In-Depth

Measuring Up MCPs

Anne Marie McSweeney, director of certification and skills assessment group at Microsoft, spoke to editors from Microsoft Certified Professional Magazine and CertCities.com during Fusion, the company's partner conference, which took place in Anaheim, California in July 2001.

Tell us about the new unnamed systems administrator and developer certifications Microsoft announced at the conference.
When we looked at the [Windows 2000] MCSE credential, we really did make a shift. We raised the bar. We said, OK, to make this credential valuable in the workplace, we need to raise the requirements. And we need to target this to people who are doing the designing [of the network]. We know that when we did that, there's a whole group of people who do the implementation stuff. They don't do the design that an MCSE would do.

When we raised the bar, we left a void.

It became apparent as we went through this big shift that maybe people should start with the MCP and be happy there. But something we're finding is that while the MCP is a great entry into the professional market, it doesn't quite have the same definition. An MCSE—you know what kind of job that person can do. There are all of these exams, and you can combine them in all these different ways to make a job function. We haven't been too prescriptive about what those job functions are. OK, take this and this and this exam, and this is what you are. But the time [has come] to do that for the system administrator... That was really a screaming need.

We really needed to do this because there's going to be a big population of people who a) know that certification makes a difference to their certification and their lives and b) [for which] there's going to be a huge demand. When you start looking at Windows 2000 and you look at the technology adoption curve, we're right at the beginning. The opportunity now is for people who are doing planning,... designing those environments. Once that curve goes—continues to move—then there's going to be a high demand for people who are going to be administering that system on a day to day basis.

We want to be cautious about positioning [the systems administrator certification ] as "in-between." This is a profession in and of itself. There are people [who] are systems administrators. Just like you can say, there's certainly nurses out there. They don't think of their professions as a stepping-stone to [becoming] a doctor. They have technical skill sets that as a baseline they share with doctors, but they certainly have a lot of soft skills that doctors don't have. I don't want a doctor drawing my blood—I want a nurse. There's a difference in their professions. I want to be careful about insulting people in that profession, because they do have a unique set of skills that make that profession important.

Now, are we going to test on that uniqueness? Probably not. But we don't want it viewed as, oh, yeah, if you're a system administrator, you're on your way to [the MCSE]. It's an end to itself.

Certainly, there are people who go on from that to become system engineers, just like there are nurses who go on to become doctors.

In terms of the number of exams, we're certainly looking at fewer than [the] seven [required by the MCSE].

We're doing a lot of solution concept testing with a lot of hiring managers and end users in medium and large sized organizations. We have several concepts we're testing with them in terms of the framework to see which one resonates with them... This is the first time we've done this with customers.

We've [studied] what is the skill set that person needs to be in this profession? Here's the skill set. If we put this exam, this exam, and this exam in place, would that test the skill set or put this exam, this exam, and this exam, would that test the skill set?

We had three or four different scenarios, potential sets of exam combinations, including some potential new exams. It's the first time we've actually done this.

Usually when we put a framework together,... we spend most of our time on the front end. Does this skill set need a certification? Are there some things that the system administrator would need to know that the design engineer wouldn't need to know on a day-to-day basis? Is there something they need to demonstrate at that realm that we don't have in the existing tests now?

Will "supporting" exams be part of that—like the supporting exams that were part of the Windows NT 4.0 certification?
We're not going in that direction. That is a potential [direction] we might have gone in. But what we've found is that the supporting stuff was covered in the four exams we have for Windows 2000. And the hope is that we'll start integrating that stuff more as we come up with the troubleshooting scenarios.

There would be more things about hardware. More things about the network, maybe more basic things.

There are some exams that are overkill for this credential. Maybe [the candidate] needs to know concepts about things covered in our other exams, and our other exams tend to have things at that very high level of Bloom's Taxonomy. Can you do this? Maybe there's another exam that covers this at a different level - not can you do this, but do you know what this means?

I think the key message we want to get out is that we're going one step further in getting customer feedback to help shape this credential.

We do like the model that some exams will count toward the MCSE credential, so it's not a diversion — there will exams in the MCSE core requirements that will be in the systems administration credential as well. It's a matter of which one, how many, and is there some gap that's missing between those two job functions?

We know the design exams are absolutely not going to be a part of this.

The feedback we've gotten from people has not been about the design element. The part they've mostly stressed about is the year's experience. They haven't hit on the design stuff yet. I don't really know why. Maybe it's because reality hasn't set in and people haven't hit that point yet.

They're kind of stressed about the aggressive retirement. People seem to be more affected by that than the idea that the bar's been raised [regarding] design.

Not only do you need to keep your credentials current [and] you have to keep yourself more current than before, now there's this extra element of design.

In NT 4.0 we did have design elements in there. But quite frankly, you can do a lot more with Windows 2000 than you could with NT 4.0. It's more complex, so the designing is more complex.

