Is Microsoft’s Certification Program Value Microsoft’s Fault?

I’d be interested if anyone says, “No,” to that question. Gail Shaw raised a few points in this post about trust and value in Microsoft’s certification brand. Having been on the hiring side in recent years, I’d have to agree with the general sentiment that a Microsoft certification does not show competency in a candidate. The pinnacle exams, MCM/MCSM and MCA, were the exceptions. With the MCM/MCSM you had to pass a lab exam. In other words, you had to put your expertise to the test. The MCA, well, that’s a whole different animal. To earn an MCA, you must first submit evidence that you have the needed expertise and then you have to go in front of a review board. If that sounds like defending a college dissertation, that’s what it sounds like to me. In other words, you can’t cheat to get those certifications. Now they are gone.

So that raises the question, “Why do Microsoft certifications have so little value in the eyes of the community?”

The Testing Method Doesn’t Do a Good Job of Discouraging Cheating

I last took a Microsoft exam at the end of 1999. By then, braindump sites and the candidates using braindumps to pass had become rampant. Microsoft tried to go into “shut down the braindumps” mode but really, this is an impractical strategy. If we can’t shut down criminals stealing banks and people blind, trying to kill briandump sites is even more impossible. Then they tried to add simulations to the mix. However, if folks are still requesting braindumps in 2013 (see Gail’s post), then obviously the technques that are being used are not sufficient.

The question that raises in my mind is why is Microsoft the one with such an impugned reputation when we know this is an issue with other certs, too? It’s probably because if you’re reading this, you’re more in the Microsoft community than the others. I know this sort of discussion happens on the Cisco side and I’ve seen posts to indicate that “if you use a braindump to pass your A+ you violate…” so it’s not just Microsoft. The truth of the matter is that as long as there are certifications, there are going to be people who will cheat to get them.

What about Boot Camps?

I personally don’t like boot camps. When I see a boot camp for a week long MCITP: Enterprise Admin certification, I just shake my head. To be a solid Active Directory administrator takes years. I’m not sorry that it does. When you look at what AD does, I don’t see how you can develop the skills in one short week. It took me nearly 18 months to train my replacement so I could move back over to be a DBA. He was already an experienced AD admin, just not to the level of the organization we were working in. So is it doable in one week? No.

Again, is this just a Microsoft issue? No, it’s not. I’ve seen Cisco boot camps offered for years. Same with Oracle. Again, as long as there are certifications there will be folks looking to take a short cut, if not outright cheat (and I’m defining cheating as anything that would violate the agreement you commit to for taking the exam(s) and becoming certified).

So What’s Microsoft’s Problem?

I think there are three. The first problem is the absolute mess Microsoft has made with certification names. For instance, these used to be the certs with the last two being the top level certifications:

  • Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP)
  • Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE)
  • Microsoft Certified Solutions Developer (MCSD)

They added Microsoft Certified Database Administrator (MCDBA) to the list because no one wanted confusion between a Systems Engineer (operating system) and a DBA or between a developer and a DBA. That made sense. If we had just stayed with that, I think we would be in better shape. But Microsoft is always tinkering in a space where you need to build a long-term brand. In other words, tinkering with names and meaning of names is very, very bad. How have they tinkered?. One example is evident when the “plus” certifications are added to the list:

  • MCSE+I (plus Internet)
  • MCSE+SB (plus Site Building)
  • MCP+SB

Note, when I say added, I’m not speaking of timelines. I am simply speaking of the fact that these were “plus” certs. And then Microsoft came along and scrapped the MCDBA, MCSD, and MCSE. They went with:

  • Microsoft Technology Associate (MTA)
  • Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (MCTS)
  • Microsoft Certified Information Technology Professional (MCITP)
  • Microsoft Certified Application Developer (MCAD)

These are generic names. Only the last one tells you anything about what the individual does. By looking at the names, can you tell which is a higher level certification? Not unless you do some research and even then it may not be perfectly clear. And while the MCSD and MCSE had some recognition because they had been around a while, I talk to HR professionals and recruiters regularly who don’t know these 4. Or if they do know these 4, they only know they are Microsoft certifications but don’t know what any of them mean. This reveals problem #2. The new certifications haven’t been marketed well and they don’t tell the story for a candidate.

I think Microsoft realized that, and so we’re now back to MCSD and MCSE. Only they mean something totally different. If you tell me you’re an MCSE now, you could be one for Business Intelligence. That’s because MCSE now stands for Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert. It’s an obvious play on the well known acronym that gets a candidate through a recruiter’s filter. Unfortunately, it now means that’s a generic certification. This just devalues the MCSE. Also, it serves to anger those of us who earned the MCSE as a Systems Engineer. At least MCSD still refers to development.

So what’s the third problem? I mentioned it at the beginning.

A Lack of Trust

I think Gail hits the nail on the head when she points out that if Microsoft does roll out a new pinnacle certification in six months that folks are going to be wary. At least in some part, folks get a certification to make themselves more marketable, to give them the ability to find another job quicker if they want to or have to do so. However, when you see what Microsoft has done with the certifications over the years, when they up and cancel their pinnacle certifications without notice, you start to get a sense that there is no long term plan with regards to Microsoft certification. That may be untrue. There may be. However, my USAF days taught me this maxim, “If there’s a perception of a problem, there’s a problem.” And there’s definitely the perception that it’s all a flail-fest (you could call it a fail-fest, too, I guess). Why should I go for a certification with Microsoft when I can’t expect that they will be pushing that certification a year from now, much less three years from now?

Also, there’s a lack of trust in what skills the exam actually measures. Gail points out that she passed an exam with a technology focus that should have required experience with skills she had no experience in. Gail doesn’t cheat. So when someone who doesn’t cheat can pass an exam in technologies she has never worked with, how can you trust the exams? That’s an easy one: you can’t. I can speak from experience with Security+, seen as an entry level certification, that I had to know Kerberos and cryptography well. It was a good thing I took it *after* being an AD and security architect for 3-4 years. This is just one area of several where I saw some pretty detailed knowledge and understanding being required in regards to security. And now CompTIA has gone to a recertification process for any of their exams. Why did CompTIA change for new candidates? They wanted to increase the validity and trust in their exams. They wanted to increase the validity and trust for what is seen as an entry level certification. By the way, if you want to see what the exam objectives are for that entry level certification are, here you go. Here’s an important question: Do you see Microsoft putting a similar level of effort into making their exams more valid and trustworthy?

In Summary

When you look at all of those factors, they’re all within Microsoft’s control. Microsoft has to fix them and it’s going to take a long time. That requires a long term plan. I hope they have one, because otherwise, Microsoft certifications are going to continue to not see the traction Microsoft wants.


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