Are certification exams useful for experienced people?

There has been an interesting discussion on an internal Microsoft mailing list regarding the certification process and exams. I've seen posts from many people that are very experienced with products saying they can't see any point in the certification exams and that competencies in the Microsoft Partner program shouldn't be based on exams. They feel these people should somehow just be recognised for their other contributions.


Regarding the certification process, I don't agree that anyone should be just "grandfathered" in. Any of the people that  have a great deal of knowledge and experience should be able to just take the exams and be done with it. I find it really easy to take them at events like TechEd. I typically book in for one each morning at 8am and usually it's only $50.


Alternately, I do them in beta where they are free. The biggest hassle I have with doing the beta exams is it requires me to know where I'll be on a particular day in a few months time. I usually haven't got a clue even what city I'll be in that far out, unless there is an event on.


I also question that none of them would get any learning benefit from the process. I often see people that have worked with a product for ten or more years who can't pass an exam on it. Mostly, that's because they use 40% of a product every day and the exam covers aspects of the product they never look at.


One of the reasons I do take the exams is it makes me study the whole product. Using SQL Server as an example, it helps avoid the problem I see where people use SQL Server 2005 or 2008 the same way they used SQL Server 6.5 or 7. I like getting the prep guides and making sure I've covered off all the topics on it. Given I spend so much of my time evangelising topics at the prerelease or early adopter stage, there usually isn't much in the exams that's a surprise by the time the product comes out. After I've covered the material, doing the exam is then almost an afterthought.


However, I don't consider that having done the exam means much at all. You can buy a complete word-for-word copy of the exams for about $30 out of China if all you want to do is just pass the exams. Until this nonsense stops, the fact that someone has done them means almost nothing on its own, unless they took them in the beta phase where no such cheating options are available.


For those that take the exams seriously though, there definitely is value in the preparation process, rather than in actually taking the exam. Once you've done the prep work, you might as well do the exam. An additional benefit is that many people are timeline driven and having an exam booked tends to create a sense of urgency in preparation.


22 thoughts on “Are certification exams useful for experienced people?”

  1. One of the problems with tests of this massive scale is that they invariably can't accommodate the fact that you can give a correct answer, but the answer is not what is expected by the exam designer. Bad news is that too many questions seem to fall into the category of having multiple valid answers. To pass an exam, you need to play the game of guessing the original intent of the exam designer.
    If a significant portion of your job is a SQL Server trainer, these exams have value because (1) your students may plan to take them and it's good for you to have some experience with them, and (2) they help 'formalize' the language. But IMHO if your job is working on real world problems and you are already experienced, there is little value in these exams. Not that they are totally useless, I just think your time can be better spent on something else.

  2. Hi Linchi,
    I mentioned that the greatest value for me isn't the exam itself, it's the preparation process. How do you currently ensure you've had a detailed look at all new features of the updated product?
    I endlessly go into sites where people are struggling because they aren't aware of how the product can actually be used. They have preconceived ideas from previous versions.
    I think everyone needs to have a systematic way to explore the whole product. Exam prep guides aren't too bad for that.
    I also have seen significant issues with exam questions. However, I've also seen lots of people that are sure that questions don't have all the required info, etc. and that multiple answers could have been correct. In many cases, they've missed some small aspect of the requirements of the question. The question isn't always the one that's wrong but it invariably is always the one blamed.

  3. MSFT has attempted to address some of these issues with the 2005 exams.  If you remember, there was only one SQL Certification in 7/2000.  In 2005, there are 3 SQL Certs that you can achieve.  These are still BROAD areas.  The design of the 2005 questions are much better than the previous versions in that they attempt to use case studies.
    From a Prefessional Develpoment point of view, I see the SQL certs as a measure of going the extra mile.  It is one of the factors that go into a new hire, not a base requirement.  Some places stipulate that a cert is a requirement; this is to further filter out the applicants.  What these places don't realize is that there are many well-qulalified candidates without certs and there are many not-so-well-qualified candidates with certs.
    I found that certifications when combined with practical experience can be valuable.  As Greg mentioned, the beta exams are even more proof of your knowledge because there is rarely any information available about each question on the test.  The SQL Server Product is too big to know everything about it, but the tests make you aware of features that you may not use often, but may benefit from learning more about when certain projects or issues arise.  One more thing about beta exams…. You do not know if you passed the test for about 6-8 weeks.  Fun.

