In-Depth

A Decade of Certification

Microsoft’s MCP program turns 10 this spring and, my, how it’s grown!

The first ones to get it didn’t even need to pass a single test—all that was required was taking a course. Others received it simply by having one from another vendor like 3COM. And when you presented it to a potential employer, it got you perhaps a strange look and a chuckle.

From these humble beginnings sprang a program that now encompasses more than 80 tests and five current titles (with more coming soon) and helped launch an industry that includes testing and training centers, books, CD-ROMs, boot camps and the magazine you now hold in your hands.

The Microsoft Certified Professional program turns 10 this year. Do you feel old now?

Gestation
Those who have been on the Microsoft track from the beginning may feel like time has just flown by. Other more recent members of the MCP program may not realize just how much has gone into the creation and evolution of one of the most popular certification programs in the world.

Microsoft created the Microsoft Certified Professional program in 1992 as a way to provide a measuring tool for employers and IT professionals. When it was officially announced in April 1992, the only exams offered covered Windows 3.1, LAN Manager and SQL Server. In September 1993, Microsoft expanded its certification offerings by creating the Certified Product Specialist (MCPS), the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) and the Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT). By March 1994, more than 5,000 professionals had attained their MCP, with the number more than doubling (11,000-plus) by September of that year, giving the certification true momentum—a trend that would continue for the next several years.

Dan Truax, Microsoft’s manager of certification skills and assessment-strategy, said that the success of any certification program ultimately relies “on the success of the technology and the subsequent needs of the industry; the MCP program has been able to flourish with Microsoft technologies. With more than 1.2 million people in the MCP program worldwide [today], we believe we are meeting our original goal of enabling companies to find people who maximize the benefits of Microsoft technologies.”

Baby Steps
Early adopter Mark Braton, MCSE, MCNE and CFI from St. Louis, Missouri, holds MCP ID 401. He received his designation on Dec. 31, 1991, prior to the certification’s official announcement. He says his certification came as a surprise. To attain his initial certification, Braton had to pass zero (yes, zero) tests.

“Many of those who have the really low numbers were people who were invited to take beta courses for LAN Manager and SQL Server. I took the LAN Manager course and, later on, I got a note from Microsoft that I was an MCP. That’s kind of how it started—there weren’t tests back then.”

Of the myriad exams Braton has taken and passed, he said he found Windows 3.1 to be one of the most difficult.

“It was really squirrelly. There were questions on things that no one ever uses. It ended up taking me a few times to pass that one.”

So, does Braton’s ID number suggest that 400 other MCPs came before him? Not exactly. Those running the program now believe that Microsoft didn’t start with ID No. 1. Also, at one point, Microsoft went through and “reassigned” numbers. One myth exists that many of the people in the lowest bracket were all Microsoft employees. Braton, however, maintains that he “never met anyone with a lower number … who ever worked for Microsoft.”

Chuck McLaughlin, who holds MCP ID 323 and is a technology consultant in Petersburg, Illinois, first achieved his MCP by being “grandfathered” in via 3COM’s 3+ Open certification.

“Microsoft was the co-developer on 3+ Open and then took back LAN Manager,” McLaughlin said. “All we had to do was submit the 3+ Open certification, and we received our MCP.”

McLaughlin said that when he first started attaining certifications, it wasn’t because of market demand.

“At the time it was more of a personal thing—a personal goal. My company didn’t pay for tests or anything.” He added that, over time, and especially in the last five years, the importance of certification has increased. “It’s an equalizer … and it’s become more prevalent.”

MCP Timeline

11-20-85: Windows 1.01 published

5-22-90: Windows 3.0 released

4-6-92: Microsoft Certified Professional program launches as a rigorous series of online exams covering Microsoft Windows 3.1, LAN Manager and SQL Server. Also, Windows 3.1 launches

10-27-92 Windows for Workgroups 3.1 out

5-24-93: Windows NT 3.1 released

11-8-93: Windows for Workgroups 3.11 out

9-14-93: Certified Product Specialist (MCPS), Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) and Certified Trainer (MCT) designations announced

3-7-94: Microsoft touts more than 5,000 MCPs worldwide

9-21-94: Windows NT 3.50 surfaces

12-5-94: Microsoft Certified Solution Developer certification announced.

8-24-95: Windows 95 released

9-3-96: Windows NT 4.0 appears

12-10-96: Microsoft introduces Internet certification program called MCPS: Internet Systems

2-5-97: 100,000 Microsoft certifications issued

12-11-97: MCSE+Internet credential announced

6-1-98: MCP+Site Building credential announced

6-25-98: Windows 98 launches

11-16-98: MCDBA announced

4-30-99: ATECs renamed to CTECs

5-14-99: Microsoft certifies its 502,689th MCP

9-20-99: Windows 2000 MCSE certification track announced and Microsoft says it will retire NT 4.0 MCSEs by the end of 2001

2-00: Microsoft switches to adaptive testing

2-17-00: Windows 2000 launches

9-14-00: Windows Me launches

10-11-01: Microsoft introduces the MCSA title

10-25-01: Windows XP launches

12-01: Microsoft announces that certifications will no longer be retired; NT 4.0 MCSEs get a reprieve

1-15-02: Microsoft moves to pass/fail grading system

4-6-02: The MCP program turns 10

Kathy McKinney, a Windows 2000 MCSE and an MCDBA in Boston, Massachusetts, holds MCP ID 142. She was also grandfathered in via 3COM’s 3+ Open certification. She went on to take the LAN Manager exam and continues to maintain her certifications.

