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Microsoft certification program to get a makeover

Microsoft is introducing sweeping changes to its certification program to make credentials more challenging -- and to reward IT professionals who have extensive on-the-job training.

Microsoft is introducing sweeping changes to some of its certification programs that will eventually trickle down to the popular IT professional credentials by the time the next versions of the Windows client and server, code-named Longhorn, ship in 2006 and 2007.

[This is] the perfect time to transition to what their new vision of functional certification should be.

Ed Tittel, consultant


Exam content will have a sharper focus and be more challenging, according to Al Valvano, lead product manager of Microsoft Learning.

The first credentials to be revamped will be within the technology series of exams aimed at database administrators and developers, in support of the release of SQL Server 2005 and Visual Studio 2005 on Nov. 7.

Microsoft is retooling these certifications to reflect specific duties and more diverse job roles than the earlier certification program was able to capture, Valvano said. The certifications will have more of a natural alignment of credentials to job postings. To achieve certification, paths for each will be shorter and the content of the exams will be more granular.

Making years of experience count

One of the problems with the current system is that it's not possible to distinguish between a certified individual with 10 years of experience and another person with only one year of experience, Valvano said.

As one example of how the program will look, the developer track for the Microsoft Certified Database Administrator (MCDBA) credential will have three paths. One path will be for database administrators, one for database developers and one for a business intelligence developer. Each certification will drill down into the core functions of each role.

Microsoft has yet to outline the track for IT professionals, which includes the current Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) and Microsoft Certified System Architect program, but it will be modeled on the program created for database professionals and developers, Valvano said.

Unfair reward for good test takers

One expert said the exam makeover shows that Microsoft is taking seriously the concerns of certification holders and employers who value the credential. In the past five years, the number of people seeking credentials has dipped. Many IT administrators have complained that the credential is watered down by those who can study for the test, and that on-the-job training is a better indicator of skill levels.

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To blunt those criticisms, Microsoft is toughening up the next curriculum. The first credentials, for database administrators and developers, are getting the attention now because of the new related products coming this fall.

They are trying to hit these strategic markets out of the gate, said Ed Tittel, an Austin, Texas-based consultant and author. "They haven't revved the database stuff for a while, but now that SQL Server 2005 is coming out, they have the opportunity to rework the MCDBA curriculum," he said.

"The development track tracks with Visual Studio's release," he added. "[This is] the perfect time to transition to what their new vision of functional certification should be. It gives them a chance to try out these before [Longhorn]."

At TechEd in May, Microsoft released an architecture certification, and has also recently been adding more simulation content to all of its exams. The cost of each exam will remain $125, Microsoft said.

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