  4. "Is this going to be on the test?"
    A few years ago, I went back to school to do some post-bac pre-med work.  I thought I wanted to become a physician.  What shocked me the most about going back to school at almost 30 years old was the mentality of the students, especially the pre-med students.  The familiar question of "Is this going to be on the test?" was all too common, and disgusting to me.  I saw plenty of students that got A's in the class that had absolutely no concept of what was going on with the *science*.  
    The same state of affairs exists with the MS exams, although passing them is quite a bit easier than getting an A in organic chemistry.  There are always going to be the good test takers out there, and those who game the system in order to get a cushy, invisible job as a middle-level DBA at a large companies.  That's too bad, but it's the reality.
    As for me, I've never taken an MS exam, but I find myself wanting to because, as Greg said, the preparation lets you fill in the gaps in your knowledge.  Are you a T-SQL expert, but have never needed to use, oh, say, replication?  Well, if you want to pass the MCDBA, you'll at least have to learn about it…
    The question is simply this: "What do you want to get out of it?"  Do you want to fill in your own knowledge gaps?  Then just prepare and take the practice tests on your own.  Want to be more marketable?  Pay for and take the tests…  I think the debate is around whether or not it makes any sense for an experienced SQL Server person to take one of these exams from a carreer/marketability perspective.  And the answer to that, like so many other things, is "it depends on where you want to go and what you want to do."  

  5. Hi Greg,
    Great post!  I'll be referencing it tomorrow night when we kick off our MCTS: SQL Server 2005 study group as part of the Ottawa PASS chapter.
    I have to agree with all of Greg's comments.  I have found that the value in certification has been the preparation process and not the exam.  This is especially true when preparing for the exams with a group of people.
    I've been involved in a number of certification study groups in the Ottawa area.  We've found that working through the material as a group over a 12 to 16 week period really enhances the process.  Participants bring their personal experiences to the table at the weekly sessions and we take the time to explore the details of the topics.
    The end result is a much better understanding of the material, and a great network of friends to share with after the study group is finished.  The exam serves merely as a goal to focus the group, and a validation at the end that everyone has engraned core set of skills across a wide range of product features.
    David E. Myers
    Executive Director
    Professional Association for SQL Server

  6. Hi Darren,
    I think the exam prep guides really do provide quite a good framework for studying the product and making sure you cover most areas. I like to get the guides and go through point by point asking myself if I *really* understand each area. If I don't, bunches of reading BOL and Google searches then testing things with the product itself are the next step.
    Even better are formal study groups if one happens in the person's area. David from Ottawa that posted above is an old hand at these and they work well. In addition:
    1. User groups. In the case of SQL, perhaps PASS chapters specifically. There's a world of free info out there.
    2. Podcasts. I particularly like 🙂
    3. MSDN and TechNet Webcasts. Kim Tripp did an excellent set of webcasts (about 10 each) for DBAs and for Developers a while back. These covered many 2005 concepts in a good deal of detail.

  7. The same can be said about college degrees.  I have an MIS/Engineering degree (2001).  Does that make me an MIS/Engineering expert as soon as I graduated, no?  Does it help combined with several years experience…yes.
    Same goes for certification tests.  If you are "changing careers" into IT and hear those Microsoft certification ads and think that by getting your MCDBA/MCSE/MCAD and you will make 75k..ur dreaming.  However, when you have 5 years of experience and want to "extend" your knowledge certifications definitely help.  They also help when going into "MS partner" jobs that prefer certified candidates over those that don't have it (so in a close might help u if ur "tied" in the skill level with another candidate).
    Now…when u start talking about a "real" certification like the CCIE or MCA (Microsoft Certified Architect)
    Thats a real program that is real respected and ur not getting ur certification unless you know ur stuff.

  8. Hi Greg,
    Here in Midwest certifications are apparently not in style at this time, at least among permanent employees. Most job postings do not require them, most experienced professionals do not have them and do not plan to acquire them. I was doing a lot of interviewing recently, and while some candidates did have certificates, I did not notice any difference in skills, and most candidates did not have any certificates at all. Also in my opinion certifications might be more useful to consultants who change projects frequently, but what's the use for permanent employees – most of us will never use all the features.
    For example, I think our team members just need to know that there are HTTP endpoints and not waste any more time on the feature, because most likely we shall never use it at this company. Should the need occur, it is easy to learn more. Cluttering the memory with more details about the feature with very little chance of ever using it as long you keep your current job does not make sense.

