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Microsoft Certifications: What's Your Path?


March 24, 2003

Love them or hate them, Microsoft's technologies and products undeniably have an enormous grasp of the IT market share. To accompany this breadth of technologies and products, Microsoft has developed a comprehensive and well-known education program to back their technical offerings. As a person who may be interested in joining the IT field or enhancing your skills as an IT professional, gaining at least one Microsoft certification is often held in high importance for one's resume and skill set. Microsoft offers certifications in many subject areas that could be attractive to IT professionals, from junior network administrators and support personnel to high-level enterprise developers. After considering the area(s) of IT you want to grow in, you can select a certification path from Microsoft that will enhance your knowledge of Microsoft technologies and help you learn new job skills or enhance current skills. Depending on your chosen path, you may decide to achieve an MCP, MCSA/MCSE, MCAD/MCSD, MCDBA, or an MCT certification. Lots of alphabet soup here! Not to worry, though, let's explore these certifications further to find what might be right for you. We will cover the MCP, MCSA, and MCSE certifications further in this article, and we will explore the MCAD, MCSD, MCDBA, and MCT certification tracks in a second article.

MCP

The first certification discussed is the Microsoft Certified Professional credential, otherwise known as the MCP. This certification is by far the most popular Microsoft certification available. According to www.mcpmag.com, nearly 900,000 people have achieved the MCP status. The nearest certification to this number is the MCSE, which numbers in the neighborhood of 180,000 certified professionals. Why the popularity? A lot of this popularity is due to the relative ease of obtaining this certification. Unlike its cousins, that can require between four and seven exams to get certified, the MCP requires you to only pass one exam.

To get MCP certified, you are required to pass one Microsoft certification exam on any topic (except Microsoft Office topics), as long as that topic's exam has not been retired. For instance, you may be a technical support personnel and your company is rolling out Windows 2000 Professional as its desktop OS. As a result, you decide to study for and take the 70-210 Installing, Configuring, and Administering Microsoft Windows 2000 Professional exam. Or, if you are a developer, you can pass the 70-305 Developing and Implementing Web Applications with Microsoft Visual Basic® .NET and Microsoft Visual Studio® .NET exam. By passing these exams, you will achieve the MCP certification, and then you will be recognized as a competent person to install, configure, and manage this desktop OS or to develop effective Web applications with Visual Basic .NET.

This achievement will give you access to the MCP secured Web site where you can receive benefits such as logos and transcripts for your use. Also, you will receive a certificate from Microsoft detailing your accomplishment. This is a nice addition to your work area to let people know of your accomplishment! Generally, this is the first certification you will achieve in Microsoft technologies. You may wish to stop with this certification because you have validated yourself with a section of Microsoft technologies that you are currently working with, or this may be one achievement along the way to a larger certification, like the MCSA, MCSE, or MCSD.

MCSA and MCSE

The Microsoft Certified System Administrator (MCSA) and Microsoft Certified System Engineer (MCSE) certifications are two premier Microsoft certifications for those interested in network support and engineering. The MCSA is a relatively new certification that is seeing considerable popularity. According to www.mcpmag.com, around 50,000 have achieved this certification since the program came into existence in late 2001. The MCSA is a mid-level certification, only requiring a total of four exams to be passed. The MCSE is the more premier certification, requiring seven exams to be passed. The MCSE has been around longer, but it also has enjoyed considerable success. The same poll on mcpmag.com lists the number of MCSE certified professionals to be near the 180,000 mark.

You can achieve an MCSA and an MCSE on either Windows 2000 technologies or on Windows 2003 and XP technologies. To determine which path is right for you, take a look at the technologies your employer intends to use or is using. If this situation is not like yours, contact some recruiters, look at IT job sites, or contact consulting companies to see what they have been asked to implement in order to get a feel for which set of technologies the market is going to be using more. This will give you a better idea of which track to take.

