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Best Microsoft certification 2021: Top technical exams

ZDNet has compiled a collection of the best Microsoft certifications that will protect your job and boost your income as we head toward 2022 in a business world that is speeding towards digital transformation.

Getting a grip on technologies from tech giants is one of the best ways to stay ahead of the curve, redefine your career, and help make you a star employee. Microsoft certifications are one way to achieve this and it can be rewarding for you and your employer. 

Microsoft remains at the forefront of the IT industry and its technologies, from the cloud, to identity and authentication, cybersecurity, ERP, and CRM. Windows 10 desktops and servers will remain widely deployed for the foreseeable future. 

It's boom times for Microsoft's Azure and Microsoft 365 cloud businesses thanks to accelerating digital transformation projects amid the COVID-19 pandemic. And that means there's work to be done, which in the enterprise often involves some mix of Microsoft technologies across Dynamics ERP/CRM, Azure AI, and IoT.  

Cybersecurity is also a major worry for the world's top CEOs and will likely see increased investment in coming years using Microsoft's Defender-branded technologies. The massive SolarWinds supply chain hack was a game changer for US tech firms and government agencies. Add to that attacks on Microsoft Exchange Server vulnerabilities and ongoing attacks popular enterprise VPNs -- a key remote work tool.

Tech has lunged towards machine learning and artificial intelligence and that means programmers who know the programming languages C#, C++, Java, and Python -- as well as frameworks like .NET -- are in good stead. 

Microsoft is at the forefront of machine learning. It even hired Python creator Guido van Rossum to fix up performance issues with the most popular programming language for data science and machine learning. It's also got a big stake in front-end web development with TypeScript and is a major backer of Rust, an emerging language preferred for systems programming.          

The company has plenty of certifications to offer IT professionals, engineers, admins, and developers seeking to further their careers. Importantly, completing its courses gives participants a Microsoft certificate which they can show to current and future employers. 

Here are five standout certifications that should help sharpen your knowledge in organizations that rely on Microsoft's Azure cloud and the tools it makes available to transform business.       

Microsoft Certified: Azure AI Fundamentals

A path to a career in data science or AI/ML

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Data science is one of the hottest areas of tech to be working in right now, and there are plenty of machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) workloads running on Microsoft's Azure cloud.  

Microsoft's Azure AI Fundamentals certification is one way to get a step up in the field and have a Microsoft certificate to show for it, as well as a way to become familiar with how to implement AI and ML workloads on Azure. 

It is a "fundamentals" certification aimed at people who have technical and non-technical backgrounds but who have some experience in programming. However, data science and software engineering experience isn't a prerequisite.

The certification demands participants can comprehend AI workloads, such as predicting them, spotting features of anomaly detection, and identifying workloads in key areas of AI, including computer vision, natural language processing (NLP), and conversational AI. 

Participants will also need to familiarize themselves with web chat bots, as well as key NLP workloads such as key phrase extraction, sentiment analysis, speech recognition, and translation. 

Participants will also need to be able to explain key concepts of Microsoft's principles for "responsible AI," which include fairness, reliability and safety, privacy and security, inclusiveness, transparency, and accountability. 

The Fundamentals certification combines instructor-led training with online materials on the Microsoft Learn platform. There's a free online preparation course, and an instructor-led one. 

The modules are broken down into short, bite-sized chapters that use text and video to explain concepts, such as 'What is machine learning?'

The certificate exam -- Exam AI-900: Microsoft Azure AI Fundamentals -- costs $99 in the US, but pricing varies depending on the country where the exam is proctored. 

Pros:

  • Covers the three core areas of ML and AI workloads 
  • Free online version to prepare for exam and a paid-for option with an instructor 
  • AI and ML is in demand, and Azure is an important platform for these workloads 

Cons:

  • It is focused primarily on Azure technologies  
  • You do need a Microsoft Azure subscription  

Microsoft 365 Certified: Teams Support Engineer Associate

Become a Teams admin master

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There are dozens of certifications geared toward the Microsoft 365 portfolio, but one that stands out right now is the certificate called "Microsoft 365 Certified: Teams Support Engineer Associate."

Teams has become a vital tool for hosting video meetings for remote workers during the pandemic and will remain so as hybrid work arrangements emerge for organizations with thousands of employees -- some of whom will be working remotely while others toil away in the office.  

This Microsoft Certificated Associate exam is aimed for support engineers and admins who make the wheels turn for large Microsoft Teams environments. 

Participants in the exam need to have had significant exposure to the field of unified communications and on-the-ground experience with Teams. Other important prerequisites include Azure networking knowledge and experience with telephony, PowerShell, data storage, app security, authentication and authorization, security, compliance, debugging, and performance tuning and monitoring.    

To complete this exam, candidates need to have completed the Exam MS-740: Troubleshooting Microsoft Teams (beta)

The exam will be available starting July 8, 2021.

Pros

  • Microsoft Teams is in high demand as the world still navigates the pandemic
  • The course will help IT pros improve Teams for their users
  • Teams will remain a critical tool into the foreseeable future 

Cons

  •  The exam and learning path isn't available until July
  •  Participants need to complete a course that that is still in beta

Microsoft Certified: Security Operations Analyst Associate

The art and tools of self defense

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Major supply chain hacks like that of SolarWinds and ongoing state-sponsored cyberattacks have put a new sense of urgency on bolstering security operations for many organizations.

Enterprise Microsoft IT shops are most likely using tools like Microsoft's cloud-based SIEM product Azure Sentinel, Azure Defender, and Microsoft 365 Defender. 

