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Microsoft Certification Guide: Overview and Career Paths

Microsoft Certification Guide: Overview and Career Paths

Microsoft is best known for its Windows operating systems and Office software, but it has a much broader product portfolio that includes online services (Bing, MSN, advertising), gaming (Xbox 360), hardware (tablets, PCs, keyboards and mice) and more. The company also has a robust certification program that churns out qualified administrators and technicians to support its system and application products.

Achieving IT certifications through the Microsoft Certification Program shows a person's competence in a specific Microsoft technology, and it can result in all kinds of work-related and personal benefits. For example, studies show that IT certifications increase the chances of landing a job (or getting a promotion), and more than 80 percent of hiring managers report that IT certifications are a medium or high priority in making hiring decisions.

Currently, the Microsoft Certification Program is divided into seven main categories:

  • Cloud: This category encompasses business intelligence, Windows Server 2016, Microsoft Azure, machine learning, cloud data platform solutions, data analytics and big data, software-defined data centers, server infrastructures, private and hybrid clouds, DevOps and more. This is the “new mainstream” for Microsoft certification.
  • Mobility: This category is for end-user and desktop topics, including Windows 10, desktop and enterprise applications, working with System Center Configuration Manager and Intune, and planning for and managing devices in an enterprise setting.
  • Data: This arena now incorporates machine learning, business intelligence, business applications, and data management and analytics, along with Microsoft SQL Server 2016 and other Microsoft database technologies. Database development is also important, and includes working with Transact-SQL and developing SQL databases. Business applications include extensive coverage of Microsoft Dynamics 365 and Microsoft Dynamics AX. Data management and analytics covers a wide range of topics, including cloud data platform solutions, big data analytics solutions, database solutions, implementing data models and reports, and various aspects of business intelligence solutions.
  • Productivity: This category brings the Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS) credentials together with those related to Microsoft productivity offerings, such as Exchange Server, SharePoint Server and Skype for Business, as well as Office 365 identities, requirements and services.
  • App Builder: This is a development-oriented category that covers the ins and outs of using Microsoft solutions and platforms to build compatible software. Topics in this category include architecting, designing, testing and building solutions around Azure, SharePoint Server, Visual Studio Team Foundation, and managing development throughout the entire software lifecycle.
  • Business Applications: This category focuses on Microsoft Dynamics 365 platforms and technologies, including Dynamics 365 for Sales, Customer Service, Distribution and Trade (AX), Financials (AX), Finance and Operations, Retail, Field Service and other focused applications.

Certifications within the Microsoft Certification Program include the following credentials:

  • Microsoft Technology Associate (MTA)
  • Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate (MCSA)
  • Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE)
  • Microsoft Solutions Developer (MCSD)
  • Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS)

After you pass your first qualifying Microsoft certification exam, you are deemed a Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP). MCP status provides access to a benefits and exams dashboard, with certificates and transcripts, downloadable certification logos, promotional offers and lots more. You also get the MCP designation on your Microsoft transcript. It's important to understand that only the MCSA, MCSD, and MCSE qualify as MCP certifications. Neither MTA nor MOS certifications qualify for MCP status, and none of those exams are prerequisites for MCSA, MCSE or MCSD certifications.

In addition to the certifications outlined above, Microsoft offers its MCT: Microsoft Certified Trainer and MCE: Microsoft Certified Educator credentials to those interested in teaching others about Microsoft technologies and products.

The Microsoft Cloud certification track includes MTA, MCSA and MCSE credentials. Within the MTA program is one relevant certification — namely, IT Infrastructure. To obtain it, a candidate needs to pass one of five exams, which cover topics that include fundamentals for server administration, networking, security, mobility and devices, and cloud.

The MCSA Cloud track includes BI Reporting, Cloud Platform, Data Engineering with Azure, Linux on Azure, Machine Learning, SQL 2016 BI Development certs, Windows Server 2012 and Windows Server 2016 credentials. The Windows Server items require three exams each. Most of the remaining items require only two exams, including the MCSA: Cloud Platform, any of which also serves as a prerequisite for the next certification.

