Badges? If You’re An MCSD Or MCSE, You’ll Soon Have Stinkin’ Badges

If you’re a current Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert or Microsoft Certified Solutions Developer, you’ve probably received an email this week, telling you that you’ve earned a brand-new certification.

It’s part of a revamping of the MCSE / MCSD programs: One that spells the end of yesterday’s omnibus certifications in favor of what will be, effectively, a kind of merit badge system.

"Gold Hat" (Alfonso Bedoya) delivers the famous "stinkin' badges" line from "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre."
“Gold Hat” (Alfonso Bedoya) delivers the famous “stinkin’ badges” line from “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”

What’s happening now

As of April 1, there will be only four new MCSE and one new MCSD certifications. All other certifications will be retired.

All MCSE and MCSD certifications released prior to September 2016 will be retired on March 31, 2017. All active MCSE and MCSD certifications remain active on your transcript until retirement of the corresponding technologies, at which point the certifications are moved to the Legacy section of your transcript.

Translation: If you have an active MCSD or MCSE certification that’s being retired, you can renew it via the old-school recertification tests until Microsoft declares its technology stack dead at some later date.

Update, 13 December 2017: Note JJR’s comment on this article and the referenced TechNet blog post.

It appears recertification is not necessary for certificates received after, or as part of, the September 2016 revamp. However, Microsoft will allow you to “re-earn” that certification by taking a different exam in the same sphere.

The five new certifications must can be renewed annually by taking a test in a new skill that belongs to that certification. New certification tests will be added and retired as technologies change.

Benjamin Buford Blue (Mykelti Williamson) was a Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert: Shrimping Business. From "Forrest Gump," via Tumblr.
Benjamin Buford Blue (Mykelti Williamson) was a Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert: Shrimping Business. From “Forrest Gump,” via Tumblr.

Five new certifications, many new skills

Microsoft’s rethinking of certification moves away from the idea of vertical integration — that is, “I know everything there is to know about the Azure / Windows Server / Sharepoint / Office 365 / .NET development business” — and toward cross-disciplinary, “a-la-carte” skills sets.

Certifications are still grouped, but rather than by specific technologies, such as Sharepoint, Windows, SQL Server, etc., certifications are now grouped by skills sets.

  • Mobility. This is basically about setting up modern office networks and workstations. It’s focused on Windows 10 and similar to the current Enterprise Devices and Apps certification.
  • Cloud Platform and Infrastructure. Just what its title says. It’s a melding of most of the server-based MCSE Server Infrastructure and Private Cloud certs, plus the MCSD: Azure Solutions Architect certification, with a new concentration in Linux added for good measure.
  • Data Management and Analytics. This one is mostly SQL Server at the moment although I have to believe DocumentDB, Event Hubs and the like are in those cloud data and big data modules.
  • Productivity. This is the Office 365 / Sharepoint / Skype (nee Lync) certification. It’s an amalgam of the Messaging, Sharepoint and Communication MCSE certifications.
  • App Builder. The sole MCSD certification going forward, which makes sense when you consider how hard Microsoft is pushing for OS-agnostic programming. It combines all non-retired MSCD tests under one roof.

Specifics of the exams in each of these paths, as well as how you go about earning these new certifications, is in a PDF document on the Microsoft certification website.

Technical Certification Paths for 2016-2017, via Microsoft (PDF).
Technical Certification Paths for 2016-2017, via Microsoft (PDF).

