Microsoft Ensures Integrity of Its Certification Program

REDMOND, Wash. — Nov. 10, 2011 — Certification, as an industry-recognized validation of skills, is a proven differentiator — whether the individual is a seasoned professional looking to demonstrate his or her value to the organization or someone hoping to break into the industry for the first time. Over the past 19 years, Microsoft has invested heavily in training and certifying individuals on Microsoft technologies so they can differentiate themselves from others.

Don Field, senior director of Certification and Training for Microsoft.

By earning a certification from Microsoft, individuals demonstrate that they possess relevant skills that are in demand from employers. For example, Business Insider recently highlighted a high-tech job board that had over 10,000 job opportunities for candidates with Microsoft developer skills. Earning a certification also provides the opportunity to connect with a global community of over 6 million other Microsoft Certified Professionals (MCPs) and access valuable career-building tools and training to help individuals realize their full potential and obtain meaningful employment that is so important in today’s economic climate.

To find out how the Microsoft Certified Professional Program stays relevant and protects its integrity and rigor, Microsoft News Center (MNC) spoke with Don Field, senior director of Certification and Training for Microsoft.

MNC: Technology is advancing at a record pace these days. In light of the rapidly changing IT landscape, what is Microsoft’s vision for its certification program?

Field: Our goal is to provide a valid and reliable way for people to demonstrate their skills and to help employers see the value of Microsoft Certification as a way to verify those skills among candidates they’re considering for a particular position.

As technology changes, the way we approach validating those skills needs to change as well. For example, as Microsoft continues to move into cloud computing, we need to think about ways to help people demonstrate the capabilities they have that are relevant to cloud-based solutions.

As part of that effort, we’re always striving consciously to assure the integrity and rigor of our certifications. The goal here is to make sure we’re certifying only those people who truly have the requisite skills — as opposed to those who still have a ways to go before they’ve fully acquired them.

MNC: What is the IT and certification industry doing to address certification in light of these rapid changes?

Field: As an example, Microsoft’s product offerings related to the cloud, such as Windows Azure and Office 365, don’t have version numbers. This is a change from traditional on-premises products, where an IT professional works with a particular version of Windows Server, for example. In the past, we’ve certified people based on a particular version of a product, but because that is changing with the delivery of products through the cloud, we’ve looked at other ways to ensure people have the relevant skills as our cloud offerings evolve.

MNC: What is Microsoft hearing from its MCPs?

Field: This past summer, we surveyed MCPs and hiring managers who might consider hiring or promoting MCPs for their take on a number of issues, including recertification. Recertification is one way that others in the certification industry are responding to the rapidly evolving pace of technology.

The response to recertification as a part of the solution was largely positive: 65 percent were positive or very positive about requiring candidates to demonstrate continued competence, and 84 percent were neutral or positive on the idea.

Seventy-five percent of survey participants thought recertification would have a positive or very positive impact on the value of the program. An overwhelming 93 percent answered that recertification would have either no impact or a positive impact on the value of the program.

Respondents also agreed, for the most part, that a two- to three-year interval between exams would be about right for recertification. There is additional information about recertification on our website.

MNC: What is Microsoft doing to maintain the value of its certifications?

Field: Internally, we refer to our approach as the “four Ds” ― how we design our certifications and exams, how we develop them, how we deliver them, and how we defend them.

Microsoft’s approach aims to preserve certification integrity.

With design, we work to make sure our certifications are testing the range of skills most needed in the marketplace. We consider the skills that employers and hiring managers acknowledge as most essential to their employees’ success on the job.

Then, as we develop our exams, we examine the complexities of our own technologies to determine the depth of knowledge and skills needed to manage them, focusing on the real-world use of our technologies in organizations.

In terms of delivery, we know that individuals have been trying to pass our exams without acquiring the requisite skills for as long as we’ve been granting certifications by finding illicit access to our questions. This is something that all certification organizations struggle with. One way to control illicit access to our exam content is by implementing appropriate security measures during delivery. Working closely with Prometric, our exam delivery provider, we’ve established a range of security measures to ensure that neither candidates nor test centers can steal our exam content or cheat in any way. By doing this, employers and candidates know that a certification earned carries solid value in the marketplace.

Perhaps most important, we actively defend our exams. We take security breaches seriously; we do everything we can to bring violators to justice and bring closure to any situation where the integrity of the test design, development or delivery process has been compromised. We look carefully at how we can best secure exam content against the threat of exam piracy during development and delivery, and we research and apply new forensic techniques every day, making it increasingly difficult for examinees who lack the legitimate skills to pass our exams.

Combined, these four elements ensure a comprehensive approach to preserving the value and integrity of Microsoft certifications for employers who are hiring certified candidates, as well as those who hold the certification.

MNC: Microsoft recently won a $13.5 million judgment against a Web enterprise that illegally provided test questions and answers under several “testinside” domain names. What’s the significance of that win?

Field: Throughout the certification industry, there is concern that someone who acquires test questions — or at least claims to have acquired them — can post them on the Internet and attract people looking to gain an edge in taking certification exams. These “brain dumps” are illegal and ultimately cast a negative light on the integrity of certifications.

To date, we have been able to shut down thousands of links to these sites due to our aggressive efforts to combat brain dumps. We’ve also banned candidates from taking our exams who are found to have used such a site to gain an advantage.

The $13.5 million decision against the “testinside” domain names broke new legal ground in terms of the size and scope of judgments against these brain-dump sites. By awarding the maximum statutory damage allowable under the Copyright Act, the court validated the significance of this type of fraud for both Microsoft and the certification industry.

To support the standard established by our legal system, Microsoft plans to reinvest the proceeds we receive from the judgement in continuing to fight exam piracy and copyright infringement. We have one single-minded purpose: To give those who have earnestly achieved a Microsoft certification the assurance that it has value and integrity in the eyes of their employers and peers around the world.

MNC: How else is Microsoft ensuring the integrity of exams to protect the value of the MCP credentials?

Field: Well, it would undermine some of our security procedures if I shared all of them publicly. But I can tell you that we have a world-class, full-time investigative team that actively pursues fraudulent activities. It carefully monitors test-center processes and scours mountains of data to uncover fraudulent exams, altered test transcripts and test sites with bad business practices.

Every falsely earned certification damages the value of Microsoft credentials, causing collateral damage to the millions of MCPs. This is why we take vigorous measures to expose and disqualify those who would come by these certifications dishonestly or help others to do so.

To learn how to attain Microsoft certifications and find out more about the Microsoft certification and training program, visit the Microsoft Learning site. For ongoing updates on Microsoft certification and training, visit the Born To Learn blog.

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