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The changing face of Microsoft certification

How certifications impact job market and how Microsoft plans to maximize certification value.

Recently, I interviewed Dan Truax, Director of Microsoft Certification Business and Product Strategy, who offered some valuable insight on the whys and wherefores of Microsoft's certification programs.

But first some history: 10 years ago, as computing technology became an important and useful workplace tool, IT certifications like MCSE and CNE helped identify an emerging class of system and network administrators, observed Truax. Many of these people came to IT from other fields (my own original training is in anthropology, for example) and sought credentials to verify that they possessed basic skills, knowledge and competence. This led to some great waves of certification, during which time these credentials offered IT professionals a quick and easy way to establish technical credibility and find good jobs.

But the IT market has matured since the early 1990s and circumstances have changed dramatically. IT today is an established field of academic study; many professionals go straight from school to work. Career changers still seek to enter IT from other fields, but they no longer represent the majority of entrants. More people with more diverse ranges of skills, knowledge and abilities work in IT, so certification plays different and more specific roles than it once did. It's also no longer an absolute guarantee of employment.

Truax's current view of Microsoft certifications distributes them across three families:

  • Career enablement: These certs identify entry- or novice-level IT professionals just starting in the field, who want to demonstrate skills and knowledge suitable for junior-level positions. The core Microsoft Office Specialist credentials fall into this category, as do MCSA (system administration), MCDST (desktop support), and MCAD (software development).
  • Career advancement: These certs identify individuals with real experience in certain areas of IT, who know the tools and technologies involved, but who also understand business processes, problem solving and planning and design issues. MCSD, MCSE, and MCDBA credentials fall into this category, as do Expert-level Microsoft Office Specialist certs.
  • Career specialization: Key focus areas emerge from customer input on important topics and technologies, and from job task analysis to determine how to set an appropriate focus for current areas like messaging and security. Advanced IT professionals can specialize to tighten their focus on specific career interests and activities. MCSA and MCSE specialization in security and messaging qualify here, as do Microsoft Office Specialist Master and specialization credentials.

Microsoft's underlying approach is to define various levels of study, skills development and professional engagement for those who work with their tools and technologies. Constant changes and updates to program elements and requirements create needs for lifelong learning and professional development. These should keep MS training, programs and credentials in motion for a long time to come—at least, as long as the market is there!

Ed Tittel is a regular contributor on certification topics for numerous TechTarget sites, and a contributing editor and columnist for Certification Magazine. He also developed and still edits the Exam Cram 2 series of certification prep books.

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