well as for those myriad customers who often rely on a set of credentials to know what skill set they need to hire, it might behoove MSL to once and for all standardize their nomenclature, rather than ‘evolving’ every few years.  If they did that though, what would I have written about today?

Microsoft 365 Certified

In mid-September, the recruiting department of my company introduced me to the man who would become my manager at my new client.  He told me he reviewed my CV, and did not see Microsoft Office 365 listed on it.  I told him honestly that while I have worked with the technologies before, I never felt it was one of my areas of expertise.  With that said, if he accepted me for the position we were discussing, I would focus and make sure I got the relevant certifications.

At the time, I did not know exactly what was meant by Microsoft 365, so when I started the new role, I was in for a bit of a surprise.  It seems that the Office 365 certs that I would be pursuing were actually Microsoft 365 certs, and that Microsoft 365 comprised both the modern desktop – Windows 10, which would extend to include a good knowledge of both operating system and application deployment technologies (so I would get to dust off my knowledge of System Center Configuration Manager and Microsoft Deployment Toolkit), management technologies (Config Manager and Intune), and the cloud side of the house, including all of the server components of Microsoft Office (Exchange Server, SharePoint Server, OneDrive for Business), Azure Active Directory, Azure Advanced Threat Protection, and a bunch of others facets used to implement and manage a modern (and secure) desktop and application infrastructure.

I should mention that there was a time that I was really involved with Microsoft Learning, and I knew practically everything there was to know about the certification program… at least, for the infrastructure side of the house.  I was never too involved in the dev side of things.  I fell out of that habit when I ceased being a MCT Regional Lead, back in the fall of 2013.  That may not sound like a long time, but in dog years it is 42 years, and in IT years it is nearly an eternity.  I found out that nearly everything was different… and that is not a bad thing.

microsoft365-fundamentals-600x600Back in the spring, I took my first Microsoft Azure exam, the Azure Fundamentals exam AZ-900.  I wrote about that experience in this article.  When I went to look at the Microsoft 365 certification path, I discovered that there was a similar exam, MS-900: Microsoft 365 Fundamentals.  While it was an optional exam as far as my certification path went, I decided it would be a good way to get my feet wet.  I spent a few hours studying for a couple of days, and then I passed it.  As with the AZ-900 exam, I finished it extremely quickly. 

Energized by my initial success, I decided to go back home and hit the books… and with my manager’s encouragement, I worked feverishly to pass the next four exams, which included:

exam-md100-600x600MD-100: Windows 10.  This one was also theoretically optional for me, as I had already passed both 70-697 and 70-698.  However I did not want to take any shortcuts, and I know it had been nearly two years since I sat those exams.

exam-md101-600x600MD-101: Managing Modern Desktops. This would be a little more challenging, as it would require knowledge of many of the on-line tools that I might have used and managed, but was not fluent in.

When I first started getting certifications, there was a simple path: After passing a single exam, you became a Microsoft Certified Professional.  After that… well, you had a long way to go to earn your next certification, which was Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), and which required six more exams to pass.  And then one day Microsoft Learning announced what I thought of then as an intermediate certification – the Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA).  The MCSA only required four exams, which meant that after the original exam, I only needed three more for what I thought of as a ‘senior’ certification.

microsoft365-modern-desktop-administrator-associate-600x600While things have changed a lot since then (apparently you now get a new logo for every exam that you pass), I see that Microsoft Learning has stuck with the concept of ‘intermediate’ certifications.  With these two exams under my belt, I was now Microsoft 365 Certified: Modern Desktop Administrator.  This is what they are calling Associate certifications, which I suppose is about the same as the MCSA that I earned so many years ago.

Of course, I was far from done.  Once I had those two exams passed, which were essentially Windows 10 focused, I had to go on to the exams that were mostly focused on the cloud technologies.

exam-md100-600x600MS-100: Microsoft 365 Identity and Services was almost (but not entirely) all based in the cloud.  Like it’s partner exam, you need to know all of the cloud services, but you also need to know on-premise features such as System Center Configuration Manager (Current Branch), as well as Active Directory, and even though they are not supported in Azure AD yet, you needed to know Group Policy, and when and how it would be used.

exam-md101-600x600MS-101: Microsoft 365 Mobility and Security spent a lot of time focusing on managing devices and security from the cloud, as well as protecting a company’s data.  There was a bit of a focus on what devices were supported, including Apple iPhones and iPads, as well as Android devices.  You not only needed to know how to deploy them to the managed environment, you also need to know how to implement multi-factor authentication (MFA), conditional access, and how to segregate data on a BYOD device so that users who use the same device for both business and personal could not accidentally share sensitive corporate data.