  9. Nice post Greg – my 2 cents on the matter:
    I find that having certifications isn't necessarily a positive (even though they are much better than the paper MCSE days), so much as anot having them being a negative. If two people are vying for work, and all things are equal, and one has certs and the other not, the one with certs will get the job.
    Running a company that is a MS partner, certifications are very important to me when it comes to myself and my employees – they play into raising my visibility with MS (sigh…taking…so…long). However, when I consider new employees, those with tons of certifications make me think twice before hiring them – when did they have the time to get those? Are they truly driven, or did they have a lot of time on their hands. And do they really know there stuff.
    Unfortunately, there just is no way to truly find out if someone really knows there stuff without seeing them in action, and listening to what they have to say. Certs certainly are far from a litmus test as to whether someone knows their subject matter, but we do need some system in place. Let's just hope that the certification process continues to improve.

  10. Hi Alex,
    I understand the perspective that says "why would I want to fill my head with all this info if I'm just doing my current job?".
    But that's exactly where the problem begins. When choosing how to implement anything new in your systems or how to rework anything existing, it's super important to know what options are available to you. Don't you ever have to do any sort of new work or rework?
    I routinely go into sites where they've done things a very, very long way around and when I say "why didn't you just do X?", they say "ah, can you do that? None of us knew X was able to be done with the product". I see this time after time. They've wasted enormous resources for a worse outcome.
    It's also a direct cause of people using SQL Server 2005 the way they used previous versions of the product without considering alternatives or improvements. If they can't describe feature X in some detail, how would they know whether or not it's appropriate to ever use at the company?
    I've done a lot of interviewing DBAs in recent times. I regularly see people that tell me they are very experienced with SQL Server 2005. When I quiz them though, they are very experienced with the features of 2005 that were in SQL Server 7 and 2000. Often they know barely anything about the 2005 features. In many cases, they're not even aware that what they knew about 2000 might not be true any more, let alone the newer things.
    PS: And regarding HTTP Endpoints as a specific example, they're now deprecated and people should be looking at WCF and/or ADO.NET Data Services instead.

  11. Hi Greg,
    We certainly need to educate ourselves on new features, I am not arguing with that. My point is different: currently SQL Server certification does not fit the bill. Let's start with 70-431 exam, which is a prerequisite for all other ones. Apparently the exam's authors considered HTTP endpoints to be important enough, so they required every DBA and every DBD to know abut it. The practice disagreed, HTTP Endpoints are gone now, and the time spent to learn about it is mostly wasted. Consider XML. 10% of my book on 70-431 are about XML, yet in many many shops XML is hardly if at all used – not because we don't know about the feature, but because the business does not need it. More to the point, although I frequently use bcp, I see no need to memorize its parameters. Learning when and how to use it would be sufficient.
    Unfortunately in 70-431 there is little room left for what is really important to get my job done. Compare 90 pages on XML vs. just 10 pages on locking, isolation levels, and deadlocking together. I would rather have it the other way around.
    IMO every database professional needs a solid understanding of locking, isolation levels, and deadlocking, and it is OK if a mid-livel DBD has little knowledge of replication or service broker. Yet 70-431 apparently considers service broker several times more important than locking, isolation levels, and deadlocking together. Probably it makes sense in some other environments, but definitely not where I work and have worked for the last decade or more.
    So from where I sit, what one learns to pass 70-431 is not a must which every DBA and DBD needs to know. I would more agree with Denis Gobo, his list of must-knows makes more sense to me:

  12. Hi Greg,
    This is my second attempt to answer you. The first disappeared.
    I am not saying one does not need to learn. I am saying that current certification is not much relevant. Consider 70-431 exam and the following book:
    There are just 10 pages on all locking, concurrency, isolation level, and deadlocks, and 90 pages on XML. I would say that XML is less important than locking, concurrency, isolation level, and deadlocks. I think good understanding of concurrency is a must for every database professional, while not everyone needs to know how to deal with XML in such detail.
    I think requiring 9 times more knowledge about XML than on concurrency is very strange.
    I am not blaming the book, I think the book is very good, but I think the choice of questions for the most basic exam 70-431 is seriously skewed: it has more requirements on HTTP endpoints which almost nobody ever used, and which are gone, than on concurrency, which everyone needs.

