If you're a Windows developer, you've probably considered taking certification exams for the Microsoft .NET platform.
You've probably also read about the specialized .NET track that Microsoft Corp. added to its revised "certs" program. But how can you decide whether taking the grueling .NET exams constitutes a smart career move?
The short answer: It depends. Experts say that the value of .NET certification varies, depending on your programming experience and career goals. .NET is an object-oriented programming (OOP) environment that Microsoft created to help companies use the Web, rather than their own computers, for various services.
Microsoft intends for the .NET platform to become the next-generation operating system, and the software giant is pushing adoption through the array of business and development partnerships it has in place with companies. That means most Windows programmers will learn .NET sooner or later.
Computing analysts consider .NET to be flexible because of its interoperability with other languages and also because it is oriented around XML-based Web services. "This feels similar to me as the transition from DOS to Windows," said John Robbins, chief executive of consulting firm Wintellect. "If you're working in the Windows space, .NET will be the programming language of choice within two years."
Still, certification is a little like earning your high school diploma. It denotes that you passed the test -- not necessarily that you mastered the material. Newcomers to programming may need certification to gain much-needed job credibility. More experienced programmers won't derive as much benefit. "The tests don't teach developers to solve problems, which is what clients are looking for," said Robbins.
In fact, developers with a working knowledge of objects and classes probably won't need certification for .NET unless their employers require it. "If you've got Java or C++ experience, you should have little trouble adjusting to .NET," said John Smiley, president of John Smiley and Associates.
A few years ago, the line between certification and career advancement was much clearer. "During the heyday, salaries often were tied to certification. I'm not sure how much of that is going on now," said Smiley, who also teaches certification courses at Penn State University.
Certification guru Ed Tittel, who is editor of the Exam Cram 2 and Training Guide series of books, said that certification usually is sought by:
- Individual developers who need additional credentials to break into consulting work
- Companies that are required to certify developers or administrators as part of Microsoft partnering agreements
- Companies developing applications for Microsoft environments, even if they aren't Microsoft partners
"The fact of the matter is that the more senior a development job is, the less a hiring manager cares about certification," Tittel said.
Microsoft awards certification to candidates who pass a series of complex exams, which test you on a specialized track of knowledge. The Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA) and Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) exam series are taken by administrators and network engineers. Exams for software developers include the Microsoft Certified Applications Developer (MCAD) and the Microsoft Certified Solutions Developer (MCSD) tests.
Earlier this year, Microsoft added three .NET exams to its certification program: "Developing and Implementing Windows-based Applications with Microsoft Visual Basic .NET and Microsoft Visual Studio .NET," (Exam 70-306); "Developing XML Web Services and Server Components with Microsoft Visual Basic .NET and the Microsoft .NET Framework," (Exam 70-310); and "Analyzing Requirements and Defining Microsoft .NET Solution Architectures," (Exam 70-300).
There are close to 150,000 MCSEs, and the number of MCSAs is jumping by 7,000 to 10,000 a month, Tittel said. Conversely, developer certifications are much lower -- about 800 to 1,000 MCSDs and 500 to 600 MCADs per month. "That reflects the realities of the marketplace: There are fewer jobs for developers than for administrators," Tittel said.
Resistance to change
Whether they get certified or not, developers need to recognize .NET's potential for changing how services get delivered. "I still get a lot of e-mail from C++ and Visual Basic developers who say, 'I don't see any benefit to .NET, so I'm not going to touch it.' The world is going to pass them by very quickly," said Wintellect's Robbins.
.NET adoption has been unremarkable so far, yet it's following the historical pattern of other Microsoft rollouts. In April 2002, for instance, Microsoft announced that new licenses for Windows 2000 Server topped 50% for the first time -- nearly three years after its rollout. Expect a similar timetable for .NET, which experts say could emerge as the dominant enterprise development platform as early as 2005.
Whether through certification or self-study, Smiley said, programmers -- especially newcomers to the field -- should be getting ready. "Everyone I know is talking about starting some .NET development in four to six months," he said.
Garry Kranz is a freelance business and technology journalist in Richmond, Va.