As someone who has taken a number of different certification exams, I can tell you from firsthand experience that there are few things in life that are more frustrating than to work really hard to earn a certification only to have the certification expire. Even so, technology keeps progressing, and old certifications do eventually become obsolete. That being the case, I wanted to take the opportunity to talk about the lifespan of a Microsoft certification and what it takes to keep your certification as new technologies are released.
To be technically precise, Microsoft certifications don’t actually expire. Expiring implies that the certification becomes null and void. When a Microsoft technology becomes outdated, the certification remains on your transcript but is listed as Inactive. Even if your certification does become inactive, you still have access to all of the same benefits that you enjoyed when the certification was current.
Of course, no self-respecting IT professional wants to have a transcript that only contains inactive certifications. It is better to keep your certifications current so that you can prove that you have an up to date skill set. Thankfully, this does not mean that you have to start from scratch every time that technology changes. In fact, Microsoft even provides a way for you to keep your old certifications active.
Before the current crop of certifications was introduced, Microsoft had very different names for their high level certifications. Back in the days of Windows NT, the most coveted certification was the MCSE (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer). Eventually Microsoft replaced the MCSE program with the MCSA (Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator) program.
Both of these certifications required a lot of work. When I earned my MCSE certification, Microsoft required that you pass six exams on a variety of subject matter. I can’t quite remember what was required for the MCSA program, but it also involved passing multiple exams and had a similar degree of difficulty.
I am talking about these legacy certifications because even though Microsoft does not offer them anymore, it is possible to keep an MCSE or an MCSA certification active. In most cases, anyone who holds one of these certifications can keep it active by passing an upgrade exam. One important caveat is that in order to keep a legacy certification current, you must upgrade it every time a new version of Windows Server is released. For example, someone who earned an MCSE certification in the days of Windows NT would not be able to let the certification become inactive and then reactivate it by passing a Windows Server 2008 exam.
When Certifications Go Inactive
While it is nice that Microsoft provides an upgrade path for the MCSE and MCSA certifications, the upgrade path is only beneficial if you can take advantage of it before your certification becomes inactive. So how do you know when your certification is about to become inactive?
Exam and certification lifecycles work a little bit differently than Microsoft’s product lifecycles. Whenever Microsoft releases a new product, they already have policies in place to determine when mainstream support and extended support will end for the product (which can be thought of as the product’s end of life date). Although these policies can sometimes play into Microsoft’s certification lifecycles, the inactive date for a certification cannot be so easily calculated.
Microsoft uses a number of different criteria to determine when a certification will become inactive. The most obvious of these criteria is that a certification becomes inactive when a product is retired. In other words, when a product reaches the end of either mainstream support or extended support, the certifications based around that product become inactive. Presumably, Microsoft bases the decision on whether to base the inactive date around mainstream support or extended support expiration around the product’s popularity. For example, mainstream support for Windows XP expired quite some time ago, but Microsoft still offers Exam 70-270: Installing, Configuring, and Administering Windows XP Professional.
The Microsoft certification lifecycle is not always so closely tied to a product’s lifecycle. A certification can theoretically go inactive even if the associated product is still within the mainstream support period. One way in which this can happen is if Microsoft releases two newer versions of the product. For example, Microsoft offers extended support for Microsoft Office 2003 through the year 2014, so any Office 2003 certifications should theoretically be made inactive according to this rule because Microsoft has released two newer versions of Office (Microsoft Office 2007 and Microsoft Office 2010). However, as of July 29, 2011, Microsoft is still offering several Office 2003 related exams.
Another reason Microsoft certifications can become inactive is that some certifications require periodic recertification. If someone allows a certification to lapse without becoming recertified within the required length of time, the certification may go inactive. This is basically the same concept that was discussed earlier with regard to the MCSE and MCSA certifications.
There may also be some individual exams that require periodic recertification. For example, I took a Networking Fundamentals exam back in 1995. Microsoft still offers a Networking Fundamentals exam, but networking technology has changed so drastically since the mid-90s that I cannot imagine that the certification that I earned more than 15 years ago would still be valid. The Microsoft website does not say anything about recertification requirements for this particular exam, but I would be shocked if there were not some kind of recertification requirement in place. It is worth noting, however, that Microsoft's website specifically states that not all certifications require recertification.
Microsoft lists one more reason why a certification might become inactive, but this last reason is a bit dubious to say the least. Microsoft states that a certification may be deemed inactive if it is determined that the certification is no longer relevant in the marketplace. One can only assume that this means that if Microsoft releases a product that ends up being a flop and prematurely pulls the plug on that product, anyone who has passed a related certification exam will have their certification marked as inactive.
In case you're wondering, I have never seen a real world example of Microsoft making a certification inactive as a result of a product becoming irrelevant in the marketplace. Most non-developer certifications focused around Microsoft server products, desktop and server operating systems, and productivity products such as Microsoft Office. These types of products tend to do very well in the marketplace, and it is rare for such a product to be prematurely discontinued. The same cannot always be said for products targeting small and medium-sized businesses or the consumer market, but there aren’t typically a lot of certification exams linked to such products.
So what happens if your certification does become inactive? Typically, unless you have met the recertification requirements, you are out of luck. The only way to be recognized once again as a Microsoft Certified Professional is to pass some of the current certification exams.
If you previously held a legacy certification and have not since looked at Microsoft's certification offerings, you might be surprised to see just how much the Microsoft certification program has changed. There are five basic types of certifications that an IT professional can earn:
- MTAThe MTA (Microsoft Technology Associate) certification is geared primarily toward students. This certification is designed to prove that a student has mastered the fundamental concepts related to a particular Microsoft product or technology.
- MCTSThe MCTS (Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist) certification program is an entry-level certification that is geared toward IT pros. An MCTS certification often requires passing only a single exam, and generally proves that you are able to deploy, configure, and troubleshoot a particular Microsoft product.
- MCITPThe MCITP (Microsoft Certified IT Professional) certification is an advanced certification which generally requires passing multiple exams in order to demonstrate a comprehensive set of skills around a product such as SQL Server or Exchange Server.
- MCMThe MCM (Microsoft Certified Master) certification is a very high level certification that generally requires acceptance into a rigorous training program in Redmond that can last for several weeks. Microsoft Certified Masters are expected to have product knowledge that far exceeds that of an MCITP.
- MCAThe MCS (Microsoft Certified Architect) certification can only be earned by a Microsoft Certified Master. This certification does not involve passing any exams, but it does require the candidate to appear before a review board and defend an extensive collection of documentation that they have compiled.
As you can see, certifications do not remain relevant for all eternity. If one of the certifications that you have earned is about to become inactive, you can usually save yourself quite a bit of work by upgrading your certification before it becomes inactive (assuming that an upgrade path exists).