Gary Flood examines the popularity of .NET certification, following the introduction of the new style Microsoft examination.

A few months back I wrote an article for IT Training about how Microsoft has been revamping its entire certification stack as part of a move away both the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) qualification and to include more real-world, practical stuff in its examinations.

A case in point is what the Redmond giant has been doing in its core .NET technology. NET is hugely important to anyone in the Microsoft programming world. It is the technology behind all kinds of systems and web presences (from Reed's new global portal to the basic platform used by social networking site MySpace to global dating site Plentyoffish.

Microsoft defines it as a 'comprehensive and consistent programming model for building applications that have visually stunning user experiences, seamless and secure communication, and the ability to model a range of business processes'.

A 2007 survey by an outfit called Port80 estimated a majority (52 per cent) of 'Fortune 1000' global companies used .NET as the basis for their cyberspace presences. .NET competes with the Java based J2EE, now re-styled the Java EE (Enterprise Edition).

After writing the MSCE article, it seemed a logical step to dive in more detail into how Microsoft is evolving its certifications to be truly post-MCSE - and if anyone was interested in following its lead.

The answer came back, unsurprisingly quickly and emphatically but convincingly nonetheless: yes this is both real and all starting to ramp up very quickly. 'We have seen a lot of interest from the market, with in the UK alone about 150 people attaining .NET certification, about double where it was this time last year,' says Garry Corcoran, Microsoft UK group manager for skills and partner readiness.

Why is Microsoft taking all this so seriously? Simple - it helps its cause commercially. These certifications provide the ability for an individual to provide tangible evidence of their level of skill - relevant for that individual's own career advancement or in the case of a business with multiple certified employees, business credibility.

That may explain why of the two main constituents of possible new style .NET qualification candidates - systems integrators and independent software vendors plus individual developers - it's the former camp that seems most interested, at least so far, according to Corcoran. 'Those guys do like to seem to be fully 'skilled up' and they do seem to be leading on this take up, at least in the last 12 months,' he says.

Sometimes, though, you find a bit of both. Geff Lombardi is a senior .NET developer at a small software house called 1st Software that develops packages for the independent financial adviser market.

In the past 12 months Lombardi has taken a slew of .NET and .NET-related certifications, specifically the .NET Framework 2.0, Windows .NET 2.0, Web .NET 2.0 and Distributed Apps .NET 2.0 at the MCTS (Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist) level; the Enterprise Application Developer .NET 2.0 exam at the next level up, the MCPD (Microsoft Certified Professional Developer); and, again at the MCTS level, the Windows Communication Foundation .NET 3.5 qualification.

The company supported him and paid for the exams but all study was strictly in his own time.

Why put himself to all the trouble when each exam represents, in his personal estimate, at least 30 to 40 hours of study time? 'There's a sense of achievement here, a real confidence booster. And the fact that I have been doing things not strictly needed in my day job has made that job more interesting as I can see it all in more context now.' It is also noteworthy that, as a Microsoft Gold level Partner, 1st Software benefits from his hard work as it demonstrates to the market competence in all things .NET.

In terms of resources, Lombardi singles out both the material available from Microsoft's own Press range of books. 'I really liked the self-paced training kits you can get from Microsoft,' he says.

He also rates the Microsoft Developer Network.

'There are all sorts of useful things there I found, from documentation to blogs to discussion groups,' he enthuses. 'I think that's helped me both pass the specific exams but also produce better quality work all round.'

Microsoft UK also works with stand-alone training providers and doesn't just make learners rely on its own resources, mind, with Xpertise, Firebrand, Pygmalion and Global Knowledge being companies cited by Corcora as helping leading delivery of .NET certification.

Indeed, so boosted has Lombardi's confidence been by his success he has found a new path as a contributor and leader in the national .NET user group, The Next Generation User Group; he is now regional co-ordinator for the Birmingham chapter and has started doing presentations. 'It's given me the confidence to speak at events and maybe help others,' he says.

Do people like Lombardi feel Microsoft is taking the new style .NET certification process seriously? 'I have to say I am impressed with Microsoft's commitment here - whenever a new technology becomes available so does an exam, more or less.'

So the verdict has to be that Microsoft is very much 'on message' when it comes to the post-MCSE world, and as new .NET elements like the newer versions of the Visual Studio development environment come on stream relevant qualifications soon follow. In this case at least, commitment to providing and backing qualifications useful to IT professionals in important technologies is a lot more than a set of PowerPoint slides.