Making sense of Microsoft’s new certifications scheme
Microsoft’s new certifications are based on industry analysis of jobs and roles and are built in sync with documentation and training materials so you can stay up to date for cloud skills for free, but certs for on-prem technologies remain unclear.
By Mary Branscombe
Getty Images / Unsplash / Microsoft
Over the past few years Microsoft has dramatically changed its approach to certification, moving away from qualifications connected to specific products to instead align them with common job roles. The idea is to provide experience-based learning delivered and assessed in small chunks, rather than forcing IT pros to cram for a long, theoretical exam every few years.
“We rebooted certifications around the modern jobs and roles that people have, as developers, as IT pros,” Jeff Sandquist, corporate vice president of developer relations at Microsoft, told CIO.com. “We worked with a set of industry partners and with various companies and enterprises [to ask]: What are the job tasks you need; what is that skill completion? What are the modern roles; what are the tasks that you need to complete as an individual? And then how do you go and validate that?”
The changes to certifications are part of a larger overhaul of how Microsoft delivers documentation, designs training, and assesses knowledge, with overlapping modules that add up to either preparation for exams you take to gain an initial certification or “knowledge checks” that count toward free annual renewals.
This “system of learning,” as Sandquist describes it, is available not just from Microsoft but also from training partners, with multiple ways for people to learn and training content aligned to what is covered in the certifications.
“If you want to go learn from in-person training, awesome. If you want to go learn from reading a book, that’s great. If you want to go to one of our third-party trainers or one of our online resource partners at Coursera or Pluralsight, awesome. You want to go to Microsoft Learn, that’s great,” he says, of the various different styles of training on offer for IT pros.
Sandquist hopes that even a company’s internal training will align with Microsoft’s vision, which is why the Learning module in Microsoft Viva shows content from Pluralsight, edX, Skillsoft, and Coursera, as well as Microsoft Learn. “We want it all in sync.”
As part of the Enterprise Skills Initiative, enterprise customers can work with a Microsoft training program manager to create a custom training plan for the skills they need in the organization, based on Microsoft Learn with virtual and instructor-led training and free Microsoft certification exams for employees.
Microsoft certification roles
Microsoft has centered its new certification scheme around Azure, grouping its certs into nine roles: administrator, developer, solutions architect, devops engineer, security engineer, data engineer, data scientist, AI engineer, and functional consultant. Most are self-explanatory, with functional consultant covering Dynamics 365 and the Power Platform.
Each certification role offers options at the Fundamentals, Associate, and Expert levels. Some also offer Specialities such as Azure IoT Developer, Azure for SAP Workloads, and the new Azure Virtual Desktop Speciality. Several top-level roles group together multiple paths, as noted below:
Azure; Dynamics 365; Dynamics 365 plus Power Platform; Power Platform
Several new certifications have been added recently, as Microsoft works through the job task analysis for those roles. There’s a new Microsoft Teams Support Engineer Associate certification for support engineers that’s still in beta, and the exam for the Azure Network Engineer Associate will be available soon.
You can get a feel for the breadth of roles Microsoft is trying to cover with certifications by looking at the 20-plus roles you can use to filter the list of qualifications. These include app maker, business analyst, business owner, business user, data analyst, database administrator, network engineer, risk practitioner, student, and technology manager, in addition to the nine roles specified as paths above.
What replaces the MCSA, MCSE, or MTA?
The Azure Administrator Associate, Database Administrator Associate, and Data Analyst Associate certifications are the ones Microsoft highlights as the closest replacement for MSCE and MCSA certifications (and Azure Developer Associate for developer MCSA certifications), although they obviously cover cloud services rather than server products.
Exams for product-based MCSA certifications such as Windows Server and Exchange Server haven’t been available since January 2021, and the certifications have been retired. The exams for Microsoft Technology Associate (MTA) certifications that cover Windows and Windows Server (as well as network, security, database administration, and various programming topics) will be available until June 30, 2022. If you’ve already bought a voucher, you can take the exam before then and certifications will remain on your transcript, but you can no longer buy vouchers to take MTA exams.
Outside of the administrator and developer certifications, there are still some certifications that cover specific products: seven Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS) certifications cover Access, Excel, Word, and Office generally.
