D'Arcy from Winnipeg
Solution Architecture, Business & Entrepreneurship, Microsoft, and Adoption

A Reality Check on Microsoft Certifications

Sunday, September 1, 2013 11:42 AM

This week Microsoft announced the retirement of the Microsoft Certified Masters program. This was a top-tier certification that included a huge amount of time, money, and effort on the part of participants. Those that passed were viewed as the true elite in their respective space.

And Microsoft chose to send an email alerting them that their cert was going to be worthless come October.

The fervor around this makes me think its a good time to peer behind the curtain and be blunt and frank about the Microsoft certification program on a whole. I've been part of it for years, holding an MCSD (.NET 1.1), MCPD (.NET 4.0), and now working again on the new MCSD (.NET 4.5). I'm working on my second work certification drive due to widespread changes in Microsoft's program. What I'm saying is, I know what I'm talking about.

So let me educate you on the business of Microsoft certification.

Microsoft Certification is a Profit-Based Influencer Program

The Microsoft Certification program’s goal isn't to provide developers with the benefit of showing they're "certified"; It's goal is to move and influence partners/developers towards Microsoft's focus areas while turning a profit.

You may have heard of the Microsoft Partner program. This is where companies become official Microsoft Partners with a fancy logo they can add to their websites and marketing material. But I've got a little secret to share - the partner program has little to do with marketing visibility and everything to do with licenses.

Here's how you become a Microsoft Partner:

- Pay a fee.

- Submit some customer satisfaction surveys.

- Take some online sales exams.

- Get your staff to pass a bunch of Microsoft exams which correlate to technical competencies.

Note that Microsoft Partners don't get to write the exams for free - they're still paying for their folks to write them.

Microsoft Partners get free MSDN subscriptions and product licenses based on the number and type of competencies they have. Partner companies that use Visual Studio, SQL Server, Exchange, BizTalk, TFS, SharePoint, etc. rely on these licenses to run their businesses. Otherwise...well consider that one MSDN Subscription with Visual Studio Ultimate costs $13300. And let's say that you have a 10 dev shop...

$13300x 10 = $133000

Or a 20 dev shop...

$13300 x 20 - $266000

You get the picture - it can be expensive to develop for, and base your business operations on, the Microsoft platform! And that's just focusing on the development tools, not the other licenses like Windows, Office, and various Server products that businesses rely on every day.

Also note that subscriptions are only valid for a year, so these aren't one-time costs we're talking about. These are recurring costs that a business needs to budget for (the renewal fees are lower, but for Ultimate you’d still be looking at a $4250 dollar hit).

So let's recap:

- Microsoft Partners pay for their staff to write Microsoft Exams ($150 each unless they buy a bulk pack)

- Microsoft Partners meet requirements for various competencies

- Microsoft Partners get complimentary licenses

That's a huge value stream for the MS Learning business unit if you factor in training books and courses in addition to the exams themselves. But wait...there's more!

The Partner and Competency programs are also a way for Microsoft to move their developer/partner ecosystem towards the services and offerings important to Microsoft. This means that routinely exams will be retired/replaced, and competency requirements will change as well. Partners need to commit considerable time and resources to manage this, less they become non-compliant and lose those license benefits.

Let me give you an example. the Microsoft Certified Professional Developer certification (MCPD) came in a few flavours: Desktop (WPF focused), Web (ASP.NET focused), and ALM (TFS focused). Then Windows 8 happened, Azure and the cloud continued being pushed, and now we see the MCPD being retired in favour of the Microsoft Certified Solutions Developer (MCSD). This comes in 2 flavours: Web Development and Windows Store Development.

There is no MCSD certification for those that develop traditional Windows desktop applications, only for those writing Windows Store Apps for Windows 8. Understand the message here: Microsoft wants their developers focused on the "new" way of doing Windows Development here in 2013. So all those that did have the MCPD based on WPF skills? Sorry, you're obsolete now (although Microsoft will be quick to point out that XAML skills can transfer well to Windows 8 Store App development!).

And on the web side, there's only 3 exams you need: HTML5/JavaScript/CSS, ASP.NET MVC, and WebServices/Azure. While I applaud the focus to certifying on more open standards like HTML5, don't be fooled - HTML5 is a first class language for Windows 8 development. If you're a web developer, you can be a Windows 8 developer. And if you developed using Web Forms - sorry, you're obsolete from a certification point of view as well. Also note Azure is becoming more and more prominent in the exams, regardless of whether you intend to use the cloud or not.

