Cert Group Q&A: Making Progress on Program Improvements

Microsoft's certification group faces its fans and critics, offering insights into the latest program changes.

(San Diego, Calif.) The Microsoft Training and Certification group is getting the message about certifications. Credentials are good, but without experience to back it up, it's like a Mercedes without an engine: It may look nice, but won't get you very far.

During a panel discussion at MCP Magazine's TechMentor conference, Ken Rosen, product manager for Microsoft's MCSE and MCSA programs, said "We can't emphasize enough that you get hands-on experience" and use certifications to supplement the experience, not the other way around.

The Training and Certification group is actually now part of the broader Microsoft Learning group, which consists of the Training and Certification group, MS Press and TechNet. After a brief overview of the new training and certification options (including new Exchange and updated security specializations announced in the last two days; click here and here to read them), the five-member panel took audience questions.

In response to a question about whether Microsoft is working to make employers aware of the value of certification for their IT employees, Eckhart Boehme, Product Manager for the MCDBA program, said that Microsoft is currently researching the performance of MCPs vs. non-MCPs on IT staffs. He also pointed to one study that showed that employees who hold the MCDBA (Microsoft Certified Database Administrator) and MCSD (Microsoft Certified Solution Developer) credentials come in No. 1 and No. 2 in terms of return on investment for employers.

One attendee wondered why MCTs (Microsoft Certified Trainers) aren't required to pass an exam for a class they're teaching. So, for instance, an MCSE who's never taken a test on Microsoft SQL Server could still teach SQL classes. "I've got a problem with that," the questioner asked, to cheers.

"I agree with you," Rosen answered. "I'd want to know what credentials they have" too, he said. He added, though, that some courses don't always have a corresponding exam or one-to-one mapping of the material and a test. He also pointed out that MCTs are required to hold a premier title, either an MCSE, MCSD or MCDBA, and to periodically update that credential. He suggested that prospective students ask to see a trainer's credentials and check out their background to make sure they're qualified. A trainer for New Horizons, one of the world's largest training companies, supported Rosen's position, stating that for "a lot of the classes I teach, there's no exams for it."

Another questioner took an informal poll of the people in attendance and asked if they would be willing to take some sort of lab practical in order to add value to their credential. Most hands went up in answer to the question, and the follow-up about whether they'd be willing to pay more for that kind of test.

David Lowe, Product Manager for messaging (Exchange) and security, said Microsoft "has been investing in ways to improve the quality of certification exams," and said the tests have become more skills-focused and less knowledge-focused. "We've implemented much more real-world questions" and new exam items that are "less of the 'pick one option from four'" types.

Several speakers said that Microsoft continues to look at ways to innovate on tests and make them more of a measure of technical skill, but that there were no imminent announcements on possible lab components of tests.

A number of questions were directed at ways to demonstrate currency in the field. One questioner pointed to way doctors must accumulate a certain number of continuing education credits and asked if Microsoft had considered something similar. The panel didn't indicate any plans to implement a system like that. It would be too hard for Microsoft to verify that type of information, Rosen mentioned.

Panelists included Rosen, Lowe, Boehme, Andy Ruth, product planner for the MCSA program, and Nigel Euling, product manager for the Microsoft Skills Assessment program.

About the Author

Keith Ward is the editor in chief of Visual Studio Magazine.

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Reader Comments:

Mon, Sep 8, 2003 want2be Anonymous

I have to agree taking the exams don't make you an "engineer or administrator or programmer or whatever" but it does show the learning capability and the desire. One would also have a good foundation to start their OTJ. For twenty years I've wanted that experience but no one would even consider a low life auto mechanic, "what good is that back ground for IT?" Never mind I have to be everything except an auto mechanic to be an auto technician. Let's see, an electrician, Electronic technician, Diagnotician, Network Technician, Phone Technician, oh ya let's not forget factory TV, communications, Sound systems. Let's see now, Cad Northstar can have as many as 32 computers with the majority being networked but being just a low life auto mechanic who would ever consider giving me a shot to get that experience. I may still never get that chance but it wont be because I didn't try and I'm willing to spend my time and my money getting the certifications to prove my willingness and my desire to work in an IT. I don't care what cert I get I would never use it to try to land that top position. I still look for an entry level position and only use the minimum cert that is require to at least get an interview. Maybe MS should offer in entry level cert program and one for the ones that has the years of experience. Just my opinion, not try to offend anyone.

Sat, Sep 6, 2003 Slauenwhite CT

1) Labs exams aren't inherently better than Scenario exams. Labs often focus on one or two topologies for implementation. Most exam prep companies would find a way to present the most 'common' scenarios and trouble shooting paths in digest form (cookbooks) for implementation. you can be sure that designs that take two weeks in the real world to set up and configure would not be among those tested--MS isn't trying to create exams that 'exclude' the majority of test takers. Scenarios can accomplish much more by emphasizing decision making under many topologies.

2) Certification accomplishes just so much. When we call a MCSP (sic) for help we grill them to make sure they understand the integration issues. If we are setting up various VPN scenarios with combinations of Cisco, ISA and Citrix products we want someone that's done it before. Calling the 'certified' help is just the start. Would someone that passed a pricey lab exam be of more value? Only if they had the specific experience we are looking for. The current exams work well for a first level screen. I can't envision any exam replacing a good phone interview.

3) Convincing employers that they should pay for exams is different than saying certified people are more productive. Employers seem to like hiring certified people. Why they don't always see the value in continuing technical education/certification for their current employees is an old issue. It's one area where MS could really improve marketing and outreach.

4) I'd rather have a trainer with current industry experience than one that passed a 'specific' exam. Someone with industry experience can take one look at the MS curriculum and know where the 'holes' are in a course--what's missing that is vital to doing the job--including other background material or third party tools. Exams in a specific content area don't replace that experience. Nothing replaces grilling the trainer to find out if they suit your needs--with or without a 'course specific' exam. For me, someone with recent data warehouse experience that can talk about real-life production issues with maintaining slowly changing dimensions and optimizing virtual cubes and the strengths and weaknesses of MS OLAP vs using Relational Data to get to certain levels of granularity--that person isn't screened by an exam. MS wisely chose to set a minimum requirement (premium cert) and let the market decide how to do further screening of MCTs--if you want one with the DW exam but no industry experience--go for it. Nothing is stopping you. If a CTEC can get a guy for a couple weeks that came off a recent implementation -- dont' stop me from getting that person because they just aren't going to spend the time taking additional exams to an inane point of atomicity.

Sat, Sep 6, 2003 Anonymous Anonymous

If I were one of those attendees, I suggest MS should implement a lab exam. Yet by doing so, and with so many MS technologies (eg Windows, Exchange, SQL, etc), one single lab exam isn't realistic. However, if one lab exam for each technology, then MS will have so many specializations offered. Again this is unrealistic. So finding a way to balance the number of exams yet with lab exam is the key. Say MCSE needs 1 MC exam and a lab exam - similar to RHCE. Now having passed it will get you MCSE but theoretically and practically that only covers Windows (both administration and design in network, directory, security, etc) and nothing else. So by having another similar structure for Exchange or SQL server will get people the Messaging specialization and MCDBA respectively. Now is this look repetitive if for every technology a pair of MC and lab exam is needed. Since MS cover so many areas in their certs, having specializations may be equivalent to having a cert for each technology. Therefore, whichever route MS is going having new certs for particular technology or having specialization within MCSE or MCSA, MS needs to figure out how to incorporate those less used products into specialization or cert

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