How valuable are certifications?

(This essay appeared in our latest SQLskills Insider newsletter over the weekend and generated such a lot of discussion that I thought I’d share it with all of you who just read my blog. I’ve added a few points at the end too.)

There’s constant debate in the SQL Server community about whether the current certifications are worthwhile. Until recently, if you’d asked me, my opinion was that apart from the MCM certification, most SQL Server certifications were a waste of time and money.

This has understandably annoyed some people as many employers require certain certifications, and people like to get certifications to prove to themselves that they’re capable. I’m not saying your certification is worthless – but that its worth to anyone but you has been diluted through the actions of others. You know whether you have the real-deal skills or not, but how do others?

Why have I held this somewhat controversial view? It’s because over the last few years there’s been a sad proliferation of ways to allow someone to pass these certifications without the required knowledge and experience.

And don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a rant against Microsoft. It’s a rant against those whose actions have led to the detraction of the integrity of the existing certifications – those who want a short-cut to a certification and those who provide them.

For example, for most of the Microsoft SQL Server certifications, you’ve been able to:

  1. Attend a 3-5 day ‘boot camp’ that crams enough knowledge down your throat so you pass the exam at the end of the week
  2. Buy a book that gives you all the knowledge you need to *pass the exam*
  3. Buy a brain-dump from someone who’s memorized the exam
  4. (Allegedly, in some countries) Pay someone else to take the exam on your behalf

Note: I’m not implying that someone who does #1 or #2 is also going to do #3 or #4, just that this is the list of what someone can do to help pass the exam.

I cannot fathom how someone can live with themselves after doing #3 or #4 above – blatantly cheating to achieve a certification is despicable.

#1 and #2 aren’t that much better in my opinion. The point of a certification is that it certifies that you have a certain level of knowledge and experience in a subject. Reading a book or having knowledge drummed into you isn’t experience – it’s just book learning. Many prep guide books have given you the knowledge needed to pass the exam, not the complete set of knowledge implied by the certification – same for the boot camps. However, picking up a book to fill a few gaps in knowledge is acceptable, just not getting the book as the only source of knowledge for passing the exam.

This state of affairs has not been limited to the SQL Server certifications, and has not been limited to Microsoft at all – it’s been all pervasive through the certification industry, from what I can tell.

There’s also been the perception that in many of the non-MCM SQL Server certifications, some of the questions have incorrect answers and that some of the questions try to steer you towards picking the new features as the answer. I’ve heard this from many people who’ve taken certification exams.

This means there’s been a big problem: lack of confidence that someone with certification X actually has the commensurate knowledge and experience that certification X implies. I’ve even heard of companies that discard resumes when the candidate lists a bunch of certifications, on the premise that they must be falsified – which I think is taking the not-trusting-the-certifications to a misguided extreme.

The people who have been suffering are the vast majority of people who take the certifications the ‘proper’ way – building up experience over time and then taking the exams. For these people, hearing that anyone can take a short-cut and get the certification without having the real knowledge and experience really reduces the value of their having the certification. And, because it’s been common knowledge that people can cheat or short-cut the exams, it must be incredibly frustrating for those who do it the right way and spend money on the certifications in good faith.

The sad reality has been that one cannot assume that a certification equals the holder having the certified qualities.

This is one of the (many) reasons why the SQL MCM certification was created – a certification that cannot be passed without taking a practical exam and that you cannot pass with just book learning. (Ironically though, you need to have some of the lesser certifications before you can be awarded the MCM.)

There are various layers of security that were used in the re-launch of the SQL MCM program.  Right now, having the MCM really means a lot.  I won’t get in to the specifics of the security precautions here (for obvious reasons) but I will be incredibly upset on the day I hear of the first brain-dump for the MCM because then the MCM certification won’t be trustworthy.

I wish this overall situation were otherwise. I wish people didn’t cheat or look for short cuts. There’s even been talk amongst the SQL Server MVP community of creating a set of community certifications to try to work around these problems. Why hasn’t it happened? Because it’s very hard, time consuming, and expensive to do – and, ultimately, it would be vulnerable to some of these issues as well.

My opinion has been changed recently by steps Microsoft has taken to re-instill confidence in the integrity of their certifications. Last November Microsoft released an interview with Don Field, their Senior Director of Certification and Training (see Microsoft Ensures Integrity of Its Certification Program) which lists a bunch of things they’ve been doing, including suing a notorious brain-dumping site, banning exam candidates that can be proven to have used unfair means to pass, and aggressively shutting down web sites with leaked exam content.

The Microsoft Press exam and certification guides have also started emphasizing that reading through the book is not enough to pass the exam and the exams themselves are becoming a lot more in-depth and higher quality. Furthermore, testing centers are coming under high scrutiny to ensure they are not allowing cheating to take place.

I applaud these actions. It’s high time that the millions of people with Microsoft certifications can start to feel that their certification means something to other people. However, I think that Microsoft learning partners and testing centers have to play along here and get with the security program – for the benefit of everyone. And I think that Microsoft has to continue to be aggressive in its anti-cheating crusade – as the cheaters will never stop trying to make a buck from people looking for a short cut.

If you ask me my opinion today, it’s that things are slowly moving in the right direction and I hope the overall value is going to re-emerge for the non-MCM certifications. I really, really hope this happens – as otherwise, how can we gauge the knowledge and experience of the vast majority of SQL Server professionals out there? And then what value will the certifications be?

Call to action: Simple: if you’re going for a certification, go about it the right way. Don’t cheat or take short cuts – you’re only cheating yourself, and making a mockery of the certification you just ‘attained’.

[Additional that wasn’t in the newsletter: 

I’ve had feedback from two people on the mailing list that they’ve heard of folks trying to find a brain-dump of the MCM knowledge exam. That makes me really sad, and angry!

