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Thoughts on SQL Server Certification

This is probably part 1 of a series, but no guarantees.

Why Certify?

I've been working with SQL Server for 10 years and for most of that time I've thought certification was unnecessary.  When I first started out my boss was not a fan of MS certifications, so I wasn't interested either.  Once I had some experience, I thought that my experience was enough.  So what changed my mind?  I moved and got to know people who, in my opinion, know a lot more about SQL Server than I do, so I was challenged to "up my game" and one way to do that is through certification.  The certification requires that I study about areas of SQL Server that I have not had the opportunity to work with or needed to know about, areas like clustering, log-shipping, online restores, to name just a few. 

Another reason is that I enjoy presenting (teaching) and I think I'd like to continue to do that and maybe make some money doing it.  So, I decided that one way to do that is to become and MCT (Microsoft Certified Trainer) and in order to do that you need to be an MCITP.

Finally, after having already decided to go down the certification path, I read this article in ComputerWorld, Opinion: Certifications are no longer Optional.  I don't know how accurate that might be, but I also think that certifications can't hurt me.

So What Have I Done?

I recently took (and passed) 70-432: TS: Microsoft SQL Server 2008 Implementation and Maintenance

Preparation

I prepared for the test by going through Buck Woody's (@BuckWoody) blog series on his preparation for this test.  I also purchased the MCTS Self-Pace Training Kit (Exam 70-432): Microsoft SQL Server 2008-Implementation and Maintenance.  I purchased the book because it comes with practice test software which I thought would be valuable. The training kit was helpful, but a little shallow, I really expected it to be delve deeper into the subjects.  The case study presented at the end of each chapter was the most helpful part of the book as it really caused me to think about what I thought was the best way to solve the problem(s) presented.  I actually had a harder time doing the practice test(s) than I did with the real test.  I don't think I passed the real test because of this book, but it did help augment my experience and the other resources.

The Test

Having never taken a certification test before and this being about 15 years after the last test I took that actually meant anything, I was a bit concerned about being able to pass.  This concern was based on the fact that I had NOT passed a practice test.  I'll share that I have always been a good test taker, especially when the test is multiple choice, which the certification test is.  I got to the test center about 30 minutes before the test was scheduled (as recommended) and was registered and at the test station about 20 minutes later.  Now, the recommendation is to allow 2 hours and 45 minutes for the test so I expected a long test.  Well, I was leaving the test center 40 minutes after I sat down at the test station.  During that time I did the practice test, as it was my first time, did the pre-test MS survey, took the test, reviewed every question on the test, took the post-test MS survey, and the post-test Prometric survey.   You can decide how hard the test was.

Test Value

The test definitely covered all the areas it said it would cover, but I thought it should have been twice as long as there was not enough depth to the questions.  I am pretty sure I could have passed without studying.  I definitely could have passed without studying as much as I did.  Would I expect someone who passed this test to be able to sit down and set up a cluster or replication?  No.  I would expect to be able to give them a scenario and have them give me an basic solution that would be meet business requirements around availability and recovery.  So it has some value, but could be better.

What's Next?

I've scheduled 70-450: PRO: Designing, Optimizing and Maintaining a Database Server Infrastructure using Microsoft SQL Server 2008.  I'll have another post about this test when I get there.

Comments

Posted by Glenn Berry on 15 March 2010

I have long been a believer in certifications. Being certified is no substitute for experience, but taking the effort to get certified shows initiative. I have found that having certifications on my resume helped me get interviews in the past. Congratulations on the TS cert, now just keep going and get the MCITP.

Posted by Jason Brimhall on 15 March 2010

Congrats Jack.  Nice review of your experience.

Posted by david_wendelken on 15 March 2010

Certifications are useful as a way of forcing yourself to stretch your skills, as you so aptly explained.

They are also useful as a way to move your resume to the top of the list of people to call in for an interview - assuming they actually want a knowledgeable go-getter.  It will get your resume round-filed if they don't, which is probabably a good thing, 'cause you don't really want to work with people like that!

A different, less expensive way to make your resume stand out is to write articles for publication (print or web) and to present at user groups.  

Both ways demonstrate a professional interest in mastering your craft and a degree of knowledge above the norm, which is what you want to accomplish with your resume.

Posted by Jack Corbett on 15 March 2010

Glenn,

Already have the test on scheduled.  Now I just need to pass it.

Jason, Thanks.  Definitely different than I thought it would be.

David,

Since I'm not looking this is definitely about professional and personal growth.  I've done the writing and speaking so the certs are the only thing left.  Need to get it in gear and get a few more articles out.