If you are already on a track for an MCSA or MCSE in Windows 2000 technologies, it is advised to stay the course and finish your Windows 2000 track. First, Windows 2000 technologies are not going away anytime soon, and Microsoft is offering two upgrade exams that will allow you to move your Windows 2000 credentials into the Windows 2003 and XP level. Keep in mind that to move a Windows 2000 MCSA to a Windows Server 2003 and XP MCSA, you will only need to take one upgrade exam. For the MCSE upgrade, you will be required to take two exams.

Let's take a look at each certification in more depth.

MCSA

As mentioned in the preceding paragraph, the MCSA is considered a mid-level certification in that it only requires passing a total of four exams for completion. The MCSA credential is a perfect fit for someone who wants to stay in the network and system implementation, management, and support area of IT. This certification will give you more breadth in your learning than the MCP, but it does not require you to go the full distance of seven exams required by the MCSE. The main difference between the MCSA and the MCSE is that the MCSA does not require you to take planning and design courses and exams, where these are required by the MCSE.

To get the MCSA, one is required to pass three Core Exams and one elective. The following list breaks down the topics covered in the core exam track:

  • Client Operating System Exams: You must take one exam from the Client Operating System track. This can be an exam from the Windows 2000 Professional track or the Windows XP track that will test your abilities on installing, configuring, and effectively administering a Windows desktop operating system.

  • Networking Systems Exams: You must select and pass two exams from the Networking Systems group of topics as well. You will need to demonstrate proficiency in installing, configuring, and managing either a Windows 2000 Server or Windows Server 2003 as well as a Windows 2000 or 2003 network infrastructure.

Elective exams can cover topics such as implementing and managing SQL Server, Exchange Server, ISA Server, or SMS Server, to name a few. This elective requirement will give you greater breadth in implementing and managing other Microsoft products and technologies within a Windows 2000 or 2003 network infrastructure. You may also substitute the MCSA elective with a combination of CompTIA exams. You can use a combination of CompTIA's Network+ and A+ exams or a combination of Server+ and A+ exams to satisfy the elective requirement as well (see www.comptia.org for more information on CompTIA exams).

If you are an MCSA in Windows 2000 technologies or you have invested significant time, study, and resources into a Windows 2000 MCSA, don't fret that your time has been wasted. In either situation, you will have to only pass one upgrade exam to move your Windows 2000 credentials into the Windows Server 2003 and XP realm after you have successfully completed the Windows 2000 track. The following exam is the only exam required by MCSA's on Windows 2000 to pass:

  • Exam 70-292—"Managing and Maintaining a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Environment for an MCSA Certified on Windows 2000"

This exam is expected to be much like regular Microsoft certifications in terms of length and style. Those who took the 70-240 exam, for the transition from NT4 to Windows 2000, may remember that it was rather long and tedious. Upgrade exams for Windows 2000 to Windows 2003 are not expected to be this long.

Microsoft sometimes changes names and numbers of exams and tracks, so be sure to always check Microsoft's certification site for current exam numbers and names. For the MCSA track, try http://www.microsoft.com/traincert/mcp/mcsa/ for more information.

MCSE

This certification is considered the senior-level certification for Microsoft's networking and system administration realm. Seven exams must be passed to achieve this status. As mentioned above, this is one of Microsoft's most popular certifications, boasting nearly 180,000 certified. This certification expects the successful candidate to be proficient in planning and designing Microsoft networks as well as proficient in the day-to-day implementation and management skills tested in the MCSA track. It is the planning and design abilities that separate the MCSE from the MCSA. It is usually recommended that an MCSE candidate have approximately two years of valid networking experience before tackling this certification.

A typical progression of an MCSE candidate on Windows 2000 or Windows Server 2003 and XP might be to achieve an MCP and then move to the MCSA while working within a Microsoft networked environment. While gaining implementation, management, and troubleshooting experience on the job, the candidate can begin to study for and take planning and design exams, as well as any extra electives necessary to achieve the full MCSE credential. Most of the exams you will pass to achieve an MCP and MCSA will translate to the full MCSE. Be sure that if you are planning to go the distance to the MCSE that you are taking and passing exams for the MCP and MCSA certifications that will transfer on to the MCSE.