Call to action for Microsoft: I think each certification exam should have a practical (lab) component so that it validates people really *know* the stuff rather than having just read a book, for instance. Yes, this will cost more to implement, but that’s an investment in getting more people onto the Microsoft platform as the certifications will be really meaningful. Provision of certifications should not be under a revenue-generating model anyway – the cost should be non-negotiably borne by the various product groups IMHO – as a way of fostering more adoption of their products.

End additional.]

I’m really interested to know your thoughts on certifications – please comment!

53 thoughts on “How valuable are certifications?

  1. We’ve had a poster over at SQLServerCentral spouting off that the MCM is worthless because of the braindump. He couldn’t prove his accusation (the links he produced turned out to be nothing more than practice exams), but he’s a loud voice and some people are going to believe that.

  2. You make a great point. True knowledge comes from a combination of study and experience. If you cheat at an exam, you will be caught.

    My question to those who use brain dumps would be simply, WHY? If you are not qualified for the position it will quickly show.

    I would like to see more labs in the exams as I feel they are good way of showing how a candidate applies what they know and they are harder to cheat.

  3. "I won’t get in to the specifics of the security precautions here (for obvious reasons)"

    They’re not obvious to me. That’s what we call "security by obscurity" in the business and it’s not good in practice. If you’ve signed an NDA prohibiting you from discussing said procedures, your hands are tied. However, saying that the (any) system is more secure because the security is secret, you’re kidding yourself. The more one talks about the security implemented, the more eyes are on it and can say "well… you’ve got a problem here and here and here".

  4. Good thoughts.
    However I do think Microsoft should assume more responsibilities to make their certs more trustworthy. They should hire more qualified professionals creating more challenged exams, make tests more dynamics. Yes that would make the exam fee higher. But I would argue why would I pay $200 (was it $200?) for an exam that could be passed by an Indian teens–No offense to this kid though. That’s no her fault. That’s Microsofts. An professional certs shouldn’t let people with no years of hands-on experiences pass, that’s simple! Otherwise Microsoft should reimburse my hard earned money back.

  5. Toward the end of your article you write "you’re only cheating yourself." It’s not true. The cheaters are stealing from everyone in the community and everyone in the community should see it that way.

  6. I’ve always used certification tests as a measuring stick to see what I know and don’t know well. For instance, when I took the Security+ exam, I fielded an abnormally large number of Kerberos related questions. Good for me, because I knew Kerberos very well coming from a Active Directory background. Ironically, my weakness was in the area of compliance. I say ironically because I was using the Security+ exam as a prep for the Certified Information Systems Auditor exam. This was exceptionally good feedback for me, though, because it highlighted where I needed to put in a lot more work. It was timely feedback because it meant I knew this four months before facing the auditor exam. Needless to say, over those next four months I spent quite a bit of time with my internal auditors trying to understand controls from their world.

    As far as job placement/interviews (I’ve never gotten a job based on a certification), I always look at certifications (without a practical lab exam like the MCM or CCIE requires) as a checklist item. The fact that you’ve gotten one says you put some effort into things. Even the guy who memorizes the braindump has put some effort in. However, they don’t tell me if you’re going to be a good fit with the team. They don’t tell me if you can take the knowledge from a certification and apply them in a critical situation. And so if all else is equal a certification might give a push to one candidate, but unless it’s like an MCM or a CCIE, it’s not much more than a tie breaker in my book.

    As far as cheating on an exam and being caught, I would disagree. I’ve seen too many cases where someone has the alphabet soup after his or her name and then spends an awful lot of time posting relatively simple questions to forums, only to get them answered. So they were able to fool people to land their current positions and then they are effectively getting folks to do their work for them. That’s one of the reasons I always ask folks to show me how they attempted to solve something unless I know the person is legitimate.

  7. @thulben I completely fail to see you point. You think we should explain all the security measures that Microsoft has taken to safeguard the integrity of the exam and lab contents because the community will be able to spot flaws and offer advice? It’s not ‘security through obscurity’, as you call it in your business, it’s basic common sense that you don’t advertize the security precautions taken for anything. Have you ever seen the security precautions taken for just about anything discussed in public? No – that’s because it makes the details public and that much easier to circumvent. Security details are discussed with security professionals – in this case the security details about the lab and exam contents were discussed and reviewed with people who secure examination environments for a living – Microsoft trusted them rather than having a public review by the unqualified community. I think they did the right thing – I don’t agree with your view at all (but I do thank you for posting it – discussion is good!). Thanks

  8. I agree with the issues you raise in this post and as a Moderator on the MSDN Training and Certification forum (http://social.msdn.microsoft.com/Forums/en-US/CertGeneral/threads), I get quite frustrated when people state that they want to become certified in XYZ however they have no experience so can someone please provide them with a list of materials that they can study to pass the exam. The forum has even had to deal with people complaining that the “Skills Measured” section of Microsoft Preparation Guides should not include text such as “This objective may include but is not limited to” because test takers should be told exactly what’s covered in an exam so they know what to study.

    Unfortunately some people just don’t get the concept of certification!

  9. I think the problem is that MS Certifications are tied to a specific product and version, and sort of assumes that anyone doing the cert already has a grounding in non-product-specific theory and best practice.

    For example, doing the DBDEV cert in SQL 2008 doesn’t test how good a Database Developer you are – it assumes that you are an experienced database developer, and tests how well you know the products, features and quirks of SQL Server 2008.

    Therefore someone can cram or braindump for the exam, pass with flying colours, but still not have a good grounding in the basics! I suspect that this is the source of all those "has the certification but can’t do the job" complaints.

    What we need is either for non-product specific certifications or prerequisite "fundamentals" exams that you have to take before the product-specific ones. Alternatively, a respected 3rd party could offer a lab-based "fundamentals" certification.