Posted by Tim Mitchell on 15 March 2010

Jack, I agree that certifications are not mandatory.  I think there's still an allure to lots of certifications (though it's mostly sentimental) due to the tech boom of the mid-90s when a certification was practically all that was required to secure a technical job.

That being said, I think certifications still have their purpose.  Preparing for a cert exam forces one to study a broad course of material, some of which may not be part of their expertise.  IMHO, proper preparation for the exam, not the cert itself, is the more valuable component of becoming certified.

Posted by Dukagjin Maloku on 16 March 2010

From professional side I agree that you don't need Certifications but in nowadays all job positions looking for the candidates that are certified at least with MCTS cert.

Posted by Dukagjin Maloku on 16 March 2010

Anyway congrats for your MS cert and good luck for MCITP. - Sorry for double post but I forgot to write

Posted by Jack Corbett on 16 March 2010

Tim,

You've made the point I was trying to make much more succinctly and clearly.

Dukagjin,

I think it's a bit frustrating that certifications are expected, as they don't really prove anything about ability.  In addition, employers want you to have them, but many refuse to pay for them or the training needed to get them.

Posted by Dukagjin Maloku on 16 March 2010

...but many refuse to pay for them or the training needed to get them - it is very TRUE!

Posted by dbowlin on 16 March 2010

I have had a similar relationship to certifications as you.  After having looked for and landed a new job over the last year it became apparent that certs are helpful in the job market.  Additionally I now believe that they can be a valuable part of your education.  Studying for a cert exam forces you to study wider, and deeper than your experience may have required.  I know the study and prep process improved my overall skill set.  Now I would recommend chasing a cert just to sharpen your skills, to say nothing of the benefits in a tenuous job market

Posted by Vinicio Aizpurua on 17 March 2010

I am in the same spot as you were right now. I think it is worth swifting from 70-431 to 70-432 instead. I bought the 70-431 book but having the latest certification worth being updated. What do you think?

Posted by Jack Corbett on 17 March 2010

VInizio,

I currently work almost exclusively with 2005, but with 2008 R@ coming out and a new version by 2012 I wanted the easiest upgrade path.  I think the preparation for the 2005 cert, will probably get you through the 2008 cert, if you do some reading on the newer features like PBM and resource governor.

Posted by GavinC on 19 March 2010

The thing is, we all work with different "bits" of SQL Server. The certification materials do have the effect of bringing to your attention stuff that the other "bits" can do.

In addition, I've always thought that any book is worth reading if you learn one new thing that can be applied in your work - and I reckon the certification books fall into this category.

Posted by jumpin on 19 March 2010

Jack, Thanks so much for this post.

I'm going through the same decisions right now and was thinking of taking either the 70-431 or 70-432. I'm more experienced on SS2k5 than SS2k8. Would you say that the difference between the 2 exams is minimal enough that it'd be worth doing the 70-432 instead of the 70-431?

hope this makes sense...

Posted by dave on 19 March 2010

I have to say from my experience, that what I got from certifications, is a much broader understanding of SQL Server and what you can do with it.  

Echoing, Jack comments, sometimes the training kits are a little too basic - especially if you don't have any previous experience and it's all new.

Posted by SAM on 19 March 2010

I am an MCDBA, but MS pissed me off when they changed the certification tracks.  Specifically, they started to divide the competencies into very specific areas like design and architecture vs development vs maintenance.  I do ALL of that crap and I am convinced that most DBAs do too (or at least need to know it).  Run backups and write stored procs?  Yup.  Create FKs, indexes, databases AND SSRS, SSIS and even SSAS? Yup.  I have yet to meet a database pro who ONLY does db design for a living.  I may be way off (I think it would be a great poll question actually), but from my POV, Microsoft gave up on the "common" DBA with their certifications; they think that everyone works for GE or a large software dev shop from what I can see.  

Posted by dean gross on 19 March 2010

I agree with Sam. It would make more sense to me for there to a base level certification that covered each of the main objects that are accessed through SSMS and then have advanced certifications for BI(SSRS, SSIS, and SSAS), Dev (client apps, Visual Studio, etc) and advanced system admin (things that you only do when you multiple servers)

Posted by Jack Corbett on 19 March 2010

jumpin,

I didn't take the 2005 tests so I really can't compare them with the 2008 tests.  As I said in other places, I have 2005 in production not 2008 and I passed fine.  Know the new features and their uses and you should be able to transition to the 2008 exams, in my opinion.

Posted by Jack Corbett on 19 March 2010

Gavin,

I agree.  I took the tests to make myself learn features I don't use.