There are certainly design engineers. They came to that place in a whole bunch of ways. There are people who came from the systems administrator world and have that kind of bent, those kinds of skills. As well, there are design engineers who came from the design discipline. They never did systems administration. They always did design. They knew how to do it, but they didn't do it on a day-to-day basis.

What about the developer certification?
This is focused at a different job function. One way to look at it is the premier credentials really combine two things: implementation and design. So if you look at the solution developer, that was always focused on people who design a solution and develop it.

If you kind of look at how the certification evolved. We're like everybody else. We started out, our primary reason for being was to have a credential so that the partner channel could qualify themselves as partners. That's where our first focus was: What kind of skill set did we want our first partners to demonstrate?

For the solution developer, it had to be more than just implementation. You're never going to get to implementation if you don't have a design. If the design is done wrong, everything is going to go downhill from there. You'll never need the implementation.

So the solution developer has always been directed at somebody who's more a consultant, somebody who could really go in and define the user requirements, architect the needs, not necessarily that coder.

The guy sitting at his desk coding an Office application, he doesn't need to be an MCSD. He's similar to the developer, the hardcore programmer.

When he's looking at the big picture, he's that MCSD. When he's looking at the code, he's the other. This development credential is targeted at the coder.

How does Microsoft plan to address the needs of the small and medium business in terms of certification?
We went out and looked at the characteristics of jobs in small, medium and large organizations for systems administrators: what the tasks are you do, what your environments look like, how you rate the importance and difficulties of each of those tasks... We did this prior to coming out with the Windows 2000 tracks. What we really found out is that [IT professionals in] medium and large organizations tended—you could group them together—they tended to behave similarly. They tended to have the same amount of time doing particular tasks. The computing environments tended to be at similar levels of complexity.

The MCSE credential is really targeted at that audience.

For small organizations, the MCSE, the MCP exams, are, I think, overkill.

When we went out and looked at where certification added value, where certification had an impact in the industry, what we were finding is that for small companies, certification wasn't that valuable to them. It was hard to put people into job functions, because when you're in a small company, you're a jack-of-all-trades and job functions were more diverse. People had to wear so many different hats. Those companies tended not to use certification as a hiring credential.

Some credentials we have will span from the small organizations to the large organizations. But when you start to talking about an Active Directory, it's unlikely a small company's going to install that. However, in the large companies, Active Directory is essential.

So we're mostly focused on where we can make a difference, which is in the medium to large organizations.

What distinguishes the medium and large organization?
Branch offices: That's a big difference, and adds a whole level of complexity that you wouldn't have if you have a LAN or a home network. You're talking about somebody who's going beyond a LAN, and they're actually connecting over a WAN , over the Internet or over an intranet. That's one of the big differences.

There's an element of a lot of clients. But clients can be anything—handhelds [and so on].

Another thing: lots of servers.

You have roaming and roving people.

Tell us about the Windows XP exams.
We strive to have the exam out in beta when it launches. But this is one that will be early... In order to release early, it'll have to beta early. That means the release will hit really close to product launch.

Will we see any new item types in the new exams?
That's a constant. How can we better mimic reality? In the developer world, 70-100 was our first break into [testing] using case studies.

We like experimenting on the developer side. I'm in the Star Trek mode now: Wouldn't it be cool to have snippets of code that you have to debug? We're not there yet, but certainly our imaginations are taking us there. When technology can keep pace with imagination you'll see us try to break into that more.

How's Windows 2000 certification going?
We're ahead of where we were on NT 4.0.

Of course, we came out with the Windows 2000 exams closer to the product launch, so there's more time to ramp up.

How will the XP/.NET exams fit into the MCSE scheme?
Windows 2000 to .NET is an evolution. It's not the same kind of thing as NT 4.0 to Windows 2000.

We'll have Windows 2000 Professional, or the candidate can take Windows.NET Pro. They can take Windows 2000 Server or they can take Windows .NET Server. They can mix and match. The same is the same with Net and the Directory.

Wasn't Microsoft saying that it recommended people get Windows 2000 certification before considering tackling .NET Server exams?
There's some grayness in the messaging. Let me try to clarify. We're trying to tell people, you're going to waste nothing—you're going to have a leg up if you know Windows 2000. You're going to be ahead of the game here... It behooves you to learn this stuff. Then you just have an incremental [learning] curve here.

What I think they're trying to get through in the positioning is, why go through this? Why take it in one giant step instead of two incremental steps?

What are the job prospects for IT professionals right now?
The dot-com implosion has had an effect on job prospects. But the latest ITTA IT skills gap study found that there's 900,000 IT jobs in the US.

The three areas of growth are network design and administration, programming and software engineering, and technical support.

The other place that's really strong is in the enterprise.

But I'm not going to deny that the timing hasn't been hard.

It's all about opportunity. The number one reason individuals become certified is because it provides better opportunities for them. And one of the ways that translates is that you get to do more interesting projects, you get better salaries.

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