Microsoft Learning – and plans for Windows Server 2008 certification

One of the most engaging presenters that I saw on my trip to Redmond last month was Lutz Ziob, General Manager at Microsoft Learning, who dispelled all British preconceptions about German humour and delivered an interesting presentation about how Microsoft views its education programmes.

Having personally re-engaged in the learning process recently and with a number of exams planned for the next few months, now seems like a good time to post something about the direction which Microsoft intends its learning programs to take (including certification).

Lutz Ziob has a strong background in the IT industry – having worked at WordPerfect, Novell and CompTIA (where he introduced the Linux+ certification) prior to joining Microsoft.  Starting off by introducing the Microsoft Learning Mission ("Help Microsoft customers and partners realise their full potential by providing them with the necessary knowledge and skills to optimise the adoption and use of Microsoft solutions"), he then went on to add a few analogies of his own:

  • If we believe one car-maker’s marketing message, one should be more intelligent, and more attractive to the opposite sex, because they drive an Audi… is that true?  Almost certainly not but it does show that to use a product (let alone use it well), it helps to know something about it.
  • What about a holiday at Disneyland?  Disney may claim that it will transform your life.  It may lift your spirits for a period – may even may you think differently about travel, but transform your life?  Unlikely.  On the other hand, learning a new skill (such as how to use Visual Studio to write computer software) may well have an impact on your career direction and as a consequence your life may be transformed.
  • Or, moving back to the motoring analogy, switching to a new car may involve a few minutes of working out where the controls are and generally adjusting to the environment – switching operating systems (e.g. Linux to Windows) is a little more involved.

In short, skills are either a barrier or they can enhance an individual’s (and hence a company’s) overall success.

Microsoft Learning claims to be "Microsoft’s centre of excellence for learning" and offers products in a number of areas including:

  • Publishing (Microsoft Press).
  • Certification.
  • Office specialisation.
  • Instructor-led training.
  • E-learning.

Connected in some way to over 11 million learning engagements annually, Microsoft is instrumental to many in their entry, advancement (or just remaining current) in their chosen career.  From Microsoft’s point of view, the goal is to reach as many customers as possible and educate them whilst increasing their satisfaction with Microsoft products (and making money).

I’m in the fortunate position that I get involved with many Microsoft products early in their lifecycle (at least from the point of view of understanding what the product does – even if I no longer spend as much time on the implementation aspects as I once did) and one of my frustrations is that I often attend a pre-release training course but have to wait for a while before the certification exam is available.  It was interesting to hear Microsoft Learning’s view on this as their customer readiness program for a new project begins around 12-18 months prior to release.  As the product enters beta testing, books and e-learning are generally available, with instructor-led training following once there is sufficient customer demand (generally after product release) and certification at release.

Microsoft uses the term "unified skills domain" as a methodology to integrate assessment, learning, reference and certification products, recognising that the cost in training is not so much the cost of the training itself but the resource cost of the time taken to attend the training – to which I would add that cost of the training itself is still a significant factor.  Microsoft’s intention is that books, e-learning and classroom training come together as a whole without repetition and compliment rather than overlap (or even worse – contradict) one another (although it has to be said that the trainers I have spoken to recently are unhappy with the quality of the learning materials being provided recently).

Moving on to focus on Windows Server 2008 certifications, it’s worth noting that nearly 4.5 million certifications have been granted over their 15 year history with 2.2 million unique Microsoft Certified Professionals.  What these figures don’t show though is that Microsoft saw certifications peak in the late 1990s and then tail off, although they claim that there has been a resurgence since they added performance-based testing and a new certification framework.

This certification framework sees the replacement of the Microsoft Certified Professional/Systems Administrator/Systems Engineer (MCP-MCSA-MCSE) progression with a new structure of Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist/IT Professional/Professional Developer/Architect (MCTS/MCITP/MCPD/MCA).  Each new qualification has two parts – the credential and the certification (e.g. Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist: Business Desktop Deployment with the BDD).  Most notably: the MCTS is retired with the associated technology; MCITP, MCPD and MCA require re-certification for major technology changes; and the MCA qualification is Microsoft’s high watermark certification that requires proven ability to deliver business solutions, including an interview board with and is broader in scope than Microsoft’s technology looking at wider IT industry issues.

