Many programmers are wondering whether to take the plunge and become a Microsoft Certified Solution Developer (MCSD). Some wonder if the benefits are worth a sizeable investment of time, effort, and money. The answer is obvious, according to one expert.
James Foxall is vice president of Omaha, Nebraska-based Tigerpaw Software, Inc. and a Visual Basic author. His new book, MCSD in a Nutshell: The Visual Basic Exams, is a study guide and resource to help developers review some of the common Visual Basic-related development technologies and master development concepts that may be less familiar to them. SearchVB Assistant News Editor Eric B. Parizo recently spoke with Foxall about certification strategy:
SearchVB: When did you earn your MCSD certification?
Foxall: Sometime earlier this year... in January of this year. I've been certified in VB since version 3, but I never bothered to take the Windows architecture test to finish off the full MCSD. So when the new exam came out (Solutions Architecture) and replaced the older exams, I went ahead and took that to complete my certification.
I've always been interested in finishing the MCSD. I looked at the Windows architecture exams, and they didn't thrill me a lot. They didn't seem relevant to what I was doing. When I started to look at writing the MCSD book on the Visual Basic exams, I thought I'd have much more credibility if I finished off my MCSD. I didn't want to take the two Windows architecture exams, but I had to take the VB 5 exam. After I finished the two VB6 exams for my book, I ended up being one exam short, so that's what prompted me to finish it off.
SearchVB: Instructor-led training is certainly not cheap and may cost several thousand dollars. One can find several self-study courses on CD-ROM on the market now. In your opinion, are these self-study courses a viable method to prepare for the exams or are instructor led classes a necessity?
Foxall: I'm boggled at what they're charging for the instructor-led classes. If you have a core competency, in order to get certified I think the good self-study material should be good enough. I certainly feel if you have real-world experience and you know about what you're doing, then the self-study should definitely be adequate.
Again, the one exception is people who may be very good [at] certain aspects of VB, but don't know all the core competencies. But I also feel really comfortable because I use the product for a living, but there were some areas I needed to brush up on too, so I felt I could do that with some good books. For me, it was more like, 'I need to learn something about MTS.' So, I went and got an MTS book.
SearchVB: What is your preferred method of preparing for the Visual Basic exams?
Foxall: First of all, I definitely think you should use the product. I know that sounds odd, but there are a lot of people who use it occasionally and want the certification for marketability. You're way behind if you're only building simple forms, if you don't understand COM or early binding versus late binding -- you're going to be in trouble.
I advocate really taking a close look at the objectives of the exam. The exams are almost 100% technology oriented. You have to demonstrate an understanding of the Microsoft technologies. You might be a good coder, but you're going to have to touch on these other technology subjects or you might be in trouble.
If you don't understand one of the objectives on the exam, you're going to miss questions. It's as simple as that.
SearchVB: As an MCSD yourself, why do you feel it's important for developers to seek certification? Is certification a necessary step in a Visual Basic developer's career path?
Foxall: I've seen various comments on that. Certainly studies show that you can make more money as an MCSD. I'm somebody who's hired developers, and it's hard to know how much they really know and how good they are. Certification is certainly something that -- when you walk in the door -- has some instant validity.
Certification doesn't mean you're going to write good applications, but it shows you have a working knowledge of the things that are really important. I recommend to any developer that they take the exams. If they don't have certification, they should seriously consider it.
It's funny, nobody's ever asked me about my college background, but they always ask me about my certification. That's really intriguing.
SearchVB: Who is the target audience for your book?
Foxall: The target audience is actually professional developers that are seeking certification. It's absolutely not a quick cram book for a guy who has some basic knowledge and wants to seek certification.
Most of the other cert books... I hate them! I wanted to write the book I wish I had when I was taking the exam. A lot of the material [in other books], is superfluous; you're not getting anything out of it, and certainly once you take an exam, those study materials become useless.
What we did is we cut out all the extraneous material. You're going to get about 600 pages of hard-core material. My chapter about ActiveX controls is 100 pages. It was written to actually teach the material. I didn't want to just give information to kind of help you get the answers to the questions on the exams. I want to actually teach you things, so when you take it you can pass because you actually understand the material.
SearchVB: How can your book specifically help those preparing for the Visual Basic exams?
Foxall: First of all, the book is written in a textbook format, where I actually teach everything. I've kept out [of the chapters] handfuls of code samples. At the end of each chapter, there are exercises; but you don't do any of that in the chapters. Many people aren't actually doing that reading at the computers, so I wanted to create a book where you don't have to be at the computer to learn this stuff.
To back that up, there are massive amounts of questions and answers, very much like what you'd have on the exam. If you can pass all the questions at the back of each chapter, you won't have any trouble on the exams; there aren't just a few token questions. In support of those questions, we did key fact questions, bulleted lists of all the things you need to know in the exam.
SearchVB:What are some of the hurdles facing certification seekers and what can they do to overcome them?
Foxall:One is being familiar with the technology. I do a lot with Visual Basic; I do custom development, I write books, and there are still areas of VB that I don't use. But to pass the exams, you have to understand things like MTS. All the database questions [on the exam] are on ADO, so you need to know ADO. ActiveX docs are a solution that was looking for a problem; very few people use them, but there are lots of questions about them on the test. You have to learn the technologies!
Another area is packaging and deploying documents. People like me, I primarily use a third party tool to create distributions for applications, but you have to understand Microsoft Package and Deployment Wizard, thoroughly!
SearchVB: Typically, do MCSDs make more than similarly skilled developers?
Foxall: Absolutely. I've had headhunters say they've got these programmers for me, and I said what I'm really looking for is someone with their MCSD... I've been told that if I was able to find someone with that certification, I could expect to pay around $20,000 more for them.
SearchVB: How much of a salary increase can a MCSD reasonably expect?
Foxall: Obviously it varies across the country, but there were guys who might go for $65 or $70-thousand who may go for more like $90-thousand [with certification].
SearchVB: Are you seeing companies offering to pay for talented but uncertified programmers to get their certification?
Foxall: You're seeing that, but there's one huge issue with that, and that's retention. You hate to train a guy and have him jump ship. I've run into companies who consider it, but not so much who are doing it because of that issue. We [at Tigerpaw Software] offer something for our employees, where we pay for any exams that you pass because we know there's value to the company to do that.
For more information:
To learn the best ways to study and prepare for the MCSD Visual Basic Exams, join us for a Live Expert Q&A on Friday October 19th at 3:00 PM EDT (19:00 GMT) to discuss preparing for the MCSD Visual Basic Exams. James Foxall, the author of MCSD In a Nutshell: The Visual Basic Exams takes your questions.