Validating Today's IT Skills

Microsoft's new certifications for IT professionals provide increased value and a simpler, more targeted framework.

[@microsoft.com is an occasional, vendor-written series featuring Microsoft's own program managers and directors on topics of interest to Microsoft Certified Professionals. -- Editors]

Think about what a "typical" IT job was five years ago. Or if you've been around long enough, think back 10 or 15 years. The change in job roles and the skills needed to be successful has been dramatic, and even the most foresighted person would not have been able to predict all the nuances of today's IT roles.

Keeping up with the changing skills landscape is not a value usually attributed to certification. Although most people associate certification with the end of the process --the verification of skills -- certification is significantly more. Certification encompasses a larger process that starts with defining what it means to be proficient in a specific job or task, then pursuing a learning path to gain that proficiency and creating rigorous and relevant exams delivered through a standardized testing approach.

This holistic approach to certification is what Microsoft Corp. used to develop the latest generation of certifications for IT and developer professionals. We started by conducting job-task-analysis (JTA) research to define -- at a detailed level for a range of job types -- the tasks people perform daily and what they know is most important in their professional life. Using that data, we created a unified skills domain that defines those responsibilities at a granular level to help us develop efficient, job-role-focused curricula.

The New Microsoft Certifications
Based on our JTA research, Microsoft redesigned its IT certifications to provide a robust, focused framework for managers to validate core technical and professional skills. They also provide IT professionals with a more relevant, flexible and cost-effective way to test and validate those skills.

These new certifications, which reflect the changing career landscape in IT, offer three series of credentials that support the needs of IT professionals wherever they are in their careers.

The technology series is designed for IT professionals and developers who want to demonstrate their skills and in-depth knowledge on a specific Microsoft technology. It's for people who know a particular technology inside and out and can confidently be trusted to work with it. The certifications typically consist of one to three exams.

There are Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist certifications available for most major Microsoft technologies, and more will be added as technologies are introduced.

The professional series is designed for the experienced IT professional and validates a comprehensive set of technology skills necessary to be successful in a particular job role. It's for people who want to validate their skills beyond technology prowess, including design, planning, deploying and operations management.

The two professional series credentials --Microsoft Certified IT Professional and Microsoft Certified Professional Developer --typically consist of one to three exams and require one or more prerequisites from the technology series as well as periodic recertification.

The Microsoft Certified Architect program is a rigorous, board-level certification that helps IT professionals with more than 10 years of experience advance their skills beyond those of a technical expert to the level of IT architects, strategists and business managers. The centerpiece is a peer-review process, in which candidates present their work to a Certified Architect Review Board composed of respected IT architects in a forum similar to that in which doctoral candidates defend their dissertations.

The architect program requires a candidate to work closely with a Microsoft Certified Architect mentor.

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Supporting New Technologies
Microsoft certifications have been updated to support Windows Vista, the 2007 Microsoft Office system and Microsoft Exchange Server 2007. They include six new Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist certifications, an upgrade path for current Microsoft Certified Desktop Support Technician certification holders to the new Windows Vista-centered Enterprise Support Technician certification, a new Consumer Support Technician certification, and two Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 certifications.

Detailed information on all the certifications mentioned in this article is available at http://www.microsoft.com/learning.

The new Microsoft certifications provide a targeted approach for IT professionals to validate the right set of skills at any point along their career paths to prove the value they bring to their companies.

The Value of Certification
There's a growing body of data supporting the value that certified employees bring to organizations. Managers prefer hiring people who are certified because those people have proved themselves to be more skilled, more productive, and frequently more motivated and eager to learn.

"Certifications are the only validation that our client companies find valuable in verifying employee skills," said Jennifer DiGrande, senior manager of Alliance Relations for Robert Half International, the world's largest specialized staffing firm. "Since the dot-com bubble burst, skills validation has become more important across all industries because there were so many overpaid people that were underqualified for the positions they were in, based on the tight labor market at the time. Since the job market has opened up, certification has been increasingly used as a differentiation for candidates."