While it took a lot of studying, I was very happy, after having passed this last exam, to receive an e-mail that read:

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I have received many of these e-mails before… but this one had something that I had never received: three stars.

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Yes, if you look at the modern Microsoft certifications, they progress from the Fundamentals level (one star) to the Associate level (two stars) to the Expert level (three stars).  thinking back on many of the other certification logos I have had, I have to admit, I like these.  Don’t get me wrong, the certification logos were once really snazzy, but over the years the logos went from:

This:      MCP_SE_c

To this:      mcse

To this:      Microsoft-Certified-Solutions-Expert-MCSE-Server-Infrastructure-logo

…yeah, they spent a lot more on style in the old days, and I’m not going to lie… I may like the original MCSE logo, but the most recent iterations of them were somewhat lacking stylistically.  So the new ones, with the multi-coloured shield design is like fresh air breathed back into the program.

So at this point, I will probably take a bit of a break from the certification track.  I do not know what will be next, but I suppose the most likely candidate is going to be something Azure related… but it is not going to happen right away.  I have spent a lot of time studying and preparing for these exams, and my client has been very understanding.  Now is the time for me to get to work, putting what I learned studying for these certs to good use!

Azure Exams: Different?

Since I started working on Microsoft Azure certifications, I have noticed a lot of things that are quite different from what I am used to.  for instance, the single, non-technical AZ-900 exam does give you a certification (Microsoft Certified: Azure Fundamentals).

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Okay, I passed that exam… but when I went to start looking for courseware for the technical exams – namely, AZ-100: Microsoft Azure Infrastructure and Deployment, things looked different from what I was used to… and I am not sure if I like it or not.

For a minute, it looked like Microsoft Learning had gone back to the heady days of requiring multiple courses to pass a single exam.  Well, in fact, that is what they did… but in a much more rational fashion.

Courses Required For AZ-100:

  • AZ-100T01: Managing Azure Subscriptions and Resources
  • AZ-100T02: Implement and Manage Storage
  • AZ-100T03: Deploying and Managing Virtual Machines
  • AZ-100T04: Configure and Manage Virtual Networks
  • AZ-100T05: Manage Identities

Five courses… but that is not entirely accurate.  They are each about a day long; yes, they are separate courses, but the sum total of these (5 courses = 5 days) is the same amount of learning you would have done for a legacy course… say, 10215: Implementing and Managing Microsoft Server Virtualization.  Five days of learning for one exam.

I will be honest, I am not sure that I like this methodology… for myself.  For people looking to get certified, whose companies want to send them for that full week of training, this can get tricky: imagine a training centre that offers some of these courses, but not all of them; they might offer one of some of these courses, but not in order, not on consecutive days or consecutive weeks.  It might be cumbersome.

With that said, I understand that certifications are not the sole purpose of learning.  Someone who is going to be responsible for managing virtual machines but will never touch virtual networks or identities, having to sit through the five day course in order to learn what they will need for their job is also cumbersome and inefficient.

The good news is that there are courses, both in-person and on-line, that will cover what you need… whether it is the one or the other.

As someone who wants to go out and get certified, I know that I will be downloading the material for all of the courses… and yes, I am going to offer my company to teach some of internally.  There is no way that they would say ‘Yeah, let’s take all of our consultants off their contracts for an entire week to learn everything they will need to get an Azure certification, but might not need to do their jobs.

So… is this way better than the old way? I don’t know… but I am willing to try it out and see.  How much of the material that I need to pass the exam is in the five courses? How much overlap is there between the five courses?  Is it enough?  We’ll see.  I look forward to sharing the results with you as I discover them.

Azure Fundamentals

Last week my company launched a certification challenge. Yes, they would be rewarding employees who passed certification exams, but they also asked if I would be able to teach a class. My pleasure… but before I teach it, I’d like to pass the exam.

I decided that the best way to light a fire under my backside was to register for the exam… which I did, and I gave myself two weeks to prepare. I sent my team a notice that on Tuesday the 26th I would be in late.

A huge benefit to being a Microsoft Certified Trainer is that I can download any Microsoft courseware, and go through it at my own pace. I downloaded the materials for AZ-900, and realized quickly that there were no labs… on-line or otherwise. For those of us who learn better from doing than from reading, that could be daunting. No matter, I started going through the materials.

By Friday afternoon I was halfway through the material – it is a one day course – and decided that if I could spend 5-6 hours over the weekend, I would be ready to sit the exam Monday (instead of the following Tuesday).

Microsoft Certified Azure Fundamentals (AZ-900) is an entry-level certification that covers the basic cloud technologies... but don’t be fooled, you had better read the material!

