What is the benefit of Microsoft Certification?
Over time I have earned a number of Microsoft Certifications, and Microsoft is among several vendors who offer certification. In this post, I discuss my opinion about the overall value of certification (in general) and Microsoft certification (in particular). I also provide scenarios for when certification will not help advance your professional career. I ask and answer three questions in this post:
- When does certification help?
- When does certification not help?
- Do certifications mean you are done?
When does certification help?
- When you are new to the technology
- When the technology is new to the world
- When people are expecting it
A new person to the technology is either coming from another similar technology, or is new to technology careers in general. With no experience in a field, a certification can help assure a potential employer or client that you have the abilty to execute. The material on exams also provide something technical to discuss during an interview.
Sometimes, a technology is new to the world. Microsoft and other certification vendors have to continue to keep up with relevant technology trends, and develop new exams to cover those areas.
In either case: certfication is primarily for people who do NOT know you to be able to know you more quickly. And, even if you work with a consulting group who does know you, they may require certification becasue they encounter clients who do not know you.
Microsoft is not alone in marketing their certification programs primarily to employers. When employers ask for certifications on job requirements, then potential employees and consultants have a clear message of expectations. Here is Microsoft’s claim for the impact of certifications:
Having a Microsoft Certification sends a clear message to employers that you have proven skills in the latest technologies. For instance, a 2011 CompTIA study found that IT professionals gain an average 9% salary increase immediately after receiving certification, and 29% over the long term, versus peers who are not certified (channelinsider.com, 2011-10-19). And in a in a 2010 survey of hiring managers, 91% said they consider employee certification as a criterion for hiring.
In a survey of 700 IT professionals, 60% said certification led to a new job. And in a 2011 research report by CompTIA, 64 percent of IT hiring managers said that certifications had an extremely high or high value in validating the skills and expertise of job candidates.
Sources: Microsoft Learning, 2010. “Will IT certs get you jobs and raises? Survey says yes”, Julie Bort, networkworld.com, 14 November 2011. “Why Certifications Mean Better Pay, Better Recognition, Better Marketability”, CompTIA (Terry Erdle), channelinsider.com, 19 October 2011.
This evidence is based on employment situations. I work as a consultant and the factors used for choosing consultants may include certifciations, but more specifically rely on demonstrating technology leadership.
My Microsoft certifications include SQL Server, and my Microsoft MVP award is also in SQL Server. Here is Microsoft’s statement on the importance of SQL Server specifically for information technology:
Organizations around the world are facing a data explosion. According to Gartner, information volume is growing worldwide at a minimum rate of 59% annually, with 15% of that data as structured data and the rest comprised of new complex data types. But while data is predicted to grow 44 times over the next decade, the number of IT Professionals is only growing at 1.4 times. Employers will be looking for IT professionals with the SQL skills to handle the demands of their organization’s data.
Sources: “The End of the Database as We Know It – noDISK, noSQL, Cloudy”, Donald Feinberg, Gartner IT Symposium, October 2010. IDC: 2010 Digital Universe Study.
These statistics compare two different metrics: data volume and IT professionals. I believe that the future will require the same people to handle more volume, and there are increasingly technologies and tools to make such data management possible. Perhaps in the past, a DBA (database administrator) would take care of a single production server, or two servers (development and production). However, in the future, I believe that admininstrators will have to manage racks of servers as a norm, not an exception. In your personal learning, pay attention to how people can manage larger volumes of data. This blog is centrally about data mining, and I continue to promote data mining as a mathematical solution to data explosion.
Microsoft sent me this statement on how they are (for example) updating their certifications for the private cloud:
IT departments all over the world have heard the news: A private cloud delivers fundamentally new capabilities that represent a generational paradigm shift in computing. By pooling resources across the datacenter and the enterprise and offering an elastic and usage-based self-service model, a private cloud solution simplifies deployment, maintenance, and cost, while increasing agility and power. Microsoft Learning is addressing this need with the recently announced private cloud certification .
Everyone is different. I earned the MCITP certification in Business Intelligence 2008, and I do not plan to work on a new Microsoft certification soon. If you want to plan your own strategy, here are some places to start:
These certifications help with Microsoft-related jobs and contracts. I generally recommend earning some Microsoft certifications unless you have already earned years of experience in a specific technology (and can prove it through publicly-known means). This advice includes people serious about making data mining (Microsoft or SAS) a serious part of your career.
When does certification not help?
- When you are old to the technology
- When the technology is old to the world
- When an exam is too rare or too common
- When an exam lacks evidence of validity or reliability
I have NOT pursued every certification out there. Most notably, I have not earned any SAS technology certifications. I already had an established consulting career when the intial exams were developed. Some of my peers contributed to the questions. I have not pursued these exams since they did not help advance my professional position. In this case, I am old to most of the technology. This year, I helped coach someone new to SAS who passed her first exam; and I would be willing to certify in a new SAS technology.
