Microsoft's highest-level certification now in beta

* Microsoft Certified Architect Program

Microsoft has formally announced the coming of its Microsoft Certified Architect Program (MCAP). Rumors have swirled about this program for a while, and IT-oriented blogs have buzzed since early April when Al Valvano, lead product manager with Microsoft Learning, unveiled the program at the TechMentor conference in Orlando. Now in beta, this certification program is expected to be fully open to candidates in early 2006.

The MCAP is intended to be the pinnacle of the IT profession, at least in Microsoft's world. It is a certification aimed at high level IT professionals with very significant and broad-based experience in architecting complex IT solutions that involve both Microsoft and non-Microsoft products. Using business metrics and measurements to assess the value of the IT projects he drives is an important component of an MCAP professional's abilities. 

The fact that this certification stresses knowledge of and experience with non-Microsoft products is one aspect that makes this Microsoft credential unique.  According to a report published by Microsoft Certified Professional Magazine, "only about a quarter of the emphasis of a candidate's knowledge will be on Microsoft-related architecture technologies; the rest will relate to general architecture principles and best practices that aren't Microsoft specific. A candidate for the MCAP will have to have a broad-based knowledge that extends well beyond the narrow bounds of Windows."

The path to achieve the credential also is quite different from other Microsoft certifications. That is, the candidate can't simply take an exam or two and expect to be accredited. There is a significant investment in time and money to achieve this certification. Microsoft's Valvano compared the certification to a Ph.D. program, whereby the candidate, working under the tutelage of a mentor, would complete the program in 6 to 12 months. What's more, the candidate would appear before a peer review board with the power to grant or deny the credential. 

The program has the support of some IT industry heavyweights, including Tony Redmond, vice president and CTO for HP Services. Calling a certificant "one of the elite" members of the IT industry, Redmond says that working with an MCAP ensures customers that they "truly are working with one of the best."

Of course, the credential has its share of skepticism from people who view Microsoft's other credentials as too easy to achieve. However, it's hard to ignore that a candidate won't even be considered for the program unless he has a minimum of 10 years of verifiable experience as a practicing IT architect. It's not as simple as taking an exam and earning a "paper credential." 

Predictably, plenty of IT types are already criticizing the program - despite the fact that it's not even generally available yet - as just another bit of Microsoft propaganda.  Blogs and feedback on this topic are rampant with nay-saying and complaints from people who sneer at Microsoft's power to determine who is and who isn't a professional IT architect. ("So now I'm not even an Architect until Microsoft says I am? Give me a break!")

The real question is, who will value this certification? Employers will. Like checking whether you hold a college degree, an employer now has one more measurement to evaluate your stated qualifications before you are hired.  Holding the credential doesn't necessarily guarantee you are the best candidate for a job, but it does say that your peers think you have some very valuable skills and knowledge, and there's something to be said for the endorsement of peers.

Customers also will value the certification when it comes time to hire a consultant, integrator or value-added reseller - for the same reasons mentioned above. If there are two consultants bidding for a job, and they are both essentially unknown entities, a high level certification such as the MCAP will be quite a distinguishing factor among the bidders.

If you think you might like to enter the Microsoft Certified Architect Program, it's time to start laying out your qualifications now. You can't even get into the program without acceptance by the Microsoft Certified Architect Board and without meeting the "rigid program guidelines."  Learn more about becoming an MCAP at http://www.microsoft.com/learning/mcp/architect/.

Linda Musthaler is vice president of Currid & Company.  You can write to her at mailto:Linda.Musthaler@currid.com 

Learn more about this topic

Microsoft Certified Architect Program

Microsoft's online Architecture Journal (free subscription)

Microsoft Previews Board-Level Certification at TechMentor

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