  10. I used to be a big fan of certs, getting my MCSE in the late 90’s really set me on the path that I’m on today. Then came the boot camps and the braindump sites, and I, like so many others, began to see certs as a joke, and I swore never to bother with another one. In 2005, I was offered a token bonus if I would get the MCDBA, so I did – took both tests the same week with no prep. It seemed ridiculously easy, further solidifying my opinion that the cert was meaningless. "I’m done" I told myself.

    In October of 2011, I sat through Jason Strate’s SQLSaturday session on certifications, and he said something that struck a nerve with me – "If you think you know your stuff, put your money where your mouth is and take the test". I do think I know my stuff, at least as far as the core functionality goes. It’s the bolt-on pieces, SSRS, SSIS, etc. that I don’t know, because I don’t use them. Nevertheless, Jason had thrown down the gauntlet, so I decided that I’d upgrade my MCDBA to the new certs for SQL 2008.

    Earlier this month, I bought the official MS Press Training Kit for 70-432, primarily to use as an assessment of where my knowledge gaps were. I jumped right in to a practice test, and the experience left a bad taste in my mouth.

    One question in particular really rubbed me the wrong way. The question was in regard to setting up log-shipping. Two of the options were obviously wrong, but remaining two are both valid. To start log-shipping, you have to restore a full backup. Do you point-and-click through SSMS to do that, or do you run the RESTORE DATABASE command? Me, I’d run the RESTORE command. That’s the wrong answer, according to the practice exam. The explanation even states that the RESTORE command is feasible, but is more work for the DBA. Huh?

    This just reinforced for me that the exams aren’t really testing your knowledge of the technology, their testing your knowledge of Microsoft’s way of doing things. I forgot how much that frustrates me. I hate interviewing somebody and hearing "I’d click <blah>" in response to every question I ask.

    At this point, I don’t know if I’m going to proceed with my plans or not. The 2012 exams will be out soon, but it will be a couple of years before we start using it where I work. Hard to get hands-on that way.

  11. Jeff, I only disagree with you in regards to your opinion regarding the “This objective may include but is not limited to” part. When you went for your driving license I am pretty sure you were giving a book or guide up to what exactly will be measured and that, in my opinion is the way that should be any kind of examination or certification. The key is to incorporate the practical portion to all these exams. These exams and certifications do not have a way to directly test your real life experience. How many of us have experience with some technologies only because we have setup our own labs and played with it? Not every employer I have worked for had a SAN or a cluster, nor every business required to setup replication or mirroring. Nevertheless, if we are able to tackle those technologies and pass both exam: written and labs and that does not make a person less "certificables" (Sorry if that word does not exist in English).

  12. @Jeff Wharton I get your frustration that people come asking how to "pass the test" without any hands on experience, however threadbare. I agree with you that people aren’t pursuing certifications as they are meant.

    However, I also counter that a disturbing number of companies aren’t using certification properly. I see far too many job postings that highlight certs as a "serious recommendation" instead of being "nice to have". The abuse happens on both sides of the aisle, so to speak. The hiring-side (HR) probably needs to change in order for the exam-side changes to stick.

    My hope is that as Microsoft is working hard to change the test side, that they might leverage their resources to reach out to many HR depts on better job requirements or expectations of certifications.

  13. I agree brain dumps are wrong for the Microsoft exams, because that’t the rules. However, that’s not how it works for most standardized tests.

    In New York State you have to pass state issued standardized tests called regents for most classes to get a regents diploma, the idea being your college material. For math the questions are mostly problems with one answer, and for science it was all multiple choice besides a lab portion.

    Old regent questions are available, and are resold in many forms. A publisher called Barron’s sells books with questions broken down by topic, as well a tutorial version with questions and explanations. These books were required purchases (it was a private school). My high school had a program that the science department used to generate its tests out of old regent questions based on the topic. New York City even ran a hour long television program once a year with a NYC public school teacher working through real problems.

    College preparation also works the same way. Publishers and trainers buy old questions and make exam books, software and classes. Bringing it back to software, when you buy a voucher for the Zend Certified Engineer for PHP5 it comes with 10 practice tests PHP based on the type of questions you get on the ZCE exam.

    So, to bring this back to the Microsoft Certs, why are braindumps considered so evil here? Is there only one set of exam questions? Can they not make a large enough pool of questions and introduce enough variance in the questions so that rote memorization is impossible? As far as not testing experience, how can an exam test experience? It tests knowledge. If you want a certification to test knowledge, then add a real world experience component to it. The PMP requires you to document hours of project management experience. Why not have a certification that requires you to document your hours of experience as a DBA or sysadmin? For developer certs, I’d base it on writing an open source project on codeplex that meets certain requirements instead of hours.

  14. I suppose the bigger question can be seen as "Why have certifications at all?" I think the accounting profession is maybe the only other industry I can think of that has certifications. And that industry, and the law industry I believe, have requirements for on-going education, not just certs. I’ve never fully grasped the concept of why certifications are needed in the first place in our industry and given the abuse we are seeing, it seems obvious there is a problem. But rather than try to fix the problem, why not just do away with the cert concept altogether? The consensus seems to be that you should have some real world experience before taking the exams, so why not just evaluate competence by years of experience, the way it’s done in most other professions and the way it was done before certs came about? Or move to an on-going education requirement model. I believe part of the issue is that we in the computer profession like clear cut answers, positions, etc. It’s in our nature. And a cert is an easy yardstick to use for measuring. But if that yardstick is becoming corrupted, perhaps it’s time to get rid of it.

  15. I’ve used certifications to quantify experience in the field.

    I’ve taken, and passed, the MCITP certs for SQL 2005/2008 admin and SharePoint 2010 Admin. For SQL Server, it is part of my day to day and very little studying was required to pass. For the SharePoint certification, I had just wrapped up a couple of large customer deployments and had been living in SharePoint for several months. Again, little studying was required.

