MCP, MCSE, and more: Training options for Microsoft admins

There are many paths -- too many, in fact -- to keeping your skills up to date, so here's a guide on how to get the right training

MCP, MCSE, and more: Training options for Microsoft admins
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We all want to be able to gain and maintain IT knowledge, as well as provide proof that we have that knowledge. Unfortunately for Microsoft admins, the path to do so has become confusing.

For as long as I can remember, Microsoft has offered certification exams with tiers based on exams. Even as the tiers have changed, the MCSE (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer) slot remains respected, whether you studied the Windows NT 4.0, Windows 2000, Windows 2003, or newer Solutions Expert version.

Today there are many options for Microsoft certification. You can choose from five paths: Server, Desktop, Applications, Database, and Developer. Each has its own focus, but their tiers are similar.

Let's say as an IT admin you choose the Server path. You can pass a single exam to become a Microsoft Technology Associate (MTA), then move on to become a Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate (MCSA) by choosing the Server or Linux on Azure path and passing additional exams, Then you can select a specialty (like Messaging, Communication, SharePoint, Private Cloud, or Server Infrastructure) and pass additional exams to become a Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE) for that specialty.

Once you've chosen your path, you must complete two tasks: get training and pass exams. Even if you're simply trying to renew your certification, you'll likely need a refresher course or materials to pass one of these certification exams because they don't focus on real-world day-to-day administrative duties, which is likely where your current expertise lies.

Microsoft's free Virtual Academy is trying to make the recertification process easier by presenting video training and letting you take the exams online -- you no longer need to go to a physical certification exam testing center. However, the online approach means you could do the training "open book"-style, looking up the answers or even having someone else take the test for you. For the in-person exams, you can't bring in any personal items -- not even a phone -- when taking the exam, to make sure you don't cheat.

I do think the MVA recertification idea is a good one. But I also believe there should be a few more checks and balances in place to ensure the quality of the content is good and the assessments are valid -- if for no other reason than to maintain the reputation of the certification itself. I'd hate to see a return to the reputational plummet of the "paper MCSE" days.

The MVA also needs to get more current on its courses. For example, there's very little content for Exchange 2016. Sure, that product is new, but Microsoft's Office team has recently announced four new Exchange 2016 courses -- but the EdX online course provider, not for MVA.  

Having the Exchange courses at EdX site is interesting because of its university-level content (EdX is great for computer science majors), per-course pricing, and the self-paced approach. But with only a few Microsoft courses, it's not the definitive training destination for Microsoft IT professionals that they should have.

It makes sense for Microsoft to make programming education available through academic sites like EdX, and it's fine if it makes IT courses available there. But that should be in addition to, not instead of, Microsoft's own IT training destinations.

I'm not a huge fan of the pay-per-course approach that sites like Udemy and EdX provide. I prefer the subscription-based, all-you-can-learn buffet kind of training, such as what PluralSight offers. (Disclosure: I create training for PluralSight, which has also offered some courses to InfoWorld readers.)

I believe you get what you pay for, so I caution readers against relying solely on YouTube, MVA, and other free options. Yes, they can have some great content in their catalogs, such as the Managing Exchange Online Using PowerShell course by Jason Helmick and Kamal Abburi, but they also have a lot of outdated or superficial training.

Whatever resources and methods work for you, make sure you keep up those skills -- both the theory and the practice. That's essential to career viability and progress.

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