Certifications / Microsoft

Is the AI-900 Worth It?

by Josh Burnett
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Published on March 31, 2021

Artificial intelligence and machine learning will play a substantial role in our technological future, and Microsoft is at the forefront of that evolution. In particular, Azure has a considerable focus on internal AI and machine learning as well as external growth. Microsoft openly advertises that they want to empower app developers, data scientists, and ML engineers to explore and develop the potential these technologies have. If you belong to any of these groups, there has never been a better time to learn Azure.

Microsoft's certification path in this area is very much in development. Their typical approach is to have three levels of certification: Fundamentals, Associate, and Expert. The Microsoft Certified: Azure AI Engineer Associate accreditation was introduced in mid-2019, and the Microsoft Certified: Azure AI Fundamentals went live in mid-2020. You can likely expect an Azure AI Expert level certification to arrive sometime this year.

What is the AI-900?

The AI-900 exam is the sole requirement to earn the Microsoft Certified: Azure AI Fundamentals certification. Its focus is more on the theoretical and philosophical elements of artificial intelligence than on the nuts and bolts of using AI on Azure. The cert is aimed at candidates with both technical and non-technical backgrounds.

Of course, the exam engages with technical material, and Microsoft tells you that "some general programming knowledge or experience would be beneficial." However, the exam isn't inherently technical. Microsoft also states that data science and software engineering experience are not required.  This makes the certification ideal for anyone whose job involves AI to some degree, but not in a programming sense.

What Does the AI-900 Test?

The AI-900 exam tests knowledge in five focus areas:

  • Describe AI workloads and considerations (15-20 percent)

  • Describe fundamental principles of machine learning on Azure (30-35 percent)

  • Describe features of computer vision workloads on Azure (15-20 percent)

  • Describe features of Natural Language Processing (NLP) workloads on Azure (15-20 percent)

  • Describe features of conversational AI workloads on Azure (15-20 percent)

It's important to note that this material changed on January 27th, 2021, so be sure that any material you use has incorporated those adaptations.

The material is generally conceptual in nature. For example, one of the subsections under "describe Artificial Intelligence workloads and considerations" requires the test-taker to "identify guiding principles for responsible AI." This is further broken down into a half dozen bullets discussing values such as fairness, inclusiveness, transparency, and accountability.

How Much Does the AI-900 Exam Cost?

The AI-900 exam is a mere $99 (USD). If this would be beneficial to your career, don't hesitate to go for it. The test contains between 40 and 60 multiple-choice questions and has a 60-minute time limit.

What Experience Do You Need for the AI-900?

The AI-900 skills outline states that candidates "should have foundational knowledge of machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) concepts and related Microsoft Azure services." You don't have to know how to make those technologies work, but you do need to know what is available and have an idea of what can be done with them.

To make that more tangible, think of it this way: if you hired a firm to work with you on an AI/ML project, what is the baseline amount of knowledge you would expect everyone in the conference room to have, regardless of their role? The answer to that question is approximately the experience you'll need for the AI-900 exam. Passing this exam is an opportunity to demonstrate knowledge of common ML and AI workloads and how to implement them on Azure."

Who Should Take the AI-900?

The audience profile Microsoft created for this cert essentially describes professionals whose jobs deal with artificial intelligence and machine learning, but not in an engineering or programming sense. It's an ideal certification for salespeople, project managers, and managers who supervise technical experts but don't have a technological background themselves.

AI-900 for Systems Administrators

If you're a sysadmin, whether this cert will add value to your career depends on the day-to-day nature of your work. If you commonly interact with artificial intelligence systems or platforms with machine learning, you likely already have far more knowledge than is necessary for the AI-900 exam. In this case, you should consider earning the Microsoft Certified: Azure AI Engineer Associate certification.

However, if you've yet to interact with AI or ML systems, this is a great place to start. A systems administrator's career often weaves through numerous technologies, and having a solid grasp of the driving concepts behind artificial intelligence will only do you good.

AI-900 for Network Administrators

Azure is the second-largest global cloud provider and is consistently gaining ground in this market every year, taking it from Amazon Web Services (the current #1 provider) directly and from the industry at large. Microsoft's cloud service isn't going anywhere, and there are many reasons to believe that it's the horse to bet on for the long-term.

Most companies today have some kind of hybrid relationship with on-premise data centers and the cloud. The networks that connect users to these resources often involve Azure, and if you're a network admin for long enough, you're going to encounter Microsoft's AI and machine learning services. If you already have professional experience with artificial intelligence and ML, you're likely overqualified for the AI-900 exam and should consider a higher-level certification. However, if your experience is limited to reading articles about the future of AI, this is a worthwhile cert to pursue.

AI-900 for Sales Specialists

Assuming that you're a sales specialist in the tech domain and not for squeegees or Tupperware products, the Microsoft Certified: Azure AI Fundamentals will only do you good. You'll gain industry awareness of some of the hottest and most rapidly developing technologies today while deepening your conceptual grasp of how they work.

If there's even a possibility that your company will deal with a vendor or client who works with Azure artificial intelligence, then this is an excellent chance to get ahead of the competition. Given a choice between two competing companies, your potential client is far more likely to choose the one that boasts a knowledgeable sales specialist.

Is the AI-900 Worth It?

Whether the AI-900 is worth it will depend on where you fit in three primary buckets:

  1. You work with Azure-based AI and machine learning daily. In this case, no, passing the AI-900 exam isn't worth it.

  2. You work around AI and machine learning technology, but it's not something you interact with regularly. In this situation, pursuing the Microsoft Certified: Azure AI Fundamentals certification will likely benefit you.

  3. You don't work around Azure, AI, or machine learning in any capacity — but you might as your career progresses. If you're looking down the line and see any possibility for interacting with these, passing the AI-900 exam will almost certainly be a solid career investment.

Using the AI-900 to learn skills

The AI-900 exam will not teach you any skills. However, if you're looking to gain a foundational level of understanding about artificial intelligence and machine learning in general and Azure in particular, preparing for the AI-900 test will increase your knowledge base.

You'll learn about common machine learning types like regression, classification, and clustering. Natural Language Processing (NLP) is another area you'll delve into, discovering features and uses for things like key phrase extraction, speech recognition and synthesis, and even sentiment analysis. Prep material will cover Azure-specific tools and services like Computer Vision, Custom Vision, and Form Recognizer. If any of these concepts are foreign to you, they'd be worth learning about.

Using the AI-900 to validate skills

Earning the Microsoft Certified: Azure AI Fundamentals certification will validate that you have a fundamental knowledge of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and what Azure has to offer in both areas. You don't have to have a software engineering or data science background to pass the exam, and preparing for it certainly won't teach you those skills.

However, unlike many tech certifications on the market today, the exam is actually more valuable than the accreditation in most situations. Having the ability to understand the conversations about AI in your workplace will be far more useful than hauling out a Fundamentals-level certification and hanging it on your office wall. The purpose of the AI-900 exam is to validate that you understand Azure-based artificial intelligence and machine learning basics. If that appeals to you, then begin studying for the AI-900 exam.


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