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In the past couple of years, Microsoft has shaken up their entire certification program significantly with the introduction of role-based certifications. They’ve retired product-based certification, introduced new role-based certs, and changed certification expiration dates. All these changes have shifted the Microsoft Certified Professional program from product-based to a role-based certification model.
In this article, we’ll discuss why Microsoft changed its certifications, how to earn the new role-based Microsoft certifications, and what will replace the MCSA, MCSE, and MCSD.
Microsoft's role-based certifications validate the skills a technical professional would learn in the first year, 3 to 5 years, or 5 to 7 years on the job. Those experience ranges roughly equate to a beginner, intermediate, or expert in one of nine job roles:
Within each job role, Microsoft certifications test technical professionals on a range of products and skills. But to fully understand role-based certifications, you’ll need to understand that Microsoft used to primarily offer product-based certifications.
Since the beginning of the Microsoft Certified Professional program, Microsoft built certifications around products rather than job roles. For instance, a systems administrator may earn the MCSA: Windows 10 and MCSA: Server 2016 to validate their entry-level (or Associate-level) knowledge of those products. Admins could mix and match certs based on the technology they operated in their day-to-day roles.
When Microsoft released a new product, like Server 2016, they would release a certification to support that technology. Microsoft would then update the Expert-level credentials to reflect the upstream effects of the front-line technology changes. Importantly, these certifications also expired roughly with the End of Support dates for the product.
And it’s been like that for the entire existence of the Microsoft Certified Professional program. Microsoft launches the latest version of a product and then out comes the certification.
In 2019 Microsoft announced role-based certifications alongside a number of MCSA and MCSE retirements. That same year Microsoft launched the latest version of its server operating system, Server 2019, but not an MCSA: Server 2019. The absence of the Server 2019 cert underscored that Microsoft was serious about role-based certification.
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Role-based certs represent a big change, but the sting of the news is already starting to wear off. Microsoft certifications now better mirror the way skills are accumulated and how Microsoft products are used, and better serves the Azure model.
Certifications have long been criticized as being too closely linked to products rather than the roles. While product-based certifications may seem logical, the knowledge tested in the certs doesn’t always reflect the lived experience as a sysadmin who uses and maintains a number of operating systems and platforms. Role-based certifications validate skills that don’t fit neatly into the domain of product knowledge.
For instance, let’s take AZ-500 as an example. The AZ-500 is the required exam for the Azure security certification, which is part of the role-based Security Engineer track.
The AZ-500 validates a wide range of Azure security services, including Azure AD, Azure Monitor, Azure Sentinel, and Azure Security Center. In addition to product-based knowledge, AZ-500 also validates security basics like authentication and vulnerabilities.
Most importantly, Microsoft hasn’t had a security-related certification since they retired from MCSA: Security a long time ago. Security was certainly baked into the product-based MCSAs, but the security knowledge was product-specific. With the AZ-500, Microsoft canonizes security knowledge into one cert for one role across multiple Azure products. That’s among the reasons role-based certifications make sense. They validate skills rather than just product knowledge.
It’s also notable that all role-based certifications focus primarily on Azure. The end of product-based certifications also aligns with Microsoft going all-in on Azure and “as-a-service” products — and that wasn’t an accident.
The Microsoft Certified Professional program has long been criticized as being a “hamster wheel”. For each product version, Microsoft releases another cert, which expires at the End of Support date for the product — and replaced by the new product-based certification.
Role-based certifications more closely align with the “as a service” lifecycle of Microsoft products. They have one discrete, global expiration date. Role-based Azure certifications expire after 2 years.
In this way, role-based certifications do still follow the product. Let’s take the Windows 10 product lifecycle as an example. Windows 10 has been billed as the “forever operating system” because its versions will be updated every 18 months rather than requiring a full install of a new version. The name remains the same (other than the build number), but Microsoft changes functionality and features. Rather than migrating to a new OS, IT professionals can simply run regular updates.
The same can be said about the role-based certifications. In renewing your Azure Administrator Associate certificate, you’ll take a new exam, which better reflects the current state of Azure services and best practices. But the certification name remains the same because it’s role-based.
Systems administrators are still systems administrators even when the technology they manage changes. Thus, the certifications follow the job role rather than the product, which makes it more stable for Microsoft-certified professionals.
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Initially, Microsoft introduced a number of role-based certifications but kept the bulk of the stalwart MCSA, MCSE, and MCSD certifications in place. In April 2020, however, Microsoft announced the retirement of all MCSA, MCSE, and MCSD certifications. The original retirement date was supposed to be June 2020, but Microsoft changed the date due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The MCSA, MCSE, and MCSD will now retire in January 2021.
Microsoft didn’t necessarily replace MCSA. Instead, they updated their entire certification program to better reflect how the industry organizes skills — under job roles rather than products. With that said, Microsoft still has a number of Associate-level certifications, including:
Microsoft also offers eight Associate-level Dynamics 365 functional exams.
Microsoft will retire the expert-level MCSE certifications in January 2021. The old MCSE exams validate the product rather than role-based knowledge. With the expert-level role-based exams, product knowledge is contextualized into the role of skills. Microsoft currently offers five Expert levels, role-based exams:
The Microsoft Certified Solutions Developer (MCSD) is among the few Microsoft certifications that validate the skills associated with a job role rather than a product. In that way, it’s much easier to say what replaces MCSD. When Microsoft retires the MCSD in 2021, it will be replaced by one of these role-based certifications:
When Microsoft announced role-based certification in 2019 there was a lot of confusion about exam retirements, replacements, and the state of the certification program. In the last year, Microsoft has made considerable strides to filling out their role-based offerings from the initial few beta exams they released at Ignite 2019.
With all change comes apprehension — and role-based certs were a big change. But they’re actually arranged in a sensible structure that mirrors the Azure service offerings, supports career progression for a wider array of technical professionals, and better insulates IT professionals from big technological changes.
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