The Microsoft Certified: Security Operations Analyst Associate could help make defenders invaluable when a cyberattack is playing out, and afterwards, too, during incident response, triage, and forensic investigations. 

The certification is aimed at security engineers and security operations analysts, so it's for seasoned defenders.

The exam costs $165. There is a free online learning pathway to prepare for the course, and a paid option for those who want an instructor to lead the course material.   

This is a well-established certification with multi-module Microsoft Learning Path sessions to complete for attempting the exam. The modules include how to beat back threats using Microsoft Defender for Endpoint (formerly ATP), Microsoft 365 Defender, Azure Defender, and multiple aspects of using Sentinel SIEM.    

Pros

  • Cybersecurity is a top priority for C-level execs and the board
  • There's a shortage of seasoned cybersecurity professionals
  • This certification covers vital tools for defenders 
  • It has solid learning modules 

Cons

  •  If you're entering the industry, you'll definitely need some hands-on experience first
  •  You need to be familiar with Microsoft's security products and Azure

Microsoft Certified: Power Platform Solution Architect Expert

Not for beginners

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Microsoft is betting big on Power Platform being a low-code hit and recently launched Power Fx, a new programming language for the platform. 

Microsoft positions Power Platform as its answer to a shortage of developers because it lets business users quickly build web or smartphone apps connected to backend databases.

If you sharpen your skills in Power Platform, you have the chance to help the business solve developer skills shortages and business information-sharing challenges. This certificate isn't for beginners. Participants are expected to have at least three years of experience as a Power Platform architect or up to 10 years of experience as a senior consultant with deep knowledge of the Power Platform architecture. 

Applicants need to have completed either the Microsoft Certified: Power Platform Functional Consultant Associate or the Microsoft Certified: Power Platform Developer Associate certification.  

Participants need to have functional and technical knowledge of Power Platform, Dynamics 365 customer engagement apps, Microsoft cloud solutions, and third-party technologies.

The exam costs $165 to take. 

Pros

  • Developer skills are a real business challenge
  • Businesses are accelerating digital transformation
  • You can be the expert who helps business users accelerate digital transformation  

Cons

  •  There are two key prerequisites to take this exam
  •  You need to be already experienced in a wide range of technologies 

 

Microsoft Certified: Dynamics 365: Finance and Operations Apps Developer Associate

Eye on the money

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This certification is for developers with an eye on the money, and for those who work with IT consultants and architects who rely on Dynamics 365. 

It costs $165 in the US and requires developers to plan architecture and solution design, apply developer tools, develop and test code, implement reporting, integrate and manage data solutions, and implement security and optimize performance.

The course is aimed at seasoned developers who know the ins and outs of Dynamics 365 development and have real-world experience building applications for finance and operations. 

To take this course, applicants must have passed the Exam MB-300: Microsoft Dynamics 365: Core Finance and Operations and the Exam MB-300: Microsoft Dynamics 365: Core Finance and Operations. It's not for everyone in IT, but it could be a bonus for those who've specialized in IT for finance departments. 

Pros

Cons

  •  There are two key prerequisites to take this exam
  •  You do need to be an IT pro or developer who's already specialized in Dynamics 365 

 

How are Microsoft certifications structured?

  • With Microsoft Learn, tech professionals can find free and self-paced, or paid instructor-led learning paths to prepare for certifications. Microsoft frequently updates content, allowing people to take the latest modules to stay up to date with modern technology. 
  • Role-based training and certifications are created to help individuals develop necessary skills and experience to advance in an accelerated and cloud-based world.  
  • The Microsoft Certified: Azure Fundamentals page outlines the skills measured and ways to prepare for the exam with free self-paced learning paths online via Microsoft Learn, or with paid instructor-led training offered by Microsoft Learning Partners and delivered by Microsoft Certified Trainers.

What are the most popular Microsoft certifications?

Microsoft's key certification categories include developer, administrator, solution architect, data engineer, data scientist, AI engineer, DevOps engineer, security engineer, and functional consultant.

Here are some key statistics from Microsoft about Microsoft Learn, the learning path platform that users can take to update skills through Microsoft certifications and exams. 

  • There are 73 million monthly active users across Microsoft's technical documentation and learning sites.
  • It has more than four million learners registered on Microsoft Learn in the less than two years since its launch in 2018.
  • 2.7M unique users have completed at least one Learn module fiscal year (FY) to date, nearly double that of the previous FY. Traffic to Learn over the period is up 36% year on year.
  • The top models in terms of total number of certificates earned to date include Azure DevOps, M365 Fundamentals, and Azure Active Directory. 
  • The completion rate for Microsoft Learn modules is 58% and its completion rate for learning paths is 21%, exceeding the industry average of 8%.

Do I need to renew my certifications?

Role-based and specialty certifications are valid for one year from the date the applicant earned it. This is something to consider for those who want to keep the certification up-to-date. The shift to a one-year certification validity is meant to keep pace with changes in cloud technology. Also, it's not a bad idea to renew certifications on each year to prove your skills and ability to perform in job roles that are relevant in the market. Microsoft has some details about the reasons in this blog post

A neat aspect of Microsoft's certifications is that they can be renewed for free within six months of the certificate expiring. 

Folks need to pass the renewal assessment on Microsoft Learn before the certification expires to extend their certification by an additional year. This helps keep them up-to-pace with changes in Microsoft technologies. 

It's worth noting that the renewal process does not apply to "fundamental" certifications, since they currently do not expire.