Last time, we looked at the “why and how” of Microsoft certification. This time, we’ll delve deeper into what certification tracks are available and some suggestions as to which path to take depending on where you are in your IT career. I’ll cover some of my experiences with the latest generation of exams as well.
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Paul Schnackenburg

Paul Schnackenburg works part time as an IT teacher as well as running his own business in Australia. He has MCSE, MCT, MCTS and MCITP certifications. Follow his blog TellITasITis.
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MCSE old and new ^

In past generations of certifications, Microsoft wasn’t quite as good at mapping its certification paths to job roles. A case in point is the shift in the higher-level certifications. Traditionally, there were the MCSE (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer) and MCSA (Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator) in the 2000–2003 generation of exams. The MCSE certification required six or seven exams and was generally regarded as a ticket to a promotion or a better job elsewhere. However, the MCSE wasn’t specific to a particular technology (although they tried towards the end), and it involved a lengthy trek of exams to get there. Furthermore, Microsoft got into trouble for its use of the term “Engineer” in “MCSE,” as many countries (including Canada) didn’t allow people to call themselves an Engineer without having studied civil engineering.

In the 2007 generation, Microsoft ripped and replaced the whole system with MCTS (Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist) certifications for single exams and shorter tracks with two or three exams to get MCITP (Microsoft Certified IT Professional) for specific technologies. The problem was that the industry was so used to MCSA/MCSE that this scheme never really took hold, and job ads still asked for MCSE instead of IT Pro qualifications.

In the 2012 generation, Microsoft brought back the old acronyms with new meaning—MCSA is now Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate and MCSE is Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert. But, as a reflection of the diversification of the Microsoft technology portfolio, there are many variations of these.

MTA, MCP, MCSA, MCSE, and MOS compared ^

If you view present-day’s assortment of Microsoft certifications as a pyramid, at the bottom is the Microsoft Technology Associate (MTA), which comes in flavors for the fundamentals in Client, Server, Networking, Security, Database, and Development. MTA is designed for people considering an IT career and want a taste of what IT is like, as well as for non-IT people in business who want to understand the basics of IT. For anyone with some experience with Microsoft technologies, these exams are easy.

Microsoft Server Certification Path

Microsoft Server Certification Path

The next step up is individual certification exams. The first one you pass makes you a Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP). If you pass three MCP exams in a particular track, you become a Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate (MCSA); if you then pass another two exams for a particular track, you can call yourself a Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE). A good overview is available here.

There’s also the Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS) pathway, with exams for Word, Excel, etc. These exams are often sniggered at by IT Pros, but they are really hard and require in-depth skills in each of the applications, particularly because they’re tested in a simulated application. You run Word and you’re given a complex document to recreate; the test records every step and command you take to get there.

The path ^

A great option for learning about the different tracks is the free Windows 8 app that lets you see all the different paths and zoom in on training options. Microsoft’s site gives a good overview of all the different choices and paths; we’ll look at some of the options for IT Pros.

The first division is around Client, Server, Database, Development, and Services. For Server, the path to MCSA and MCSE starts with three exams:

The easiest exam is 410, which covers the basics of installation, role configuration, networking, Hyper-V, and AD. The 411 exam focuses on managing servers, file and print, remote access/NPS, and Group Policy. The 412 exam is the hardest of the three, focusing on clustering, advanced file sharing, backup and DR technologies, advanced networking, and AD configuration and security. For those who have an MCSA in Windows Server 2008, there’s a single upgrade exam (70-417) that combines these three exams into one and covers only the new and changed features since 2008.

Note that these exams are now based on Windows Server 2012 R2 (even though the exam titles haven’t changed), so the book you bought last year won’t cover the delta of new features. My advice for preparing for these three exams is to set up a lab with Hyper-V and a bunch of VMs so you can practice, and then complete the exams in the order above. As a matter of fact, whenever you’re doing related exams, always study them together. There’s a great deal of overlap of content between these three, for instance, or between 70-687 and 70-688 on the client side. Because of the NDA you sign when you take an exam, I can’t go into specifics on what questions you’ll likely see on your exam, but as mentioned in the last article, purchase practice tests from MeasureUp and SelfTest Software/Transcender to get an indication of where your understanding needs improvement.

Once those three are under your belt, you can branch out to MCSE tracks (each with two exams) for Exchange 2013, Lync 2013, SharePoint 2013, Desktop Infrastructure, Server Infrastructure, or Private Cloud. The Server Infrastructure (70-413 and 70-414) exams are a good choice for IT Pro generalists as they focus on designing (rather than installing and configuring) larger environments with advanced Microsoft technologies. A point to note here: compared to earlier generations of technologies, many of the new exams interweave other technologies such as System Center and Azure/Office 365 in questions; therefore, a good understanding of (in particular) Virtual Machine Manager and Configuration Manager is helpful for these exams. This is because Microsoft has realized (especially for design-type exams) that complete solutions for enterprise business problems aren’t achieved with a single technology but rather by suites of products working together. Both 413 and 414 have also been updated to Windows Server 2012 R2.

The Private Cloud MCSE track (70-246 and 70-247) covers System Center 2012 R2 (SC) and how it can be used to create a deeply virtualized enterprise environment; this track requires a good deal of in-depth knowledge of each of the suite components. The 70-246 exam was the first (and so far the only) exam I’ve failed on my first attempt, not because of the technical depth required but due to the breadth of knowledge required across all the different products in SC. When it comes to setting up a lab for the entire SC suite, I recommend PowerShell Deployment Toolkit, which automates the whole setup. We covered it here.

Database administrators have three exams to reach MCSA and then two different tracks for their MCSE specialization. Interestingly, Microsoft is not updating the MCSA exams for SQL Server 2014—only the MCSE levels. Developers have five different flavors of MCSD (Microsoft Certified Solution Developer). There’s also a two-exam track for MCSA on Office 365.

Conclusion ^

A great benefit of studying for a certification is that it forces you to learn about areas of a product or technology that you might not normally interact with in your day-to-day job, which makes you a more rounded sysop in the process. Microsoft has made the current exams challenging—making them as “real world” as a computer-based test can be, as well as making sure that those who earn the certifications deserve them. Achieving a certification takes dedication, study, and hands-on experience. Good luck in your exam journey!

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