Microsoft is preparing changes to its certification programmes that are expected to take effect with the release of SQL Server 2005 and Visual Studio 2005 in November.

At the recent Worldwide Partner Conference in Minneapolis, Al Valvano, lead product manager for Microsoft Learning, outlined tweaks that will give technologists specific credentials.

"We're responding to customer and partner feedback [about] how the IT landscape has changed and how skills need to differentiate competencies," said Al Valvano, lead product manager for Microsoft Learning. "We want to reflect that."

The changes introduce three new tiers of focus for achieving a Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist certification in Visual Studio 2005 or SQL Server 2005, he said.

For Visual Studio, engineers can achieve certification in either web, Windows or distributed development to show where their area of specialty is, Valvano said. Similarly, SQL Server Certified Technology Specialists can achieve professional credentials as a database administrator, database developer or business intelligence developer.

Currently, Microsoft has none of these individual certifications for Visual Studio, which more broadly define a certified developer as either an "application developer" or a "solutions developer," or SQL Server, which presently has certifications only for database administrators, Valvano said.

The new credentials "allow us to go much more granularly [into certifications] and align that with how the product is used," he said.

The examinations Microsoft certified professionals are required to take cost US$125 each, the same as they did previously, Valvano said. However, the tests themselves are more rigorously focused because they require engineers to have more specific skills than the previous broader certification tests, he said.

"We're able to have a much better testing methodology that tests against the skill sets people have to use [in the field]," he said. "The tests are much more robust and more in line with what engineers do on the job."

One Microsoft partner said that he didn't think certifications in general were an appropriate assessment of an engineer's true abilities, because it's difficult to test someone on how they would solve real problems that may come up in the development of an application.

However, certifications are helpful for engineers of Microsoft's partners to have to show their commitment to working with the vendor's software, said Joe Lindsay, president and CTO of Quality Systems Laboratories, an ISV that builds software for the health care and pharmaceutical industries.

"Certifications do nothing to capture someone's skills and capabilities as an engineer," he said. "When I as a partner invested in certifications, the reason I did that was to convey to a vendor that I’m meeting their requirements for partnership and communicating my skills, abilities and interests."

Lindsay added that the more specific certification tests can be about how to build applications using a technology rather than about the product itself, the better chance they have of assessing an engineer's skill.

In addition to the new designations and test formats, the revamped Microsoft certifications enable engineers to demonstrate their specific credentials on business cards to display their specialised skill sets, Valvano said. Alongside the Microsoft Certified Professional Developer label, for instance, a certified professional can also list his or her areas of specification, such as Windows Developer or Web Developer.

Microsoft will post exam names and begin releasing preparatory guides and upgrade paths for the new certifications in September so its partners and customers will be ready once SQL Server 2005 and Visual Studio 2005 are generally available, he added.