As stated earlier, seven exams must be passed to achieve MCSE status. Six core exams and one elective exam are required. For the core you will be required to pass four networking systems exams, one design exam, and one client operating system exam. The following list breaks down the types of topics you may test on in the core set of exams.

  • Demonstrate capabilities in installing, configuring, and managing either a Windows 2000 Server or Windows 2003 Server.

  • Implement and manage a Windows 2000 or 2003 network infrastructure.

  • In a related exam, you will expand your technical abilities beyond implementation and management by testing on your ability to design and plan a Windows 2000 or 2003 network infrastructure.

  • You will also be examined on your ability to implement and manage directory services for either a Windows 2000 or 2003 network. This tests your abilities to effectively manage the Active Directory in either network type.

  • Related to the previous exam, you may choose to test your knowledge on designing an Active Directory infrastructure. Being able to gather organizational information and business requirements and designing an Active Directory structure that meets these business needs is an extremely important role for establishing a fine-tuned and high performing network.

  • You may also decide to test on designing a security infrastructure for either a Windows 2000 or 2003 network.

  • Lastly, the MCSE candidate will be expected to have passed an exam on Windows 2000 Professional or Windows XP to satisfy the desktop operating system exam requirement.

As with the MCSA track, you will be required to pass one elective exam to demonstrate your knowledge of another Microsoft technology or product. This breadth of knowledge is meant to strengthen your learning of how different Microsoft products work within a Windows 2000 or 2003 network infrastructure. Topics here can include exams on installing and managing SQL Server, Exchange, SNA Server, SMS, or BizTalk Server.

Like the MCSA, the Windows 2000 MCSE program has upgrade opportunities so you can move your credentials into the Windows Server 2003 and Windows XP realm. Unlike the MCSA, you must pass two exams rather than just one. Let's explore these two exams further:

  • 70-292—The first exam you must pass is 70-292, "Managing and Maintaining a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Environment for an MCSA Certified on Windows 2000." This is the same exam MCSA candidates must pass for an MCSA upgrade to Windows 2003.

  • 70-296—You must also pass the 70-296 "Planning, Implementing, and Maintaining a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Environment for an MCSE Certified on Windows 2000" exam as well. Note that this exam is specific to MCSE candidates only, due to the planning element included in the exam.

As with the MCSA certification, be sure you visit Microsoft's certification Web site to stay current on exam numbers, names, and the content covered. For up-to-date information on the MCSE certification, visit http://www.microsoft.com/traincert/mcp/mcse/.

Conclusions

In sum, you have covered the MCP, MCSA, and MCSE in this article. If Microsoft networking is an area you would like to be involved in, these certifications will give you the necessary knowledge to pursue this career goal. For more information on how to begin study for these certifications, see Microsoft's Web site at http://www.microsoft.com/traincert/ for training resources or locations. Also, go to your local bookstore and peruse the training guides and cram guides for the different exams to gain an idea of what is taught and what will be expected for these exams.

It is also recommended that you have multiple resources for study. Decide how you learn best and follow this path. You may also have to take into account the expense training for these exams will generate. If you can afford to take instructor-led classes, this will be a great way to start. You may learn better from computer-based training (CBT) or Web-based training (WBT) solutions. Also, be sure to find books that effectively teach you the material needed to pass the exam and look for books that give you difficult hands-on experiences. Microsoft exams are known to have a good number of case study- and/or scenario-based questions that will require you to know how to do something rather than a simple recall of knowledge. Lastly, be sure you have practice test software. You will be best served if you search out practice exams that are tougher than the real exam. This will ensure that you have tackled the difficult materials before sitting for the real exam. Ask colleagues who have taken the exam or call training centers to ask what practice exams are best for the exam if you are not sure what software to select. Good luck to you if you are thinking of pursuing any of these certifications!

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