What’s New with Microsoft’s Certification Path?
By: George Monsalvatge
Published: December 10, 2019
Microsoft, one of the technology industry’s leaders, has recently shifted gears and changed its certification paths and exam structures. One of the exciting changes that Microsoft has introduced is three new certification types. Microsoft has also changed its test structure to include questions on the tests that are mini-labs. You are expected to complete several tasks in a specified amount of time. Let’s take a look at why Microsoft made these changes and what they mean for you.
Three New Microsoft Certifications
These new types of Microsoft certifications are classified as follows:
- Microsoft Certified Fundamentals
- Microsoft Certified Associate
- Microsoft Certified Expert
The new structure allows more flexibility for how organizations and future candidates can demonstrate what they know while making room for growth. Before getting into the details of the new certification paths and exam changes, let’s take a trip down memory lane.
MSCE, MSCA, and More: The History of Microsoft Certifications
In the mid-1990s, Microsoft introduced the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MSCE) certification, which required candidates to pass seven exams. Microsoft also introduced the Microsoft Certified Systems Associate (MSCA) certification, which could be earned by passing three exams. The MCSE certification became the industry standard for potential employers. HR directors loved to hire people with MCSE certification back in the day.
The MSCE exams were a combination of core exams, which everyone who wanted to earn an MSCE had to pass, and electives exams. These elective exams did not reflect what most IT professionals worked with every day. The MCSE certification did not align with the job duties of the IT professional or the job requirements of companies that were hiring IT professionals.
Microsoft changed their certification paths in the mid-2000s to the Microsoft Certified Technical Specialists (MCTS) and the Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCTIP). MCTS and MCTIP were concentrated on one discipline, such as Exchange, SQL Server, or an operating system. Typically, you had to pass two out of three exams in a discipline to achieve MCTS certification.
These pathways enabled IP professionals to obtain certification in just SQL Server, Exchange or whatever area that correlated with the IT professional’s particular job role. It was also an advantage for companies that were hiring because they could get a candidate that specifically knew Exchange or knew Windows Server. Unfortunately, the MCTIP and MCTS crashed like a “lead balloon.” HR departments only cared about the certification that had the letters M-C-S-E.
A couple of years ago, in order to change industry perceptions, Microsoft announced the Microsoft Certified Solutions Experts (MCSE) and Microsoft Certified Solutions Associates (MCSA). Gone was a systems engineer, and in its place, there was a Solutions Expert. The letters M-C-S-E and letters M-C-S-A were still used, but the certification paths were more focused on a specific discipline than the previous iteration of MCSE and MCSA. The certification paths were quite similar to the MCTS and MCTIP. At that time, Microsoft also changed several question types in their exams, for instance, adding more interactive questions and case studies instead of relying on multiple choice.
Why Change the Certification Types Again?
Recently, vendors such as Cisco have decided it is better to test a candidate on whether they can do a task. Microsoft has since changed the objectives of their exams to cover tasks that are more role-based. They have added Performance-Based Testing (PBT) questions on their Azure and Office 365 exams. If you remember, Microsoft added PBT questions to their Windows Server 2008 exams but removed them after problems with delivering the exams. The PBT questions are now back.
Not long ago, the Azure certifications for MCSA and MCSE required candidates to take the 70-532, 70-533, or 70-534. These exams required candidates to know administration and development tasks. However, IT professionals who are administrators typically do not develop applications, and application developers usually do not perform administration tasks. These exams were wrong for both developers and administrators.
Also, Microsoft made such rapid changes to the exams that it was difficult to prepare for them. At one point, there were 34 objective changes to an exam in less than seven weeks. If you take weekends and holidays into account over that period, there was an objective change for every business day of the week.
For now, the structure seems to have stabilized. The new certifications are as follows.
Microsoft Certified Fundamentals
- Single (xx-900 series) entry-level exam
- Covers an overview of the technology
- There is an Office 365 fundamentals (MS-900) and Azure Fundamentals (AZ-900)
- Will expand with Server 2019, SQL Server 2019, Exchange 2019, and others
Microsoft Certified Associate
- Requires one or two associate level exams in a discipline
- Covers specific role objectives in the technology
- Great for people who are just developers or just administrators
- Will expand with Server 2019, SQL Server 2019, Exchange 2019, and others
Microsoft Certified Expert
- Pass one or two rigorous, expert-level exams or achieve an associate-level certification and then pass an expert-level exam
- Will expand with Server 2019, SQL Server 2019, Exchange 2019, and others.
What Do These New Certifications Mean?
Microsoft is adapting its tests to align with the current trends. The objectives of these exams are more task-oriented. Candidates will be tested on whether the candidate can perform a task rather than memorize a setting or a configuration. The feeling from candidates and HR departments was that previous Microsoft exams tested more on knowledge Microsoft wanted the candidate to know instead of what the candidate needed to know to perform tasks related to the job. The new exams with the PBT questions are used to shrink the gap.
The certification change to fundamental, associate, and expert keeps certification a staple in the job description. It may not be MCSE, but it is still a certification that the HR department desires. Candidates are gaining transferable skills while preparing for certification skill sets instead of just learning about features of a Microsoft product or service. Employers will see a certified employee as a competent one. The previous Microsoft certification models, such as MCSE, were just a one size fits all, which never really worked.
As mentioned, PBT is not new. Microsoft tried it before. Other vendors, such as Cisco, use it. Now, in the Azure and Office 365 exams, there are labs that require you to complete a set of tasks. The beauty of PBT is that you do not have to perform the task in a specific way. You can use PowerShell, CLI, or a GUI tool like the Azure portal to complete the task. It does not matter. What does matter is that you complete the task correctly. You are graded on the “end state.”
These PBT labs are extremely time-consuming and also can be quite stressful. To complicate matters, many testing centers have antiquated equipment and small monitors for these exams. Microsoft recommends taking them at home via online proctoring with the largest monitor that you can find. Yes, you read that right. Microsoft does not want you to take these exams in the authorized test centers.
Screen size is important when you consider that part of the screen will be the lab interface that lists the tasks to perform. Plus, the other part of the screen is the virtual screen that will have the Azure portal, PowerShell prompt, or whatever environment you will need to complete the task. It will be extremely difficult to do these tasks on a small monitor, considering most IT professionals have multiple monitors at work.
How to Succeed
Microsoft is committed to ensuring that a candidate who passes one of their exams is competent. To be successful, you will need to be able to perform each and every task on the objective list for the exam. The changes to the Microsoft certification paths and exam strategy are keeping up with the movement to make sure that candidates are job ready and not paper tigers. In the long run, the switch to PBT will be an improvement that will make the certification more valuable. Only time will tell if this strategy lives up to expectations.
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