Over the years I have seen several Microsoft certification schemes come and go. Often they have been derided by many due to devaluation by boot-camps resulting in accredited people with little experience. There was the MCM programme which had a high bar and rigour about it but alas the overhead of that seems to have been too much to maintain it. So, now we find ourselves with the latest role-based, cloud-focused certifications, but are these worth it?
As with most things it depends, but, depends on what?
As a manager of a technical team I am a fan of vendor certifications. If my team are putting the effort in to taking them and learning the topic that will help with doing the work, especially when allied to experience. But more importantly, in the battles with corporate HR it gives me a big stick which I can use to justify the raise, promotion, bonus, or other benefit that I am trying to get for my team members. I’ll do my best for the team members as I can but having things like that makes it difficult for HR to push back on, especially when combined with other evidence of work.
As an exam taker I like these because they help provide structure for me when it comes to learning the new technologies and techniques. With the constant rate of change and the breadth of services available and growing all the time it can be daunting to try and figure out where to start. Having a focused area and curated content makes a world of difference and helps focus on what is important to start with. Combine this with the way that Microsoft now have the Foundation, Associate, and Expert levels it again helps provide a curated pathway to growing my knowledge.
Overall, I have to say that I think from a guided learning perspective it has improved a lot over the years.
Create a Learning Map
As we embark on this journey, as many others, we really should create ourselves a map of where we want to be and how we plan to get there. I created a learning map based on what I want to achieve and you can see it below.
I built this map with a view to wanting to work and focus my efforts primarily in Azure infrastructure and data platform technologies. This underpins the desire to move towards a more data engineering focus in what I am doing and in order to do that I need to add breadth to my skillset. This will compliment the depth that I have in a couple of areas relating to the Microsoft SQL technologies.
The breakdown of the certification exams are as follows.
This certification is a high level overview of the core Azure services with a focus on the infrastructure components. This is attained by passing the AZ-900 exam.
Azure Data Fundamentals
This certification is another high level overview of the Azure data services and looks at a broad spectrum of the technologies available and the general areas they would be deployed in. This is attained by passing the DP-900 exam.
Azure Administrator Associate
This is an Azure infrastructure focused certification which really dives into the networking, identity, storage, and compute services. The reason for doing this certification was that the services covered here underpin all the other key services. For example, if we want to deploy a secure implementation of Azure SQL Database with private endpoints then I really need to understand the networking element to make sure that I can speak with the SRE’s or networking teams on their terms to convey my requirements. The same goes for those managing identity services within the environment.
This certification is attained by passing the AZ-104 exam.
Azure Database Administrator Associate
Given my background as a DBA with a focus on SQL Server this was a logical choice to bring in so that I can get an appreciation for where and how SQL Server can be run in Azure. Looking at VMs, Managed Instance, and the various Azure SQL flavours it is a good all round refresher. It also helps understand whether there need to be any changes in the way that we manage SQL Server in Azure compared to on-premises deployments.
This certification is attained by passing the DP-300 exam.
Azure Data Engineer Associate
This certification is geared towards the rapidly emerging and growing data engineering discipline. Historically, a lot of the work of the data engineer was done by multiple teams of people or using a clearly defined set of tools. Now with the breadth of cloud technology available these roles cover a wide area of blob storage, hadoop, relational, non-relational, and core infrastructure technologies to deliver value and outcomes. This certification provides a guide about what these technologies are and how they can be used to help meet our goals.
This certification can be attained via two paths at the moment. DP-200 and DP-201 exams which are being retired in June of 2021. The new pathway is to take the DP-203 exam which will be replacing the existing DP-200 and DP-201.
Azure Solutions Architect Expert
This final certification is really geared towards getting the most out of an Azure deployment and looks to provide insight around how to design and implement Azure solutions. This is a mix of infrastructure and data components and covers a wide area of knowledge which should help me make sure that I have an appreciation for what can be done. The key here is to be adding more than hammers to the toolbox so that not everything looks like a nail. It also looks to help make sure that we are prepared for building out solutions which meet business continuity and other availability requirements.
So, after doing all of these what does it mean?
First and foremost it is important to remember that passing these is no small achievement, but at the same time we need to remember that there is always more to learn. This has given us an appreciation for the art of the possible and is no substitute for solid engineering principles to prove out that something will work. Theory is great but rarely stands up in the real world where there is a history of compromises in an estate which complicate matters.
There are a couple of things to remember and that is that some of these certifications will expire and we will need to recertify ourselves over time to keep them active. This is a good thing in my eyes as it helps make sure that we can keep up to date with the changes in technology and we don’t fall back on preconceptions about how things have always been.
There is also the fact that Microsoft are adding new certifications and knowledge areas all the time and that it is worth re-visiting to see if there is anything that needs to be added to the plan.
So, coming back to the question at hand. Are certifications worth it?
In my view yes, so long as we approach them with the right mindset about wanting to help guide our learning. Also, remembering that we need to ally the theoretical learning to hands on experience and a desire to prove out technology before we put it into practice.