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Considerations for Earning a Microsoft Office 365 Certification

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While it has not always been held in high esteem, Microsoft Office 365 certification is gaining in popularity, and more and more IT professionals are seeing the advantage of earning this cert. In this article, Brien Posey looks at some of the advantages IT professionals gain by earning this certification.

Although initially considered by many IT professionals to be an epic flop, Microsoft Office 365 is starting to gain traction. This is especially true for smaller organizations who have found it more cost effective to operate products such as Exchange, SharePoint, and Lync in the cloud rather than to host the required service on premise.

Because Office 365 has begun to gain rapid popularity, IT professionals might find it advantageous to earn a Microsoft Office 365 certification. However, doing so might not be as simple as it seems. This article will explain why.

Certification Basics

At first glance, Office 365 certification seems relatively simple and straightforward. Unlike some Microsoft certification paths, there are only two certifications available for Office 365. The lower end certification is a Technology Specialist level certification called Administering Office 365. Candidates can earn this certification by passing a single exam – 70-323: Administering Office 365.

Those seeking a higher level certification have the option of taking Exam 70-321: Deploying Office 365. This exam counts as credit toward the Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP): Office 365 Administrator certification. In order to earn this certification, IT pros must also pass the aforementioned Exam 70-323.

Certification Challenges

Earning a Microsoft Office 365 certification can be deceptively simple. After all, you only have to pass one exam per certification. However, it is easy to underestimate the difficulty of these exams.

Part of the difficulty is based entirely on the exam's subject matter. But there are also a couple of other factors that contribute to the exam's overall difficulty.

One such factor is the lack of study resources. Microsoft is not presently offering any classroom training, Microsoft Press books, or e-learning courses for Office 365. And at the moment, there do not appear to be any reputable third-party study guides available either. The good news, however, is that there are starting to be some non-exam oriented Office 365 books available. Even just a few months ago, those who were interested in learning Office 365 were more or less limited to using Microsoft's online deployment documentation.

The other thing that makes passing a Microsoft Office 365 exam difficult is the fact that Office 365 is steadily evolving. Since its introduction, Microsoft has made a number of different changes to the administrative console. Furthermore, the next editions of Exchange, SharePoint, and Lync are expected in 2013. Given Microsoft's history, it seems likely that these new versions will be included with Office 365 before they are made generally available for on-premise deployments.

The evolution of Microsoft Office 365 is an important issue because over the last year or so, Microsoft has gotten into the habit of updating exams as the products evolve. For example, if a new service pack for a product such as Exchange Server or Windows Server introduces new functionality then Microsoft may update the certification exam in a way that introduces new questions that are specific to the service pack. This trend can be problematic for those studying for an exam because it means that study materials can quickly become outdated.

So what about the actual exam content? I mentioned earlier that the exams themselves were easy to underestimate. Microsoft assumes that anyone who is taking one of the Office 365 exams has already mastered the various Office 365 products (Exchange, SharePoint, and Lync). This assumption plays directly into the exam objectives.

In the case of Exam 70-323: Administering Office 365, there are only three exam objectives. The first objective, Administer Microsoft Office 365, should prove to be relatively easy to most of the people that are taking the exam. This objective tests your ability to do things such as creating users, managing roles, and configure remote connectivity.

It is the next objectives that prove much more difficult. The second objective is Administer SharePoint Online. In order to meet this objective, those taking the exam must know how to manage SharePoint objects such as sites, metadata, site collections, and user profiles.

The third objective is Administer Exchange and Lync online. This objective requires you to manage Exchange mailboxes, contacts, and groups and to know how to manage a hybrid Exchange deployment. The exam also expects administrators to be familiar with Exchange Server’s various security and compliance features, and to know how to configure Lync features such as instant messaging, audio and video conferencing, and file transfer settings.

I will be the first to admit that this particular exam does not require expert level knowledge of the three Office 365 products. However, those taking the exam are expected to have a solid working knowledge of the basics of these products.

Exam 70-321 is the higher-level Microsoft certification exam for Office 365, and Exam 70-323 is actually a prerequisite to taking the exam. This exam focuses very heavily on migration and coexistence with on premise deployments. From an Office 365 standpoint, those taking the exam are expected to know how to implement Active Directory Federation and single sign-on capabilities while also maintaining solid security that complies with Microsoft's established best practices. Licensing is also a big topic on this exam.

This exam place is very heavy emphasis on the individual Office 365 products. Microsoft expects you to know how to migrate from an on premise deployment to the Office 365 environment, but the exam delves even more heavily into coexistence. For example, the Exchange Server portion of the exam requires you to know how to move a user's mailbox to the Office 365 environment, but there is a much greater emphasis on things like planning mail flow, message hygiene, security, and compliance.

Conclusion

My advice for anyone who is seeking a Microsoft Office 365 certification is to start out by taking some of the entry-level certification exams for Exchange, SharePoint, and Lync. Having a solid foundation in these areas is essential to passing the Microsoft Office 365 certification exams. I also recommend that you spend some time working with the Office 365 administrative interface, and learn that interface inside and out. Finally, until dedicated exam study guides become available, is a good idea to procure some of the Microsoft Office 365 books that are available.

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