So let's add another bullet to our list above:

- Microsoft forces partners/developers into their focus areas

This is one of the drawbacks of developing for a for-profit based Vendor platform: the vendor will always care most for those areas that they can produce revenue from. Right now its Windows 8, Azure, and their cloud-based offerings. Whether your organization cares about those things is irrelevant – come along for the ride or get off the bus!

A Note on the Microsoft Certified Training Program

The MCT program is crap; not the MCTs themselves - I know many who are highly capable, fantastic trainers - but the program is bunk. Let's look at this one.

Steps to Become an MCT:

- Fill out an application

- Pay a fee

- Write Microsoft Exams

That's it. Let me explain each step.

Fill Out an Application

Granted, part of the application is explaining your experience as a teacher/instructor. Granted that Microsoft tells you that they'll follow up with you at some point in the year to validate your claims. But nothing is done up front. Not only that, but I was never contacted in my year as an MCT to validate the claims I made on my application. Nobody called or emailed me saying "Hey, who can we contact to verify you taught the courses you claimed you did?". And if nobody contacted me, how many others never get contacted?

Pay a Fee

You pay $500. I honestly truly believe this is the only piece that really matters for getting into the MCT program.

Write Microsoft Exams

The Microsoft courseware that you're allowed to teach as an MCT is dependant on which Microsoft exams you've passed. And no, MCTs don't get free exams ($150 a shot).

MCTs can deliver courses in two ways: to a specific Microsoft Partner organization or through a certified Microsoft Training Center. Fees for the MCT are negotiated through either organization and are not dictated by Microsoft. What is dictated is the courseware required - you must purchase it from Microsoft's official 3rd party seller.

I was contacted recently by Microsoft to renew my MCT. The push seemed to be how I can pay my fee to renew - not really provide any new updates to why I should be an MCT (note - I delivered zero Microsoft training in the year I was an MCT).

So What's the Value of Microsoft Certifications?

After years in the Microsoft Certification program I’ve concluded that holding a Microsoft Certification has value only if you're looking to be hired by an organization that needs it to fulfill their Microsoft Partner Competency requirements. I cringe when I see forum posts from people who talk about all the time and effort they spent getting certified in hopes it would result in higher pay or better jobs. Microsoft Certification doesn't do that. Real world experience and demonstrated ability do that. Providing real value to an organization does that. Passing an exam does not.

Does this make the Microsoft Certification program evil? No. It's their sandbox, they make the rules. If you don't like the rules, stop doing Microsoft development and switch to Java or maybe use Mono and the Xamarin IDE, or switch to open libraries for web development, etc. etc.

I still enjoy developing in the Microsoft space, and I see the certification program as a necessary evil. But make no mistake - there are many valuable training opportunities that will have a greater effect on your marketability and salary than a Microsoft certification.




Feedback

# re: A Reality Check on Microsoft Certifications

Well said, D'Arcy. I agree with you completely. I haven't found much value in the certifications because the technologies that Microsoft wants you to know NOW is so far ahead of what any of my actual customers are using TODAY, that it doesn't have any value for them.

By the time my customers are using the technologies Microsoft is pushing today, Microsoft wants the developers to be certified at the next level again.

I suppose it keeps the developers a step ahead, but in my case I find that learning all the material just for the exam is nearly pointless because I won't actually be using any of those skills for years in real world situations with real customers and then have to learn them all over again anyway due to atrophy.

I do agree the certs have value for the Microsoft Partner and that may be about it.

What are your thoughts about learning the skills for certs now and where customers are on the actual technology adoption path? 9/3/2013 12:09 AM | Andre

# re: A Reality Check on Microsoft Certifications

Despite the seemingly high cost of buying visual studio it doesn't seem worth a company's time to dedicate hours to training people for certifications. Even at 13 300 it isn't going to take long before it is costing you more than that in wages and lost productivity. I'm also not convinced that anybody really needs the ultimate edition. 9/11/2013 8:18 PM | Simon

# re: A Reality Check on Microsoft Certifications

Andre - I find that certs are definitely ahead of where customers are, and especially here in Canada some of those technologies (like Azure) won't become mainstream for years - possibly ever!

Simon - Just remember that its not *just* VS.NET licenses. Windows, Exchange, Office, Visio, Project, SQL Server...any Microsoft license an organization may use is provided as part of being a partner. The impact is beyond just the dev licenses.

D 9/11/2013 8:25 PM | D'Arcy from Winnipeg

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