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Another round on the certification treadmill

Writer Mike Gunderloy reflects on what recently announced changes to Microsoft's certification exams will mean to developers.

I've been involved with Microsoft's certification programs ever since they were launched, a bit over a decade ago. I remember when the exams asked for such critical IT knowledge as whether a serial port used a male or female DB25 connector. I remember the launch of the MCP, MCSA, MCSE, MCDBA, MCAD, and MCSD certifications -- and I remember sweating the exams to get most of them. I've watched new exams launched and old exams retired, and I've watched people get certified -- and decertified -- on a regular basis.

After all that time, it's no surprise to me that Microsoft is once again revamping its entire certification program. But if you haven't been paying close attention, it may be news to you. And if you're pursuing one of the developer-related certifications, it's important news, so pay attention.

You already know, of course, that SQL Server 2005 and Visual Studio 2005 are coming out in November. New certification exams covering those products should follow some time in late December; that's in line with past product releases. What's changing, though, is how those exams fit into the certification structure. Forget about Microsoft Certified Professional, Microsoft Certified Application Developer, and Microsoft Certified Solution Developer. Starting with these exams, there's a new three-tiered framework for Microsoft certifications:

  • Tier 1 is the Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist. For this one, you need to pass one to three exams based on a particular Microsoft technology.

  • Tier 2 is the Microsoft Certified IT Professional or Microsoft Certified Professional Developer. For this one, you start with the Technology Specialist, and then pass one to three more exams. This one breaks down into various different paths such as Database Developer or Business Intelligence, supposedly tied to your job role.

  • Tier 3 is the Microsoft Certified Architect. This is the "board-level" certification that builds on the Tier 2 certifications with face-to-face exams. Microsoft likens it to a PhD program in rigorousness, though I have my doubts about that.
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    So what does this mean for those of us with existing certifications on the developer track? Well, first of all, they don't vanish; if you're an MCAD or MCSD now, you remain an MCAD or MCSD. But you can't recertify on the new generation of products with those certifications, because they no longer exist. Instead, you need to follow a transition path.

    If you hold the MCAD, you can take on exam to become a Microsoft Certified Professional Developer with the Web Developer role (the new logo shows both the certification and the role). Or you can take a different exam and become an MCPD with the Windows Developer role. Finally, if you've attained the MCSD, there's a two-exam upgrade path to attain the MCPD credential with the Enterprise Application Developer role. (As of this writing, the exact exam particulars have not yet been released).

    What's the bottom line here? Microsoft says the changes are aimed at making it easier for potential employers to identify the job roles and skills that certified professionals are qualified to fill. The cynics will say that Microsoft is changing the rules yet again simply to squeeze more testing fees out of people who want to keep their certifications current. Certainly if you're in the middle of the MCSD process, you're faced with a tough choice: finish getting a soon-to-be-obsolete certification, or wait and start all over again to take the three or more exams you'll need to get the MCPD from scratch.

    In my own case, I must admit that, after a decade, a certain amount of exam fatigue is setting in. I've proven over and over again that I can pick up new Microsoft technologies well enough to pass Microsoft certification exams, and I'm not sure what the point is of adding more to my string. But there aren't a lot of people in that particular position.

    Perhaps the most sensible thing to do is to wait and see. Remember, Microsoft never retires old exams immediately. If you're working on your MCAD or MCSD, you still have plenty of time to finish up those exams. You can afford to wait a few months until the details of the new MCPD exams are available. Then you can evaluate the relative difficulty of the new and old exams, and decide which set you want to pursue. With the number of different Microsoft certifications that are going to be on the market in 2006 and beyond, it's not at all clear to me that prospective employers are going to know (or care) about the differences. The decade-long confusion in messaging here is catching up to the program.

    Mike Gunderloy is an independent developer and author working in eastern Washington state. His recent books include Painless Project Management with FogBugz (Apress) and Coder to Developer (Sybex). You can read more of Mike's work at his Larkware Web site, or contact him at

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