Programming certificates are a pretty subjective topic. Some programmers treat them as a complete waste of time and some see them as a way to accelerate their career. Personally, I can call myself a certification enthusiast because it helped me quite a lot during my coding journey, but I’m writing this post as objective as I possibly can.
I’m going to share some information on Microsoft certification program because that’s the one I’m most familiar with. I’ll talk about advantages and disadvantages of having a programming certificate, what Microsoft certificates you can get, how to get them, what kind of privileges you can expect after getting one and I’ll finish up with my personal experience.
Pros and cons of having a programming certificate
- Helps you get into coding business if you have no prior experience
- Helps you to structure your learning path (shows what skills you have to master and uncovers areas you didn’t know about)
- Makes you stick out from other developers, helps you to get noticed
- Shows others that you treat your career seriously and you’re worth investing in
- You obtain more professional image
- It’s a common way of getting a salary raise
- It can help you to become a freelancer more easily
- Some certificates offer you special privileges
- You will gain your clients respect and trust
- It will become easier to speak at conferences or to become a trainer
- Some companies look specifically for certified professionals
- It’s usually expensive (exam cost, books, practice tests, classroom training, etc.)
- It takes a long time to prepare for
- There is a possibility of failure so you will end up paying more then you have originally expected
- Some people might don’t even notice it
- It’s not that easy to gather learning material without any help
- Process of getting it can be quite stressful
Types of Microsoft certificates
There are a lot of certifications offered by Microsoft but they fall into few main categories. I would group them as:
- Technology path
- Productivity path
- Education path
- Business path
Let’s focus on the path that interest us – programmers – the most, of course I’m talking about the technology one, but I’ll quickly mention others afterwards.
Technology path is prepared for professionals who work with various types of technologies (web, desktop, mobile, cloud, IT, databases, servers, DevOps, etc.). They have different difficulty levels: from basic knowledge to advanced, specialized topics. Let’s start with the easiest one to get.
- MTA (Microsoft Technology Associate) – is a certification program prepared for students and people who are just starting their adventure with technology. MTAs are the cheapest and also totally optional. You don’t have to pass any MTAs to be able to get any other title. Although them seem easy and not necessary I would highly recommend you to start off with a MTA. It shows you how Microsoft exams look like and helps you to prepare better for upcoming, harder certificates. You can check out all available MTA exams here.
- MCP (Microsoft Certified Professional) – you achieve the title of MCP after passing your first, non-MTA exam. It’s required to be a MCP to get any other, more advanced title. MCP exams are a bit harder and cover deeper knowledge about certain technology.
- MCSA (Microsoft Certified Solution Associate) – you become an MCSA after passing two chosen MCP exams. You can check out all MCSA titles here.
- MCSD (Microsoft Certified Solutions Developer) – MCSD is the last and highest title. First off, you are required to already have a MCSA and then pass one more specialization exam to become a MCSD. Last exam is hard, very detailed and makes you a true specialist in your chosen technology. You can check out all available MCSD titles here.
Note: There is also a MCSE (Microsoft Certified Solution Expert) which is also the highest title, just like MCSD. It’s for IT professionals instead of programmers – that’s the only difference. So anytime you hear MCSD or MCSE – treat them essentially the same way.
How does technology exam look like and how to prepare for it
I have only taken technology, programmer oriented exams, so they are the only ones I can help you prepare for. First off, let’s talk about your options. You can take the exam in a certification center that let’s you peruse Microsoft exams somewhere in your nearby location (you have to book an exam first) or you can take an online proctored exam which I did.
Local certification center exam
- look for nearby centers which offer you to take a specific exam you want to pass
- book an exam and optionally require a classroom training
- take exam on their local machine
- see the results immediately on the screen
Online proctored exam
- register for online proctored exam
- pay, pick a date and a time you want to write the test
- show up on your computer on scheduled time and walk through instructions
- confirm your identity using a document and show your room to the proctor using your web cam
- write the test
- see the results on the screen
I highly recommend going the online way – it’s usually cheaper and more comfortable to do it from your own room. I will talk more about how this kind off exam looks like later, in the personal experience paragraph.
When it comes down to what kind of questions you can expect it differs from exam to exam, but talking the programming exams they’re usually going to be typical ABCD questions, some pick true/false and ordering code block in correct order – nothing complicated. They will always present to you some scenario, like „You work for company A – here’s what you want to do…” and then you’ll have to pick and choose which given option is the best and will work the most effectively. I highly recommend buying an official practice test because it helps you to see clearly how questions are structured and they are mostly pretty accurate.
