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Microsoft Learning certification needs a revamp

One year after Microsoft Learning canceled two top-tier certification programs, Exchange MVPs discuss what it means for IT pros and how industry certs compare.

It's been one year since Microsoft Learning canceled two top-tier certification programs: Microsoft Certified (Solutions) Master and Microsoft Certified Architect. The move took members of the technical community and several business units within Microsoft by surprise, and the decision was poorly received because of how Microsoft Learning handled it.

The message to cancel each Microsoft Learning certification program was sent on a Friday evening before a long weekend, making it close to impossible for anyone to contact Microsoft about the decision before the next week. The situation left many wondering what Microsoft's real intentions were.

Tim Sneath, who runs Microsoft Learning product development, defended the decision, stating that only a few hundred people had attained the certification and that it was "far fewer than [Microsoft] would have hoped."

To somewhat appease the community of people who achieved the certifications, Sneath hinted that Microsoft Learning was looking to create a new top-tier certification that would maintain the technical rigor its predecessors had without having the same alleged flaws. For instance, Cisco's CCIE was regularly cited as an example.

However, it appears those plans have been shelved. In a recent interview with The Register, Sneath said Microsoft Learning isn't working on a new pinnacle certification. Instead, Microsoft Learning will focus on making existing certifications more difficult to earn.

While I applaud the idea to make the MCSE program more rigorous, many experts think the program is flawed by design and has little chance of ever providing a similar value the Master program offered. The Microsoft Certified Master (MCM) program provided three weeks of intense training from the product group on the Redmond, Wash., campus. Once candidates completed the training and practice labs, they were tested using unique computer-based exams and a six-hour, hands-on qualification lab. There has been nothing else like this since the program's cancelation.

Shortly after a new MCSE exam is launched, the questions and answers for those exams can easily be found on the Internet in "brain dumps," which casts more doubt on the idea. This allows an untrained and inexperienced person to pass the exam with little to no effort, reducing the value of the certificate to close to nothing.

There's no doubt Microsoft has made some odd decisions lately that impact IT pros. Removing its only top-tier certifications, canceling TechNet, offering free migration services to Office 365 and the decision to combine smaller tech in favor of one massive conference are a few memorable ones.

Exchange experts weigh in on effects

Following the Microsoft Learning certification cancelations and this recent string of events, I reached out to fellow certified Masters, MVPs and other IT pros to share their thoughts.

Some experts, such as Jeff Guillet, a principal systems architect at ExtraTeam in San Francisco, and long-time Exchange Server MVP and MCM, consider the MCSE certifications program "a joke," because people can find an exam's content after a release or update. The technical depth of the Masters program was "miles deep" and unlike any other certification or technical training program currently available, he said, because the training now allows him to quickly help customers with a higher quality of work.

"Probably the best part of the training was the access you get to the product team and the pool of fellow masters," Guillet said. "The ability to quickly tap into this huge pool of knowledge has helped me [on] more occasions than I can keep track of."

Other vendors, such as VMware, Cisco and Red Hat Inc. require a lab, practice exam or board review, while Microsoft currently "offers nothing," said Andrew Higginbotham, a technical consultant at Dell and Certified Master in Austin, Texas. His company has a number of MCMs on staff who use their combined knowledge to develop in-house training and mentoring programs for junior consultants and engineers, he said.

"No Microsoft Learning course or certification we've seen has come close to the level Ranger/MCM/MCSM provided," Higginbotham added.

There's no doubt that partners and customers lose a lot without a similar program, Higginbotham said. Before his organization sent its first candidate through Exchange MCM training, Exchange was one of the most heavily escalated products through his company's support channels. Exchange escalations all but disappeared after the company sent people through the Masters Program, which Higginbotham attributes to the advanced knowledge from the program as well as connections made with other Masters and the Product Team.

"These benefits are now gone for future candidates," he said.

A few IT recruiters I spoke with shared similar views about the cancelation, noting they often place little to no value to the MCSA/MCSE certifications because, as one of the recruiters said, they are "no longer a guarantee that someone knows his stuff."

Killing the program hasn't had a huge impact yet, Guillet said. But as the benefits from the Certified Master program fade, partners and customers will be left "with a knowledge gap which will be hard to fill."

Why have certifications in the first place?

So, why do companies such as Citrix, Cisco, VMWare and Microsoft start certification programs? With something like Microsoft Learning certifications, there's obviously the intent to increase product knowledge and decrease the support efforts the vendor provides, but there's more to it than that.

It's about creating an ecosystem. It's a way for vendors to bring professionals closer to their products and increase the customer buy-in over time. After all, someone certified on a product is likely to stick with it.

Other top-level certifications from Cisco and Citrix have shown it's possible to create a pinnacle in certification that's profitable and beneficial for both the vendor and IT pros. Citrix recently announced a few changes to its certification program in an attempt to remain relevant. Plus, the company announced it allow a one-year transition period to give customers time to adjust.

Maybe it's time Microsoft took a lesson from its competitors.

About the author:
Michael Van Horenbeeck is a technology consultant, Microsoft Certified Trainer and Exchange MVP from Belgium, mainly working with Exchange Server, Office 365, Active Directory and a bit of Lync. He has been active in the industry for 12 years and is a frequent blogger, a member of the Belgian Unified Communications User Group Pro-Exchange and a regular contributor to The UC Architects podcast.

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What should Microsoft Learning do to improve its certification programs?
Michael, thanks for your thoughtful article. It's a delicate balance - we want to make the exams tougher and more relevant to real-world scenarios, yet to take friction and cost out of the testing process. The Certified Master program was great for those few who could afford the very high cost, but on our part was incredibly expensive - enough so that it stopped us from investing in other programs and benefits. Now we have the resources to be able to invest not just in our certifications - improving both the experience and the benefits - and also to continue to grow other offerings like Microsoft Virtual Academy - our site for free training. We know the Master program was great for the few who had the benefit of being on it. We didn't end it without a lot of thought; I'd beg your continued patience as we continue to transform our certification program and add depth and rigor across the board.
Tim, thanks for taking the time to respond to this. I'm glad to see that my message didn't go up in thin air. I think we all (MCM community and others) all understand the decision that Microsoft had to make regarding the MCM and MCA programs. So, I don't think that's the real issue. The problem we're seeing is that Microsoft is making a lot of investments in programs such as MVA --which I can applaud to. However, MVA nor the MCSA/MCSE program prove to be a worthy alternative to what the MCSM or MCA program ever was. Nobody is expecting it to come back in the same form as it existed before. But (a lot of) people are eagerly waiting for something which goes beyond what there is today. Cisco's CCIE exames have been quoted regularly; maybe there is something to learn from them. Personally, I think their current program has a pretty good format. One that might be worth investigating...?
very good article