There was another method to my madness… this was going to be my first Azure exam, and I had no idea what to expect. I knew the process of on-premises solutions exams, but public cloud? It might be different. For the cost of an exam (which is covered by my company anyways) I would either pass… or not, and be able to re-sit the exam next week.

For a non-technical exam, it was a bit challenging; not because the questions were hard – some of them were very simple – but as someone with 80+ exams under my belt, a lot of the questions had me getting into the heads of the question writers. I don’t know if that helped or hindered me, but on a couple of questions it made me second-guess my answers.

Having to know about geographies and such was not a surprise; having to know about civilian, government, military, and other certification authorities was a surprise. I am grateful that as I got bored on Sunday I did not pack it up and go for a cigar; rather I ordered another cup of tea and a biscotti, and soldiered through the last module of material. I am reasonably certain that had I not done so I would be writing a very different article (without the certification logo).

The bottom line: can you pass this exam without ever touching Azure? Maybe. I am not an expert by any means, but I certainly have quite a bit of Azure experience. Can you pass this exam without knowing about all of the Azure components and what they do, what they are for? Unlikely. Make sure you know all the tools, as well as the subscription levels and support agreement types.be certain you know what you are charged for… and when.

I walked into the exam room at 10:05am and walked out with a respectable passing score at 10:29, besting my best time ever on a certification exam by two minutes. The 26 minute exam was a Windows Vista exam I think. I strongly recommend not trying that… take your time, read the questions, mark as many of the, for reviews as you can (and there are a few sections you cannot go back and change). I was given 85 minutes for the exam, although only 60 minutes for the actual questions (there were just shy of 50 questions). Pass or fail, I am always in and out in a hurry… but I think that the time allotment is appropriate for anyone whose mother tongue is English.

Overall, I am not impressed with this exam as a certification exam, but the world changed and I have to adapt. Microsoft doesn’t ask me about technology trends, and it has been years since Microsoft Learning asked my opinion about cert exams. And so here I am, taking Azure exams. This was my first; it will not be my last. For a guy who is Senior Windows Engineer for a large data centre, these exams are irrelevant to my career… for now. But everything changes, and I am getting ready for the future. How about you?

Golden Exam?

I have a spreadsheet that I keep in my OneDrive that tracks the certification exams I have taken.  Over the years (starting in December, 2011) I have written a great many of them, Mostly for Microsoft but also a few VMware exams sprinkled in there. 

MCP LogoMuch has changed since I wrote my first exam (which, incidentally, was 70-215, which I failed the first time around).  I have an envelope that contains most (sadly not all) of the score reports from those exams, and looking back at the first one and comparing it to the latest one I see a lot of differences (aside from the fact that I passed my most recent exams).  The logos have changed, the report formats have changed, and for the online proctored exams there is a picture of me (in case I forgot what I look like).

One thing that has not changed since I passed my first exam (March 31, 2003) is the elation (and relief!) I feel when I see the words ‘Congratulations, you passed’ at the end of the exam.  It is one of the reasons I never loved taking beta exams, for which you would have to wait to receive your score report… often several months.

This week I took an exam that was, to me, completely unnecessary.  Exam 698: Installing and Configuring Windows 10 is a required exam for the MCSA: Windows 10 certification… unless you have a particular Windows 8 certification, at which point you only need to take Exam 697: Configuring Windows Devices.  I passed that exam last year, so I did not need Exam 698.  However, I am leading a study group this week, and I wanted to make sure I knew what I was talking about with regard to the exam.  I sat down at my computer Tuesday morning and passed it.  I then went back to work and did not give it another thought.

This morning I was cleaning up my paperwork, and I opened the Certifications spreadsheet to update it with my latest.  It turns out that is was the fiftieth exam that I have passed.  (We will not mention the number of exams I have failed).

Fifty exams is not a record by any means.  I know people who have likely passed a few hundred exams in their time.  For some, it would be a tremendous number.  For others, it would be a drop in the ocean.  For me, it is what I have done… and because it was that special number I will take a moment to be proud of myself… and then I will get back to work.

I have students and colleagues who as I write this are preparing to sit their first certification exam.  I am so proud of them.  Why?  Because I remember how stressful it was for me.  Pass or fail, they have taken that step, and that is something to be proud of.  Good luck friends!

Microsoft Technology Roadshow

Azure-imageTuesday morning I stood up in front of a great audience of IT Professionals at the Westin Hotel in Ottawa.  The subject? Azure networking.