    In my experience, the certifications with little or no experience are not terribly valuable as a measuring stick of a candidate’s skill set. It must come with some experience to have real value.

    DM

  16. Interesting thoughts, and thanks for the discussion, Paul.

    Overall I tend to agree with you, and I’ll probably write my own thoughts down on a response to this. However a few points.

    I tend to agree with you an security overall, however MS could disclose some of the security practices without disclosing all. There is a degree of confidence needing to be built, along with the need for security. We disclose encryption algorithms, but we don’t disclose where we store keys, or who has access. I believe that there are people trying to make the MCM exams secure, but I’m not entirely confident that MS (and all the people that work for/with them) are doing their best. History doesn’t show this to be the case.

    You wrote: "The sad reality has been that one cannot assume that a certification equals the holder having the certified qualities.". The flip side of this is that holding certifications doesn’t mean you’re unqualified. Too many people have that view, which isn’t fair. To your point, the MCM holders must have "lower" certs. Was Mr. Kehayias less qualified in between the time he took the knowledge exam and the practical for the MCM? In my experience, having the cert in no way means you do, or do not, have qualifications. That’s why we have the interview, so I can determine this.

    The ultimate problem is something you’ve written about or alluded to in this and other posts. The golden rule, integrity, and morality are lacking. As humans we are frail, and as a large group, we continue to race to the bottom, to take the shortcut, or find the easy way. If the cert if valuable to companies, and it results in a job or a pay increase, people will try to assure themselves of passing, even through braindumps, lying, cheating, etc. Not everyone, but enough to devalue the certification.

    Personally I’d like to see a few changes in addition to the ones you’ve noted. One is a larger pool of practical skills and questions that can be used to ensure that if you took the exam 10 times, you’d have very, very few duplicate questions. Two, a separation of core skills from version skills. At least in SQL Server, much of what I learned in v4.2 still applies today, and we ought to be testing core knowledge of concepts. Then smaller/shorter exams for version specifics. Three, more feedback from candidates. I’ll admit that I have had lots of trepidation from exams because they were poorly written for version/feature marketing, but also because when you finish, you get almost no feedback in areas that you need work. I understand telling me that question xx was wrong might not be practical, but telling me in more detail than is currently given which areas I am weak would be helpful. Lastly, there needs to be an appeal process of some sort. There are, and have been, poor questions on the exams. Without some disclosure/appeal/discussion of items, it’s hard to have confidence that MS, or any vendor, is actually trying to test skill, instead of using this as another marketing effort.

  17. This is something that I have been on the wrong end of from a very early point in my career, mainly with the MCSA/MCSE, as in house staff picking up the pieces after contractors. It clearly showed that the piece of paper in that instance was worthless, but HR and the the like soon started wanting full MCSA/MCSE for desktop support.

    While I have been doing SQL for a few years now, and have started to look at getting certified. Primarily because my employer wants a quantifiable way to see if I can do my job and thus mean I get a pay rise, unscheduled server downtime due to things I have control over is negligible but does not count. However I do feel that the SQL DBA exams could pose an issue for me in areas that I am weak, primarily around Mirroring and FTS. I have now worked in three companies in the last five years and we have used neither of these in production. I have no choice but to go through BOL, blogs such as this and just sitting down to play, however while it might help me pass the exam I will not be proficient to support it in a production environment. Now I would take the stance of not listing them on my CV, and responding appropriately if questioned at interview. However does this still mean that I am in fact holding a certification without being suitably proficient, quite probably.

    I think that the issue is that HR want these certs on candidates and this drives the rise in people doing anything to pass the exam, I think that there needs to be a change from the recruitment side as well.

  18. in a lot of cases, unfortunately, certs become something you need on the resume to get past clueless HR people, filters, etc.

    IMHO, i think they are most helpful for people with less experience, looking to distinguish themselves from other less-experienced applicants. they did help me in that respect.

  19. I recommend Microsoft learn from CISSP test. I’ve talked to one CISSP trainer, she told me that the exams could make sure only 5% test items repeats in the next exam. Also, the CISSP society is very strict on any paper certs. If anyone dare to ask question like how to get brain dump of CISSP, his/her CISSP# will be reported and if verified his/her cert will be revoked.

    I urge Microsoft to raise the bar of their exams, both price wise and level wise. Though I’ve several Microsoft certs, but I would never mention them to anyone. I hope Microsoft knows why!

  20. @Justin
    There’s nothing wrong with studying from previous exam papers, I did that through University, the lecturers encouraged it, however that’s not what braindumps are. Braindumps are the actual questions that you will get, it’s like someone’s sneaked into the lecturer’s office before the exams and got hold of his question and answer sheet for the upcoming exam.

    So, say hypothetically I downloaded a braindump set for a SQL 2016 exam, it was 400 questions in total. I memorised them then went to write the exam where I got 30-40 questions, most of which I’d seen in the braindumps. I could pass the exam just based on the patterns that I’d memorised without having to actually know a thing about any SQL feature.

    There’s not a single set of questions, however there is a finite set and there are a lot of people writing the exams and some are unethical enough to memorise and share the questions. It’s even been suggested that the companies that sell braindumps send people to write and fail the exams just to get as many of the questions as possible. There are new questions added to the question set, but again it’s just a matter of time before they are copied. Sandcastle against the tide.

    Unless every person gets a unique set of questions that’s never repeated, copying and distributing the questions will happen, and with many thousands of people writing these exams, that’s a very hard thing to do. Good questions are hard to come up with.

  21. Steve: "If the cert if valuable to companies, and it results in a job or a pay increase, people will try to assure themselves of passing, even through braindumps, lying, cheating, etc."

