In-Depth

Redmond's Top 10 Hot Certs for 2008

Here are our predictions for next year's fastest-climbing certifications.

When it comes to IT certification, there's no such thing as a perfect, "one-size-fits-all" title for every candidate or every job. Some employers don't even care if their candidates are certified (see "Certification: No Magic Bullet").

Still, it's helpful to know what your peers, coworkers and competition are planning in the next year. That's why we're taking a stab at predicting the 10 certifications we think will be "hot" over the next year. By hot, we don't necessarily mean the most popular. If that was the criteria, Microsoft's MCP would always be first. We're talking about the ones we think will climb the fastest over the coming year, like "hot singles" on Billboard's charts.

With all the new certifications Microsoft has launched in the last year (28 and counting) and most of you being Microsoft-focused, it's no surprise that the company's new titles would dominate our top 10 hot certs for 2008. So what exactly is Microsoft's new certification structure?

Here's a quick primer if you aren't familiar with the next generation of certifications from Redmond:

Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (MCTS): This is the new first level of Microsoft's certification program. It's basically the company's new Microsoft Certified Professional track, with entry-level titles that take from one to three exams to earn.

  • Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP): This is the next step up for networking professionals, with its titles roughly equivalent to MCSE. There are currently five MCITP titles. These are considered higher-level because of the technology they cover and their focus on job roles.
  • Microsoft Certified Professional Developer (MCPD): This is the other group of mid-level certifications Microsoft is offering for developers. Right now, there are three MCPD titles, all for specific job roles: Web developer, Windows developer and enterprise applications developer.
  • Microsoft Certified Architect: This is the brand-new, high-level certification. Architecture professionals earn this title based on an intense peer-review process. That and its $10,000 price tag will ensure that it remains elite for years to come.
Survey Methodology
We asked readers responding to our salary survey to tell us what certifications they hold, plus what they plan to earn during the next 18 months. We converted this data into a point scale, which is the biggest part of our scoring equation. We also added data culled from a survey of 408 hiring managers to see which of these titles they wanted most, and included general buzz from the industry to make sure the final 10 titles are truly worthy of being "hot certs." (For more on what hiring managers are thinking, see "What Do Hiring Managers Want?") --B.N.

That's the basic framework. So here's our best guess at what we think will be the top 10 hottest certifications over the next year. Let us know what you think -- post your personal top 10 at the bottom of this article.

10: MCPD: Web Developer
This is the only MCPD certification to make our top 10 list. This will be the title to identify yourself as a Web developer with well-rounded .NET skills. And for most who get the MCTS: .NET Web 2.0 title, it requires passing only one additional exam.

9: MCTS: Vista Configuration
This one-exam title is basically the equivalent of an MCP or Microsoft's Certified Desktop Support Technician (MCDST) for Vista. It's one of only a handful of titles in Microsoft's new certification lineup that's Vista-specific. Look for this cert to pick up steam.

What Do Hiring Managers Want?

While the top 10 hot certs list is compiled of up-and-coming certifications, many hiring managers' top choices are still "oldies but goodies." Here are the top 10 certs they told us they look for:

  1. Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP)
  2. Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE): Windows 2003
  3. Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA): Windows 2003
  4. Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA)
  5. CompTIA A+
  6. Microsoft Certified Desktop Support Technician (MCDST)
  7. MCSE: Security
  8. Microsoft Certified Database Administrator (MCDBA): SQL 2000
  9. CompTIA Network+
  10. MCSE: Messaging
--B.N.

8: MCSE: Messaging
This is the only "old-school" Microsoft designation to make our list. Thanks to its recognizable MCSE brand along with the well-documented need for Exchange and messaging experts, this title blasted past fierce competition from newer Microsoft certifications. If you want a certification tied to your Exchange skills, go for this MCSE.

7: Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP)
This long-running and highly respected mid-level certification from Cisco Systems Inc. is the only title to break the Microsoft juggernaut on our top 10 list. All of Cisco's certifications have an excellent reputation, thanks to lots of hands-on questions throughout almost every exam, high visibility with hiring managers and IT professionals alike, and covering hardware that's basically ubiquitous across all networks.

Where's No. 6?
This is a list of top 10 certifications total, and two certifications tied for fifth place -- so we skipped sixth place on the list.

5 (Tie): MCITP Database Developer and MCTS .NET Web 2.0
These are two new Microsoft certifications you may not have heard of -- yet. The MCTS: .NET Web 2.0 title is the first step for any Web developer's 2.0-certification path, and requires just two exams. Considering the Web-based direction development is heading, it's not surprising the only two development-related titles to make this list are both Web-focused. The MCITP Database Developer is one of several database-related titles to make the top half of this list.

4: MCTS: SQL Server 2005 Business Intelligence:
How did a such a specialized SQL certification land so high on this list? SQL is hot, and BI is where the real money is coming. If you're going to certify your SQL BI skills, this is the perfect solution. Few IT hiring managers recognize this title yet, but the combination of high reader-desirability plus excellent buzz make this the SQL specialization title to get in 2008.

3: MCITP: Enterprise Support Technician
How do you get ahead as a support technician? Focusing on the enterprise may be one way. Enterprise shops by nature have more complicated environments, and since they're generally larger, they typically pay more.

2: Microsoft Certified Architect
This is the be-all, end-all of the new Microsoft certifications: a $10,000 price tag, rigorous testing through a live peer-review panel, and pre-qualifications that exclude all but the most experienced IT professionals. With experienced Microsoft architects earning more than $100,000 per year, expect to see this title in this lofty position for years to come.

Certification: No Magic Bullet

While many of our IT manager readers expressed a preference for one or more certifications, a full 25 percent said they don't look for any credential. A few even ventured to say that certification can be a negative.

"Certifications only prove that the candidates can pass tests -- nothing more," comments one reader. "Holding a certification doesn't correlate [with] the ability to do the work, and often indicates an inability to do the work," says another.

The fact that many IT and hiring managers don't consider certification a plus shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Back in the certification heydays of the late '90s, many companies were burned when candidates were hired based on their certifications and little else. Employers soon caught on to "paper certifications" -- those who learned only through books and training.

While many certification vendors, including Microsoft, have taken steps to improve the difficulty and security of exams, anyone getting certified should know that the value of any title will vary significantly from employer to employer. Here are three basic tips to ensure you make the most out of your certification investment:

1. Don't spend a lot to get certified. Consider self-study books, home labs and online user groups in lieu of expensive, in-person training. If you decide to go the instructor-led route, consider attending a local community college. This will take longer, but you'll most likely pay a lot less.

2. Don't overreach. Many newcomers to IT think if one acronym behind their name is good, five must be better. That thinking couldn't be more wrong. Many IT managers see an acronym soup of certifications as a red flag that the candidate is "paper certified." Most experts recommend looking at the job market in your area, seeing which certifications are most desirable and then pursuing one or two titles at your current level or one step above.

3. Get experience any way you can. Experience is the key for any IT job, but it's a catch-22 for anyone new to the industry. How can you get experience without having a job? Any way you can. Volunteer for a local community organization or school, network within IT user groups and help other members with projects or tinker with a home lab. It's better than walking into a job interview with nothing more than a vendor credential. --B.N.

1: MCTS: SQL Server 2005
SQL is the perfect specialization for most any IT pro, as only the purest networking and hardware tasks don't have some sort of back-end database. Hiring managers love it, and it's a low-level MCTS title, so you can add this SQL specialization to your resume by passing only one exam.

Other titles that made this list might have given us pause, but we're firmly behind any plans you may have to specialize in SQL in the upcoming year.

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