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Comparing Microsoft to other IT certifications

How much is a Microsoft certification worth?

Microsoft is the purveyor of some of the biggest and most popular certifications around, and its credentials are well recognized in IT circles all over the world. Many people ask me whether that means that Microsoft certifications are the best ones to chase or the most worthwhile ones to hold. Microsoft certs do indeed attract a serious following and big numbers, as illustrated in Table 1, but being the biggest doesn't necessarily make them the best.

Table 1: Microsoft certification programs

Name Acronym #exams Population*
Microsoft Certified Professional MCP 1 858,957
Microsoft Certified Database Administrator MCDBA 4 95,880
Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator MCSA 4 47,634
Microsoft Systems Engineer MCSE 7 177,105
Microsoft Certified Application Developer MCAD 3 1,306
Microsoft Certified Solution Developer MCSD 5 40,322
Microsoft Certified Trainer MCT N/A+ 9,797

* Source: Microsoft Certified Professional Magazine, based on numbers obtained from Microsoft on Jan. 3.
+ MCTs must maintain a current Premier MCP Certification -- MCSE, MCSD or MCDBA -- and meet other requirements as well.

A wise man once told me that the answer to any truly good question always starts with the same two words: "that depends." In the case of Microsoft certifications versus other IT certifications, the answer depends on lots of different things that will vary according to the perspective, position and goals of the individual who's inquiring. The questions themselves vary, too. Some common ones: "Are Microsoft certifications the best ones to pursue? To have? To help guarantee continued employment? To land a new job?"

To begin with, Microsoft certifications are worthless unless they can be used in a work environment where Microsoft desktops (and probably servers) are in use. Given Microsoft's dominance of the desktop (more than 95%, according to recent surveys) and its growing share of the server market (more than 37%, according to other recent surveys), it's pretty likely that most IT professionals will have something to do with Microsoft products and platforms, no matter where they work. But they must relate to the kind of job their holder wants for the certs to have any real value. Based on Microsoft's current certification offerings, that means their holders must want to work as system or network administrators, system or network engineers, database professionals, software developers or Microsoft-focused instructors. Outside those job roles, Microsoft credentials are worth far less.

Then there's the whole employ-ability, or promote-ability, issue. Alas, while salary surveys do show that individuals who hold Microsoft (and other IT) certifications tend to earn more than their IT counterparts who lack such credentials, this doesn't translate into guaranteed job offers for those who obtain Microsoft certifications. Nor does it translate into a slam dunk for a promotion or raise. What's clear is that, if two individuals with otherwise identical backgrounds present themselves for a job or a promotion, the one who holds the certification is more likely to prevail. This is, however, just as true if the candidate has a security certification or some other non-Microsoft type of credential.

When it comes to comparing the value of Microsoft certifications to other IT certifications, Microsoft certs tend to fall somewhere in the middle of the pack, not at the very top. To some degree, what is ubiquitous is also common, and common certifications often lack the kind of value that may be associated with more advanced or specialized IT credentials.

The fact that there are nearly 150,000 MCSEs in the world today and only 15,000 CISSPs (the Certified Information Systems Security Professional certification from ISC2) helps explain in part why an MCSE is worth less than a CISSP. The latter credential's more stringent on-the-job experience requirements, its focus on an extremely hot field (information security) and its perceived higher level of expertise and capability also help to explain why CISSPs routinely earn six-figure incomes, while only the cream of the MCSE crop even comes close to such earnings.

Ultimately, the richest value anyone can get from a certification is improved knowledge and skills that translate into improved productivity on the job. In the long run, a Microsoft certification is far more likely to represent a midpoint in an ambitious or talented IT professional's career. That's because the best values in certification come from more specialized, demanding credentials (like the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert, various senior-level information-security certs like the CISSP or Certified Protection Professional, and so forth) that are usually earned after one's first decade in IT has come and gone. Microsoft credentials can be a valuable part of any savvy IT professional's collection, but they seldom represent a capstone.

Ed Tittel is a principal at LANWrights, Inc., a network-oriented writing, training, and consulting firm based in Austin, Texas. He is the creator of the Exam Cram series and has worked on over 50 certification-related books on Microsoft, Novell, CompTIA, information security and Sun-related topics.

More on this topic:

>> Click here to ask Ed Tittel a question about certification and to check out his answers to other questions.

>> Click here for's Best Web Links on Microsoft certification, including stories about recent shakeups to the program.

>> Click here to check out a recent Webcast where Ed Tittel discussed the key certifications that all network and system administrators should have to advance their careers.

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