One of the slides that Microsoft gave me for the ‘Curtain Warmer’ contained a list of links for further information.  They are:

Azure Training:

https://azure.microsoft.com/en-ca/training

Azure Certification:

https://www.microsoft.com/en-ca/learning/certification-overview.aspx

Windows Certifications:

https://www.microsoft.com/en-ca/learning/windows-certification.aspx

Productivity Certification:

https://www.microsoft.com/en-ca/learning/mcse-productivity-certificatio.aspx

Mobility Certification:

https://www.microsoft.com/en-ca/learning/mobility-certification.aspx

To Recertify, or NOT to Recertify… THAT is the question.

I was definitely a proponent of expiring certifications when the topic came up.  Why?  Because my value as an MCSE was diminished by others who held the same title… from Windows NT.  By making professionals renew their certifications we obtained the ability to differentiate between someone with current value and skills and knowledge and someone whose knowledge and skills were obsolete.

I am not saying this position is coming back to bite me, only that I am probably at a cross-roads, and I have some decisions to make.

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I got this e-mail recently.  I actually got two of them that were nearly identical, with the one line differentiator:

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Okay, so I have to decide whether to renew my VCP credentials.  It is not an easy decision – not because I have not found value in being a VCP (I have).  However I have not spent as much time in the past couple of years working with large scale VMware environments, and I don’t know if I would have the time and resources needed in order to study for and pass the exam.  It is a tough choice (not on the VCP4, but for VCP5).

I am not only on the line for VMware though… I remember when I earned my MCSE: Private Cloud certification with Microsoft Learning.  It was cool to be among the first to earn what I consider to be a very prestigious certification.  Seeing the words CHARTER MEMBER along the top was not exactly new to me, but I still took great pride in it.

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Fast-forward three years (slightly more, as the renewal exams were not ready in time) and I notice, when looking at my MCP page, the following ugly note:

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Of course, if we look back to the beginning of this article, I would be a hypocrite if I really thought this was an ugly note… it is just the reality, and if I want the renewal to apply to others so that my certifications retain their value, obviously I have to renew as well so that everyone else’s certifications retain their value.

The question is though… would I pass the required exams if I sat them today?  The answer is, unfortunately, probably not. 

I have a couple of options. 

  1. I can make the decision to allow these certs to lapse.  I will always be a ‘Former VCP and Former MCSE: Private Cloud.’
  2. I can decide to buckle down and study, preparing for the exams.

The long-time faithful readers of my blog will know that I have said before that you should not study for exams (see article).  I said ‘The best way to know technology is to use it, and if you read the recommended pre-requisites for most exams they say that you should have a minimum of two years experience with the technology.’  Well I already proved that I knew the technologies – I proved it by earning the certs in the first place.  However over the last three years my career my priorities were different, and I took extended breaks from using the technologies the certs apply to.

Does that mean I am done?  No… when I said I took a break I meant it, and I am currently working on a number of projects, some involving VMware and some involving Microsoft’s Private Cloud.   While I know that for the Microsoft certs I will need to take a recertifying exam, for the VCP I found the following on their FAQ:

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Well at least they don’t beat around the bush.

On the VMware side I now have just under two months to prepare (if I am going to), and on the Microsoft side I have until the end of October.  Will I do it? On one? On both?

I don’t know if I will recertify on VMware… Exam prep is tough, and I frankly do not think I get the same benefit out of it that I do Microsoft.  That is to say, I do not think that there is an opportunity that I would lose if I said ‘I was a VCP-DCV, but let it lapse.’  Most of my clients are just as happy knowing that I am proficient in VMware, even if the cert has lapsed.

Microsoft is a different story.  Don’t get me wrong – my reputation with regard to Microsoft technologies is pretty solid.  However if I let that cert lapse I do not know if I will be able to renew my MCT (Microsoft Certified Trainer) for 2016 (I just renewed it for 2015, but we have to think ahead).  You never know what requirements they will ask at renewal time, and every senior certification on my transcript is a step in the right direction.

With that being said, according to the Certification Planner on the Microsoft Learning portal, I am a single exam shy of earning both my MCSA: Windows Server 2012 and my MCSE: Desktop Infrastructure, and one more exam short for my MCSE: Server Infrastructure certifications.  (411 and 413 for those who are counting).  To recertify for MCSE: Private Cloud I need to write exam 981, which is essentially an upgrade exam (based on the exam objectives for 246 and 247).  If you type the term “Upgrade Exam” into the search box of this blog, you can read about how unpleasant those can be.

With all of that being said, I passed them once… I should be able to pass them again… I think, hope, pray.  Fortunately, I have two things going for me: 1) There is a Second Shot Free offer currently available, so if I fail an exam I can retake it at no cost… well, at the cost of another half-day off of work. 2) As an MCT I am entitled to a 50% discount off my exams.

