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New certifications will become reality in 2006

Exams, curricula and processes for Microsoft's revamped certifications will begin to appear in 2006, and the program will expand as Windows Vista, Exchange 12 and Office 12 are released. But IT professionals may be too busy upgrading software to upgrade their own credentials.

In 2006, Microsoft will ramp up its redesigned certifications program, publishing curricula and offering the first exams for the new SQL Server 2005-based credentials and rolling out new certifications. That's all in conjunction with its anticipated major product releases for Windows Vista, Exchange 12 and Office 12.

The new model offers three levels of certification: Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (MCTS), Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP), and the high-level Microsoft Certified Architect.

MCTS certifications are to be focused on the mastery of a single product technology while MCITP credentials are tied to job skills. The Microsoft Certified Architect designation requires demonstration of both high-level technology expertise and business management skills.

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The first of the new certifications, based on SQL Server 2005 and BizTalk Server 2006, were unveiled in October. There's an MCTS for each of the new software products (MCTS: SQL Server 2005 and MCTS: BizTalk Server 2006), and each requires one exam -- but the exams are presently still in beta. These technical specialist exams will be generally available first, "shortly after the holidays," according to Al Valvano, Microsoft's director of learning certifications.

MCITP credentials have been established for Database Developers, Database Administrators and Business Intelligence Developers. These certifications require two exams in addition to the MCTS: SQL Server 2005 certifying test. Valvano said the additional tests will be rolled out over the first six months of next year.

The Microsoft Certified Architect program will also begin accepting applications in 2006. The credential will be available in two flavors: Infrastructure Architect and Solutions Architect. Candidates must have at least 10 years of IT experience to apply. If accepted into the program, each will work with a mentor and submit a portfolio of work and experience and undergo review by a five-person board. In time, the boards will be made up of previously certified architects.

The program is so ambitious that it is being subjected to an extensive pilot process. "It's extremely manual and labor intensive," Valvano said. "We schedule everything by hand; we bring people to one location. We give each review board an aggressive post-mortem."

"It's a very different thing" than any certification program Microsoft has established before, Valvano said. "We need a couple more months to make sure it's right before we start accepting applications." Expect this one to go live in early 2006.

Microsoft plans to continue the revamp of its certification program with new certifications tied to the releases of Windows Vista, Exchange 12 and Office 12. The new certifications will follow the same model established for SQL Server 2005, with MCTS credentials available for each product and a range of job-linked MCITP options built upon them.

SQL, Visual Studio, BizTalk lead the way

Valvano said the focus of training and certification in the first half of 2006 would be on SQL Server, Visual Studio and BizTalk, and the second half of the year would be dominated by the Vista, Exchange and Office releases. "Windows Vista will have a tremendous impact on our programs as we help deploy, support, implement and prepare for it. Exchange 12 will also be fairly major … for the certification family," he said.

The interest is still more theoretical and a matter of curiosity, rather than motivated by on-the-job requirements at this point.
Ed Tittel, certification expert,

The new certifications were designed to respond to the needs of hiring managers and IT professionals in the workplace, but it remains to be seen how popular they will be. At least some DBAs do see improved value in the new model, though. "The previous certifications were too broad and too general," said Norman Nalupta, a senior IT consultant in Berkeley, Calif., who has an MCDBA in SQL Server. "If you wanted to learn or become expert in a particular area, they didn't serve your purpose," he said.

Nalupta is looking forward to the new database certifications. "I use certifications to fast-track the learning curve," he said. The unknown is how fast he and his colleagues will jump on the new credentials.

"The interest is still more theoretical and a matter of curiosity, rather than motivated by on-the-job requirements at this point," said Austin, Texas-based certification expert Ed Tittel.

"A lot of people are still upgrading to SQL Server 2005," he said, adding that many companies will be so immersed in that upgrade that they won't even be moving to Windows Vista for a year or two. And it's only after that, Tittel predicts, that they'll start thinking about certifications.

Even then, he said, "people are looking for ways of improving their soft skills," rather than gaining more technical certifications. He sees more interest among IT professionals in project and personnel management skills -- ones that focus on process or personal career growth.

Because of its business-savvy requirements, the architect program may prove to be popular with those mid-career professionals. "It's straddling being smart about how business works and being smart about technology. So it has some hope of attracting genuine interest. But it's still way too early to tell," said Tittel.

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