Microsoft announced today (Jan 31, 2012) that the Microsoft Certification program is now 20 years old, and that "over 7 million" people now can add MC-Something to their business cards. They are both interesting milestones (after all, the program can almost go into a bar in its home state), and it makes for a good time to look back on the value of the program, and certification in general.
Our industry seems to have a love/hate relationship with certifications. Hirers love certifications as it gives them some measure of the skills of an applicant, and many developers love to throw the various TLAs after their names in email signatures and business cards. However, almost as many employers and developers deride the programs for limiting knowledge to "just what's on the test", or for promoting the rise of brain dump sites. "My code is proof of my skills, I don't need to get certified." I think this bias works across all of the corporate-managed certification programs: I remember the same bias against Novell-certified engineers. Is this criticism valid? Maybe. I've certainly met certified people I wouldn't trust with a keyboard, but I've also met some utterly incredible folk. You take any group of 7million people, and of course there will be a curve of skills, honesty and capabilities. This is less a critique of the value of certification than of people. One could just as easily respond with, "If your skills are that good, certainly passing the exam would be easy." Similarly, there are many other people who might "know what they're doing without a test", but would you really want to visit a doctor who wasn't certified?
For me, it's hasn't quite been 20 years: my first exam was Jan 22, 1994 (VB 3 for those keeping track), and my official MCPosity wasn't until June of that year (initially you only got an MCP for operating system exams). Also, my exam progress has certainly slowed lately (I really need to take another one soon). Still, I can definitely say that getting certified helped both me and my career. It certainly got attention at times from potential customers (and in at least one case, hirers). It's a form of shorthand in that case: not absolute proof, but at least a sign I was willing to go to that level of effort. Even more, however, it helped me in that it proved to me that I did actually know the content fairly well. This is what I view as the most important component of the program: confidence.
As part of their anniversary, Microsoft is having a number of promotions they're calling 20 Years|20 Ways. It looks like an interesting notion where you can help others by taking exams. In the introductory offers, taking one of seven exams gets Microsoft to donate an exam voucher to a student, helping them start the career we enjoy so much. It's definitely worth keeping an eye on the site to see what else they add (three new promotions in March) as the year goes on.
Oh, did I mention that Apptius has courses to help you get certified? Yeah, Deb would probably like it if I mentioned that.