Old certifications will slowly fade away

So what does that mean for people who hold one of the sunsetting MCSE or MCSD certifications? Let’s look at me as an example:

  • In March 2016, I earned the MCSD: Azure Solutions Architect certification.
  • On Sept. 26, because I had that certification, Microsoft awarded me the new Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert: Cloud Platform and Infrastructure certification.
  • My MCSD: Azure Solutions Architect certification will expire in March 2018. I will be able to renew it every two years by taking a recertification exam.
  • Eventually, my MCSD: Azure Solutions Architect certification will be inactivated, probably after Microsoft retires one or more of its core exams. Whenever that happens, I will not be able to renew that certification.
  • In September 2017, I can “re-earn” my MCSE: Cloud Platform and Infrastructure certification by taking Exam 70-473, 70-475, 70-413, 70-414, 70-246, 70-247, or one other upcoming exam.
  • Because I’ve already taken Exams 70-532, 70-533 and 70-534, I can’t “re-earn” my MCSE: Cloud Platform and Infrastructure by retaking those exams.
  • Microsoft will keep adding new tests and retiring old tests from the MCSE: Cloud Platform and Infrastructure certification, so that I should never run out of new skills to test.
Microsoft has updated much of its certification information to clarify how certification works. Probably the best place to find specific information is this FAQ.
Boy Scouts of America merit badges. Via wiilkids.com.
Boy Scouts of America merit badges. Via wiilkids.com.

Toward the badge model

Jeffrey Schwartz at Redmond Magazine notes that these changes are the beginning of a badge-only system.

Citing a talk from Liberty Munson, Microsoft’s “principal psychometrician,” in August 2015, Schwartz quotes her as saying that younger tech workers don’t want technology-stack certifications like those Microsoft just retired.

I think you are going to see fewer people get certifications in the future. If we look a decade from now, two decades from now, certification is going to be something — I’m going to call it like self-service — where somebody goes in and they pick the skills that they want to be certified.

And toward performance-based tests

Schwartz notes that Microsoft is also working toward performance-based tests, versus the multiple-choice tests currently used.

In other words, no longer will you be asked to list, in order, the steps to set up an FTP server in IIS. Instead, you’ll be given an Azure virtual machine and be expected to do it.

That will significantly improve the credibility of certification tests, in my estimation.

Don’t get me wrong; Microsoft’s current certification tests aren’t a walk in the park. You’d better know your stuff if you expect to pass. But it is possible to train to pass the tests; that’s effectively what I did. And there are unscrupulous operators out there who will sell you the answers, too.

But performance-based testing requires you to demonstrate that you know what you’re doing. And I believe it would have been easier for me to pass a performance-based test than a written test.

Welcome changes, IMHO

This is a good change, overall, in my estimation.

Technology stacks change too fast these days for a two-year recertification of existing knowledge. Back in 2006 or thereabouts, when Microsoft was a slow-moving behemoth with market-cornering monoliths and technology that hadn’t changed much in a decade, validating the same old knowledge every two years made sense. But I think of how much Azure has changed in the last six months, since I got certified, and I see the benefit to proving a new set of skills annually.

Employers really want the confidence you can deal with their stacks, not Microsoft’s stacks. Sure, having a pre-September MCSE or MCSD demonstrates competence. But an employer is going to be far happier to see that you have skills specific to what they are doing. Being an MCSE: Data Platform is fine, but it doesn’t mean you know how to tune an Azure SQL Database or set up an Elastic Pool. Badges allow you to take the tests and certify your competence in the specific technologies a given enterprise uses and values.

Badges encourage continuous learning and certification. I know a lot of people who have given up on MCSD or MCSE certification because they couldn’t pass one of the prescribed tests. They might be able to easily pass two of three tests, but that third one, covering a tech stack or skills set they simply don’t use, could not be surmounted. Badges allow me to select tests that I can pass, and encourage me to learn new skills as I go along.

When it comes to technical know-how, performance testing is far more relevant than knowledge testing. I can cram into my head that an Azure D13 v2 virtual machine instance has 56 GB of optimized memory and 8 cores. Or I could look at the chart, as I think about the technical need I have for that VM and whether that pricing level serves my need. And let’s face it: Any developer or IT pro who denies using Stack Exchange is either a buffoon or a liar.

I welcome your thoughts. What was your reaction to this change?

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