I haven’t decided which way I will go… in theory, four exam passes will give me five key certifications:

  • VMware Certified Professional: Datacenter Virtualization
  • MCSA: Windows Server 2012
  • MCSE: Desktop Infrastructure
  • MCSE: Server Infrastructure
  • MCSE: Private Cloud

Since MCSE: Private Cloud is no longer offered, I wouldn’t mind holding onto it for the sake of nostalgia.  The other MCSEs? Well, none of them would hurt to hold.  As for the MCSA… Yeah, I am sure there are a bunch of you who are surprised that I don’t hold that one.  When I came back from Japan last year it was my intention to sit a bunch of exams, and I did… but many of you know that my head was very much elsewhere, and what with my personal issues my head just wasn’t in it… I have been one exam shy for a long time, but I do plan to go get it.

So I guess during the writing of this article I have talked myself back into a certification mode… who’s with me? Smile

The Harsh Realities of the Exam Room

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how tough I found Exam 74-409 was in my article Another Tough Exam.  I also mentioned that Microsoft exams were meant to be tough, and going into an exam unprepared can (and usually will) come back to bite you.

Last week I decided to bite the bullet and try to take home at least three certifications in a single marathon day of exams… I was hoping to achieve my MCSA: Windows 8, MCSA: Windows Server 2012, and my MCSE: Desktop Infrastructure in a single bound by passing three exams:

70-416: Implementing Desktop Application Environments
70-417: Upgrading Your Skills to MCSA Windows Server 2012
70-688: Managing and Maintaining Windows 8

The goal was lofty, but I felt I was up to the challenge.  I was wrong… but not terribly so.

Before going on I should mention that I am no dummy… I am just very busy, and taking the time to sit exams one at a time is a bit of a pain for me – I would rather, when I have to, simply write two or three in a single day.  Of course, this greatly reduces my chances of passing all of them, but because of the Microsoft and Prometric Second Shot Free offer for Microsoft Certified Trainers (see article) there is less of a risk – MCTs get a discount on the cost of exams, as well as a Second Shot.  My financial gamble on this day was minimal.  I have, by the by, passed three exams in a single day once… May 3, 2011 I passed three MCTS exams on Windows Server 2008.  If I could do it once, I could surely do it again.

Wrong.

Passing three exams in a single day was not easy, but they were all on the same general technology – Windows Server 2008.  On this silly day I went after three exams – one on Windows 8 (which I would have been surprised had I failed), one on Desktop Application environments (Windows 8 applications with a healthy dose of Windows Server, Remote Desktop Services, App-V, Group Policy, Microsoft Office, and several deployment tools), and one on Windows Server 2012…kinda.

Upgrade Exams

Thinking back to my early days of certification marathons, I remember hearing the horrors of Upgrade exams.  Essentially you are taking three exams in one.  The first Upgrade exam I sat was 70-292: Managing and Maintaining a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Environment for an MCSA Certified on Windows 2000.  My success with this exam could be summed up with the old adage: Third time’s a charm.  I passed it in June of 2006… over a year after my first attempt.

Although I did have success with the MCDST (Desktop Support Technician) upgrade exam 70-621: Upgrading your MCDST Certification to MCITP Enterprise Support I did not fare nearly as well on the server side – 70-648 TS: Transition from Windows Server 2003 MCSA to Windows Server 2008 and TS: Transition from Windows Server 2003 MCSE to Windows Server 2008 (both of which I sat as beta exams and, coincidentally, on the same day) were not my finest hours.  I decided instead to sit all of the exams for these certifications instead of going the upgrade path again.

In hindsight, had I thought of that when scheduling the exams, I would not have done it.  Three exams in one day is mentally tough enough… add to that one of them is actually three exams, and even I wouldn’t have done it.

I never got into a rhythm for the exam, and did not notice that it was not one exam as one block of time, it was actually three sections, each with their own sub-block of time.  Unfortunately I only realized this when, with ten unanswered questions on Section 1, a pop-up warned me that I had two minutes to complete the section.  Without reading anything I clicked through and selected an answer for as many as I could (four) before being forced to leave six questions unanswered.

Now that I knew this was the case, I managed my time for the remaining sections much better… but four blind darts and six blanks doomed me.

You did not pass the exam.

I do not remember the actual wording of it, but that’s what it said… I had felt pretty good going into that last ‘Are You Sure?! ‘ button, which is why I was heartbroken when it came up.  Damn damn damn.

Wait a minute… I did a double-take when I noticed that my score was below 600.  583?  No way, I know I did better than that, there MUST BE SOME MISTAKE!  I don’t know the procedures for challenging an exam result (nor do I know if there is such a procedure) but at the end of the day when I collected my score reports I was going to find out.

