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New certifications, same old doubts

Microsoft unveils the first entries in its revamped credentials program today, with offerings based on SQL Server 2005, Visual Studio 2005 and BizTalk Server 2006. The new program will certify technology specialists in specific product areas and award professional credentials targeted to specific job roles. But many IT professionals see the certifications mainly as 'the icing, not the cake.'

Just weeks before one of its biggest product launches, Microsoft unveiled the first entries in its revamped credentials program today with offerings based on the three technologies being released at the launch event -- SQL Server 2005, Visual Studio 2005 and BizTalk Server 2006.

As Microsoft said last June, the new program will certify technology specialists in specific product areas and award professional credentials targeted to specific job roles. But it remains to be seen whether the changes will improve the certification program's credibility or its market share.

"Certifications are kind of weird," says Marti Ball, a database administrator for LCG Technologies Inc., a Baltimore, Md., consulting firm. "You've got to have them, but I know people who don't that are probably better DBAs than the ones who do."

Microsoft's new certifications, which have been in the works for about two years, attempt to address complaints about existing Microsoft certifications -- that they are too general, expensive and time-consuming. The new ones divide the old Microsoft Certified Database Administrator (MCDBA) and Microsoft Certified Application Developer and Solution Developer (MCAD and MCSD) into low-end "technology specialist" credentials that are cheaper and easier to get and higher-end professional certifications.

According to Al Valvano, director of Microsoft learning certifications, the new program is "more focused and modular" and "reduces the overall cost of certification, both the financial cost and the opportunity cost" in terms of the time involved to attain a designation. Valvano likened the technology specialist designations to a bachelor's degree and the professional certifications to a master's degree.

Technology specialist credentials will be available in SQL Server 2005 and BizTalk Server 2006. For Visual Studio 2005 developers, there are separate .NET framework 2.0 technology specialist certifications in Windows applications, Web applications and distributed applications.

The higher-level professional certifications, which are supposed to correspond to real-world job roles, are also subdivided.

For Visual Studio, there are professional developer certifications in Windows, Web and enterprise applications. On the SQL Server side, there are separate IT professional certifications for database administrators, database developers and business intelligence developers.

Some of the distinctions are likely to be lost at hiring time, according Forrester Research Inc.'s principal analyst Alex Cullen. "Clients look for certifications in specific technical disciplines," Cullen said. "They want to know that a candidate knows the platform. And they'll respond to the difference between basic and advanced. But the distinction between enterprise and Web or workstation, that won't mean very much."

Whether the changes will make the new certifications any more valuable to employers than the old ones remains "the $64,000 question," according to Texas-based certification expert Ed Tittel. "Microsoft is betting on it," Tittel said, "and you can count on them to have surveyed their core audience to obtain some confirmation of the value of this strategy."

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It will be some time before it's clear if Microsoft read the market correctly. "The jury's still out, and probably won't come back in until the end of next year at the earliest," Tittle added.

Until then, the value of certifications will remain primarily in the eye of the beholder. "I think certifications are great for those without much hands-on experience or for those with plenty of time on their hands to get certified," said David Greene, an IT technology manager at the South Bay Workforce Investment Board, City of Hawthorne, Calif. "For those with practical experience, certification is icing on the cake, not the cake."

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