    At a previous company it was part of the DBA team’s yearly goals to each pass at least one certification exam. If they didn’t, then they fell short at review time. Most of the team had no problem with that, the company offered training and paid for the exam, One of the team however found it necessary to cheat, I spotted the braindump printout on his desk a few days before he was scheduled to write. The worst part, he gloated about the score he got afterwards.

  22. Excellent overview of the topic. Thanks for sharing this Paul. I actually wasn’t aware of your thoughts on this topic, but I’m not at all surprised they mirror my own.

    I recently left an organization where I was responsible for interviewing applicants for positions within the database management organization. I interviewed hundreds of applicants (and that’s a real number, we counted). There was an absolute correlation between lots of certifications and little practical knowledge. In fact, every time I saw certifications on a resume I went into the interview with zero expectations that the person would be able to answer the 10 screening questions (basic stuff) and I was seldom disappointd. I’m happy to hear that Microsoft is working on improving the process, but today, except for the MCM, which I absolutely respect, I place zero faith in certifications.

  23. I agree with most everything others have posted.

    I believe one of the difficulties *product-based* certifications have is that there’s only so many ways one can ask how to do something in a tool. Sure, exams have theory questions (what is special about a clustered index or how many of them you can have on a table), but even those start to run out of variations. Even if I could come up with a 100 ways to test someone on how to make a backup via PowerShell, I’d still be signalling candidate test takers that there are going to be questions about PoSH and backups – so much so that the test makers have ensured that it’s on every exam in may forms.

    That’s why more advanced exams, such as the MCM and its labs are better indicators of competency. I’m guessing those exams deal with non-trivial, trade-off based, scenarios and not syntax and memorization techniques. And that’s also why they are so much more expensive.

    I don’t think we are ever going to end the cheating or the desire to cheat. There are always going to be a set of people who’d rather cheat than try. In fact, the people I now who have told me the cheated on exams have done so just because they didn’t want to be responsible for failing. If they cheated and failed, they blamed the materials/website they used to cheat.

    Mark brings up a good point about the tie between the MS Partner Program and the emphasis on certifications. That has led to yet another type of cheating: partners paying certified people to be listed on their websites so that the partner org can get a better partner status. So it’s not just the individuals devaluing certifications.

  24. Thanks for the post, Paul. I agree with much of what you said. I just blogged about passing the SQL 2008 BI Infrastucture exam and how I prep for exam. The emphasis is certainly on actually learning the material. Getting hands-on is really important for sure. That is one reason I have often used the Microsoft Press exam guides in the past. They always have hands-on labs in which you put what you just learned into proctice. This is really valuable since I don’t necessarily have the experience in every single area measured by a particular exam.

    Microsoft places a huge emphasis on certifications in their Partner program. So, working for a consulting firm, certifications are very valuable for my employer. As such, there is not always time to wait until I have worked with particular tools on client engagements before taking a cert exam. In that way, the examples in the guides and working on my own are huge. I would agree whole-heartedly that more actual hands on lab content in exams would be a huge help to making them more meaningful. After all, real life is not multiple choice.

    It is really a shame that so many people would rather be PERCEIVED as knowledgeable than actually BE knowledgeable. They are truly making it harder for the honest folks like myself, whose goal is to actually learn the material and advance their career and expertise. I would say, for sure, that certifications alone should not be the criteria for hiring. I would argue, though, that their value should be greater than 0. Since Microsoft places a lot of value on them, and much of the community does not, the current situation is certainly broken.

  25. I would say that even the "lower" certifications have some value, in that they show that someone has taken the time and initiative to go through the certification process, and they are investing some effort into building and maintaining their knowledge and career. Still, with all of the braindumps and exam cram type information that is available for the lower exams, there is no guarantee that a person with one of those certifications knows much more than what it took to pass the exam.

    Being certified is no substitute for actual knowledge, experience, and common sense.

  26. While I agree with most of what’s said there, I do strongly disagree with the several references to ‘just book learning’; it makes it sound like that has no value. Understanding the theoretical background for something is important. I agree, without actual experience, it has no context. However, I’ve also seen developers with lots of experience – and big holes in their knowledge because they’ve not done the reading. In short, I agree with one of the first posters – it has to be a combination of knowledge and experience.

    Having done many MS exams, along with my colleagues, what I’d like to see them do is have a larger pool of questions for each exam. Most that I’ve done (mainly around SharePoint and .NET Web Development) had 50 questions, and on the occasion that I needed to do a resit, I recognised a lot of the questions from the first time. I reckon that the exams are actually probably 50 questions from a pool of … 50. If it was 50 from a pool of a thousand, well, then try learning all the answers by rote.

    And exams that tested experience too – though I’m not sure how this could be achieved for a developer exam – would also be very useful.

    And off topic, but regarding where I’ve seen people discussing publically discussing security measures – well, cryptography, Australian voting machines and bike lock design are a few. There are arguments for and against, though I tend to think it’s best to assume "the enemy knows the system".

  27. In general, I agree with the sentiment regarding certification abuse. For those who have acquired them legitimately, have nothing to fear because it falls back on integrity–if you have it, your life will reflect it.

    I have heard the pros and cons regarding certification during my career as a DBA; I personally am taking the slow road to certification. Doing so has caused me not to be considered for many positions for which I felt qualified only because "hiring managers" rely upon others to create job requirements to narrow the applicant pool; and those others–usually in IT–are facilitating nepotism; at least that is what I have seen.

    Lastly, nothing is more irritating on a project where "high-dollar, database consultants" ask me how to configure a database and I realize I know more than they do.