I’m somewhat skeptical about the program as my first-hand experience indicates that some (not all) of the exams represent little more than a piece of paper to indicate that a set of questions was correctly answered – questions that in one recent case were available for purchase on the Internet in the form of a practice exam!  By contrast, Red Hat certification (even at the lowest level) involves correctly configuring a real (not simulated) system.  Microsoft’s architect qualification attempts to address this but is only expected to be attained by a few select individuals and so I was interested to see what Microsoft is planning for the MCTS/MCITP certifications for Windows Server 2008 certifications.

Lutz Ziob explained that, for Windows Server 2008, there are five distinct certifications, three technology-specific and two job-role specific:

  • MCTS:
    • Networking Infrastructure Configuration.
    • Active Directory Configuration.
    • Application Infrastructure Configuration.
  • MCITP:
    • Server Administrator.
    • Enterprise Administrator.

As for previous MCSE upgrades, there are upgrade exams (70-648/70-649) – but only from Windows Server 2003 (the skills gap from Windows 2000 is viewed as too large – I’d better update my MCSE by taking exams 70-292/70-296 before they are retired at the end of March 2008).

And when responding to comment that Microsoft certifications are sometimes too easy to obtain and that experience is what counts, he responded with another analogy – would you rather take a long-haul flight fly with a pilot who is certified to fly a Boeing 747 (for example), or one with many years experience but who has only flown smaller aircraft?  This is equally applicable for a doctor, nurse, lawyer, electrician, architect, structural engineer, etc. so why should IT be any different – why not insist on experience and certification?  I have to admit that I take his point and he positively encouraged the journalists and bloggers in the audience to quote him on saying:

"Certification programs do not replace experience"

[Lutz Ziob, General Manager, Microsoft Learning]

but:

"Experience in itself doesn’t guarantee that someone knows what they need to know"

[Lutz Ziob, General Manager, Microsoft Learning]

So where is Microsoft heading in respect to improving the learning experience?  New initiatives in what Microsoft refers to as the learning plus services model include:

  • Performance based testing: the main complexity here is the need to simulate incorrect configurations too and so here are some limitations; however Windows Server 2008 certification makes use of virtualisation technology to allow the monitoring of what a candidate is doing – working in a "real" situation on a "real" system.
  • Virtual classrooms: Microsoft Official Distance Learning (MODL).
  • Re-inventing the classroom experience: moving away from an instructor leading a roomful of passive students – trying to bring online services into classroom so that the trainer becomes a coach with the ability to adjust materials on the fly (e.g. add/remove modules).
  • Ability to provide documentation in both printed and soft (e-book) formats (however when asked for assurance that Microsoft Press would not completely abandon printed books, Ziob replied that there are no plans to phase out printed books).

For anyone considering learning about Windows Server 2008, more information is available at the Windows Server 2008 learning portal.

13 Comments

  • Greg Barrow
    Tuesday 4 December 2007 - 9:32 | Permalink


    Thank you once again for a very informative article, i havent been reading your blogs for long, but what i have read so far has been interesting, informative, and truthful so i will definately be keeping up with your latest posts via RSS. i am also in the IT industry, only for 8 years now and am also head deep in upgrading certifications and grabbing as much experience as possible, great to find someone who is skimming the same sleepless, oblivion we call IT :) thanks again.

  • Tuesday 4 December 2007 - 16:03 | Permalink


    Thanks for your kind comments Greg – as long as people find what I write interesting, I’ll keep on churning it out ;-)

    (Actually, this blog serves two purposes for me – firstly somewhere to store my notes, and I find the writing process to be therapeutic too!)

