Trying to decide which Microsoft certification is the right one for you can be confusing. This short introductory guide will try to clarify the various paths on offer and help you to choose the right one. Choosing the right exam today will tomorrow to get additional certifications faster.
Microsoft has three levels of certification and there are various different paths and specialisations that can be taken to develop your career.
As a broad overview we can see the three levels as follows:
- Associate exams are aimed primarily at help desk staff, providing first-line support to business systems and infrastructure. These are also the first step in gaining more advanced Microsoft certification.
- Expert exams are the next stage and demonstrate that you have some experience in the field. They are primarily aimed at people administering at the network level.
- Master is the highest level of certification and is therefore the least attained. It requires the relevant MCSE certification and then an application to be made to Microsoft for approval to become an MCSM or Microsoft Certified Solution Master.
Associate Level Certifications
The Associate exams are the first stage in your career as a Microsoft certified employee and cover a wide range of technologies.
The MCTS or Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist is the course to prove your ability to implement and debug a particular Microsoft product. It is important to check the Microsoft website for the most up to date course available because the validity of these exams expires when mainstream support for the product associated expires.
You should have around 1 year of experience in your chosen field and can pick one of 20 different technologies such as SQL Server, Visual Studio, Sharepoint and Exchange Server. Depending on the course you choose it will consist of between one and three exams.
For progression to Expert level, however, you need to gain the MCSA or Microsoft Certified Server Administrator as a pre-requisite for moving up to the MCSE certification (more of this later).
There are now two options available: MCSA 2008 and MCSA 2012.
For progression to MCSE level you will need to have the MCSA 2012 but if you are in the process of obtaining the MCSA 2008 then it might make more sense to complete that and use the upgrade exam to convert to 2012 rather than beginning from scratch. This path will be available until July 2014.
To obtain the MCSA 2008 you need to pass three exams:
- 70-640 - Active Directory
- 70-642 - Network Infrastructure
- 70-646 - Server Administrator
If you already have your MCSA 2008 you can upgrade to MCSA 2012 by completing one upgrade exam - 70-417 - Upgrading your Skills to MCSA Windows Server 2012. This upgrade exam is available until July 2014.
The newest certification at this level is the MCSA Windows Server 2012 which also consists of three exams:
- 70-410 - Installing and Configuring Windows Server 2012
- 70-411 - Administering Windows Server 2012
- 70-412 - Configuring Advanced Windows Server 2012 Services
Regardless of where you are now in the certification path if you have just started or have a few certification under your belt in order to moving up to the next certification path provided by Microsoft you want to aim towards achieving the MCSA 2012 certification as it will be the cornerstone of your career and will allow you to progress onto the expert level.
MCSA Windows 7 and MCSA Windows 8
There are also two stand-alone and independent certifications that you can gain with no credit needed or provided towards an MCSA 2012 or MCSE 2012 certification, they are MCSA Windows 7 and MCSA Windows 8.
The MCSA for Windows 7 and Windows 8 are useful for help desk operatives to prove they have knowledge in the new operating system.
MCSA Windows 8 certification consists of two exams:
- 70 - 687 Configuring Windows 8
- 70 - 688 Managing and Maintaining Windows 8
MCSA Windows 7 certification consists of two exams:
- 70 - 680 Configuring Windows 7
- 70 - 685 Windows 7, Enterprise Desktop Support Technician
- 70 - 686 Windows 7, Enterprise Desktop Administrator
Once you have gained the MCSA Windows 7 or if you have an MCITP certification in any of the following you can upgrade to an MCSA Windows 8 certification by completing the 70 - 689 Upgrading your skills to MCSA Windows 8 exam.
MCITP - Enterprise Desktop Administrator
MCITP - Enterprise Desktop Support Technician
Note: Until January 31, 2014, when you gain the MCSA Windows 7 certification you will also earn your Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (MCTS): Windows 7, Configuration and either your MCITP: Enterprise Desktop Administrator (exams 680 and 686) or MCTIP: Enterprise Desktop Support Technician (exams 680 and 685).