  28. I think that all certifications should be based on lab examinations. For one simple reason. In a test using multiple choice, if you get the answer wrong that’s it your screwed. Otherwise in a lab or in the real world you can look at the problem, you can go look at what caused the problem, and take corrective action. You may even come across an issue where you get it wrong the first time. WHAT YOU MADE A MISTAKE. Stop the presses a human made a mistake! The test should allow you to fix that mistake on top of the initial problem. That is true experience. The beauty of our career is we have backups and hopefully test environments. Sure…you need to have some questions where you need to accomplish something a matter of minutes. The test would have to have timed questions to rate your ability to work under pressure. However, if your employer said "we will pay for the test if you pass it"…yeah that’s pressure enough.

  29. Hi Paul,
    I use the BrainBench exams that come with the MS books and Transcender practise exams. It’s a great way to prepare because:

    Questions you know you can answer quickly and move on
    Questions you don’t know, you read chapters in appropriate books, blogs and whitepapers.

    Depending on where you work, some technologies you get to use freqently, some to a lesser degree depending on the organization/role. Using the above approach, I can find weak areas and concentrate on those.

    I was planning on taking the MCM master exam for SQL Server 2008 but only managed about 1/2 the prerequisite reading. With the grand release of SQL Server 2012 yesterday time has run out on that ambition though. I enrolled in a virtual MCM lab test environment and was given access to some of your training material, its excellent stuff and does offer a good alternative my current training method.
    Best wishes
    Paul

  30. Sorry, I don’t use BrainBench, I meant ‘MeasureUp’ MS Press Practice Tests’. They come with the books and you can use them to actually drive you through the book much quicker by identifying and focusing on weak areas.
    Best wishes
    Paul

  31. Hello, my name in John Doe and I’ve used and distributed braindumps.

    I think it might be beneficial for this discussion if at least somebody would step forward to confess that he has used braindumps and explain his reasons why. (you can crucify me afterwards if you wish).

    I myself have years of experience with Oracle and MS SQL Server and work as a trainer and consultant. In my job as a trainer I often teach classes of students who are jobless for some time now and want to improve their chances on the market with an occupational re-training. This training is paid for by a government agency, but they are only paying for courses which deliver ‘proper training’. For the agency, as they themself can’t judge the quality of my teachings for a lack of technical knowledge on their part, they rely solely on earned certifications. So my employer has to offer a 4-6 month course with 2-3 MCITP (or similar certifications for other vendors) cerifications or he wouldn’t be eligible for these trainings.

    My students mostly have a background in IT but very little database knowledge, which means I have to start at zero. I do my very best to teach them all I know in the 2 month I have for training, but even the entry level certification, the MCTS, requires such a broad and deep knowledge that 2 month of training are just not enough. That’s where braindumps are used, and because I can’t prevent the usage of these braindumps (I don’t have to provide them, my students find them easily on the internet) I do my very best to at least prevent just blindly memoryze the answers and discuss the questions with my students. We analyze the different solutions to the problem and explain why answer a is correct and b is not.

    Unethical? Yes, and no. Yes because it’s cheating, no because my students would never get a chance on a new job without the certifications.
    The problem: with the help of braindumps most of by students manage to earn a certification, but only about a quarter of them really has gained the knowledge to actually work as a DBA, the other 3/4 just don’t have what it takes.
    Easy you say, just don’t use braindumps and only the 1/4th with knowledge will get a certification. Yeah, that works…once. Because when the government agency sees a success rate of only 25% or less, my employer will never be considered for training again because his success-rate is too low.

    There are several possible solutions:
    – Offer just the training with no official certification… and most students won’t even make it to a job interview, as HR can’t judge the quality of their knowledge.
    – Lengthen the training to a full 6 month or even a year to offer proper theoretical and practical training… and you have a course that won’t be accepted by the government agency and no unemployed student has the money to pay for such a training by himself.
    – Microsoft could offer a new entry level certification, below the MCTS, which is good enough to get somebody a junior DBA/Developer job where he than can gain enough knowledge to manage the MCTS on his own terms sometimes later.

    Ask yourself: How did YOU become a DBA? You probably started years ago, maybe as a side-job, when the business you were working for asked whether somebody knows anything about this ‘database thingy’ and wants to work himself into a new project? Maybe you had some database courses at a university, as did I, but today businesses are searching for trained DBAs with at least n years of experiences in database system xy, not for beginners who need years of training… where should the new DBAs come from, if not from trainings such as offered by my employer? Are there any alternatives (and no, the few hours/week at a university is by far not enough, it’s usually just theoretical background information, they purposely avoid any concrete training on any major commercial database (at least in my country))

    It really boils down to this: no certification = no job , no job = no knowledge gained to get certified

  32. I would like to know what you mean by "if you’re going for a certification, go about it the right way". I have been a DBA for several years now, and the "base" of my knowledge is from college level courses, but the "bulk" of my knowledge is by "learn by doing", web research, SQL support sites, and old fashioned manuals.
    While I feel confident in what I know, and am very aware of many areas that I don’t know, I am always a bit paranoid (a typical DBA trait?) about "What I don’t know that I don’t know".
    I have searched quite a bit for a comprehensive course of study for the DBA. What I have found is a multitude of sites and opinions each with a different priority, but almost all HIGHLY weighting experience.
    On that I have an issue.
    TRUE: There is no substitute for experience. Good judgment comes from experience…
    ALSO TRUE: There is no substitute for a good education.
    I have met a lot of VERY experience professionals with gaping holes in their knowledge that they weren’t even aware they had. Professionally, above all else, I desire to be better than that and to have a good foundation of knowledge even in areas that I don’t need to use "right now".
    So, what is your advice? How do I "go about it the right way"?

  33. Dave – I mean use your experience and proper education (i.e. not a cramming or boot-camp session or brain-dump) to pass whatever exam so that you know that you really have the skills that the exam certifies you have.