Posted by Jack Corbett on 19 March 2010

Sam & Dean,

I disagree with you about the change in certification tracks.  I agree that most of us do a little of everything, but SQL Server has gotten too big for any one person to really know it all.  When I first started out I did SQL Server and .NET, as I've gotten more experienced with SQL Server, I've realized how much I don't know about the product and how many things I could have done better or should have been doing.

Also, if I remember correctly, there were like 6 tests you had to take to get the MCDBA certification and now there are 6 SQL Server tests, just spread over 3 concentrations.  If you do it all, take all 6 tests.

Posted by Tim Overlund on 19 March 2010

Jack,

I got my MCDBA back in 2001 on top of a paper MCSE after taking one of the 6 week boot camps in 1999.  There were really only 2 core SQL Server exams back then.  The other 4 exams were related to being a network/system admin. There was an optional SQL Server 7.0 Data Warehousing exam, but it wasn't required for the MCDBA.

I actually like the new certification tracks.  I do virtually no system admin work and haven't kept up with all of the details of the latest OS's.  I am primarily a developer, so I need to keep up somewhat on the .NET side, but my focus is database development, so the MCITP-Database Developer and MCITP-BI Developer are a very good match for what I actually do.  I have the MCITP-Database Administrator cert as well, since our actual DBAs seem to have little interest in learning the latest version unless forced to.

I will the MCITP exams were more difficult frankly, since I think it is too easy to pass the exams just by going through some books with no real world experience.  A great certification should reward real world experience more than just the ability to cram for an exam.

Posted by Todd Hile-Hoffer on 19 March 2010

I think certs are nothing more than an additional revenue source for MS. Currently I'm doing a lot more .net development than SQL Server work, basically because I found SQL Server specific jobs got boring once everything is set up. In general people with a lot of certifications are simply good at passing tests, but not nearly as good at real world problem solving. I feel any competent DBA should not have to study for test to learn about log shipping or clustering. If the need arises to use something you are unfamiliar with then you go to the MSDN (or SQLServerCentral.com) download the white papers on how to set it up and practice in a non production environment. Real world experience is much more useful than certifications. I have better things to do with my time and money than to take MS Certification tests. Not worth the time or money to me.

Posted by Jack Corbett on 19 March 2010

Tim,

Thanks for the clarification on the MCDBA certs.  I knew there was some Windows requirements for MCDBA.

Todd,

You are right in some ways, but in my situation I've never worked where log-shipping or clustering was needed, so I never needed to know that information.  I've always worked on the principal that I learn something when I need it.  Taking the exams forced me to study up on the new features and features I have not had to use.

Posted by TravisDBA on 19 March 2010

I tend to agree with Todd on this one. I have met people in the past that were MS-SQL Server certified and did not know how to setup permissions on a particular login! Tests are too easy to braindump. I will take real world experience over certification any day of the week! :)

Posted by Question Guy on 19 March 2010

I'd have to agree that some sort of certs are often required now, even at a non-profit.

For people who say certs are not worth the time and money, just keep in mind that your resume will go in the pile that won't get looked at again, regardless of your experience, since there will be someone with equal experience.

I've also noticed that since people understand IT is an important part of business, an MBA or MS is also often times required or preferrred.  So once again, you can figure out what pile your resume will go into.

Now, if you know someone, that is a different story, as we all probably know people who got jobs they shouldn't have. But for the rest of us, there are certifications. My wife and I wouldn't have gotten our jobs without them.

Posted by rockywb on 19 March 2010

Congratulations!!!

Posted by Rick Cornell on 19 March 2010

Nice review, I have almost all MS Certs and looks impressive on any resume!

Posted by kcarlin on 19 March 2010

Thanks for the review, it gave some good insight.

I've been getting ready to get some certifications myself specifically to learn more, but the added bonus of some new employer considering me more is worth it, in my opinion.

Congratulations on passing.

Posted by Mike Lile on 19 March 2010

Having worked numerous places over the years (since before SQL 6.0) and dealing with varied hiring practices (including doing the hiring myself) I have mixed opinions of the necessity of certification.  I've met a lot of really bright and capable people with nothing but OJT and also a number of people with a list of certifications a mile long that had no idea how to effectively perform their duties.  The latter group definitely colored my opinion about certification.

That said, it seems to me that a mix of real-world experience and a few pertinent certifications would be the ideal.  It demonstrates that you know what to do and that you have actually done it before you even get to the interview stage.

Perhaps the best answer is that certifications aren't absolutely necessary but if you can make the resource investment to get one or more you are going to be better for it.