  13. I've been thinking about taking an exam for quite a while.  I've been working on SQL Server since 6.5, but I have yet to take an exam.  I can't see the value in it, since it doesn't provide further insight into my knowledge base.  For the most part (and it's actually almost all), I've interviewed many job candidates that have a certification, with little to no experience, claiming to know how things work.  But, when we drill down into basic concepts, there's no real indepth knowledge.  Exams don't prove anything, especially when they're only based on fact knowledge (rote memorization).  I'm good at what I do, because I'm able to think through real-world issues, as they come up in an everyday work environment, not because I can take a test…my work environment IS my exam environment.  Fortunately, I get paid to take tests nearly everyday.
    I see consulting firms needing this kind of rhetoric, to show that they are "qualified".  But for most full-time employees of any fortune 1000+ company, there's little need for anyone to get certified.  It only costs money that needn't be spent.  The training might be worth it for the inexperienced, but why would I send someone to a course that only teaches to an exam.  Service Broker is a good example to expose the arguments weaknesses.  Looking through the exams, Service Broker is a lightly covered subject, but it resolves so many of the issues that large scale systems have today.  I've implemented it on grand scale, but the subject is only marginally covered in the exams.  No exam is going to expose the difficulites encountered when deploying it in production.  And if you've never done, you wouldn't know, based on the exams.  Another example is the subject of sliding window table partitioning.  How relevant is that to large scale implementations?  Extremely relevant.  How does one get trained on the subject?  Not through any certification I know of.  It doesn't exist today, in any format.  However, in SQL Server 2008, it's so important that the tools are actually built to support this.  Where is bulk loading covered in the exams?  It's a difficult subject to tackle, given all of the variables.  It can't reasonably be done in a course, given how hardware and software play together, as Linchi has so effortlessly shown all of us over the years.  His knowledge is built on many hours of testing many scenarios and their variables.  He didn't just wake up one day and say, "this is the only correct answer".  There's no such thing in the real world, and that's what exams portend to expose.  We all go through this everyday and no exam will ever replace that.  We spend weeks putting together projects that satisfy our particular business needs.  Since I don't work at fabrikam or adventureworks, I'm not going to ever give that much thought to their business model or infrastructure issues.  But I can guarantee you that almost every DBA that is worth their salt is intimately aware of the challenges that face their implementation.  It's the nature of what we do.
    The argument that anyone makes, saying that an experienced veteran needs an exam to let them know what the technological options are is pretty far-fetched.  Any DBA/DEV worth their salt is going to continue to expand their horizons, regardless of whether there is an exam in their future.  How many of us have already begun working with the 2008 features to see how they will fit into their current or future projects?  Probably the vast majority of the folks reading this…the others will always be one step behind, regardless of whether they go to a course or not.
    IMHO, exams are used to get people in the door, not to continue to keep it open.

  14. Hi Don,
    I'm not arguing that experienced folk need exams to let them know what the options are at all. Quite the contrary. I've pointed out that the exam process is very flawed.
    What I am saying is that the exam preparation process is worthwhile as it provides a structured way to cover off the topics. Once I've done that, doing the exam is almost an afterthought.
    Don't you find it interesting that you mention that service broker isn't covered enough yet Alex above is arguing that 70-431 covers it too much? I happen to agree with you regarding service broker. We're currently involved in an implementation involving it spread across over 1600 servers.
    I can only suggest that your shop may well be different in terms of keeping properly across the updated products. It's great that you do so but it's in stark contrast to what I see daily across a large number of shops.

  15. Hi Alex,
    Have you actually taken 70-431 or are you basing your thoughts on it from an exam prep guide book? Often the books also skew the balance of the material depending upon the author's tastes.
    I found 70-431 pretty straightforward. The only thing I really didn't like was that one of the interactive questions requires a really dumb answer. I know what they were after and selected it but it was not sensible. I asked one of the question writers about it (along the lines of "what on earth were you thinking?". I understand his explanation (and can't share it here) but hopefully that'll get updated soon (or by now).
    In terms of the exams, it's been a perennial discussion that they tend to focus on new features more than on existing ones. That's why you see the skew of topics towards new things. I would rather see exams that tackle say SQL Server 2008 as if there never was a previous version rather than exams that assume you've done 2005.

  16. Greg,
    I also found 431 very straight forward.  In fact, i believe that if you have a solid foundation in SQL 2000 and have attended webcasts and read up on SQL 2005, you could pass it very easily.  There is a tendancy to focus on New Features as I believe it is also a marketing ploy.  Remember, MSFT is a very good marketing company.  Your point on a test that doesn't focus on the latest version is good.  If a person knows everything about the latest features, but can't identify some basic requirements (concurrency, backups, normalization, etc.) then it loses some value.

  17. Hi Greg,
    I used to have certifications for previous versions of SQL Server, but this time I just read half a dozen books and did not actually take any exams.
    I would be happy if there were an exam covering the essentials, something similar to what Denis Gobo described – he actually very well listed what many of us hiring managers really care about. If there were such an exam, with the contents I care about and the integrity level I could rely on, that would save me a lot of time, plenty of phone interviews and so on.

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