  34. I agree completely with your comments regarding certifications and have had similar views for quite some time.

    On the other side, there are instances of people who you don’t get to work on all the components of a particular product in their day-today job (especially due to job profiles being "too" specialized nowadays – for example, one does only table schema changes for a living while another does only sql module development – btw this seems totally inappropriate to me and as it hinders employee career growth and innovation, engineers being treated like cattle and with limited learning ability – topic for another day).
    So you never get experience working on all the components that are part of a certification. In such cases, the only way to learn is to go to a class where they have some sort of lab sessions to get your hands-on. (#4 and #3 from your list should never be allowed to happen, while reading books and to some extent boot-camps should be fine as long as one sees it strictly as a learning exercise to gain some knowledge)

    Also, IMHO ‘certifications’ and it’s usage and importance will always ‘mean’ different to different people.
    For example, many companies want their employees(no matter what experience) to get certifications so that the company becomes Microsoft certified partner and thereby save money by getting discounts/deals on Microsoft products.

  35. I think the problem is a misunderstanding of what certification is good for. I was a delphi programmer, and I took a couple of .net exams, and I was able to make the transition to a .Net programmer with a minimum of pain. Taking those two exams did not make me a dot net expert by any strech of the imagination, but it taught me enough to function in a new enviroment. That is what certification is good for.
    As a professional developer, a lot of the time one develops deep knowledge but in a small area. Certification works to counteract this by introducing more superficial knowledge in a wider. Studying for the 70-433, I don’t know everything about xml datatypes and service broker and so on, but I know about what is possible, and that knowledge will allow me to see oppurtunities to apply that knowledge. Certification, in my mind, is not about making someone an expert. Certification is giving someone enought tools that they can do something. The real learning comes after than.

  36. I took both 2005 and 2008 MCITP exams.
    In my view 2005 exams were harder for cheaters:
    a) 3 exams vs 2
    b) One of the MCITP exams was scenario-based, where you had to decide quickly what data was most relevant to the questions in hand. Bit like real-life.
    c) There was a lab element for the MCTS exam (half of it actually, and if you failed the lab part you had failed the whole exam).

    In the 2008 version the scenario-based exam has been dropped, and the lab part has also been dropped.
    Why?

  37. Sorry to resurrect this topic, but it really strikes a chord with me. My views on certification are pretty well known to people I know, I don’t disguise the fact that I think MS cert for SQL are pretty much worthless or that was my opinion up to now, I am struggling to convince myself that after 16 years of SQL server experience with no certs and never been on any course and never attending any form of conference? I might be missing out somewhere. I have never struggled to find work as a SQL DBA, however I am seeing Certs on practically every dba I look at linkedin and in daily life and these are people who for some only have 1 years experience yet they have 2012 certs, and I think if they can get certified with practically no experience and purely either course or book learning how worthwhile is having the certs. It frustrates me that there is such an emphasis from employers and agencies on certs, yet real life experience is not as important.

    Kind of ironic, that I bought a MBA recently to allow me to work while traveling and consider 2012/2014 cert, but after seeing practically every man and his dog with the cert. maybe I stand out more as a candidate with the experience that I have and no certification rather than a few years of experience and certified up to the hilt.

    Kind of looking for opinions here, totally gutted that the MCM got retired. Hopefully MS will bring something else in that reflects real life skills/experience rather than the ability to memorise a book.

  38. Now that Microsoft has once again re-vamped its certifications, I’m hesitant to take them. http://www.microsoft.com/learning/en-ca/sql-certification.aspx

    2008 certification will be disappearing soon, 2014 will be appearing soon, so should I even bother taking 2012 certification and may do an upgrade path to 2014, or just wait for 2014? I know it’s not the end-all/be-all but still a useful took in the old CV.

  39. Hi Paul S. Randal……

    I need the playlist link of Microsoft certified professionals explaining about sql server….

    I am searching but not able to find……

    Regards

  40. My gripe about certifications? From the covered topics for 2012’s 70-464:


    Write automation scripts:
    Automate backup testing; automate shrink file; implement scripts that check and maintain indexes; implement scripts that archive data; run a SQL Server Integration Services (SSIS) job; write scripts that check disk space; write scripts that automate backups, including backup to Microsoft Azure Blob Storage Service

    I am hoping they subtract from your score if you successfully show you can automate shrink file.

  41. All you guys are stupid to criticize somebody who is using brain dump. You are really stupid. It does not matter what you did to pass the certification but if you pass it by any means you can find. They have camera during the test if you cheat they will know it. If you memorize your dump you are not sure until you see similar question on the exam. Microsoft can decide to change the exam and you dump practice become useless. As for those who say experience is better than certification I am telling you you are stupid. During the certification process many experienced guy discovered that they are missing new stuff who just came out. So it worth to study for certification to update your knowledge. Me I study 6 month like crazy then I use dumps as practice exam to maximize my chances. And I am telling you I know far better than people in my company who are arrogant like the author of this blog. You are scumbag and ignorant. I have seen some people who use to clean toilet. They study a year to pass one Microsoft certification. Now they own house and family. If you don’t wanna do cert. Just shout your nasty mouth and let people live. Stop saying dump are bad because every road lead to Roma as long as nobody revoke your certification. Scumbag !!!!

  42. I’m kind of torn on the whole subject. I am aiming at the MCSE Data Platform as a kind of measuring stick for what kind of stuff that I _think_ I need to know to grow and evolve my career into something, I don’t know, “more”.

    I’m a developer right now, been one for almost 20 years, but “more” for me is going to be somewhere in the realm of SQL; I think that’s what I want. So, I’m using these tests to prove to myself that I can do it, and fill the (unfortunately numerous) gaps in my knowledge.

    I’m about to take the first test of the 5 required for MCSE Data Platform, and when I first set myself down to prepare for it, I thought it would be a cakewalk. Now that I have been studying for it for a month or two, I’m now a little intimidated by all that I need to know, even for the first test. There are so, so, so many little details I never even heard of, like the XML data type, XML indexes, ranking functions, aggregations that I never even heard of. Holy cow, there is a lot to know; a lot that I had not considered before.

