My thoughts on Recertifying your MCSE through Microsoft Virtual Academy

A couple of years back I achieved the Microsoft certification MCSE – Business Intelligence. You can read all about that process in my blog post How I prepared myself for the MCSE certification. As you might know, this certification is only valid for 3 years. My certification should have expired a couple of months ago, but Microsoft graciously extended the period for recertification. Anyway, when your certification is about to expire, you have two options:

Let’s just say I was not really looking forward to study for an exam again and learn lots of useless details about lesser known (read: less useful) features. So I was thrilled that Microsoft gave me the option to stay in my lazy seat and follow an online course to recertify myself. The set-up is simple: you watch a couple of videos (okay, a lot of videos) and you answer some assessment questions. If you pass all of the assessments, you can apply for recertification.

I think that’s a great concept. Suppose you don’t live close to an examination center (or don’t have the option to do online proctored exams). In this case you can still do the recertification without much hassle. The MVA course by the way is pretty solid, has good instructors and offers plenty of material. If you’d watch all of the videos, you have several hours/days of learning ahead of you. I’m pretty sure there will be some things to pick up, no matter what your skill level. That’s the good part. The bad part is that you don’t even have to watch the videos, you can skip directly to the assessment. These are just 5 multiple choice (or true/false) questions about the current subject matter. And it’s online. Meaning, you can look up the answer. You can ask the colleague next to you what the answer is. Even if you did fail the assessment, you can just take it again. And again. Eventually, you’ll have the answers memorized because they show you which you did on each question. There aren’t that many options to choose from, so eventually you can just memorize every question and their answer. So if exams were easy to cheat (and Microsoft certifications are quite notorious on that part), these are even easier to “cheat”. I have to point out that you can only take an assessment a couple of times. If you still haven’t passed it, you have to watch the accompanying course material. But you can just skip the video to the end, which will make the assessment available again. So basically these assessments are worthless as a test of your actual skills. Meaning, the recertification is also worthless as a skill test.

Then there are the assessment questions themselves. They are like normal certification questions. By which I mean some of them are open for interpretation, some of them are quite vague, but some of them are just plain wrong. Let’s take a look at this beauty for example:

mva_pkorder

It’s obvious that the correct answer is A. However, as most SQL Server people would agree, there’s only one correct answer: it depends. What if there isn’t a primary key? What if there is a more suitable index for the SELECT query? What if the table is a heap? There’s no such thing as a “default order”.

Here’s another one:

I think I’m going to show this to Kimball and watch him have a heart attack.

Aside from the difficulties with such questions, there’s also the topic of most questions. There were very little actual questions about new features, which is a bit odd for a recertification. This is probably because this is a general MVA course. However, if it doesn’t test your skills on new features (or not enough), what’s the point of using it as a tool for recertification?

Conclusion. I like Microsoft Virtual Academy. It allows a lot of people to learn more about Microsoft products at a very low cost (as it’s free). However, I don’t think it’s a great tool to measure people’s skills for recertify certifications. Mainly because the way the assessments are set-up and because they are too easy too circumvent. This only hollows out the value of certifications even more. I’m not going into the debate if certifications have any use at all, that’s maybe the topic for another blog post. Let’s just say I miss the days there was a Microsoft Certified Master (MCM) certification.

Koen Verbeeck

Koen Verbeeck is a Microsoft Business Intelligence consultant at AE, helping clients to get insight in their data. Koen has a comprehensive knowledge of the SQL Server BI stack, with a particular love for Integration Services. He’s also a speaker at various conferences.

16 thoughts to “My thoughts on Recertifying your MCSE through Microsoft Virtual Academy”

  1. Oh wow, that default ordering question is just COMPLETELY wrong.
    * You can have a primary key that isn’t clustered.
    * The query could be fulfilled using data from a different index
    * Your query could have a join

    That’s DBA 101 – we always drill into people that your order simply isn’t guaranteed without an ORDER BY. That’s really sad.

  2. I wholeheartedly agree. I wish they put the same effort into making this transparent and fixable as they did to uselessly reshuffling and renaming the certs and policies every year.

    1. John, thanks for your comment.
      As pointed out in the article, if your MCSE is inactive, you still have to recertify in order to get the new MCSE cert. If Microsoft hadn’t extended the recertification period for my cert, I still had to recertify my MCSE – Business Intelligence in order to get the MCSE – Data Management & Analytics.

      It’s exactly this process of re-certifying (through MVA) that hollows out the MS certs in my opinion.

      Regarding the new MCSE, which doesn’t expire but where you can continuously “re-earn” the cert: do you need to take exams, or can you do that with MVA as well? If the latter is an option, this blog post still stands.
      If it’s only the exams – and that’s how I read it – you need to do one exam every year to showcase your investment in the cert. What if the list of exams runs out? Do you suddenly stop caring about your personal development, as the cert would state?

      Anyway, certs will never be as good again as the MCM ones. And that makes it a sad day.