Oh, and congratulations to you, Jack.  With luck I will be taking (and hopefully passing) this very exam in the not too distant future and reading about your experience has been quite helpful.

Posted by reinis on 19 March 2010

I was out of work recently and took the SQL 2008 DB Dev test - planning to do the BIDS and DBA eventually as well.

I too found the real test easier than the practise tests - taking the real test was my last option because i had run out of practise questions and didn't seem to be doing any better.  I just figured I'd try it and see.  It seemed a lot easier so ppl don't get too discouraged if you are struggling with the practise.

I for one definately would think that certs and experience make for the best DB ppl.  But I had no way of getting the experience without a job, and a cert definately helped to get that.  now I'm working on getting the experience to support my cert.

Posted by Jack Corbett on 19 March 2010

Thanks to everyone who gave their congratulations.  

I have to say that I'd hate to be in Microsoft's position in this, because if the tests are too hard, no one will take them, but if they are too easy they lose value so no one will take them.

As I said in the post, certs + experience are great while certs without experience don't mean much.

Posted by malleswarareddy_m on 19 March 2010

Hi jack i have 2.6 years in SQL Server database.what certifications fit for.Currently monitoring Production servers.I want MCDBA certification can you give what books can i refer for.

Posted by Simon Doubt on 22 March 2010

" certs without experience don't mean much "

This is true - but I used certification (the same one as you but for 2K5: 70-431) as a way to get my foot in the door as a DB professional. Before I was certified, I had plenty of experience using database server software (all kinds and levels), but the cert cemented my status as a 'professional', at least in the eyes of employers.

Posted by Matt Cherwin on 22 March 2010

I'm of the opinion that having a cert doesn't necessarily mean much, but *not* having a cert does. That is, if I were involved in the process of hiring another DBA, I would question any resume that didn't feature at least one MS SQL certification. Not because that cert will guarantee that the candidate is particularly skilled in SQL Server, but because I would expect any candidate who was skilled - and, more importantly, who *cared* about SQL Server and his or her mastery of it - to have acquired a certification.

Now, I know I'm liable to get blasted by some of the (many!) people who have spent a more than a decade working with SQL Server, are excellent DBAs, and haven't bothered acquiring any certs. And that is a problem with using certifications as a criterion, to be sure. But when you're faced with a bald resume, certifications are one of the few things you can verify fairly easily (assuming the candidate puts a transcript link in the resume - which everyone should).

All that said, I've long been of the opinion that MS needs to introduce a new series of "practicum" certs. Something along the lines of being handed a VM with a SQL Server and a set of known problems, and being told to find and fix them. You're given 3 hours, all the SQL tools, BOL, and a whitelist of online resources.

I think that would make a cert which would be actually meaningful, since it would test exactly what we want a DBA to be able to do. Of course, it would also be harder to grade and more expensive to develop, so I don't expect it any time soon.

Posted by Jack Corbett on 22 March 2010

malleswarareddy_m,

The MCDBA certification has been replaced with 3 different tracks.  

MCITP: DBA

MCITP: Database Developer

MCITP: Business Intelligence

Any of the Inside SQL Server books are good.  Grant Fritchey's perfomance tuning book is good.  There are others, but I've read those.  Check out Tom LaRock's (www.sqlrockstar.com) bookshelf.

Posted by Jack Corbett on 22 March 2010

Simon,

Like I said, having the certs doesn't hurt, but I'd not expect senior level capabilities out of someone with just the certs.  I'm glad that they helped you out in getting job.

Posted by Jack Corbett on 22 March 2010

Matt,

I agree to a point.  If I see a resume and binoogle the person and I see them blogging or if on the resume I see community involvement like User Groups, SQLSaturday's, PASS Summit on there then I don't care much about the certification.

I definitely agree about the idea of practical tests.  I mention that in my next post in the series.  Out this morning, wiseman-wiseguy.blogspot.com/.../more-thoughts-on-certification.html.

Posted by Matt Cherwin on 22 March 2010

Jack,

Absolutely. I didn't mean to imply that not listing a cert would be an automatic disqualification, but it would be a significant factor. If the rest of the resume was strong enough to warrant binoogling (which word just instantly became a personal favorite, by the way), then the person's participation in the SQL Server community would weigh far more heavily in his or her favor than the lack of a cert would against.

The risk - from the candidate's point of view - is that performing such a search is time-consuming, and therefore something reserved only for resumes which made it past the first cull.

Of course, I say this as someone who *still* hasn't gotten around to updating his 2005 certs to 2008 - there's definitely a bit of "phyisician, heal thyself" here.

Anyway, congratulations on your certification, and thanks for the post!

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