The Pricing Problem

Your faithful correspondent contemplates exam economics.

It’s summer as you’re reading this, and you’re either sweltering in the heat or being thankful for your air conditioning. But, thanks to the realities of distributing information on dead trees, it’s early March as I write this, and Auntie is reading an icy blast that just crossed her desk. No, Fabio didn’t forget to put in the storm windows this year. The blast came from Auntie’s computer, where she was just reading your comments about the new Windows Server 2003 MCSE and MCSA tracks at http://mcpmag.com/ news/article.asp?EditorialsID=549. Now that Microsoft has finally stopped making vague promises and announced the requirements for the new certifications, some MCPs seem to be in an uproar.

Some of the knicker-twisting appears to be based on “misreadings” of the new requirements. No, Microsoft isn’t going to decertify Windows 2000 MCSEs. No, you don’t have to take seven new exams (just two upgrade exams) if you already have your Win2K MCSE. No, you don’t have to start all over again with the MCSE 2003 track if you’re nearly done with the previous track.

But, yes, the exams have increased to $125 each since the Win2K days. This is an across-the-board hike, not something specific to the new exam. There are certainly those among the MCSE population who are upset about the new pricing.

Frankly, Auntie is also aghast at the $125 exams. She thinks they should have been jacked up to at least $300—perhaps even $500—each.

Before you send this month’s nastygram my way, hear me out. There’s one important aspect to my exam-pricing scheme: I want the extra money rolled back into the exam process, not into a jewel-encrusted kennel for Bill’s dog. Let’s think about what Microsoft might be able to do with certification exams if it would just throw a few more dollars into the process.

For starters, it could hire more item writers and, thus, generate decently large question pools, which would be a much better defense against braindumps than aggressive nondisclosure agreements and pass-fail grading. How many people could memorize all the answers if there were 2,000 questions in the pool instead of 200? How much more would you trust the skills of those who actually passed the exam?

Perhaps, too, some of the money could be plowed back into the examination process. Wouldn’t you like to sit at a monitor manufactured after 1997—maybe one with decent color and brightness? I know that my eyes would appreciate the change. And while we’re at it, let’s upgrade to exam software that runs on a 32-bit operating system. I think nine years after the release of Windows 95 is long enough to wait for that.

Finally, as long as I’m dreaming: Take some of the increased fees and use them to cover the cost of administering and grading actual, hands-on exams. Make MCSE candidates set up an Active Directory forest on a new Windows 2003 Server box. Hand a user-interface specification to a prospective MCSD and watch him or her code it in ASP.NET. Of course, we’ll need to have proctors present and professionals doing the grading.

Such changes could give a welcome shot in the arm to the respectability of the Microsoft certification program. If you’ve been railing about the problems of paper MCSEs and braindumps (and Auntie knows she hears those complaints often enough), isn’t this a chance to put your money where your mouth is? Heck, for a break with the past, let’s call the new credential MCSE+. How much would it be worth to you? For that matter, would you even dare take a shot at it?

Exam pricing is a tricky thing, and Microsoft obviously has an interest in telling the world about hundreds of thousands of certified professionals ready to spring into action to support the Windows platform. At the same time, those of us who are true professionals have an interest in a credential that accurately reflects our skills and worth.

Think about it as you sip your mint juleps and work on your tans. As for me, I have a little trip planned to a special spa in Northern Baja. I prefer sangria to keep me cool.

OK, send those nastygrams to Auntie @mcpmag.com and get the chance to win an MCP Magazine hat. The best comments will be published in a future online column.

About the Author

Em C. Pea, MCP, is a technology consultant, writer and now budding nanotechnologist who you can expect to turn up somewhere writing about technology once again.

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