Skills Development Crucial for IT Pros

LOS ANGELES, May 11, 2009 — Lutz Ziob, general manager of Microsoft Learning, talks often with IT pros. And he knows one thing: They are feeling the pressure to work harder and make the most of technology. Because of this, according to Ziob, the thousands of IT professionals attending Microsoft Tech•Ed North America 2009 in Los Angeles this week have a different set of questions and needs than they’ve had in years past.

“Tech•Ed is the pre-eminent conference for IT pros and developers to take their skills to the next level,” Ziob says. “This year that mission is especially relevant given current economic conditions. As companies look to get leaner and more efficient, they are expecting more value from IT pros than ever before.”

Accordingly, IT pros are aggressively pursuing ways to keep their skills fresh. Ziob says enthusiasm for Windows 7 is already high, and open slots for the beta exam, “Configuring Windows 7,” have filled in record time. Microsoft has also awarded nearly 100,000 certifications on Windows Server 2008 technologies.

“We’re excited to share a lot of what we’re doing to help build people’s skills on key Microsoft offerings such as Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008,” Ziob says.

This week, Microsoft Certification Exams is launching a virtual lab-based exam for technology specialists. Called “Configuring Windows Server 2008 Active Directory” (No. 083-640), the exam is the first to incorporate a virtual environment with the tools and options available in a real computing environment. It emphasizes a practical skills assessment that complements the traditional multiple-choice format.

The test is part of the Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (MCTS) role, which focuses on deep technical expertise and how-to skills for running a corporate network. Currently available in English, the exam is part of the new generation of certifications, and is gradually rolling out to different countries through 2009.

The new test caps a series of efforts from Microsoft Learning to help IT professionals develop their skills in the current economy, so they can get and keep jobs managing back-end services, client-side experiences and everything in between. Many of those efforts are on display this week at Tech•Ed.

For instance, Microsoft Learning will host sessions on training and certification for IT professionals and hiring managers, as well as provide a wide array of information to direct Microsoft Certified Professionals to readily available learning resources.

One such resource is the new Windows 7 Portal for Microsoft Learning that includes free “Learning Snacks,” free chapters from upcoming Microsoft Press books, Windows 7 Learning Plans, and resources for self-led and instructor-led training.

Additional training offerings for Windows Server 2008, SQL Server 2008 and more will be offered on-site at the conference.

Why Certify?

Microsoft Certified Trainers such as David Elfassy say that the ability to demonstrate skills is the core value that certification exams provide for current and potential employers.

According to Elfassy and others, since it’s so difficult to measure the performance of large IT systems, certification is largely a matter of “preventive maintenance” in ensuring that employees have the right skills for the job.

“An employee that is better trained is less likely to cause any harm to the company through poor use of the software or downtime,” he says. “A highly skilled employee is more likely to get the most out of the software and therefore better value out of the investment. That individual is more likely to maintain a higher level of availability for the systems. And, they’re more likely to be happy in their position and feel invested in the company that has invested in them.”

Elfassy’s real-world observation is echoed in current research from IDC, which has established the practical benefits of training and certification on an organization’s ability to get better value from IT assets.

According to IDC, each new certification increases team performance. IT pros who develop their skills and validate them through training positively influence the teams they work from within, and with a sufficient percentage of team members certified, IT operational performance overall can increase up to an average of 11 percent. Certified skills of IT staff, says IDC, will continue to rank as the single biggest predictor of IT project success for the foreseeable future.*

“They’re also more likely to be happy in their position and feel invested in the company that has invested in them,” Elfassy says.

The Competitive Advantage for Companies

Employers, meanwhile, say that certification on a given technology is an important indicator that can not only get a candidate’s foot in the door, but also save the company money in getting new employees up to speed.

Elizabeth Jacobsen is a human resources manager for Eze Castle Integration, an IT services company that supports hedge funds and investment management firms. She works to find help-desk professionals, systems engineers and other technology specialists.

Jacobsen says certification is one of the first things she looks for in screening new candidates.

“We know that by bringing in individuals with these certifications, they’re going to have a very solid foundation that we can expand upon,” Jacobsen says. “It saves a lot of time and energy in terms of initial training hours, and it helps us keep a competitive advantage and have a better understanding of the products we sell and support.”

Because of that, Jacobsen says certifications are also an important sales tool for the business itself, as clients look to her company to be proficient with the latest technologies.

“We continually recertify as well as maintain our strategic partnerships through certifications,” she says. “In this economy you have to keep your employees engaged as well, so we’re taking the time to train our employees to ensure we are prepared for business growth.”

Jacobsen also says that the risk management inherent in certifications, as pointed out by Elfassy, is especially important to her customers in the financial-services industry.

“Our clients, being in financial services, are working to minimize risk and cost, and they’re realizing how they can do that through technology today,” she says. “It’s critical in our industry to maintain and develop these skills.”

Examining the Exams

Because of the importance of certification exams to IT pros and organizations, Microsoft works hard to ensure that the certifications accurately reflect what IT pros need to stay abreast of new developments in technologies.

This week’s rollout of the first-ever lab-based practical exam for technology specialists reflects a continual process to develop the best possible tests of IT proficiency.

Liberty Munson, a Microsoft psychometrician who helped design exam 083-640, says lab-based testing isn’t designed to replace the standard written, multiple-choice format, but to complement it for certain roles. It is also helpful in cases where writing a multiple choice question is either too prescriptive or too cumbersome.

Lab-based testing has evolved to include simulated work environments delivered virtually, so test candidates have the opportunity to demonstrate their skills and perform critical IT tasks using the tools available in a real computing environment.

“There’s a great deal of research that suggests multiple-choice questions, when designed well, are good predictors of job performance,” Munson says. “But there are limitations around multiple choice. Performance-based testing gives us another tool to measure candidates’ skills. And because the lab-based exams focus on demonstrating the ability to perform a task, they fit especially well into the technology specialist series of exams.”

Training vendor Elfassy sees the logic in practical exams as a way to show and prove technical proficiency.

“The whole point of certification is to demonstrate your skills, whether to a current or potential employer,” he says. “What better way than by actually doing it in an exam and attaining a certification on a Microsoft product?”

A Passion for Learning

With the introduction of Windows Server 2008, Microsoft completed a three-year rollout of a new generation of certifications emphasizing the primary technology skill sets in individual job roles.

Within these job roles and technologies, candidates can acquire the credentials to prove their expertise, and organizations can distinguish the best match for a particular job. In addition to the MCTS series, Microsoft also introduced the Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP), Microsoft Certified Professional Developer (MCPD) and Microsoft Certified Architect (MCA) series.

At Tech•Ed, Microsoft Learning will provide sessions on the new generation of certifications and key technologies within each role, and will distribute 5,000 certification vouchers to help IT pros and developers continue honing their skills, despite the economy.

* Source: IDC, Impact of Training: Functional Excellence Leads to Operational Efficiency, Doc #215762, December 2008

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