The Top 5 Microsoft Certifications

Serious IT professional about to get MS certs

Since the Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) and Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) first burst onto the IT scene in 1992, the Microsoft certification program has undergone several major reconfigurations and unleashed a torrent of credentials. With more than 100 exams currently on the table (plus dozens more if you include Microsoft Office Specialist, the MTA Fundamentals, and Microsoft Dynamics) choosing a spot to dive in can be an intimidating prospect. To help you navigate this sea of plenty, we've mapped out the latest in Microsoft certification trends so you can zero in on the ones that are hottest right now.


But first, in case all the twisting and turning the Microsoft Certification program has undergone has left you drowning in a bowl of alphabet soup, here's a quick refresher on the structure of the current incarnation of Microsoft's certification offerings.


Microsoft Technology Associate (MTA) — This kiddie pool of IT Fundamentals exams offers a low-risk way for students and the timid to test certification waters. These are not of major interest to working IT pros and won't even qualify you as a Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP).


Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS) — An auxiliary pool of certifications that are most worthwhile for entry-level business employees. These certify various levels of wizardry with Microsoft Office and Microsoft SharePoint applications. These are more for office staff than IT staff and also do not get you into club MCP.


Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) — This is the diving board. Pass pretty much any Microsoft certification exam other than MOS or MTA, and you can call yourself an MCP. E-mails with training links, product news, and certification offers will begin arriving in your inbox. This also opens the door to participation in the online MCP community and encouragement to venture farther.


Microsoft Specialist — This is the shallow end of the certification pool, offering meaningful credentials that require less investment than Microsoft's flagship credentials. As the name implies, Specialist exams focus on a particular Microsoft technology or product, for example programming in C# or developing for Azure. These credentials typically require a single, professional-level exam, some of which can also count toward higher-level designations.


Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate (MCSA) — This level of Microsoft's certification program includes seven product-specific designations that certify core skills in a specific Microsoft product area, such as Windows, Windows Server, SQL Server. MCSA certifications require passing two or three exams, depending on the track. The MCSA also serves as the gateway certification to the more advanced and more desirable MCSE, and is often sought-after by network administrators and support specialists.


Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE) — The MCSE, which can only be earned after securing the MCSA, is the most widely recognized Microsoft certification. It ranks high on many IT certification lists. Reponses to the Certification Magazine 2014 Annual Salary Survey placed it at No. 12 in The Salary Survey 75, a ranking based on correlation of respondents' salaries with the certifications they hold. It also captured the No. 6 spot on the "Which certification are you planning to earn next?" list. Systems engineers and advanced networking professionals find this a valuable credential.


Microsoft Certified Solutions Developer (MCSD) — If you're an application developer employing Microsoft technologies such as .NET, C#, or SharePoint, this is the Microsoft credential for you. There are five tracks, ranging from MCSD: Windows Store Apps to MCSD: Azure Solutions Architect. Each requires passing 3 exams, except MCSE: SharePoint Applications which requires four.


To recap, you've got options — lots and lots of them! Which ones rise above the crowd? Here are our top picks:


MCSE: Private Cloud

Pretty girl caught hanging out in the computer lab

Cloud computing continues to roll out over IT service delivery like a digital tsunami, bringing with it an insatiable demand for computer professionals who can implement and manage its flow. In Microsoft-land, this means Microsoft System Center 2012 on top of Windows Server 2012 with a side of Azure. MCSE: Private Cloud focuses on the first two.


To earn it you'll have to pass five exams; the first three will earn you MCSA: Windows Server 2012 certification, which is certainly nice to have, but the final two exams are what make this a coveted cloud credential: Monitoring and Operating a Private Cloud with System Center 2012, and Configuring and Deploying a Private Cloud with System Center 2012. With this credential in hand, you'll be prepped to help corporations make the move upstairs.


MCSE: Data Platform

SQL Server has been one of Microsoft's most popular products ever. It's been one of the big boys in DBMS, right alongside Oracle and IBM, for many years, and Microsoft continues to update and improve each version, so it's not going anywhere but up. MCSE: Data Platform is one of Microsoft's top SQL-Server focused credentials (the other is MCSE: Business Intelligence). It covers both on-premises and cloud-based environments. At the MCSE level, you'll be expected to know how to design, build, and implement databases in addition to administering and interacting with them.


MCSA: SQL Server

A step down from the MCSE, but a worthwhile waypoint, or even endpoint, this certification is well-suited for developers and admins who work with Microsoft SQL Server 2012. Although the "SA" now stands for Solutions Associate instead of Systems Administrator, you'll still find it specifically requested in network administrator job openings as well as technical support positions. It's also a require pre-requisite for MCSE: Data Platform and MCSE: Business Intelligence.


Microsoft Specialist: Azure

This is one of those cases where less = more, as in fewer certifications exams translates into a bigger boost in pay. According to David Foote, Chief Analyst and Research Officer of IT analyst firm Foote Partners, which publishes quarterly reports tracking pay premiums for specific IT skills, this is currently the top-paying certification in Microsoft's portfolio. More specifically, employers are willing to add a greater pay premium for this designation than for any other Microsoft cert. There are actually three versions of this certification (Developing, Implementing, and Architecting Azure Solutions), so you can pick the one that best suits your job role.


MCSD: Application Lifecycle Management

This certification for application developers working with the Microsoft stack hits on three topics near and dear to enterprise-sized employers: Visual Studio Team Foundation Server, software testing, and of course, application lifecycle management. It's an excellent way to demonstrate team development environment cred to a big corporate employer, where these skills are vital. The certification consists of three exams (one for each topic). There are four other MCSD tracks, including a new one for Azure solutions architecture, but this one seems to be doing particularly well with employers right now. The MCSD appeared in this year's Certification Magazine Salary Survey 75 list (No. 68) and came in at No. 39 on the "Which cert I'm going to pursue next" list in the same issue.



Although the above certifications are currently enjoying broad appeal, don't rule out one that's not on the list but more tightly matches your career goals. Ultimately, the best certification is the one that maps most neatly into your career plans.


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About the Author

Anne Martinez is a certification industry veteran and the founder of She has been observing the industry and writing about IT certification since 1998.