    I have no illusions about using my cert (IF I manage to stick with it and earn it) for getting a new job. You need experience to get a job and keep it. I’m certainly not going to drop my dev job and run out tomorrow and apply for an entry-level DBA position that will cripple my family’s finances. That’s all a cert with no experience is good for.

    However, the prep for the exam has by no means been a waste of my time. I have opened myself up to new ideas and technologies that I hadn’t even imagined. I’m writing better queries and starting to become some kind of unofficial DBA for our team, and my brain is chewing over all kinds of new ideas that maybe I can someday bring to our dev team, or even the greater organization.

    So who knows, I may fail even the first test. Even if I do fail, the act of trying broke me out of my stagnating funk, and got the gears in my brain to start moving again. And boy, do I love to learn.

    -SPB

  43. I took a class where the teacher gave out the answers to the 5 exams for SQL 2012 MCSE. I tried contacting MS but the call centers do not respond to this type of issue. I know someone who did this and passed the exam with less than 1 year experience.

  44. I completed a Health Care Informatic course. This included an Introduction to Sql. This was the best course taken. Since I am a novice how would you recommend that l should proceed to gain certification. By the way, never cheated on any exam. Thanks

  45. Paul – Although I agree with a lot of the stuff that you say, I think you are way off when you say that those who “Buy a book that gives you all the knowledge you need to *pass the exam* ” are the same those who use braindumps or even worse pay somebody to write the exam for them.

    I had 6 years of SQL Server experience before I attempted my first exam (70-461) and even though I thought that I knew a lot there were still a few gaps in my knowledge. The official Microsoft 70-461 training kit sealed these gaps. For example there were quite a bit of XML questions on the exam and I didn’t do much of that before. Reading and practicing with the official training kit added XML to my arsenal and helped me pass the exam with flying colours, not to mention that it helped with my later assignments at work.

    Furthermore I also bought the training kits for 70-462 and 70-463 and they helped me seal the gaps in my knowledge for administration and data warehousing. We all know that you are an authority in SQL Server since you worked on it so you can’t expect everybody to have your proficiency. You should also recognize that many employers expect quick results from their employees if they are going to sponsor their certification so picking up a training kit seems like a logical choice.

    1. You misunderstand – I didn’t mean that some people do all of those, just one or more. I’ll put in a comment to that effect. So yes, I agree with everything you say. And I guess I should make it clear (and I just did in the post) that picking up a book to fill gaps is fine, just when picking up the book is the *only* knowledge gained before taking the exam, that’s not cool.

  46. I think that having 10 years of experience at one company is also not a good way to judge skills. Most people that have been at a company 10 years have 1 year of experience 10 times over not learning anything new just repeating the usual things.

    I do find that the exams are always pushing the latest feature as the answer to everything and I could totally believe that even having been in a DBA role or a developer role it is possible that at least half of the content tested can be unfamiliar from that persons experience. Not all businesses use all features especially when they cost a fortune for enterprise edition.

    I think the best way to actually test people know what they say they know is to setup a test server with multiple problems that they need to fix and then check over the server to see how much they have found and fixed. However saying that I wouldn’t expect people to know absolutely everything about SQL but if they can find the answer, understand the fix and implement it that is what the business needs.

  47. Somehow, I think everyone is missing the underlying issues.

    1. Companies want an easy way to compare candidates.
    2. Certification testing is a cash cow.

    My opinion is that allowing your technical people to actually talk to candidates is the best way to determine what knowledge they have. And also, whether they would fit in with your company culture. There is a key flaw of all of these ‘objective’ tests. And that is whether in a real world environment, they will implement changes that reduce issues over the long term or continually go for a short term fix that guarantees headaches time and time again. I believe in the philosophy that “Just because it CAN be done, doesn’t mean that it SHOULD be done.

    I’ve started a few times to start studying for the Sql Server Exams. Each time I have been disappointed when I find questions related to which features are supported in which release/version as exam questions. My answer: If you are going to upgrade or purchase a new version, it is time to re-read the documentation IN DETAIL. You should not be trusting your memory on this unless that is your primary function and you literally use that knowledge on a weekly basis. the certification exams should be for day-to-day knowledge ensuring that you will be a capable DBA for situations you will encounter on a normal basis. You might need to know recovery info in an emergency, but which features are supported for which versions? I do not need to have this information immediately available. I have plenty of time to look it up when I need it….

  48. I just passed the 70-461 exam! No braindumps and the training kit helped very little. I watched youtube video presentations, and utilized online training courses; however, at the end of the day, I had to make this all applicable by getting my hands dirty!

    I have my MCSE 2003, MCITP 2008, and MCTS in sql server 2005, 2008 development. Microsoft must have listened to you Paul because this was a beast compared to these previous exams. When I took my CCNA in 2004, I failed. The questions required hands on experience, and all the memorizing wouldn’t have helped. The 70-461 was similar and challenged me a lot more.

    I know a lot of you are professionals, hence the disappointment. I do not have a college degree, and as a single father of 4 kids, I don’t have the time to go back. My hope, and from what I’ve heard, the certifications make up for the lack of the degree. I do have experience; however, I want something to validate my skill set.

    One last thing…. hopefully the perception on certifications will change because of one word, ‘Pigeonhold’. I know a Senior SQL developer, and don’t get me wrong, lots to learn from this individual; however, his development is limited to stored procedures and subqueries. Yes he does a trigger or a function from time to time. Because of the things I’ve learned from taking 70-461, he’s leaned on me for knowledge. I guess many of you would say he isn’t an actual Senior developer, but that’s another issue. I’ve seen IT guys get labeled Sr. before their title, when in fact, they are not!

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