Okay, that was only one of the exams… the server exam, which I could re-sit next week sometime.  I got my mindset into the application environment.  It was a really tough exam, but I passed it with a pretty respectable score.  I then went on to the Managing Windows 8 exam, which after the ordeal of the two previous exams was like a walk in the park.  I am not saying that any end user – or an IT Pro who isn’t intimately familiar with Windows 8 – could pass without a lot of preparation, but I have lived Windows 8 every day of the last 2.5 years, and even though that last ‘Are You Sure?!button is always nerve wracking, I passed very respectably.

Okay, good.  At least I could hold my head high with the knowledge that I would walk away with two Windows certifications today… MCSA: Windows 8, and MCSE: Desktop Infrastructure.  Now I could go look at the score report and go give someone a piece of my mind!

Wrong.

First the good news… I am not as much of a Windows Server bonehead as I thought.  I did not realize that for the Upgrade exam each section is marked as a complete exam… the score report actually comes out like this:

70-410: Installing and Configuring Windows Server 2012: 800
70-411: Administering Windows Server 2012: 583
70-412: Configuring Advanced Windows Server 2012 Services: 766

Aha… while the results of certification exams are really binary – Pass/Fail – I felt a lot better knowing that had they averaged out my score for the three exams I would have passed, and the abysmal score that displayed on screen was just that of the lowest section – quite obviously the section on which I only answered 2/3 of the questions.  Alright, I feel better about that, and now that I know, the next time I sit the exam I can manage my time properly (I’ll bet you if you scour my blog you will see that advice for exam takers) and pass with authority.

I was wrong about something else on this day though… Although I thought the prerequisites for the MCSE: Desktop Infrastructure were my MCSA Windows 8 and the 70-416 exam, it turns out that the first prerequisite is actually my MCSA Windows Server 2012… alas, I would only be walking away with one certification today, and not two as I was hoping and expecting.  With that said, if/when I do pass my 70-417 Upgrade exam I will with one pass earn two senior certifications… and that ain’t all bad as they say.

Conclusion

The old expression says that the shoemaker’s children go barefoot.  I got bit quite a bit by not following my own advice.  Fortunately Microsoft and Prometric have my back, and I can come back and re-sit the exam for free.  That is one piece of advice I did listen to – make sure you check for any offers such as the Second Shot before you register for your exam.  Although I have registered for several exams with previous similar offers, this is the first time I will need the safety net.  However just because you are confident does not mean you should be stupid… take any offer they will give you, and save your money.  I am glad I did!

Gee thanks…

This is one of those situations I laugh at… because even great organizations like Microsoft Learning Experience is going to make the occasional mistake.. especially when it’s systems are all automated and unmonitored.

I received the following e-mail today congratulating me on passing my exam yesterday:

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I was reasonably sure that I already had that certification, but just in case I logged onto the MCP Portal to check my transcript.  Sure enough…

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Now here’s the thing… the e-mail is right, I never passed 70-247… but I didn’t have to.  If you passed 70-659 before a certain date then it replaced the requirement for the 70-247 exam… but if the automated system checks people who have passed the requisite exams as of today (and not as of June, 2012) then it is right… I shouldn’t have the cert.

I’ll chalk this one up to a funny system glitch… no action required Smile

Certification Planning

I maintain a spreadsheet of every certification exam I take – pass or fail.  Excluding the title line it currently consists of seventy (70) rows, dating back to my first failed exam in December of 2001.  I don’t remember when I started maintaining it, but it goes back a while, and consists of the following cells:

DateExam
TitleExam CodeTesting CentreResultApplicable Cert

Yesterday morning (January 15) I was happy to pull it open because I had just passed exam 74-409 (See article).  It was a bit of a milestone because it was the seventieth exam I have written in a little over twelve years (I sat my first exam, 70-215, on December 11, 2001).  It includes three that I have re-sat after having passed, a lot of failures (including one exam that I failed three times before passing!) and overall the good, the bad, the ugly – the pride and the shame, all in one spreadsheet, which includes a rule to highlight the word PASS or FAIL appropriately so that I can see streaks and trends.

As I will often do when I open the spreadsheet, I took a couple of minutes to see if anything jumped out at me… and sure enough, there it was.  In 2013 I did not sit a single exam.  It is the first year since I failed that first exam that I did not even attempt an exam in a calendar year.  In fact, since the last exam I sat was August 12, 2012 (71-414 – Implementing an Advanced Server Infrastructure), meaning it was a full seventeen months between exams – the longest gap/draught ever for me.

