Microsoft certification - Why and how - Tips from an MCT

As a teacher and Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT), I’ve had the privilege of helping many students over the years find their passion for IT and pursue successful careers. In this article, we’ll look at the why and how of IT certifications. Although I’ll focus on Microsoft’s certification, most tips are applicable to any vendor certification program.
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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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Contents of this article

Why? ^

I teach at a Microsoft IT Academy, and I follow our students for a year or more as they progress through Certificates III and IV and then on to a Diploma in IT. These are Australian terms for levels of learning, built on Vocational Education and Training (VET) principles. The largest proportion of our students are straight out of high school and are looking to turn their interest in IT into a career, while some students are older and looking for a career change.

Microsoft Certified

I mention this as most MCTs teach at Certified Partner for Learning Solutions (CPLS) training centers, where they would see a particular student for three- to five-day courses.

If you’re trying to start a career in IT, the hardest job to get is generally your first one, as many job ads require experience; however, unless you get that first job, you’ll never get the experience. I have seen clear evidence over the years that the students who pursue IT certifications while simultaneously completing their VET study, and can put both on their CV, are much more likely to land that first job. This is why we include certification preparation in our courses.

For people already in the industry, the value of certification is often debated. Detractors tend to say:

  • Certification is just a money spinner for the vendors.
  • Experience is much more valuable as a guide for job aptitude than certification is.
  • Certification exams are artificial and don’t test real-world skills.
  • Some people with certifications don’t actually have skills for the real world.

In my long experience (I passed my first MS cert in 1997, and I’ve been an MCT since 2006), I say in response that yes, certification does cost money. The exams themselves cost money, and the preparation (books, courses, videos, eLearning) is also costly in terms of money and, more importantly, time. I have invested many thousands of dollars over the last 17 years in my certifications. But it’s been the best investment I’ve ever made. The return in the form of job opportunities, skills and reputation, and inner sense of competence has paid off many times over. And yes, it pays to be aware that all the big vendors require certifications in some form or another from their partners; in that sense, there’s a certain investment that IT consultancy firms need to make.

It’s true that experience with particular technologies is the best barometer for someone’s ability to work with that technology. But certification is the best, independently verified measure of that experience and knowledge. The cultural habit of exaggerating your skills and accomplishments on a CV (quite strong here in Australia) makes it difficult to know exactly how strong an applicant’s skills are, whereas a (current) certification shows a base level of knowledge.

Many years ago, I would agree that (MS) certification exams where too removed from the real world of IT trenches, but those days are mostly over. The current exams test real-world skills as much as can be done in two hours with computer-based testing. Yes, lab exams (such as the higher level Cisco certifications and the now sadly defunct Microsoft Master program) are the best test of real-world skills, but they are VERY expensive to implement and thus costly to pursue.

And, finally, there is the “paper Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE)” debate. I think the difficulty of the current crop of exams from Microsoft (sometimes difficult because of the technical depth but more often difficult due to the breadth of technologies covered) has all but extinguished the possibility for someone with no IT skills to take a boot camp for three weeks and become an MCSE. Working in IT today is very different than it was a decade ago; it’s a more complex environment in which sysadmins need to be able to talk business talk—not to mention cloud and hybrid options.

How? ^

Once you have chosen an exam, start by looking at the Skills Measured section for it.

There are many ways to study for certifications. For Microsoft certifications, you can do a CPLS course (if you have the money), study at a Microsoft IT academy, buy a book (check out the rating and reviews on Amazon; some are better than others), watch videos, or do eLearning online (Microsoft offers their own, CBT Nuggets and Pluralsight are also popular). You pay more to have a trainer involved in the teaching, but be aware that it takes a LOT of self-discipline to do all the study on your own. I recommend that beginners find some form of trainer-led teaching, whereas experienced IT pros tend to do well with self-study for updating their skills. Microsoft’s Virtual Academy (MVA) is a fantastic free resource for all MS technologies, offering recorded video jump starts covering many exams (including more obscure ones such as Lync).

When reading additional materials and links that you may find on the Internet, try to stick with TechNet (and MSDN for developer exams). It takes experience to see when an article may be leading you up the garden path.

The second thing to do is get hands-on experience with the product. Nothing brings light bulb moments quicker than when you do the steps yourself. To be in IT, you need to have a lab at home—a basic setup with a couple of computers capable of hardware virtualization, where you can quickly spin up VMs to test different scenarios, is another important investment in your career.

Once you have learned the material, the most important tip I can give you is to do practice exams. These exams will tell you what level of difficulty the “real exam” will be, as well as identify gaps in your understanding. For Microsoft exams, good providers are MeasureUp and SelfTest Software/Transcender. A word of caution: if you do a search on the Internet for practice tests for a particular exam, you’re likely to come across brain dump sites. These are fake practice exam sites that’ll sell you real exam questions. If you get caught using these, or any other form of cheating, you will be barred from MS certification for life; this is covered in the exam policies.

Book your exam through Prometric. Give yourself a deadline a few months in the future. Saying that you’re studying for an exam and that you’ll book “when you’re ready” is psychological folly; guess what—you’ll never be ready. Be aware of the new exam rebooking policies, and reschedule (if you need to) at least 16 days ahead to avoid being charged a fee. There’s currently a deal where you get a second shot at an exam for free if you fail the first time, but you have to hurry as it expires at the end of May. And if you’d like to “try” a Microsoft certification and work in the server virtualization area, a voucher is currently available (which ends June 30, 2014) that gives you the 74-409 exam for free. There’s also a great Jump Start series of videos on MVA for it.

Also read: Microsoft certification path

Microsoft certification pathMicrosoft certification pathMicrosoft certification pathMicrosoft certification path

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