  • Greg Barrow
    Tuesday 4 December 2007 - 16:33 | Permalink


    funny enough i actually found your blog by mistake, i was searching for the phrases of ePO policies and found your article on ePO, i have been given the responsibility of running the ePO security for the NHSD telephone triage sites across the country, i have upgraded them into a central ePO server running version 4.0 and was looking for some advice on creating policies, didnt find any but thanks for the gold mine of other info and expect a few more comments from me :)

  • Mike Breach
    Tuesday 4 December 2007 - 18:55 | Permalink


    The 747 pilot analogy isn’t quite correct. It’s (sometimes) more a case of would you rather be flown by an experienced pilot, or one that holds the certificate – but has only flown in the Microsoft Simulator?

  • Tuesday 4 December 2007 - 20:22 | Permalink


    Mike,
    I can’t say I disagree with you there… like I said:

    “I’m somewhat skeptical about the program as my first-hand experience indicates that some (not all) of the exams represent little more than a piece of paper to indicate that a set of questions was correctly answered”

    but Lutz Ziob does have a point in that:

    “Certification programs do not replace experience” [but] “Experience in itself doesn’t guarantee that someone knows what they need to know”

    I believe that the Cisco exams are currently held up as the gold standard in acheiving something worthwhile but, not having taken any of them, I’m not in a position to comment – what I can say is that my RHCT exam certainly felt a lot more worthwhile than my most recent MCTS exam.

    Mark

  • Wednesday 5 December 2007 - 9:01 | Permalink


    Conincidentally, Lutz Ziob published a post of the Windows Server Division Weblog yesterday – and he sent a link here :-)

    The video of Lutz’s presentation can be seen below:


    Video: Lutz Ziob MS Learning

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  • Thursday 13 December 2007 - 4:11 | Permalink


    I think that given so many ‘knowledge domains’ 2008 (even 2003) server flavors have in all, that mere ‘experience’ with them means as little to me as a taxi driver close to a mechanical engineer… so the taxi guy may even drive better than the engineer daily, but when it comes to plan, design and etc. a specialized branch of IT infrastructure (like an MS-based infra), ‘experience’ is nothing. Experience almost always have little knowledge domains, most of its time dealing with regular and few tasks ‘specifics and details’. You may try another analogy yet, put the experienced pilot to plan or manage an aereal space. But some also may lacking another real focus here – certification is primarily a tool for hiring. ‘Paper accepts anything in a resumè’. Employers have to have some standardizing system to make comparisions of performance and deepness of knowledge/specilization, since most does not knows personally the candidates, and in an interview all try to ‘impressionate’ and even lie. And I think nowadays it is really impossible some who REALLY have to deal daily with a MS infra management stay at SAME time-frame maintaining another suppliers certs. like from Cisco, Oracle and I do not know more what. Given the today’s inherent job, products and interation complexities, and a 8-9-hours labor day (I have family I really love and I have to sleep some 7-8 hours too, besides spending 2-3 hours in bath and eating like ANY normal person from other professional areas) I think companies who require mult-cert pros are condemned to higher TCOs and low IT quality.

  • Tuesday 9 December 2008 - 10:12 | Permalink


    I confused myself with this post… so please don’t fall into the same trap I did – 70-648 is the MCSA upgrade exam and 70-649 is the MCSE one – you don’t need to take both but there are other requirements too. Full details for transition from MCSE 2003 to MCITP 2008 are on the Microsoft Website.

  • Wednesday 17 December 2008 - 14:50 | Permalink


    I did my 70-649 a few months back now when they were released and was a lot easier than the upgrade exams from 2000-2003 for the mcse. Great blog, especially seeing as i’m trying to advance my knowledge of microsoft virtualisations and you are now a mvp in the subject(Congrats on that) and blog plenty of content on it.

  • Wednesday 17 December 2008 - 16:21 | Permalink


    @Gregg – thanks for the kind words – and for the tip. I’m cramming like crazy for 70-649 right now (hence lack of blog posts this week)… taking it on Friday… then 70-647 on Christmas Eve (glutton for punishment!)

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