IT Career Development: The Ins and Outs of IT Certifications

While the true value of certifications will likely be debated ad nauseam, they can be a valuable benchmark for your career.

Joshua Hoffman

Certifications have long been a controversial topic. After graduating from college and gaining experience in the field as an actual systems administrator, why should an IT professional need to go through the process of seven certification exams, for example, to earn a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer certification?

The answer depends entirely on your motivation for getting certified. It also matters how others perceive the value of those certifications. Some believe certifications aren’t a true indicator of an individual’s knowledge of a product or technology. They feel it’s too easy to “game the system” and pass the exams without any real experience.

At the other end of the spectrum, others place perhaps too much emphasis on certifications. Many IT managers believe certifications are the only true, objective measure of a capable professional. As is often the case, the truth probably lies somewhere in between.

Industry certifications can be a valuable addition to your portfolio and to your resume. They demonstrate a level of commitment and a base level of technical knowledge. All of that can be valuable as you search for your next job opportunity, or seek to advance in your current role. Certifications can be an excellent learning framework to use when expanding your skill set into new products or technologies (see “Scheduled Career Maintenance”).

You have to take certifications in the proper context. Having a particular certification doesn’t guarantee expertise in that area. You and your employer (or potential employer) should consider them as one aspect of your credentials. That holds true in any skilled profession. Every individual should be evaluated as a complete package of their credentials, skills, abilities and experiences—especially when it comes to choosing someone to hire.

With the proper focus and emphasis, pursuing certifications can be a valuable and worthwhile investment in your career, especially in uncertain economic times like these. There are several Microsoft certifications, certification paths and ways you can get started on your own industry certification.

Where to Begin

Assuming you’re currently a practicing IT professional with at least one year’s experience working with a particular Microsoft technology, the place to begin is the Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (MCTS) certifications. MCTS certifications specialize in one particular product or technology (sometimes even just one aspect of a particular product or technology). They generally consist of just one exam.

If you’re a messaging specialist, for example, you might begin by pursuing the MCTS: Microsoft Exchange Server 2010, Configuration certification (Exam 70-662). If you’re a database administrator, you might begin with MCTS: Microsoft SQL Server 2008, Implementation and Maintenance (Exam 70-432). Given its central role in most Microsoft-centric IT infrastructures, you can’t go wrong focusing on Windows Server. There are three MCTS exams available for Windows Server 2008:

  • MCTS: Windows Server 2008 Active Directory, Configuration (Exam 70-640)
  • MCTS: Windows Server 2008 Network Infrastructure, Configuration (Exam 70-642)
  • MCTS: Windows Server 2008 Applications Infrastructure, Configuration (Exam 70-643)

If you tend to have more of a client-computing focus, there are two MCTS exams for Windows 7:

  • MCTS: Windows 7, Configuration (Exam 70-680)
  • MCTS: Windows 7 and Microsoft Office 2010, Deployment (Exam 70-681)

There are MCTS exams for most of the major Microsoft product groups, including Exchange Server, SQL Server, System Center, Virtualization, SharePoint, Lync Server and Office Communications Server, and so on.

If you’re just starting out in the IT field, you can try the Microsoft Technology Associate (MTA) certification. The MTA certification exams test your knowledge of technology fundamentals. It’s a great starting point if you’re just beginning your IT career.

There are three available Fundamentals exams, any one of which earns you the MTA credential:

Combining Skills

As you build on your experience and develop a foundation in your core area of expertise, you can branch out from the MCTS certifications into other technologies. Combinations of MCTS exams are the basis of the next step on the certification ladder: the Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP).

The MCITP certifications are organized by job role. For example, the MCITP: Database Administrator certification consists of two exams. There’s one focusing on SQL Server Implementation and Maintenance (Exam 70-432) and another on Database Design (Exam 70-450).

The most common MCITP certification is likely to be the MCITP: Enterprise Administrator on Windows Server 2008. This most closely approximates the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) certification that was available for Windows 2000 and Windows Server 2003. The MCITP: Enterprise Administrator certification consists of four core exams:

  • Windows Server 2008 Active Directory, Configuring (Exam 70-640)
  • Windows Server 2008 Network Infrastructure, Configuring (Exam 70-642)
  • Windows Server 2008 Applications Infrastructure, Configuring (Exam 70-643)
  • Windows Server 2008, Enterprise Administrator (Exam 70-647)

Besides the four core exams, you have to select one of three elective Windows client exams to complete the certification.

Five exams may be a bit too much to take on right away. If that’s the case, you can start with the MCITP: Server Administrator on Windows Server 2008 course. This most closely equates to the MCSA certification from the Windows Server 2003 era. The Server Administrator certification includes just three exams:

  • Windows Server 2008 Active Directory, Configuring (Exam 70-640)
  • Windows Server 2008 Network Infrastructure, Configuring (Exam 70-642)
  • Windows Server 2008, Server Administrator (Exam 70-646).

You can add additional exams later to complete your Enterprise Administrator certification, if you find it necessary.

Once again, there are MCITP certifications available in most of the major Microsoft product groups and technologies including SQL, Exchange, SharePoint and so on. Most product-specific MCITP certifications outside of Windows Server require two to three exams.

Advanced Certifications

If you’re an experienced IT professional seeking a deeper level of training and certification on Microsoft technologies (think “graduate school”), there are now two new advanced certifications from Microsoft.

The first is the Microsoft Certified Master (MCM) program. There are five tracks for MCM certifications:

  • Windows Server
  • SQL Server
  • Exchange Server
  • SharePoint Server
  • Lync Server

The prerequisites generally include a minimum of two to five years of documented hands-on experience with the corresponding technology. You’ll also need the appropriate MCITP certifications. If you meet the prerequisites, you can apply for the MCM program.

Once you’re accepted into the program, you can then register for an in-person training session. These range from two to three weeks in duration, and take place at Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Wash. During the training course, there may be up to three additional exams administered to test your grasp of the course material. At the end of the training session, you must pass a Qualification Lab exam.

Due to increasing demand for both the MCM: SQL Server and MCM: Exchange Server advanced certifications, Microsoft has introduced an alternative path to meet the certification requirements. This doesn’t require that you attend on-site training in Redmond (though the training course is still optionally available). You can find more information on this alternate certification at the Microsoft Certified Master site.

Once you’ve completed the MCM certification, there’s one final level of certification available: the Microsoft Certified Architect (MCA). This is like a Ph.D. in Microsoft IT. The MCA program requires that you document your experience and expertise with Microsoft platforms and technologies, and appear before an MCA Review Board of peers (at least two of which are already MCAs).

During a three-hour session, you’ll have to make a presentation to the review board. This will be followed by a series of questions from the panel. The panel then determines whether or not to grant the MCA certification. The MCA certification is available for the primary Microsoft platforms: Windows Server, Exchange Server and SQL Server.


Regardless of the certification path you choose—whether you’re starting as an MTA or pursuing your first MCTS or MCITP certifications—there are a number of resources available to help you get started. The Microsoft Training Catalog points to various forms of support, including classroom training, self-guided online courses, books and so on. There are a number of third-party books, practice tests and training guides available as well. Once you’re ready, visit the Exam Registration page to sign up.

The bottom line is that certifications certainly don’t represent an exclusive standard by which others should measure your ability, but they can be a valuable part of your career development and training plan.

Joshua Hoffman

Joshua Hoffman is the former editor in chief of TechNet Magazine*. He’s now an independent author and consultant, advising clients on technology and audience-oriented marketing. Hoffman also serves as editor in chief of, a site devoted to growing and enriching the market research community. He lives in New York City.*