As the name suggests these certifications are for experts in the field; for professionals who have been working for a while in their given area and who are confident in providing solutions with new and changing technologies and keeping on top of the next skillset.
MCITP or Microsoft Certified IT Professional is the certification for those who have moved away from the helpdesk and are now administering at the network level. It will be discontinued from July 31st 2013. There are around 15 different technologies that you can choose to take an MCITP in, from SQL Server to Windows Client and it requires between 2 and 5 exams for each certification.
If you have an MCITP certification in any of the following you can upgrade to an MCSA 2012 by completing the 70-417 exam this is the same exam for upgrading from MCSA 2008 to MCSA 2012.
MCITP - Virtualisation Administrator
MCITP - Enterprise Desktop Administrator
MCITP - Lync Server Administrator
MCITP - SharePoint Administrator
MCITP - Enterprise Messaging Administrator
For those who have been in IT for some time the name MCSE will be familiar from the certification which used to stand for Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer and was for the NT/2000 and 2003 platforms. This has subsequently been retired and replaced with other certifications but Microsoft has somewhat confusingly re-introduced the acronym but with a different emphasis and skill-set.
The new certification is called Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert. With more software and technology available to the client this certification is particularly aimed at showing that you can implement solutions rather than being focused on a particular technology or job role. Successful candidates will need to understand new technologies and use them where relevant. Since it focuses on what technologies are valid at the time it is not an “MCSE 2012”, rather, the certification will need to be renewed every two to three years.
There are different categories of MCSE and they will focus on specific areas, so depending on your point of expertise you can specialise in Desktop Infrastructure, Server Infrastructure, Private Cloud, SQL Server, Communication or SharePoint.
In the same way that the old MCSE was highly regarded this certification will be seen by employers as a certification proving that the holder is an expert in their field.
The MCSA 2012 is a pre-requisite for any of the MCSE-certifications and you will need to take 2 exams for each of the different areas that are covered as follows:
MCSE Desktop Infrastructure
- 70 - 415 Implementing a Desktop Infrastructure
- 70 - 416 Implementing Desktop Application Environments
MCSE Server Infrastructure
- 70 - 413 Designing and Implementing a Server Infrastructure
- 70 - 414 Implementing an Advanced Server Infrastructure
MCSE Private Cloud
- 70 - 217 Configuring and Deploying a Private Cloud with System Center 2012
- 70 - 246 Monitoring and Operating a Private Cloud with System Center 2012
- 70 - 341 Core Solutions of Microsoft Exchange Server 2013
- 70 - 342 Advanced Solutions of Microsoft Exchange Server 2013
- 70 - 336 Core Solutions of Microsoft Lync Server 2013
- 70 - 337 Enterprise Voice & Online Services with Microsoft Lync Server 2013
- 70 - 331 Core Solutions of Microsoft SharePoint Server 2013
- 70 - 332 Advanced Solutions of Microsoft SharePoint Server 2013
None of the exams overlap so if you want multiple certifications then you will need to do all the exams for the relevant certification.
As you might expect from a pyramid system of certifications the highest level is the hardest to achieve. The MCSM or Microsoft Certified Solutions Master (formally MCM - Microsoft Certified Master) can only be attained by those with great experience and is not evaluated by an exam.
At this level you have to apply directly to Microsoft for approval and you must be able to demonstrate the deepest level of product knowledge. You will be able to design and implement innovative solutions and work in various environments. First you need the MCSE certification in the particular area you want to attain and then Microsoft will evaluate your experience.
To book any of these exams visit www.prometric.com where you can also find local training centres and find out the prices. Please let us know how you get on in the forums!
Note: the MCSA SQL Server 2012 and the MCSE SQL Server 2012, MCSE: Data Platform and MCSE: Business Intelligence are not covered in this article.