      1. I’m one of the suckers that has an MCSE Data Platform and BI, and apparently also Data Management and Analytics since a few weeks. This pretty much means that, unless there’ll be new exams by then, in 2 years I’ll be screwed since I’ll have to be finished with the list by then.

        Also. I haven’t taken a look at the MVA-courses yet, but isn’t it possible to just keep doing them, over and over at no charge, untill you get a passing grade?

        1. Hi Benni.

          Yes, you can take the MVA course and its assessments as many times as you want. (it’s explained in the blog somewhere). If you fail an assessment too many times, you have to watch the materials again. Which you just can skip to the end…

          Once you’ve passed all the assessments, you take the transcript and mail it to Microsoft. They will verify it and recertify your MCSE. (To be honest: this process was over in a few hours. Very fast response time from Microsoft)

    2. And I forgot to add this 🙂

      Regardless of the certs, the assessments in MVA are crap. Keep in mind I’m talking about the assessments only. The courses itself look nice, at first sight. But the questions in the assessments are just plain wrong sometimes, which means they teach people the wrong stuff.

  3. Thank you for saying ” learn lots of useless details about lesser known (read: less useful) features.”. l thought it was just me that felt way whilst attempting to learn some “lesser known” facts for my 463 exam 🙂

  4. I have passed quite few MS exams over the years (79) and numerous other; Novell, Compaq ASE, Cisco, IBM. I have also taken some of the MVA courses and yes I found them good but the assessments were not great and seemed to focus on picayune details or were not specifically germane to the objective. I did find that the material I learned in studying for exams was never was wasted it popped up at some other time often with nothing to do at all with the area where I learned it so I think learning the objectives is good in and of itself.

    I have seen the MS learning go from one extreme to the other in terms of the amount of real world skills needed to what you could glean from books or other methods. In terms of the SQL exams, I think the SQL 2005 series was excellent but required a huge volume of information to digest and master and was broken out well into three categories, Admin, Developer and BI. The SQL 2008 series lacked depth and clarity. The SQL 2012 series brought back a little of the breakout by category but intermingled some areas and yes it covered products that were included but probably little used in the real world. But the idea that you needed to know something about them since they were in the product has merit. Learning about them opens your horizons and makes you think outside of your self silo which we all tend to get into.

    Now with the 2 year release cycle and the addition of new functionality like R and Azure products trying to keep up is nigh on impossible. Just getting tests out and study materials for them seems a daunting task with those who wish to continue with their skill updates and certification reeling from the volume of new products and time required to become familiar with let alone master them. So we see the rise of the MVA track to try and help people get some knowledge needed while leaving it up to them to actually use it in their jobs or labs. Does it do good job, maybe not with assessing skill level, but there is nothing else that can keep up with the pace of learning required to gain the skills depth needed. Has Microsoft softened the certification by doing this yes, will it need to swing back to where exams are required definitely. The new certification tracks have to be broken out into more areas of focus, it looks like they are doing this, but again given the release cycle it is tough to keep up. In the end we have to have stopgaps to help new and practicing people to get into the numerous new areas of the SQL product features but they cannot also just give certifications away for taking the course and the assessments. The certification exams are one way to do this and I will continue to take them. Others may need a different path but it is not as well defined just yet.

  5. I believe the “Type 2 SCD” part of the second question is a red herring. All of the answers state “SQL Server [does this]”. SQL Server itself does not enforce a Type 2 SCD; rather, the application/ETL process does. So, if you’re only left with “You modify a record”, the correct answer is likely D – “SQL Server replaces the existing data”.

  6. I re-certified MCSE:Data Platform via MVA. I faithfully watched all the videos because I was also preparing to take SQL Server 2016 exams (in beta). I thought most of the videos were of high quality, well produced and with talented presenters.

    Those assessment questions are pitiful, but much of the surrounding material has quality issues as well. I found issues with the transcripts with the slide decks…one course even has the wrong name! Try submitting a request for change (as I did here: http://bit.ly/2es8pIE ), and watch the crickets chirp and the tumbleweeds blow by.

    You can see the potential of MVA, so it’s disappointing to see it untended like this.

  7. For what it’s worth…
    I have to take a lot of tests as a trainer. I’ve sat in the exam booth now 99 documented times in 20+ years of I.T. test taking, including many Novell exams, three CompTIA exams, and many, many Microsoft exams. Thank you, Dear Lord, almost every time I pass on the first try.
    But I failed an exam for the first time in nine or so years, and it was one of those blasted re-certification exams (Data Platform). I passed the BI re-cert exam on the first try. Both were very, very hard, namely because of time management and the difficulty of quickly figuring out the facts that were important out of many facts in the scenario. The re-cert tests, as they stand now, are barely passable, so the MVA re-cert route (terribly flawed as it is) would be a better option for many, if the program weren’t changing. In fact, in order to pass the Data Platform re-cert I took two of the full length MVA courses and still narrowly passed.

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