If you want to prepare for your exam, you got a lot of options. Let me point out some of them:
- Classroom training
- Online paid training
- Official practice test
- Exam refs available on Microsoft Press Store
- Pluralsight course
- MVA (Microsoft Virtual Academy) exam courses
- Born to learn forum, where people share exam resources
- Microsoft Developer Network site
- YouTube tutorials
Of course you want to start off by going to the exam official web page (like this one) which will guide you and give you all needed exam information (costs, practice test, etc.). It always should be your go to place, because it’s where you’ll find all the links necessary to register for the exam and review what skills are needed to pass it.
Productivity path is prepared for people working in a business environment and usually work with Microsoft productivity tools (Microsoft Office) like Word, Excel, Power Point, Access, Outlook, etc.
- MOS (Microsoft Office Specialist) – is prepared for people who want to grasp basics of Microsoft Office. It’s an entry level exam which is needed to get other, more advanced titles. It’s required to pass only one exam to become a MOS. You can check out all available MOS exams here. It’s worth mentioning that exams cover different versions of Microsoft Office software, ranging currently from 2007-2016.
- MOS Expert – is the next title you can obtain after formally becoming a MOS. It’s more specialization based so you’ll have to prove that you truly understand advanced topics of chosen tool like Word or Excel. You can check out all available MOS Expert exams here.
- MOS Master – is the highest title you can achieve on productivity path. You have to be a MOS Expert prior to becoming a MOS Master. You’ll also have to show off your mastery in querying Access databases or configuring Outlook, which is not an easy task for a technology-agnostic business person. You can check out all available MOS Master exams here.
There is also a certification program for people who focus on teaching and education. They don’t necessarily require passing any exam – you just have to be a trainer, a teacher or a student and fulfill specified requirements. Currently there are three titles available in the education/training path:
I encourage you to explore those titles further on your own, if you found yourself interested.
The list would not be complete without saying that Microsoft awards his most loyal partner businesses with Microsoft Partner award. This is not suited for this blog post though, so if you want to know more about becoming a Microsoft Partner, I encourage to visit Microsoft site for more information on the topic.
Microsoft MCP privileges
I mentioned that MCPs receive some special privileges and I wasn’t lying. Here is the list of all the good things that came with my first MCP certificate:
- 50% off on ebooks and 40% off on books in Microsoft press store
- in USA – 30% off on selected Dell hardware
- free day of training with NetCom Learning
- 50$ credit on ScreenshotMonitor
- more profile search results on Elance, oDesk, LinkedIn
- free premium subscription for gooroo 12 month
- certification transcript downloadable file proving you’ve passed your exam
- certificate in a file format
- got an acclaim badge – an online version of your certificate that you can share and even embed into websites
For additional price:
- elegant, officially printed certificate
- „wallet” card, proving you’ve earn your title
- if you pass an exam, for the limited time you can take another exam with a discount
To give you an example of how taking an exam might look like, I’ll tell you exactly how I did it.
I’ve started off with a MTA exam on Software Development Fundamentals. I bought the book which helped me to prepare (it took like two months to fully learn all the topics covered in the book) and it was my main studying resource. I also watched MVA course prepared for this exam specifically a couple of times, reviewed examples they presented and took detailed notes. Lastly, I bought the official practice exam which really helped me to get into that test zone – I finally saw what I might expect on the exam and how it is structured. I reviewed the practice test about 3 times a day for the last week and finally scheduled my online proctored exam. On the day of the exam, I emptied my room of all the unnecessary stuff, just like the Pearson video said and logged into my Microsoft Learning dashboard which redirected me to correct Pearson page. I fired up my online proctor desktop app and following the instructions, I passed the secret key into the text box. After taking all the necessary steps like taking a photo and confirming all the „I agree” documents I was connected to a remote proctor who verified my identity by taking a picture of my ID and made sure my room was clear of any distractions (I had to show off my whole room using my web cam). Then the proctor instructed me how the exam will look like and I’ve finally started the test. It took me about an hour and all the hard work paid off – I passed and became a MTA. About a month later I took the same exact steps to pass C# Programming exam and became a MCP.
I think that programming certificates are a great way to improve your career. They are quite expensive and take a lot of time to prepare for, but the process of learning and filling up your knowledge gaps plus receiving an award for it in a form of certificate which will decorate your CV is definitely worth it.