The MCSE: Cloud Platform and Infrastructure certification requires one of the preceding MCSAs to qualify candidates, after which they must pass one of 15 exams to earn this credential. The list of exams includes numerous options, such as Azure, cloud data platform, big data analytics, Windows Server 2016, software-defined data center, server infrastructure, private and hybrid cloud, DevOps and more.

The Microsoft Mobility certification track includes MTA, MCSA and MCSE certifications. The MTA program has just one relevant certification — IT Infrastructure — just like the Cloud track. The MTA IT Infrastructure track is earned by passing one of five exams on Windows Server administration, networking, security, mobility and device fundamentals, or cloud.

MCSA: Windows 10 is the only MCSA Mobility track credential available. Earning the MCSA: Windows 10 requires passing two exams.

The remaining credential in this track is the MCSE: Mobility. This requires earning the MCSA: Windows 10 plus passing one more exam, from a list of three possibilities that deal with Windows desktops and enterprise applications, administering System Center Configuration Manager and Intune, and planning for and managing devices in the enterprise.

Microsoft's Data certification track includes the MTA, MCSA and MCSE. (To see the Data track, go to the Microsoft Certification page and click Data.) The MTA program requires one exam on database fundamentals. There are five certifications in the MCSA Data track at the moment – namely, Machine Learning, SQL 2016 BI Development, SQL 2016 Database Administration, SQL 2016 Database Development, and SQL Server 2012/2014. The first four of these items require two exams, while the fifth requires three (we expect it to retire in 2018 or 2019).

The MCSE Data category includes two certifications: MCSE: Business Applications and MCSE: Data Management and Analytics. The prerequisite MCSAs that qualify for MCSE: Business Applications are MCSA: Microsoft Dynamics 365 or MCSA: Microsoft Dynamics 365 for Operations. One additional exam from a list of eight possibilities must be passed to earn this credential. Topics covered include Microsoft Dynamics 365 for Sales, Customer Service, Distribution and Trade (AX), Financials (AX), Finance and Operations, Distribution and Trade, Retail, and Field Service.

The prerequisite MCSAs that qualify for MCSE: Data Management and Analytics are SQL Server 2012/2014, SQL 2016 Database Administration, Database Development, BI Development, Machine Learning, BI Reporting, or Data Engineering with Azure. One additional exam from a list of 12 possibilities must be passed to earn this credential. Topics covered include cloud data platform solutions, big data analytics solutions, developing or designing SQL Server databases, implementing data models and reports, designing business intelligence solutions, implementing a data warehouse, developing SQL data models, analyzing big data with Microsoft R, cloud data science with Azure machine learning, and data engineering with Azure HDInsight.

Certifications in the Microsoft Productivity category vary widely, from proving competency in using a single Office product to managing Office 365 services and user login credentials. This track is also fairly large; it includes an MCSA and MCSE certification as well as Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS) offerings.

The MCSA Productivity track includes a single certification – the MCSA: Office 365. Two exams are required to obtain the credential. The MCSE: Productivity certification requires passing one additional exam, from a list of eight possibilities. Topics covered include Exchange Server, SharePoint Server, and Skype for Business, for multiple versions of these platforms.

Microsoft offers a MOS Office 2016 certification for each Office application (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, Access, SharePoint and OneNote). Office 2010 and 2013 credentials are still available, but unless you have a specific reason for achieving them, focus on Office 2016.

The MOS 2016 Expert certification identifies individuals with advanced Office skills and requires candidates to pass four exams. The MOS 2016 Master certification is the pinnacle of the MOS Certification Program and requires successful completion of six exams.

The Microsoft Developer certification path includes MTA, MCSA and MCSD certifications. The MTA program recognizes individuals who are entry-level software developers. The certification requires candidates to pass one of five exams. Possible topics include software development fundamentals, HTML5 app development fundamentals, and intro to programming using block-based languages, Python or JavaScript.