IDC surveyed IT organizational performance of 1,200 teams managed by more than 400 IT managers to examine the relationship of team performance to the percentage of each team certified by Microsoft on a variety of technologies. Its published study (sponsored by Microsoft) reported a direct correlation between certification and performance. (Data comes from an IDC white paper sponsored by Microsoft, "Value of Certification: Team Certification and Organizational Performance," Doc #204360, November 2006.)

"The results were clear: Microsoft certification, as a measure of skill, was positively correlated to performance improvement," the study stated.

IDC found the following:

  • Sixty-six percent of managers believe that certifications improve the level of service and support offered to IT end users and customers.
  • Seventy-five percent of managers believe that certifications are important to team performance.
  • Team performance increases every time a new team member is certified. Whether the increase is from 30 percent to 40 percent of the team being certified or from 60 percent to 70 percent of the team, performance increases overall.
  • There is a direct correlation between the level of skill that a team has and how an organization performs.
  • When you increase the concentration of Microsoft certified members on a team, you directly improve team performance.
  • Top-performing teams on average are shown to have between 40 percent and 55 percent certified Microsoft members who are trained on relevant Microsoft technologies and processes.

"It is clear that every increase in team skill improves organizational performance. So, this research demonstrates that for each new team member certified, team performance increases," the study concluded. In fact, having a sufficient number of team members certified can increase IT organizational performance by an average of 11 percent.

"Technology has expanded the definition of productivity beyond a one-dimensional measurement of inputs and outputs to include the intangible value of information and its effects on business processes and practices," said Andrew Hazen, director for Centriq Foss, a Microsoft Gold Certified Learning Solutions Partner. "Measuring productivity can be demonstrated through achieving certification because it firmly establishes an achievement of competencies and knowledge otherwise unknown and unmeasured."

Retention and Motivation
Chief information officers are increasingly concerned with retaining and motivating skilled staff. According to the "Robert Half Technology 2007 Salary Guide," staff retention and staff motivation, respectively, were among the top concerns of the more than 1,400 CIOs surveyed, only behind the managing of increasing workloads. When asked what steps, if any, they were taking to retain key IT talent, the top answer (63 percent) was providing training and professional development.

Nontechnical, business and organizational skills and capabilities, such as those being assessed in the Microsoft Certified Architect credential, are also increasingly important to CIOs. Forty-one percent of those responding to another Robert Half Technology CIO survey reported that the importance they place on knowledge of business fundamentals (e.g., accounting, finance, business operations) has increased.

Personal Benefits
Being certified reveals as much about the motivation of the people who wanted to become certified as it does their skills. Wanting to become certified demonstrates a level of commitment that sets certified people apart from their noncertified peers. It is a clear indicator about the person's drive to be at the very top of their game because certification involves a high level of personal commitment in preparation for what is often multiple exams.

People pursue certifications to enhance long-term career prospects, improve project/deployment knowledge and skills, and distinguish themselves from their peers. For many, it's also a way to expose themselves to new ideas, the latest technologies and innovative product solutions.

"‘Career changers' -- those people who aren't content with the current status of their professional life and seek certification as the opportunity to change it -- take a more born-again approach to certification," Hazen said. "They find themselves renewed and refreshed from possessing a new weapon of validated skill sets that employers seek. The value of the certification clearly documents a person's competencies through a certifiable process that meets accepted standards in the professional community."

And although direct correlation between certification and salary isn't always obvious, the "Robert Half Technology Salary Guide" reports that IT professionals who have verifiable skills in technologies such as Microsoft SQL Server and Windows 2000/2003/XP administration can earn as much as 10 percent more in starting salaries.

Skills, Knowledge, Motivation
Certification -- the holistic process of job task analysis and role definition, curriculum development, and skills assessment -- is a proven way to keep up with the changing IT landscape and demonstrate skill, knowledge and motivation levels that differentiate IT professionals from their peers. It delivers benefits to organizations and individuals and is a documented way to increase overall performance and improve service and support levels.

To learn more about the value of certification to IT organizations, download the IDC report at http://www.microsoft.com/learning/mcp/benefits/whyhire.mspx.

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