Does this mean I have been negligent in my career planning?  Not at all.  IT Professionals do not have to take exams on a set schedule in order to properly maintain their career paths.  However it is important that we make sure that our certifications remain relevant, and that will mean different things to different people.

Some IT Pros are content to ride their Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) on Windows 2000 (or NT!) all the way into the next decade.  Others want to earn every certification as soon as they can and remain at the head of the pack.  Somewhere between these two camps sit the moderate camp of people who get certified on every second version of a software or solution.

Is one of these positions right or wrong?  While I certainly feel that certifications become stale and irrelevant, how often you recertify depends on your career goals and needs.  I am glad that the new generation of Microsoft certifications actually do have retirement dates – IT Pros will have to recertify every few years or they will lose their credentials.  Microsoft tried several years ago to retire the MCSEs on Windows NT, but because they had not planned for this scenario from the outset they were unable to do so legally.  Simply put, people invested in their certifications and were not told up front that they would have an expiry date.  Now when you take a certification exam you know up front that your credentials will be retired unless you maintain them.

My first certifications were on Windows Server 2000, and while some of the information I learned back then is still relevant, most of what we do today is completely new – IPv6 did not exist, nor did x86 server virtualization.  There were questions on my exam yesterday that included several aspects of System Center, IPv6, Hyper-V, Active Directory Recycle Bin, Live Migration, Virtual Machine exports, Volume Shadow Copy, Virtual Hard Disks, Fibre Channel, QoS, and NIC Teaming… none of which existed in any form when Windows Server 2000 was current.  Sure, I am still an MCSA on Windows Server 2000 (I only earned my MCSE with Windows Server 2003), but it is completely irrelevant… and nobody would hire me based on my complete understanding of a fourteen year old operating system.

On the other side of the scale, I am also a Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE): Private Cloud.  I earned that credential in June of 2012 – three months before the release of Windows Server 2012.  I earned it based on my proficiency in Windows Server 2008 R2 and the then newly released System Center 2012.  Is that certification still relevant?  Sure… both Windows Server 2008 R2 and System Center 2012 are prevalent in production IT environments around the world.  Even if they weren’t, as they are essentially only one generation removed from the current ‘latest and greatest’ and while there are certainly huge improvements in the newer versions, they are still familiar enough that the one-generation-off is still recognizable and familiar.

Yesterday’s exam was only the third Windows Server 2012 exam that I have written, and because of the new certification model I do not actually have any Windows Server 2012 certs.  In order to become an MCSA: Windows Server 2012 I am missing the exam 417 (Upgrading Your Skills to MCSA Windows Server 2012).  Then to earn my MCSE: Server Infrastructure I will need to pass exam 413 (Designing and Implementing a Server Infrastructure).

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In order to close all of these out, I seem to be four exams short.  While I am not sure I will be able to complete them all before I go back to Japan, I will be trying to do at least a couple of them.  Unlike yesterday’s exam though I plan to prepare for them.  While I consider myself strong in both Windows Server 2012 and Windows 8, none of us know everything that they are likely to test us on.  I will try my best to not go into another exam unprepared.

imageAs usual, I will be taking you all along for the ride.  While I cannot take you into the exam centre (I don’t think we would all fit, and that would be illegal) but I will tell you about my experiences in each exam.  Hopefully it will help to give you the impetus to take your next exams.  Are you missing some?  Are you just starting out, or thinking of going down a new certification path?

If you aren’t sure where you stand, the Microsoft Learning Members Page has a new Certification Planner tool that can guide you toward success.  Since most of us don’t know off the top of our heads what exams are needed for what certifications, this handy tool will let you know how many exams (or other prerequisites) you are missing for each credential.  If you have even one prerequisite for a credential it will be listed there, and you can see what you are missing.  Check it out – you may be closer than you thought!

Of course, most IT Pros won’t need all of the certifications available… and chasing them is both time consuming and costly.  Trainers are usually going to have more certifications because they need the credentials in order to teach the courses.  That is why I started chasing them… and while I am no longer a full-time trainer, until I decide what I want to be when I grow up I am going to keep chasing them… you never know when someone is going to call on you to teach a class after all, and I like to keep my options open!

Check out the certification planner, and go schedule that next exam… yes, I am talking to you, Mr.Legacy MCSE, Mr. One-Exam Short!  Good luck!

Another tough exam…

As a subject matter expert (SME) on virtualization, I was neither excited nor intimidated when Microsoft announced their new exam, 74-409: Server Virtualization with Windows Server Hyper-V and System Center.  Unlike many previous exams I did not rush out to be the first to take it, nor was I going to wait forever.  I actually thought about sitting the exam in Japan in December, but since I had trouble registering there and then got busy, I simply decided to use my visit to Canada to schedule the exam.