There are two credentials in the Microsoft App Builder MSCA track. The MCSA: Universal Windows Platform (UWP) credential prepares candidates to tackle professional development projects. They must pass two exams, one on programming in C#, the other on developing mobile apps. The MCSA: Web Applications credential prepares candidates for building web-based applications. They must pass two exams, from a list of three possibilities. Topics include programming in HTML5 with JavaScript and CSS3, programming in C#, and developing ASP.NET MVC Web applications.

The MCSD Developer track consists of the MCSD: App Builder certification. It requires earning either the MSCA: Web Applications or MCSA: UWP as its prerequisite, followed by your choice of one exam from a list of ten possible options. Topics covered in include architecting and developing Azure solutions, developing Azure and web services, developing SharePoint solutions, administering Visual Studio Team Foundation Server, software testing with Visual Studio, Visual Studio application lifestyle management, and implementing Azure DevOps solutions (coming in 2018).

The Microsoft Business Applications certifications include MCSA and MCSE certifications. There are two MCSA options: MCSA: Microsoft Dynamics 365 and MCSA: Microsoft Dynamics 365 for Operations. Each requires passing two exams. The plain-vanilla Dynamics 365 certification draws from a list of two exams, both of which are needed to meet its requirements. One exam covers Dynamics 365 customer engagement online deployment, the other covers Dynamics 365 customization and configuration. The Dynamics 365 for Operations draws from a list of four exams. Topics covered include administering a Microsoft SQL database infrastructure, provisioning SQL databases, Microsoft Development AX development introduction, and development, extensions and deployment for Microsoft Dynamics 365 for Finance and Operations.

The MSCE: Business Operations credential is the sole MCSE item for this certification track. It takes either of the Microsoft Dynamics MCSAs covered in the preceding paragraph as its prerequisite, then requires candidates to pass another exam drawn from a list of eight possibilities. Topics covered include Microsoft Dynamics 365 for Sales, Customer Service, Distribution and Trade (AX), Financials (AX), financial management (Finance and Operations), Retail and Field Service.

Folks who teach others about Microsoft technologies and products should consider (and are often required to have) the Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT) certification. The MCT can be obtained by submitting an application to Microsoft that proves that you hold a current Microsoft certification, one year of instruction experience (supporting reference required), plus verifiable instructional skills in the form of an acceptable instructor certification (such as CompTIA CTT+, Microsoft Certified Trainer Instructional Skills Certification (MCT-ISC) or IAMCT Approved Technical Trainer).

To renew, credential holders must possess at least one current Microsoft credential, meet the minimum instruction requirements of teaching at least one class, and maintain a Metrics that Matter quality score of at least seven. (Check the MCT website for a list of qualifying certifications and instructor certifications.)

As an MCT, you have access to the MCP benefits and exams dashboard, prep kits, the MCT community, Microsoft Online Labs and much more.

The Microsoft Certified Educator (MCE) credential is aimed at educators in academia, such as colleges, universities and training facilities. To become an MCE, you must demonstrate technology literacy by passing at least one exam.

The literacy competency is mapped to the UNESCO ITC Competency Framework for Teachers, Technology Literacy and includes education policy, curriculum and assessment, pedagogy, ICT/technology tools, organization and administration, and professional development.

IT professionals who earn Microsoft certification often receive extra recognition from hiring and supervising managers, and enjoy improved on the job success and promotion opportunities. Companies that negotiate large volume purchase or subscription agreements with Microsoft (or its partner resellers) often include funding for official curriculum training and Microsoft certification exam vouchers as part of what's covered therein.

