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.

Passed Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist exam 70-624

I’ve just come out of a Prometric testing centre after taking the Deploying and Maintaining Windows Vista Operating System and 2007 Microsoft Office System Desktop exam (exam 70-624).  I’m please to say that I passed – with a 100% score – but I feel cheated somehow.

You see, the thing about certification is that, ideally, you should know something about the subject.  I used to do a lot of operating system deployment work but that was in the days of Windows 3.1, then NT 4.0, following which the principles didn’t change much up to Windows XP but now there are a lot of new tools and methods that make a huge difference.  I needed to get up to speed on these new tools (and pass this exam) in order to deliver desktop deployment planning services, so I spent a week reading up around the tools, working through hands on labs, installing and testing BDD on my own computers, and then used a practice exam that had been recommended by a colleague to be sure that I was ready…

Microsoft’s NDA prevents me from commenting on the contents of the exam but what I can say is that the week of revision/labs/testing was probably not worth it and that I now know why my colleague recommended the practice exam…

I suppose at least I know that I put the work in to actually learn the subject.

Do IT qualifications really matter?

A few days back, I received an e-mail from a young man in Pakistan who had found my website on the Internet and wanted some advice. This is what he had to say (edited for grammar and spelling):

“I have a Bachelors degree in Computer Sciences and am studying for MCSE certification.

[…]

My question to you as a newbie in the networking field is are certifications necessary to jump and fly high in this field and even if it’s true then do I have to stick to Microsoft or can I do a mixture of Cisco and Microsoft certifications. Lots of “thinktanks” here in Pakistan say that a person with MCSE, CCNA AND CCNP certifications is a much needed guy for IT companies.

I am sooooooooooooooo confused as to where I should move.”

The reason I’m blogging about this is because he raised some interesting points. I too have a bachelors degree in Computer Studies and I don’t consider that it’s been of any practical use to me in my work. The process of leaving home and going to university helped me progress from home life to becoming an independent young man (actually, it was a Polytechnic when I started my course – reflecting the vocational nature of its tuition – but don’t get me started about how all the Technical Colleges and Polytechnics have become “Universities” and what a bad idea that is) and it set me up with some valuable first-hand experience about managing personal finances (i.e. debt… and that was 13 years ago – I feel really sorry for today’s young graduates who have no access to grants and have to pay tuition fees too).

My degree was simply a means to join the career ladder at a certain level. Please don’t misunderstand me – I’m sure that has opened some doors that might otherwise have been closed (or would at least have been harder to force my way through) but it was by no means essential to reaching the position that I have today (perhaps I should have aimed higher?) and I have not used any of the Computer Studies skills that I learnt along the way so I could have studied anything (given the amount of writing I do today – perhaps I should have studied English, or journalism? Who knows – back then I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life!).

IT certifications are similar. I hold a variety of IT certifications but none of that matters if I don’t have experience to back up the qualifications. Sometimes you have to admit your shortcomings too – I didn’t feel comfortable being flown in to one potential customer as an expert earlier this week because I haven’t done anything practical with the associated technology for a long time now. The customer would have seen through me and that would have damaged both mine and my employer’s credibility.

I learnt a few days back that a colleague, whose advice and experience I hold in very high regard, holds no IT certifications. Equally I have friends and colleagues who left school at 16 or 18 and that’s not prevented them from reaching the the same (or a higher) position within the company as myself.

I understand that the UK government has a target for 50% of all school leavers should go to university (Why? Do 50% of all jobs require a degree? How about 50% or more of all school leavers going on to some form of further or higher education – whether that be vocational or academic). When I meet new graduates I recognise how wet behind the ears I was when I started out all those years ago. Which nicely illustrates my point – that it doesn’t matter how highly qualified you are – what really counts is experience, even if the company does still insist that you have the letters after your name before you can get through the door.

Passed the Red Hat Certified Technician exam

Red Hat Certified TechnicianPhew! I’ve just read an e-mail from Red Hat informing me that I passed the Red Hat Certified Technician (RHCT) exam that I took this morning.