This is not the first exam that I have gone into without so much as a glance at the Overview or the Skills Measured section of the exam page on the Internet.  I did not do any preparation whatsoever for the exam… as you may know I have spent much of the last five years living and breathing virtualization.  This attitude very nearly came back to bite me in the exam room at the Learning Academy in Hamilton, Ontario Wednesday morning.

Having taught every Microsoft server virtualization course ever produced (and having written or tech-reviewed many of them) I should have known better.  Virtualization is more than installing Hyper-V.  it’s more than just System Center Virtual Machine Manager (VMM) and Operations Manager (OpsMgr).  It is the entire Private Cloud strategy… and if you plan to sit this exam you had better have more than a passing understanding of System Center Service Manager (ServMgr), Data Protection Manager (DPM), and Orchestrator.  Oh, and your knowledge should extend beyond more than one simple Hyper-V host.

I have long professed to my students that while DPM is Microsoft’s disaster recovery solution, when it comes down to it just make sure that your backup solution does everything that they need, and make sure to test it.  While I stand behind that statement for production environments, it does not hold water when it comes to Microsoft certification exams.  When two of the first few questions were on DPM I did a little silent gulp to myself… maybe I should have prepared a little better for this.

I do not use Service Manager… It’s not that I wouldn’t – I have a lot of good things to say about it.  Heck, I even installed it as recent as yesterday – but I have not used it beyond a passing glance.  The same used to be true of System Center Orchestrator, but over the last year that has changed a lot… I have integrated it into my courseware, and I have spent some time learning it and using it in production environments for repetitive tasks.  While I am certainly not an expert in it, I am at least more than just familiar with it.  That familiarity may have helped me on one exam question.  Had I taken the time to review the exam page on the Microsoft Learning Experience website I would have known that the word Orchestrator does not appear anywhere on the page.

Here’s the problem with Microsoft exams… especially the newer ones that do not simply cover a product, but an entire solution across multiple suites.  Very few of us will use and know every aspect covered on the exam.  That is why I have always professed that no matter how familiar you may be with the primary technology covered, you should always review the exam page and fill in your knowledge gaps with the proper studying.  You should even spend a few hours reviewing the material that you are pretty sure you do know.  As I told my teenaged son when discussing his exams, rarely will you have easy exams… if you feel it was easy it just means you were sufficiently prepared.  Five questions into today’s exam I regretted my blasé attitude towards it – I may be a virtualization expert, but I was not adequately prepared.

As I went through the exam I started to get into a groove… while there are some aspects of Hyper-V that I have not implemented, those are few and far between.  the questions about VHDX files, Failover Clustering, Shared VHDX, Generation 2 VMs, and so many more came around and seemed almost too easy, but like I told my son it just means I am familiar with the material.  There were one or two questions which I considered to be very poorly worded, but I reread the questions and the answers and gave my best answer based on my understanding of them.

I have often described the time between pressing ‘End Exam’ and the appearance of the Results screen to be an extended period of excruciating forced lessons in patience.  That was not the case today – I was surprised that the screen came up pretty quickly.  While I certainly did not ace the exam, I did pass, and not with the bare minimum score.   It was certainly a phew moment for a guy who considers himself pretty smart in virtualization.

Now here’s the question… is the exam a really tough one, or was I simply not prepared and thus considered it tough?  And frankly, how tough could it have been if I didn’t prepare, and passed anyways?  I suppose that makes two questions.  The answer to both is that while I did not prepare for the exam, I am considered by many (including Microsoft) a SME on Hyper-V and System Center.  I can say with authority that it was a difficult exam.  That then leads to the next question, is it too tough?  While I did give that some thought as I left the exam (my first words to the proctor was ‘Wow that was a tough exam!) I do not think it is unreasonably so.  It will require a lot of preparation – not simply watching the MVA Jump Start videos (which are by the way excellent resources, and should be considered required watching for anyone planning to sit the exam).  You will need to build your own environment, do a lot of reading and research, and possibly more.

If you do plan to sit this exam, make sure you visit the exam page first by clicking here.  Make sure you expand and review the Overview and Skills Measured sections.  If you review the Preparation Materials section it will refer you to a five day course that is releasing next week from Microsoft Learning Experience – 20409A- Server Virtualization with Windows Server Hyper-V and System Center (5 Days).  I am proud to say that I was involved with the creation of that course, and that it will help you immensely, not only with the exam but with your real-world experience.

Incidentally, passing the exam gives you the following cert: Microsoft Certified Specialist: Server Virtualization with Hyper-V and System Center.

Good luck, and go get em!

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!