Here are how the various Microsoft certification areas shake out, job- and career-wise:

  • A Microsoft Cloud certification is ideal for the IT professional who designs, deploys, configures and/or manages a Windows Server environment, standalone or cloud-based, which may include various desktops and devices. Folks who achieve this type of certification work as systems administrators, systems analysts, technical specialists (often with a platform focus such as SQL Server, Skype for Business or Exchange Server), and the like.
  • A Microsoft Mobility certification is designed for those who deploy, configure and/or manage a Windows desktop environment and related devices, whether on-premises or in the cloud. IT professionals with this type of certification usually fill positions such as help desk technicians, support personnel and systems administrators, to name a few.
  • Of late, Microsoft Productivity credentials have been gathering interest, coverage and momentum. People who pursue these certifications work with key Windows platforms such as Office, Office 365 and Microsoft Dynamics 365, which covers CRM, ERP and more. They are usually responsible for making sure that rank-and-file employees are able to work effectively and productively, and that technology provides a boost to the bottom line.
  • Microsoft Data certifications cover a lot of ground. Database design, creation and maintenance are particularly important to organizations today, considering that data storage is key to most business computing, and nearly every website is supported by one or more databases running in the background. A database administrator is in charge of all kinds of database-related functions, from development, to storage and retrieval, troubleshooting and security. Now, Microsoft’s database coverage also integrates business intelligence (BI) and Big Data/Data Analytics components, too, so IT professionals interested in these subject matters will find a lot to chase down and learn here, too.
  • Microsoft App Builder certifications aim at application and mobile app developers who use programming languages and source code to create software. A developer may work independently or, more often, with a team, to develop, prototype, deploy, test and modify applications for computers and many types of electronic devices. This certification portfolio also includes development for Microsoft's cloud-based Azure environment, and for software lifecycle management as well.
  • Microsoft Business Applications certifications aim at those involved with back-office, line of business systems and applications built around Microsoft Dynamics 365 (including the “for Operations” version of that platform). This credential aims at those who upgrade, configure and customize such systems, and well as those who develop custom applications for specific, proprietary uses in-house or on behalf of clients. Such professionals also support customized configurations for various organizational units including sales, field service, retail operations, finance, distribution and trade and more.
  • Trainers (MCTs) and educators (MCEs) also play a vital role in the Microsoft ecosystem as well. MCTs populate the front lines of key training for IT professionals across all of its platforms, tools and technologies with an emphasis on cultivating workplace readiness and imparting skills and knowledge suitable for on-the-job deployment. Arguably, MCEs are even more important, by helping students at all levels of education – primary, secondary and beyond – to understand and make the most of Microsoft tools, technologies, platforms and development environments.

Microsoft offers training to candidates directly, both in the classroom and online. The company's Microsoft Virtual Academy (MVA) is a great place to start poking around: it offers a huge range of free training courses, many of them at least relevant to various certification topics if not directly focused on such topics.

There's also a huge aftermarket for Microsoft training, self-study and certification preparation. Pearson operates Microsoft Press on Microsoft's behalf, where you can find self-study guides for all the popular Microsoft cert exams (and many of the not-so-popular exams as well). Pearson's IT Certification imprint (online at PearsonITCertification.com) also offers study guides, exam crams (a series I invented), practice tests, video training materials and much more for Microsoft certification candidates. Wiley/Sybex and Osborne/McGraw-Hill also offer certification focused imprints, book series and generally provide good coverage of major cert topics as well, also including most popular Microsoft certifications and related exams. Pearson's mindhub online store also offers "official" practice tests approved by Microsoft.

There's a wealth of excellent material available to help candidates prepare. Look to online and peer reviews, study groups and ratings sites to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Ed Tittel

Ed is a 30-year-plus veteran of the computing industry, who has worked as a programmer, a technical manager, a classroom instructor, a network consultant and a technical evangelist for companies that include Burroughs, Schlumberger, Novell, IBM/Tivoli and NetQoS. He has written for numerous publications, including Tom's IT Pro, and is the author of more than 140 computing books on information security, web markup languages and development tools, and Windows operating systems.