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Forge your own Azure training and certification path

IT professionals who want to achieve a Microsoft Azure certification can choose their own concentrations around areas such as infrastructure management, machine learning and more.

As Microsoft grew more cloud-centric, it started to fold Azure training into its IT certification programs. But which certification path should you pursue?

Both novices and more experienced IT professionals -- even those who are well-versed in Microsoft technology -- might find Azure certification options a bit overwhelming, as there are multiple tracks and exams.

The levels of Microsoft certifications

Microsoft organizes its cloud-focused certifications based on three levels, each of which has its own tracks, or special areas of focus:

Microsoft Technology Associate (MTA): This is an entry-level certification designed to teach fundamental technology concepts about cloud platforms and infrastructure.

Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate (MCSA): This certification is for people who seek entry-level IT jobs. It is also a prerequisite for more advanced Microsoft certifications and includes tracks such as Data Engineering on Azure and Linux on Azure.

Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE): This certification is for IT professionals who seek to demonstrate the ability to build and support more advanced technologies, both on premises and in the cloud. To receive an MCSE certification, you must first pass the MCSA certification exams.

"These are basically a ladder -- you complete one and you go onto the next," said Gregory Morawietz, VP of operations at Single Point of Contact, a managed services provider. "There are dozens of different paths you can take in order to get there in each of these areas."

Choose the right Azure training path

"You need to choose an Azure-based learning path in order to consider yourself certified as an Azure-based technician," Morawietz said.

In fact, IT professionals can essentially design their own Azure concentration, agreed Ben Finkel, an IT trainer at CBT Nuggets.

The most relevant certifications, according to Finkel, are:

  • Azure MCSA: Cloud Platform
  • Azure MCSA: Data Engineering with Azure
  • Azure MCSA: Linux on Azure
  • Azure MCSA: Machine Learning
  • Azure MCSE: Cloud Platform and Infrastructure 

Exam success requires a mix of study and experience, Finkel said.

"They don't expect you to read a book and take the exam; they expect you will have worked with Azure and virtual machines and virtual networks, so that when you take the exam, you are truly familiar with it," he said.

Still, while you can't just expect to read a book and pass one of these exams, you don't necessarily need to master a full dictionary of commands, either.

"Don't think that you need to know everything or be a stone-cold expert to pass the exam," Finkel said. "Expect to be tested in different ways, ranging from multiple choice to code completion and case studies."

In contrast to other top cloud providers, Microsoft emphasizes the whole stack rather than just the underlying cloud resources, and its cloud certifications and exams tend to reflect that, said Ryan Coates, practice lead for Microsoft Azure and Cloud Platform at PCM, Inc., an IT services provider that partners with Microsoft. In addition, because many customers also embrace open source technologies, these Azure training and certification programs typically include topics beyond Microsoft.

Certifications don't equal expertise

While certifications can help an IT professional's resume stand out, they don't always hold the same weight as real-world technical experience.

"Since I am proficient at taking exams, I can say with confidence that a certification does not necessarily mean expertise in a particular discipline. It just means you can pass an exam," said Ned Bellavance, director of cloud solutions and a Microsoft MVP at Anexinet, a consulting firm and Microsoft partner.

Bellavance, who holds three Microsoft certifications, said he tends to question the actual utility of them, especially because Microsoft so frequently releases new Azure features. "That level of change makes many elements of a certification out-of-date the day the exam goes live," he said. 

Learning the technology is the focus, and the certification is simply a side effect of gaining sufficient experience with a technology.
Ned BellavanceDirector of cloud solutions and a Microsoft MVP at Anexinet

For instance, he noted, things that were once true, such as having to use the legacy management portal for Azure Active Directory, are now no longer the case. And newer technologies, such as Azure Managed Disks, might not show up anywhere on an exam just yet.

The bottom line is that certifications are a great way to get more Azure training, and to build credibility for a resume, but they shouldn't be the end game.

"Learning the technology is the focus, and the certification is simply a side effect of gaining sufficient experience with a technology," Bellavance said.

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