The confidentiality agreement that I had to sign makes it practically impossible for me to talk about my exam experience but Red Hat’s RHCT exam preparation guide gives the most important details and without giving away any of the specifics, I can confirm that it was one of the most challenging certification exams I’ve ever taken (which is good, because having passed actually means something).

Apart from living and breathing Linux for the last few days, my preparation consisted of attending an RH033 course last year (including the now-discontinued RH035 Windows conversion course – my own quick introduction to Linux for Windows administrators may be useful as a substitute) and spending this week on an RH133 course (which includes the RH202 practical exam); I also have some limited experience from running Linux on some of my own computers and I worked on various Unix systems at Uni in the early 1990s. In short, I’m a competent technician (as the certification title indicates) but not a Linux expert.

As for my next steps, the Novell and Microsoft Interop Ability partnership directly impacts upon my work, so I imagine that any further work I do with Linux will be related to Novell (SUSE) Enterprise Linux. Even so, RHCT is a well-respected qualification, which is why I wanted to gain that certification (especially after setting off down that path last year). It’s unlikely that I’ll gain the necessary experience to go forward to attempt Red Cat Certified Engineer (RHCE) or Red Hat Certified Architect (RHCA) status (at least not in my day job) but I may convert to Novell’s Certified Linux Professional (CLP)/Certified Linux Engineer (CLE) path at a later date. In the meantime, it’s about time that I updated my Microsoft credentials…

Passed Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist exam 70-262

I missed the announcement, but at some stage in recent years, Microsoft revamped its IT Professional certification scheme. It seems as though I still qualify as a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) for both the NT 4.0 and Windows 2000 tracks; although I never did get around to upgrading my MCSE to Windows XP and Server 2003… maybe I’ll follow the Vista and Longhorn Server track when it’s released.

Anyway, earlier today I passed the Microsoft Office Live Communications Server 2005 – Implementing, Managing, and Troubleshooting exam (70-262), making me a Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (MCTS): Microsoft Office Live Communications Server 2005.

I guess that’s just like an MCP in the old days but it’s another logo to display on the IT Services page. Actually, the real reason I did it was that I was incentivised by the prospect of a free iPod from my employer if I was one of the first three people to take (and pass) the test by a particular date!

This was the first Microsoft exam that I’ve taken for a while and Microsoft’s non-disclosure agreement prevents me from saying too much about it but as I took Monday off work, spent all day Tuesday (and Thursday evening) at Microsoft events and had to do some real work too, it’s been a challenge to cram in all of my revision… hence the lack of blog posts this week. I plan to make up for that after the long weekend (when I finally get around to writing up my notes from the Microsoft Management Summit and Vista After Hours events)… watch this space.

Passed the VMware Certified Professional exam

VMware Certified ProfessionalThis morning I passed the VMware Certified Professional on VI3 exam.

VMware’s non-disclosure agreement prevents me from saying anything about the exam itself but I can say that it involved a lot of preparation and this was my strategy:

  • Most importantly, get some experience of working with VMware products (I have been working on a project to implement VI3 since July and also use VMware Server every day).
  • Attend the mandatory VMware Infrastructure 3 Install and Configure course (I don’t believe that making a £2200 course mandatory is a good thing – people with suitable experience should be allowed to take the test without having to either shell out that sort of cash themselves or persuade their employer to do it – often locking them into an agreement to stay with the company…).
  • Book the exam (oh yes, the £2200 doesn’t include exam fees – that’s another £100).
  • Use the week before Christmas, when most of my colleagues were on holiday, to lock myself away and cram like crazy, reading the course notes through again as well as the product documentation. I find that writing notes helps me to taking information on board and I’ve published my revision notes here (note that these were written prior to taking the exam and, to avoid breaking the terms of the exam NDA, the content has not been edited to reflect what I experienced in the exam – the only changes from the originals relate to formatting and grammar).

So you want to be a consultant…

Earlier today I posted a link to Steve Friedl’s illustrated guide to IPSec. Steve’s site has a whole load of technical tips, but one item I stumbled across was his extremely interesting review of consultancy practices (subtitled as “Why work 8 hours/day for someone else when you can work 16 hours/day for yourself?”).

