Reviewing the MSFT certification overhaul

By on December 22, 2012,

Certifications. Need it? Want it? Worth it?

Those are common questions that I hear from customers and the folks on the front line. The answer in the past was often times buried in the intricacies of perceived value but for a lot of folks it comes down to the simple process of evaluating talent. Either you’re selling talent or your trying to acquire talent. Certifications are intended to provide a measurement stick.  It’s like looking at a resume and figuring out if the applicant can even spell Sharepoint.

In the SharePoint space, though, the standard certifications have traditionally been too easy to obtain and thus the Worth portion of the equation was often times devalued due to the ease.  Microsoft has realized that they needed to put the certify back into the certification process. Today, we’ll discuss the changes that have been made to Microsoft’s certification stack. Your answers to Need, Want, Worth will might change. Hopefully, you’ll start to see the promise of the new system.

But first, let’s take a look back in time… Starting with the 2003 SharePoint certifications, and all the way through 2010, the “core” certifications for SharePoint always involved tests that centered on admin and developer topics. Then those topics were split into a “beginner” and “advanced” sections. The model was built around an arguably sound reasoning: some people are less experienced and then grow their talents. However, there was a key problem with those tests – they really didn’t measure your ability. They measured your capability to take a test.  In a nutshell, the tests didn’t validate your knowledge or experience.  Put differently – If administrators walk into a developer test, having never written a single line of code, and pass the test… is that a good developer test? 

Unfortunately, this gap between theoretical and actual validation caused a lot of problems. If it was too easy to get a certification, then folks that relied on certifications to measure experience were basically up the creek.

Knowing there was a serious problem in this space, Microsoft introduced the Master’s level certification for SharePoint in early 2009. The Master’s certification was designed to validate a candidate as having actually used the product in real-life scenarios in addition to having completed very rigorous training and testing regimen. It was designed to be tough – you had complete all the underlying SharePoint exams for both admin and dev (ok, that part was easy), then submit a resume outlining your body of work in the SharePoint space, then if selected you would have to navigate a phone interview before final acceptance into the program, take a 3 week course, and cap it all off by taking a hands-on qualifying lab and written test. The Master’s program was without a doubt the hardest certification to obtain. The Master’s program was designed to provide the market place with proven experts within SharePoint.

However, there was still one core problem… the program when looked at as a whole was imbalanced. The underlying exams were too easy and the Master’s program, being the next jump up, was too almost too deep for most people. There was no in between. We needed an in-between. It was like going from grade school to graduate school in one leap. The changed introduced by Microsoft in the last half of 2012 have been designed to update the process. We know have a defined path of increasing difficulty that is better tied to the components of the platform *and* allows candidates to grow their experience at their pace.

We now have the opportunity from grade school to high school to undergrad and beyond. First, let’s take a look at what it takes to become the Certified Solutions Master. The program requirements are available at http://www.microsoft.com/learning/en/us/mcsm-sharepoint-certification.aspx. Digging deeper we find that administrator and developer certifications are truly geared toward testing your knowledge of the technologies (see also http://www.microsoft.com/learning/en/us/certification-overview.aspx).

A quick read reveals a few key changes:

SharePoint certification is no longer focused solely on SharePoint

I love to tell folks that SharePoint is an ecosystem. If you treat as an application, you’ll fail. SharePoint has many components, all of which have different characteristics. Certification should be no different. Both the administrator and developer tracks now incorporate facets that live outside of SharePoint. This makes a ton of sense. I can’t be an administrator of a SharePoint farm without understanding the operating system, active directory, etc. and likewise, I can’t be a good developer without understanding other common development technologies and techniques that live outside of SharePoint.

Commonalities make it easier to grow and cultivate your experience

SharePoint certification now relies on tests that are validated, refined, and used by other segments of the technology stack. Think about this way, do you want SharePoint testing you on how to be server administrator or would you rather have the Windows team test you? Also, by leveraging the courseware in other technologies, a candidate has the opportunity to spend time in other areas without worrying about digging themselves into a hole.

Courseware improvements reestablish the value of certification

From the Master’s perspective, because the course is now spread out across the different segments of the platform, the SharePoint certification team can focus on teaching rather than trying to go through a laborious process involving interviews and resumes. The MCSM certification pre-requisites ensure the candidates actually fit the bill of a Master’s candidate.

Keep on learning

Digging deeper into the certification changes, you’ll also find that certifications are no longer static. This means that certifications will expire unless you go back and recertify. At first, I didn’t like this idea because it felt like a forced learning process. However, it makes sense. Technologies change and the platforms are ever evolving. The tests themselves will change. This is brilliant as complex platforms such as SharePoint will be incorporate field experience and other improvements into the tests. As SharePoint grows, the test will improve and the *next* time you have to take a SharePoint exam, the student will be able to validate new skillsets. Put differently – if you want to keep the shiny little badge of honor on your resume, you should be up to speed on the product and technology space.

It’s worth noting the developer track hasn’t been fully announced but if initial talks are any indication, you will find that the developer courses will be heavily influenced by content from existing developer courses in other areas. Again, the concept is leverage knowledge as much as possible.

In general, the retooling of Microsoft’s certification process is a welcomed change. Need it, Want it, and Worth it? As you grow with SharePoint, I think the answer takes on a vastly different outlook than it did in the past. The courseware is more extensive and tests are shaping up to be much better than in the past. We’re no longer jumping from grade school over to doctoral work – there’s a middle ground and you get to figure out how to best tailor that experience for yourself.

-Maurice

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