Studying for Next-Gen Microsoft Certs

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At the end of last year, Microsoft announced that it would completely revamp the structure of its certification program, which would cover different products and technologies horizontally and focus on different job roles and levels of expertise vertically. During the past few months, the first exams under this new arrangement have been launched around the company’s SQL Server 2005 and Visual Studio 2005. Additionally, more are slated for release in the coming months for products such as the new Vista operating system and the forthcoming version of Office. This transition has produced more innovative and focused testing techniques, said Al Valvano, director of certification at Microsoft Learning.


“As we launched the new generation of certifications, we were not only changing out the accreditations and what made those up in terms of branding and logos, but also our fundamental testing methodology,” he said. “In the legacy program, we would’ve required four exams for MCDBAs in SQL Server 2000. Many people were leveraging certifications they’d already gotten around Windows infrastructure. We had a lot of folks who were MCSEs who were taking an additional SQL elective and getting an MCDBA. The new MCDBA credential around SQL Server 2005 is entirely focused on SQL Server and what one does as a professional database administrator. It’s much deeper in terms of the topic areas, and what we’re hearing from early candidates is that the design of that is doing a good job of mimicking the kinds of scenarios, problems and other things they encounter on the job.”


As with the earlier Microsoft certifications, there are plenty of options out there for individuals aspiring to the next-generation credentials. Preparation is primarily a matter of personal preferences, Valvano said. “One of the things we’re really highly attuned to at Microsoft Learning is the fact that there’s really no one way that works well for everybody. We do know from talking with customers that for the most part, people who get any (Microsoft) certification tend to use multiple study methods as part of that process. Typically, what we see as the most popular way of preparing is first and foremost some kind of self-paced, self-focused training. It usually takes the form of either books or really strong, hands-on scenario sessions with the product.”


Identifying what one’s preferred learning style is should be the first step in any candidate’s path to certification. Also, scheduling considerations ought to be contemplated when deciding what the best training methods are. Regardless of the conclusion drawn, though, early preparation efforts should include significant amounts of time spent actually working with the technology or product in question, Valvano explained. “My emphasis to any candidate is always to get as much hands-on time with the software as you possibly can. Once you get that hands-on time and you figure out your preferred study methodology, then you can select the kinds of learning products that you think you want to use to prepare yourself.”


The preferred platform of training might not stay the same throughout the preparation process, he added. “What we also see is that sometimes your learning preference may change as you work through curricula. Most people who are professional database administrators probably have a pretty good feel for hands-on time with the software and might have even been beta testing it or deploying it. So they may choose to say, ‘I’m going to do some self-paced work with books or e-learning and then go to a class because I want to interact with peers and have one-on-one time with an instructor.”


As for what to study, Valvano recommended that participants start with the technology specialization exams, as these certifications are building blocks toward Microsoft’s deeper and broader job-role accreditations under the new credentialing structure. “For most people—unless they’re upgrading from a previous certification—the right path for them is to focus on that technology specialization,” he explained. “That can typically be achieved in one or two exams. It’s a good first step for someone to set out for themselves. It’s attainable, and there are lots and lots of learning products available whether you’re a books guy, a classroom guy or an e-learning guy. Achieve that technology specialization, and then turn your attention to the next exam necessary to achieve the right professional credential for you.”

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