As an IT consultant (albeit one employed by a global IT services organisation), married to a PR consultant, I can really relate to some of Steve’s consulting maxims, the most pertinent of which I’ve quoted below:

  • “‘Trust’ is your best job security”.
  • “You are primarily in the customer service business, not the technical business”.
  • “For a good consultant, your voice is comforting: Be very easy to find”.
  • “The best way to appreciate the value of a good [specification] is to do a project without one”.
  • “Customers hate ‘unhappy surprises’ much more than ‘timely bad news'”.
  • “Ongoing business is much more important than maximizing every billable hour” (which goes hand in hand with “hourly arrangements of any substantial magnitude require that you have earned your customer’s trust”).
  • “It’s better to give away some time than to throw away your reputation” (but remember “if the customer doesn’t know you did work off the clock, you don’t get credit for it”).
  • “Detail is comforting to a customer”.
  • “If you routinely take ownership for your own mistakes, you’re much more likely to be believed when you claim something is not your doing”.
  • “Your best advertisement is publishing of original, technical content”.
  • “It’s a huge asset to communicate well – cultivate this skill vigorously”.
  • “Your references are your reputation in the consulting world”.
  • “The customer is not always right”.
  • “The Internet never forgets: don’t provide dirt for your future”.
  • “If you’re booked up solid, your rates are too low”.
  • “Your long-term customers are your best customers”.
  • “The best way to make a lot of money is to make your customers a lot of money”.
  • “You must know how to read your customer”.
  • “Your customers are buying your judgment, not just your time”.
  • “Being known for your integrity is the Holy Grail of consulting”.

He also makes some useful observations on technical skills and certification:

“Your references and your experience are far more important than your certifications. What counts here is truly learning the subject matter, and there is no harm in obtaining the certificate in the process. But if the goal is just to collect some paper, it leads to the prototypical computer jockey with lots of alphabets after his name but limited power in the driver’s seat.

Where the skills question gets tricky is when getting outside your comfort zone: a customer will ask you about a project that you are almost, but not quite, qualified for. Surprisingly, this happens a lot: if you have conducted yourself well, your customer would rather find a way to use you – a known quantity – than find somebody else. This occurs over a fairly wide range of skills.

When considering one of these projects, the first rule is: never lie to your customer about your skills. Be completely candid with your customer about what you know and how you would address the project. This would likely include substantial off-the-clock time as you got up to speed on the technology in question.”

Well worth a read for any consultant (whether self employed or not) and for any customers who employ consultants too!

Passed Microsoft Certified Professional exam 70-224

Today I passed the Microsoft Certified Professional exam 70-224: Installing, configuring and administering Microsoft Exchange 2000 Server.

Microsoft’s non-disclosure agreement prevents me from saying too much about the exam but much to my relief I scored maximum points in three areas (“installing and upgrading Exchange 2000 Server”, “configuring Exchange 2000 Server” and “managing Exchange 2000 server growth”) – as someone who primarily designs and implements systems (rather than performing daily operational and administrative tasks) I would have hoped these would have been my strong areas!

It may seem odd taking an Exchange 2000 Server exam in 2004, but I booked this a year ago (whilst I was still working with Exchange 2000) and if I didn’t take it by tomorrow then I would have just lost my money! Perhaps I’ll get around to doing an Exchange Server 2003 exam soon, but I need to start working with the product again first…

Passed Microsoft Certified Professional exam 70-299

This morning I passed the Microsoft Certified Professional exam 70-299: Implementing and administering security in a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 network. Not my best pass rate but it was the first exam I’ve taken for over three years and not a particularly easy one at that.

Microsoft’s non-disclosure agreement prevents me from saying too much about the exam but I can say it involved cramming like crazy (on top of an already busy week at work) to use a voucher that lets me take the exam for free and expires tomorrow.

I’m going to enjoy that extra hour of sleep as British Summer Time ends tonight and the clocks go back an hour!