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Mastering Microsoft Certifications

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Microsoft this fall is introducing a Master-level series of certifications. While not for everyone, the advanced training will provide an additional filter for employers looking to hire specific technical expertise.

Three master certifications programs – Microsoft Certified Master: Microsoft Exchange Server 2007; Microsoft Certified Master: Microsoft SQL Server 2008; and, Microsoft Certified Master: Windows Server 2008 Directory, roll out in October and November.

“These certifications are designed to position an IT professional as a thought leader and go-to person in the enterprise for designing, building and troubleshooting,” says Per Farny, director of advanced training and certification for Microsoft learning at Microsoft.

The new training, previously only available to internal Microsoft employees and select partners, targets IT professionals with a minimum of five years experience who distinguish themselves in a particular technology, according to Farny.

Industry experts say the base-level certifications, such as the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), offer less of an opportunity for differentiation.

“Overtime, we’ve seen a lot of IT roles changing and engineers specializing in certain technologies. The new certifications provide differentiation for experienced engineers particularly for Microsoft Exchange and SQL,” says Chris Voce, analyst at Forrester Research.

As technology becomes increasingly specialized, certifications have to keep up, he adds.

With technologies such as Microsoft SharePoint moving into high gear, Voce sees real value in offering specialized certifications in SharePoint as well as other technologies such as virtualization.

Expect to see Microsoft, in Spring 2009, roll out two additional master-level certifications: Microsoft Certified Master: SharePoint Server 2007 and Microsoft Certified Master: Office Communications Server 2007, according to Farny.

Matt Johnston, vice president of marketing at OnForce, a marketplace for contract service IT professionals, located in Lexington, Mass., says his company is a huge advocate of on-going certifications.

“Certifications are a trigger that allow organizations to build a particular skill set and build their business,” he says.

More importantly, it’s a differentiating factor for IT service professionals to stand out from the pack, adds Johnston.
Microsoft’s Farny contends that the new advanced certifications are all about relevance; about specialization in a targeted technology that in the end will help organizations maximize their investments.

“To minimize risk, get a master-certified professional to lead the project,” he says.

Another feature of the new master-level certification training is the community aspect. Microsoft Certified Masters (MCMs) get access to Microsoft resources such as the engineering organization within the company as well as to Microsoft’s internal IT department professionals, post certification.

There are also monthly community calls, or feedback loop, where MCMs can discuss projects they’re working on with Microsoft engineers.

In the future, the vendor has plans to offer continuing education including training updates to the core curriculum and targeted education on tangential topics.

Cost of entry

Real world, documented project-based experience over at least a five-year period, in addition to a resume and Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) or Microsoft Certified Partner (MCP) status is required in order for an individual’s review for acceptance into the program, according to Parny.

Today, he reports that the average experience level for Master candidates is 13 years.

Recent applications favor IT consultants over enterprise IT professionals, 70% to 30%, respectively, he notes. “In my conversations with enterprise executives the biggest question they have is, “Are my people ready for this?” and “Is the monetary investment worthwhile?” he says.

Again, Farny offers that it’s all about relevance. At the end of the day, “Organization’s want a person who will deliver on projects,” he says.

From the perspective of the enterprise engineer or systems administrator looking at the new certifications can be tricky. “At some point, you don’t want your resume looking like a NASCAR, or an advertisement of certifications. On the other hand, IT professionals need to think strategically about where they want to see their career headed,” says Voce.

OnForce’s Johnston believes that base-level certifications are no longer a differentiator for IT workers but simply the cost of entry. “We believe that people are going upstream with certifications,” he says, noting that today in his business’ universe certifications are very meaningful.

In fact, he says, “You can never have enough.”

This article was first published on IT Career Planet.

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