There are also Microsoft Learn courses that cover specific products such as Windows Server 2019 and Azure Stack HCI or technologies such as T-SQL in detail, and there will be more in-depth content from training partners such as Coursera and Pluralsight, Sandquist says. “There are going to be areas where they want to go deeper. People are going to want a 300 level [course].” So while the content on Microsoft Learn and from partners that’s based on the job task analysis will be in sync, “They will differentiate on what people need to go deep on — I need to go deeper in networking, I need to go deeper in hybrid or on-premise — and we will deliver those.”
But there are no exams or certifications associated with the product-specific courses: Something IT professionals who want to demonstrate their expertise in these areas continue to raise as an issue.
Microsoft Fundamentals certifications
Exams at the Fundamentals level typically cost $99 and are intended to provide firm grounding in the basics before moving on to Associate certifications, or for those with little industry experience to demonstrate skills and expertise to an employer. Fundamentals certs are also good for business leaders who want show they know a particular platform well enough to make decisions about what services to adopt.
There are eight certifications available at the Fundamentals level:
Fundamentals certs don’t offer one-to-one mapping with the nine top-level roles. So devops, AI, and data engineers or data scientists who already know their field but are gaining Azure skills would all start with Azure Fundamentals. Azure Data Fundamentals, however, would be relevant for Azure Database Administrator Associate or Azure Data Engineer Associate certifications.
Microsoft Associate certifications
Not all Associate level certifications are equal: Some, like Azure Administrator Associate and Azure Developer Associate, are intended as a broad introduction for people who will then pick a more specific certification such as Azure Stack Hub Operator, Azure Security Engineer, or Azure AI Engineer Associate.
Specialty and Associate certifications require one or more exams, typically priced around $165 each. Microsoft training experts we spoke to previously had concerns about how well Associate certifications with only a single exam could prepare people for more complex roles so it’s good to see these getting more in depth.
All these modern, role-based certifications cover either cloud services, or hybrid options where cloud services are used in conjunction with on-premises products — Microsoft 365 for Office and Windows, Azure, and Azure Stack Hub. There is one exam that specifically covers Windows 10 (MD-100), for administrators who deploy, configure, secure, or monitor devices and manage policies, updates, or apps, but it’s for the Modern Desktop Administrator Associate certification rather than a standalone option.
Microsoft certification renewals
Getting an initial certification means taking an exam, online or (pandemic permitting) in person. But because online training now includes sandboxed environments in which candidates can practice the skills they are learning, renewal doesn’t require repeating examinations to stay up to date as cloud services change.
The new, cloud-based Microsoft certifications are valid for one year from the date the certification was earned, rather than the previous two, to ensure that certifications cover new features and services as they’re introduced. But you can renew certs annually at no cost, up to six months before the certification expires, by taking an online assessment on Microsoft Learn. Once you pass the assessment, the certification is valid for another full year from when it was due to expire. This enables those who have two certifications expiring in the same month to stagger the assessments over the six-month window to pace themselves.
Because Microsoft Learn is built on what Sandquist calls “micro-based learning” and interactive tasks, you can stay up to date incrementally — which is the way that cloud services change. “We have five- and ten-minute modules that are part of a broader learning path, and as you work through the learning path we do knowledge checks that aren’t just answers to questions,” he says. That might be deploying a VM on Azure or through the Microsoft Learn sandbox, with more experience points awarded for putting the VM in a different data center or for following security guidance.
Many of the tasks apply to multiple learning paths because they’re concepts that apply in multiple Azure services. “You learn how to do a particular task with identity or explain a concept, then pass a knowledge check. As people pick up a variety of skills, if you’ve done the work on identity, it’s checked off the next time you go through another learning path.” The platform keeps track of which modules and learning paths trainees have completed and which they still need to cover before renewing a certification and prompts them to take the extra modules.
While Microsoft Learn isn’t the only way to achieve Microsoft certifications, it will be key to renewing them and it exemplifies what Microsoft is trying to achieve with this new approach. “It’s free, it’s interactive, and it’s always up to date,” Sandquist says. It’s also most useful for organizations that are adopting Microsoft cloud and hybrid services and staying up to date with them.