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Status of Microsoft certs: An interview with Al Valvano, Microsoft Learning

Career expert Ed Tittel recently spoke with Microsoft Learning Group Project Manager Al Valvano about what's on tap for Microsoft's certification programs, and how they will be affected by the upcoming release of Windows Vista.

At the end of February, I conducted a telephone interview with Al Valvano, Group Project Manager at Microsoft Learning, and a leading light in the company's certification efforts. While I had been expecting a fairly routine status report on new and upcoming credentials and efforts, what I got was a nice overview of what's new, what's interesting, and what's underway with the company's numerous new credentials and certification programs.

Ed TittelEd Tittel

As far as the Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (MCTS), IT Professional (MCITP), and Professional Developer (MCPD) credentials go, Valvano indicated that exam schedules remained on track and that roll-outs should continue as planned. Interestingly, he also reported that demand for beta seats was much higher than expected, particularly for developer and database exams, so that results from the betas should really help deliver the best possible production exams when they're released.

He also indicated that their priorities have been and remain to "[elevate] the types of experience and knowledge necessary to establish strong alignment between job roles and exam coverage," especially where exam scenarios and more interactive questions come into play. In fact, Valvano believes that initial beta and early exam results validate Microsoft's desires to make exams more effective at helping IT professionals demonstrate specific knowledge and skills, and suitability for handling Microsoft technologies and taking on definite job roles.

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As far as the top-tier Microsoft Certified Architect credential goes, Valvano reported that Microsoft Learning is still busy fleshing out the program and putting all the necessary infrastructure in place. Mentoring and peer review requirements for applications and submissions has meant the company is working hard to establish a core cadre of certified and thoroughly vetted architects to provide the necessary nucleus of expertise and oversight needed to make the program operate. He indicated they're planning to have 100-120 professionals certified by mid-2006.

He also reported that moving this initial pilot group through the program has been beneficial in checking the design and workability of the application, testing, and submission processes, but that additional work will be needed before it can go public.

The company is working toward defining mechanisms for soliciting and accepting public applications, handling payments, matching accepted candidates with mentors, facilitating information sharing, and providing examples to illustrate what kinds of background, experience, and submissions are most likely to ensure a successful certification experience. At the same time, pilot efforts in Europe and India have also been conducted, to make sure the program will be global in scope when opened to the public. When pressed for a date as to when that might happen, Valvano indicated it was still too early to say for sure, but that the program could possibly be available late in 2006.

As far as credentials for the upcoming releases of numerous Windows Vista versions, while I felt like I had to ask Mr. Valvano what might be up in that arena, I didn't expect to get much information in return (Microsoft is usually pretty tight with information about planned but as-yet unscheduled certification credentials and exams). To my great surprise, Valvano volunteered the following nuggets of information:

  • Microsoft Learning is working closely with other internal development groups to keep up with Windows Vista releases and new related tools and technologies.
  • New Technical Specialist and IT Professional credentials are planned around those releases, and there should be "some interesting opportunities for IT professionals here because of the large number of job roles" the new release is likely to open up.
  • Microsoft is looking beyond traditional enterprise job roles and requirements as it formulates exams for these new credentials, and is "looking hard at supporting people in the small-to-medium business (SMB) sector" as well. This is very welcome news, because it means that the company also recognizes that infrastructure needs and usage profiles are diverging for these often vastly different business situations.

With Windows Vista desktop operating systems likely to appear late in 2006 and server offerings later in 2007, there's still plenty of time for more details to trickle out. But this is both interesting and welcome news, with more "early warning" on the shape of things to come than I've heard from Microsoft in the past.

Finally, as proof that asking for information can sometimes make a difference, I also pointed out to the Microsoft Learning staff that it had been quite a while since the MCPs Around the World Web page had been updated and asked if they could post some new numbers. As if by magic, those numbers were updated within a week or so, with assurances that more quarterly updates would be forthcoming henceforth! More on those in my next tip.

About the author:
Ed Tittel is a long-time follower of the IT certification market, who usually keeps at least one eye on what Microsoft is doing. Among other things, Ed created (and edited) the Exam Cram cert prep book series from 1997 through 2005; he's also a contributing editor for Certification Magazine. E-mail Ed at

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