Microsoft Certifications – a newcomer’s guide

At the recent SQLBits X conference I was invited onto the panel during a session about Microsoft certifications and I said I’d write a follow-up article about some of what we discussed.  While one of the session’s aim was to start communicating the changes the SQL Server 2012 certifications are bringing, most of the questions were about Microsoft certifications in general, although there was a disproportionately high interest in the Microsoft Certified Master.  I’ll cover MCM topics in a separate post.

These are just my views and the advice I give people who ask me similar questions, they may differ from yours, they may not.

Which level of certification should you aim for?

For the SQL Server database engine, there are four levels of certification, the BI track will soon have a similar number, and at the same time all of the certification names will change but for now I’m going to use the SQL Server 2008 era titles and list them in increasing order of “difficulty”.  They are: Technical Specialist (MCTS), IT Professional (MCITPro), Certified Master (MCM) and Certified Architect (MCA). 

Which level is right for you depends on your personal goals.  If you have only just started using SQL Server or want to get confidence through external validation that what you know is accurate then the Technical Specialist is a good first goal.  In order to prepare for this you’ll probably need to broaden your knowledge to include some SQL Server features you haven’t used before, preparing you for when you do use them.  This is an important step as it shows how certification will drive your professional development as well as deliver your certification goals. 

If you take a Technical Specialist exam and get a good pass mark then you’re probably already on the way to achieving the IT Professional certification.  I’d recommend this level for anyone who uses SQL Server all day everyday and has done so for 1-2 years.  Passing this level will not only validate your knowledge, but also give you confidence to talk about SQL Server .  If you’re in a role that deals primarily with SQL Server then you’re going to have people asking you questions about it, you’re on the road to becoming your department’s subject matter expert. 

When it comes to the Microsoft Certified Master there’s only one person who can tell you if that level of certification is a suitable goal for you, and that’s you.  Actually, your manager might have a view as well especially if you work for a company that’s passionate about SQL Server.  If you look at the requirements that microsoft.com gives for Microsoft’s highest level of technical certification and think “I can do that” or “I want to pass that” then you’ve just set your next goal.  It’s true that there’s probably a lot more thought that goes into aiming for this difficult and expensive certification but ultimately you have to have that “I want to pass” motivation in you otherwise the 6+ months of preparation will just be something you start tomorrow.  If you’re serious about wanting to pass the MCM then it has to become part of your everyday life.  I’ve met a few people who are “18 months into a 6 month revision plan”, they’ve just got side-tracked apparently.

The Microsoft Certified Architect is Microsoft’s highest level of certification for SQL Server and one which often gets overlooked.  Why?  I put it down to it not being a technical certification.  To me however its equally as important as any technical credentials you might have if you’re positioning yourself as one of the best in the world at deploying or architecting SQL Server solutions.  Being a Microsoft Certified Master is a pre-requisite for taking the MCA program which doesn’t have an exam.  Instead you have to submit a 40 page portfolio and attend a 6 hour Board in Seattle where you’re quizzed on design and deployment methodologies, communication and influencing styles, and risk and resource management amongst other things.  For me personally, its an exciting challenge.  After 2 years of tech-heavy MCTS, MCITPro and MCM preparation I need to balance my skills with the ability to walk into a blue-chip company and say “here’s the right SQL Server architecture for your business and technical requirements, and I’ll lead the implementation of it.”  That to me is powerful.  

Which version of certification should you choose?

Whenever a new major release of SQL Server appears people always starting asking whether they should stop revising for the previous version and start studying for the new version.  Again, that’s a question only you can answer as versions are only old if you start using something newer.  If you work in an environment where your software vendor’s support policy means you’ll never be able to upgrade from version x of SQL Server and you want to learn more about that version then there’s probably no benefit in you taking exams for a newer version that you’ll never use.  If however you want your knowledge to always be relevant and current then you’ll quickly get used to taking exams as soon as they get announced.  However, if you’ve taken that approach in the past make sure you maintain the real-world experience to back up text-book reading otherwise your success with the SQL Server 2012 exams and especially the MCM will be limited.

Strengths and Weaknesses

One of the perceptions newcomers to certification often worry about is that you need to be an expert and get every question in an exam right in order to pass.  If you look at the learning topics and begin to see un-familiar subjects, perhaps impersonation, XML or CLR, you might think you need to be as good at those areas as you are in your stronger areas.  The good news is that to my knowledge, no Microsoft exam requires you to get 100% to pass, in fact the published pass mark for most if not all is 70%.  I’m not suggesting you can ignore entire areas of the syllabus, but at the same time you don’t need to get every question right to pass.  If you go into an exam knowing more about indexing than required but less about XML than needed you might be lucky and pick up extra marks to balance out your overall score.  Of course, there are quite a few topics you’ need to be familiar with the pass but knowing that its ok to get some questions wrong should help remove the fear that you need to be an expert in every part of the exam.  No one is an expert in everything, someone will always have a strength that makes up for a weakness elsewhere.

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