Steve Jobs once described Microsoft as "the first software company before anybody… in our industry knew what a software company was." Microsoft has been creating and selling software to businesses and consumers for more than forty years, making it one of the oldest and most successful software companies in existence.
Microsoft Windows is the most dominant client operating system on the planet. Microsoft's Office productivity suite is massively popular with PC users at home and in the enterprise. The company's server platforms (Windows Server, SQL Server, Exchange Server) are found in server rooms and data centers around the world. These three foundation product families are enhanced by dozens of other products and services such as Skype, SharePoint, OneDrive and Bing.
Microsoft has managed its own training and certification program for decades. The program has changed and evolved over time, but one credential has continually served as the flagship Microsoft certification: the Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert or MCSE.
Microsoft MCSE Training
The MCSE program changes regularly to reflect the current state of Microsoft's product line. The company considers MCSE-certified professionals to be experts at designing and building technology solutions that leverage multiple software products from its catalog.
There are several different tracks within the MCSE program. Here are the current tracks as of this writing:
- Server Infrastructure
- Private Cloud
- Enterprise Devices and Apps
- Data Platform
- Business Intelligence
Each MCSE track requires candidates to pass four or more exams to earn the final certification. Thankfully, IT pros will find Microsoft offers official training materials for every exam it offers. This training can be found in schools across the country, and in multiple formats, giving students plenty of choices based on their location, preferred study method and budget.
Instructor-led classroom education is what we're all familiar with from grade school: classes being taught by an instructor in a dedicated physical environment. For certain students, this conventional method remains their preferred experience for learning. The advantage of instructor-led training is the one-on-one interaction a student gets with the teacher, both during presentations and when performing lab exercises. Speaking of lab exercises -- most classrooms are set up with the necessary equipment and software for students to get a fully interactive, hands-on experience with the relevant Microsoft products.
The main drawback to instructor-led training is cost. Classroom education is in practically all cases more expensive than any other option, as it has the highest overhead for the education provider.
Live online virtual classroom training, often referred to as distance education, is a good choice for people who don't live near an appropriate school or are looking for a less expensive training option. Virtual classroom training is still conducted in real-time, with an instructor delivering lessons online using a dedicated voice and video delivery system.
Students are required to follow a class schedule just as they would if they were attending in person, although assignments are usually completed during off hours. Software labs can be offered using virtual machines that let students work inside a simulated environment.
Virtual classroom training is generally less expensive than traditional classroom courses, but offers less interaction opportunities with the instructor, and requires students to have decent home equipment and broadband.
Self-paced training can be done online or through physical materials like books and DVDs, or a combination of both. As the name suggests, students get to set their own schedule for taking lessons and doing assignments. This makes self-paced training the most flexible, and often the least expensive option for students. The big disadvantage is a lack of a dedicated instructor to interact with. Also, students will need to provide or find a software lab if they want to get actual hands-on experience. Self-paced training is best for people who are confident acting as their own instructor.
Every MCSE track has a list of skills that candidates will need to master. Here are some capsule summaries based on Microsoft's description of each track:
- Server Infrastructure - Run a highly efficient and modern data center, with expertise in identity management, systems management, virtualization, storage, and networking. (Related technology: Windows Server)
- Private Cloud - Manage and implement private cloud computing. (Related technologies: Windows Server; System Center)
- Enterprise Devices and Apps - Manage devices in today's bring-your-own-device (BYOD) enterprise. (Related technologies: Windows client; System Center; Intune)
- Data Platform - SQL Server administration and building enterprise-scale data solutions both on-premises and in cloud environments. (Related technology: SQL Server)
- Business Intelligence - Design, build, and deploy SQL Server business intelligence (BI) solutions. (Related technology: SQL Server)
- Messaging - Move the company to the cloud, increase user productivity and flexibility, reduce data loss, and improve data security. (Related technologies: Office 365; Exchange Server)
- Communication - Create a consistent communications experience for an organization, while connecting workers to people around the world. (Related technologies: Office 365; Skype; Enterprise Voice)
- SharePoint - Create and manage information and knowledge management systems across the enterprise. (Related technologies: Office 365; SharePoint Server)
Microsoft MCSE Certification Exams
MCSE certification exams are offered to candidates through Pearson VUE test centers around the world. Microsoft has also introduced online-proctored exams which allow candidates to take exams from home, as long as they can meet the stringent hardware, software and environmental requirements. Not all Microsoft exams are available through online-proctoring, but the list is continually growing as the system gains in popularity.
In the past, Microsoft exams were almost exclusively multiple-choice format. Today, these exams may include a number of different question formats, including the following:
- Case studies
- Drag-and-drop / build lists
- Short answer code examples
- Simulation screens
Candidates are able to mark questions for later review during their exam. Each Microsoft exam has its own time limit, number of questions, and passing score. Candidates are informed immediately whether they pass or fail an exam.
Microsoft has a clearly defined exam retake policy. If someone fails an exam on their first attempt, they can take the exam again after 24 hours. If they fail the second attempt, the waiting time is extended to 14 days. The 14-day interval applies to all subsequent retakes, up to a maximum of five attempts per every 12 months. The exception to this is if a candidate takes a beta version of an exam -- beta exams may only be taken once.
MCSE Certifications in the Workplace
When it comes to Microsoft software, the MCSE certification is consistently recognized as one of the highest-value credentials in the industry. It is arguably the most difficult Microsoft cert to earn, and as such is well-respected by hiring managers.
Here are some of the IT industry job roles associated with the MCSE certification:
- Network Systems Administrator
- Network Analyst
- Desktop Support Manager
- Database Administrator
- Information Systems Manager
- Information Security Analyst
- Applications Manager
- Database Designer
- SharePoint Administrator
The MCSE cert is active for three years after it has been awarded. Candidates must pass the applicable recertification exam after three years in order to retain their MCSE status. Recertification exams are large exams that cover material from all of the relevant exams from an MCSE track, with added material covering the most recent product changes. Microsoft ensures that candidates will have at least one year in which to pass the appropriate recertification exam once it has been released.
"Transcripts: Bill Gates and Steve Jobs at D5," Allthingsd.com, May 31, 2007, http://allthingsd.com/20070531/d5-gates-jobs-transcript/
" Computer Training | Computer Certifications | Microsoft Learning," Microsoft, https://www.microsoft.com/en-ca/learning/default.aspx