Essential Guide

Microsoft SQL Server training: What you need to know

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What's the real value of SQL Server certification?

Not all certs are created equal, but changes to Microsoft’s certification track over the past few years have left some database professionals curious about what to pursue.

Since revamping the SQL Server certification track in 2006, Microsoft has refined the path for IT professionals

to expand their technical knowledge and advance their careers. But the true value of IT certifications in today’s job market is often unclear, as are the requirements for obtaining them.

For SQL Server professionals, new system releases translate to new certs. Microsoft updated its certification track with the release of SQL Server 2008, causing earlier certs to look more dated with each passing year. Still, the decision to upgrade could depend on how much weight certifications still carry on a resume – a topic of debate among many in the IT community.

“[Certifications] offer three items of value: the ability to assess your skill set, an exposure to the features that Microsoft thinks are important for you to know, [and] proof that you have a goal and some interest in achieving that goal,” said Hilary Cotter, a SQL Server MVP and director of text mining with N.Y.-based Relevant Noise.

Microsoft’s website states that 63% of hiring managers view administrators who hold a certification as more dynamic than those without. It also says that 55% of hiring managers deem certifications an important consideration during the hiring process.

“If you look at surveys of the leading or most coveted certifications, SQL Server usually registers somewhere on that radar,” said Ed Tittel, a freelance technology writer and consultant out of Austin, Texas. “Ten years ago it was always in the top 10. These days it’s not guaranteed that it’s going to be in the top 10, but for sure it’s still in the top 20.”

Although the value of certification is debatable, Tittel said that it can still have a positive effect on job prospects related to SQL Server -- if administrators look in the right place.

“As long as you’re willing to restrict your job search to organizations that use SQL Server for the database part of their IT infrastructure, there’s a lot of opportunity for people even to this day,” Tittel said.

Tracking the SQL Server certification path

SQL Server professionals currently have four cert levels available to them: Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (MCTS), Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP), and -- for the most experienced SQL gurus -- the Microsoft Certified Master (MCM) and Microsoft Certified Architect (MCA).

These updated credentials are revisions of the old Microsoft Certified DBA certification that was popular during the Windows NT 4 days and before 2005. In 2006, Microsoft developed several upgrade exams to help DBAs gain recognition for their skills with the latest SQL Server technologies.

Following the SQL Server certification track can be confusing, however, when IT pros try to decipher between past certs and updated ones. While several changes have been made over the past 10 years, they may not be noticeable to database pros who are new to the certification realm.

Stepping stones to certification

Climbing the SQL Server certification ladder involves completing an array of exams and requirements, beginning with the MCTS, which is based at the technical specialist level with a focus on key SQL Server technologies. With skills perfected through the MCTS, IT professionals can then earn the MCITP certification, which hones in on SQL Server skills related to particular job functions. To achieve the MCITP, they must complete organizational and design-oriented exams that prepare them for even more advanced certifications.

If you look at surveys of the leading or most coveted certifications, SQL Server usually registers somewhere on that radar.

Ed Tittel, technical author and consultant

“At the MCTS and MCITP level, the game is pretty much the same, though the exams have changed,” Tittel said. “The exams are a lot more hands-on and include a lot more case studies and scenarios among their questions, with less of the learning kind of stuff that they used to do back in the ’90s.”

Currently, the MCDBA certifies administrators for SQL Server 2000 only. The upgrade path involves passing two exams to earn the MCTS for SQL Server 2005. Opportunities at the MCTS level also include three certifications for SQL Server 2008 -- implementation and maintenance, database development and business intelligence development and maintenance.

The MCTS certification is a prerequisite for obtaining the MCITP Database Administrator cert available for SQL Server 2005 and 2008. Database professionals have a few options at this level. Depending on the MCTS certification they hold, they can also pursue the Database Developer or Business Intelligence Developer track for either system. Both certs involve one exam a piece. The advanced MCITP certifications are also prerequisites for the Microsoft Certified Master cert.

Becoming a master

The MCM certification for senior-level IT pros involves an intense three-week training course for SQL Server 2008 on everything from T-SQL and XML to security and virtualization. Designed for troubleshooting the most complex SQL-related issues, the MCM program is also one of the most respected certs provided by Microsoft.

“Microsoft certifies that these people know what they're supposed to know, plus they know how to plan, implement and troubleshoot the product, including its edge features,” said Brent Ozar, a SQL Server expert with Quest Software who obtained MCM status in early 2010. “It requires years of hands-on experience, weeks of seriously advanced training from people who know SQL Server intimately, and the ability to work under pressure.”

Ozar added that those looking to pursue the MCM should have extensive experience working with all aspects of SQL Server and should not just be looking for a ticket to IT stardom.

“The best candidates for the MCM will be people who are used to having the CIO tapping them on the shoulder asking, ‘What's wrong with the SQL Server and how fast can you have it back up? Is it ready yet?’” said Ozar. “Those people will be used to the pressure, they'll be comfortable planning very difficult work in short turnaround times and they'll succeed at the MCM lab exams.”

The highest level of certification available for SQL Server is the Microsoft Certified Architect . According to Tittel, the cert is ideal for IT professionals with 8 to 10 years of experience with database architecture. Similar to the MCM, the architect cert is based on field experience, but also places special importance on verbal interview skills and proposal writing.

“I think we’re starting to see a little bit more emphasis from Microsoft on having IT professionals develop some soft skills, especially as they relate to written and verbal communication, so that they can demonstrate their viability as members of an organization, as well as individual technical contributors,” said Tittel.

Regardless of how far up the ladder a database professional decides to climb, Tittel said that it’s the ability to keep up with the latest SQL Server products and trends, as well as develop real world skills that defines a DBA’s potential on the certification track.

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Essential Guide

Microsoft SQL Server training: What you need to know

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