I also have NOT pursued or will be pursuing every or even most Microsoft certifications. I make my personal decisions based on finding people who have a specific certification (you can find many on the MSDN forums, or on forums of your technology of interest), and listening to how it has affected their career.
Sometimes, a technology is old to the world. “Old”
could mean, in economic terms, that there is low demand or high supply. Along these lines, it is NOT necessary to repeat all your old certifications on your resume forever: only continue to tell relevant parts of your story. Save the history for a personal autobiography or an after-work discussion over a meal.
I finally believe certification helps when enough people have a credential but not when everyone has it. I have a Ph.D. which is both a certification and a degree. The designation is common enough that people know what it is, but not so common that everyone has it: Therefore, the letters have professional value. You have to do your own research to determine if — at any particular time — a certification is either too rare (no one knows what it is) or too common (everyone has it). You can perform this research by going to a job website or bing.com search and see what you can learn.
The main threat in technology certifications is being too rare — so rare that you find yourself explaining to employers what you achieved instead of being instantly recognizable. Sharing that you are certified should remove an already-existing concern, not add a new topic of confusion. Hopefully, you will find promotional explanations from Microsoft (or other certification creators) so that you do NOT carry the marketing burden. Continue to ask Microsoft and SAS and other producers to make video to tell their story. If you are a strong networker, you may want to promote your own certifications by encouraging other people to both earn it and promote it.
Finally, an exam is known to scientists as a psychometric instrument. On this blog, I have a mission to turn people into better scientists: tell yourself, I can do better science . A good exam will have strong demonstrated validity and reliability. Here are some statistical definitions:
- Validity — does the exam measure what it is supposed to measure?
- Reliability — does the exam produce the same results on repeated tests?
If you research a well-known exam such as the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) or MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test), you will find statements on those topics published (just enter “SAT validity and reliability” into a search engine). To my knowledge, no vendor (including Microsoft or SAS) is publishing specific validity or reliabilty statistics on their certification exams:
If you read these materials, you can see the correct language on what science should be covered for certification exams: both sources (as of August 8, 2012) restate the scientific method, but they don’t tell you the results. It’s like learning the rules of a game or sport, but not knowing the final score. Each certification exam can and should be individually studied, with its own validity and reliability study.
Also, I note that neither cited sources talk about correlating exam results with the outcomes that people desire: 1) affecting employment, or 2) affecting performance. Different exams will have different effects in those two outcomes. This blog is about data mining, and what I am talking about is applying a supervised data mining model, choosing the outcome variables, and using either the entire exam or the clusters of related questions as input variables. I would expect anyone using Microsoft Data Mining to be able to setup that model and interpret the results.
In the case of the SAT college entrance exam, a number of studies have attempted to track the correlation between SAT scores and (for example) first-year college performance or college admissions (you can find many such studies by looking in a search engine). One important question is how many people were used to establish the validity of certain questions, and what was learned during the pilot process of exam development. Having mentored peer-reviewed research, such stories are expected when someone publishes a dissertation.
Without such detailed science published, you and I will have to base our judgments on specific case studies (meaning stories you hear). You can check on MSDN forums or other technical forums to see whether people are discussing validity and reliability science. The SAT has undergone changes over its history, and investing in such research requires resources, the same types of resources you have to ask for if you want to use data mining in some organization. If you are actively doing predictive or descriptive analytics, you already know what it’s like to ask for resources to examine a question. More specifically: anytime you produce just one data mining model, you need to be ready to answer validity and reliability questions with numbers and not just process. Organizations seriously using data mining do not need a primer on the scientific method.
How can you respond? You can find out whether a specific employer values a particular certification or degree or certificate. Based on that knowledge, you can choose to earn it. Even knowing an exam’s history and science might set you apart from other candidates. While I generally believe more education helps your technical career, the fact is that I have rarely been in any environment where you can use all you learn: Certification provides broad preparation, and should be supplemented as you settle into a new job.
Do certifications mean you are done?
Certifications are not the only way for people to know you or your work. I have been generally promotiing a social marketing strategy to leverage social media. Certifications park well on legacy resumes, but these days there are other more real-time ways for people to know you and your work. I recommend sharing what you can about the work you do as you do it — you can see my general advice in this slide presentation .
Certifications also should not mean you are done learning. I encourage information technology professionals to consider themselves scientists, and be willing to continuously improve the work you do. I am NOT saying automatically adopt the latest and greatest, but instead develop ways to test what is new compared to what is currently used. If new technology passes the science experiment, then it can earn a look by your organization, and perhaps a new certification.
Certification can provide a broad look at a technology. However, consider what I said about validity and reliability: few if any technology certifications have this level of science behind them (as demonstrated by published research results). And, when it comes to using a certification for a particular job, you and I will continue to have to supplement what we already know with what we need to know for a particular situation. Ongoing learning is therefore important, and a key ability to gain is how to identify answers (often online or from experts) and even harder, how to ask the correct questions (an advanced skill).
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