McKinney decided to pursue the Microsoft certification path because, she says, “I was working in a Microsoft shop, and keeping our certifications current was just part of our job.”

“I’ve maintained my certifications from the day I started… because I’m a partner in a small consulting firm. Our clients are Microsoft-based. The products are solid, and we want to support them. Current certification lets the customer know we’ve maintained a solid knowledge.”

One early achiever who did have to pass Microsoft’s exams to earn a certification is Diane Stowe, a software architect in Seattle, Washington. She holds MCP ID 375 and attained her certification in 1992.

“I took Microsoft’s whole program—all the tests—Windows 3.1, Windows for Workgroups. I was working as a consultant, and it seemed like a hot thing at the time.

“It was a cool deal just to find out about it. Microsoft wasn’t broadcasting the program at the time. In fact, I had to bug them about getting information on it.”

Stowe earned her MCSE in Windows 3.51, but has let her certification lapse as of late—something she intends to fix. She is currently working on attaining an MCSD.

Walking, Then Running
After creating the MCSD designation at the end of 1994, Microsoft’s certification program enjoyed banner years in 1996 and 1997. The number of MCPs reached 150,000, with nearly 65,000 certifying in 1996 alone; the MCSE and MCSD designations saw a 250 percent growth. Microsoft followed that success by announcing new certifications in late 1997 and 1998—the MCSE+Internet, the MCP+Site Building and the MCDBA.

By this time, Microsoft certifications had become a force in the IT industry and had evolved into a vital component for getting work and doing hiring.

Braton said that, over time, certification became important, “because Microsoft said it was important. Then the companies said it was important. So it became important.”

When it comes to the value of certification, McKinney said, “It allows the employer to identify at least a minimum level of competency. It’s a starting point. It’s important for both parties to understand what’s being brought to the table. Does it mean you know everything? Certainly not. But it provides a baseline.”

When McKinney began earning her certifications, she said, “It brought in more work. People would look at the certification and know we know what we’re doing. Even now, people come to our Web site, see what certifications we hold, and tell us, ‘I’m talking to you because I saw your certification information.’”

Microsoft’s Truax added, “The greatest benefit of certification is that it has served as a medium of success for all parties. Individuals are able to highlight their skills to employers and obtain quality jobs within their chosen field, employers have an additional tool to benchmark skill sets and to develop highly skilled staff with a greater depth of skills, and Microsoft has more satisfied customers.”

Stowe, on the other hand, isn’t so convinced.

“If you had the MCSD, it would mean something. I live in Seattle, and I just have to look out my window to find an MCSE. I guess the value depends on where you are.”

Building Blocks
According to Truax, Microsoft expected, from the beginning, for the program to be a success and to continue to grow.

“It was always Microsoft’s intent to scale the program up and out as long as the demand continued. The real surprise, and a pleasant one, is the fervor and pride people have displayed as being part of the MCP community. Both the positive and critical feedback are key to the continued evolution of the program”

When reflecting on the ups and downs of the MCP program and its value in the IT marketplace, Braton was clear.

“An MSCE with experience is valuable, but a certification isn’t as valuable as experience. Now, certification with experience puts you a step ahead. Once you have that certification, you need to go out and earn that scar tissue. It will mean that you’re a person who’s going to be reliable and that you know your stuff—beyond the books.”

McLaughlin added, “I realize there are a lot of paper certifications out there, but you still need the knowledge.” He added that, eventually, “paper” MCSEs’ lack of experience will come through. “People know who can do what—within the company and within the industry.”

McKinney thinks that certification has become increasingly valid. “The tests are better and harder. They require a true understanding of the product and prove that you know how to utilize it. As the certification program goes on and now people are more aware, I think you’ll have more people getting certified and more employers requiring certification.”

Stowe concurs. “Companies shouldn’t hire people who don’t have certification,” she said. “Not even entry-level.”

Despite it all, Braton knows that certification is still valuable to employers, “especially the higher-end certifications—those that require a broader knowledge and make it so you have to know more than just the core. It puts you one step ahead.”

Braton has kept up to date on his certifications. “It shows that I’m committed to the industry.” While his company doesn’t “totally require” certification, he said that it’s highly encouraged.

So, other than employment advantages, why has Braton kept up on his certifications?

“Every time I do a continuous certification, I learn new things—the nuances of the system that you don’t pick up day to day. It makes you think about things you may not have thought of and makes you want to make things work more efficiently—the certification process makes you do that.”

Middle Age and Beyond
With the number of MCPs topping a million and certification offerings running the gamut from the entry-level MCP to the new, hot certification, the MCSA, and the highly regarded MCSE, many wonder, “What’s next?”

According to Truax, “We see future growth in the program as the industry stabilizes and begins to expand again. The size of the MCP program is not driven by Microsoft but is a reaction to the adoption of new technology and the desire of individuals to gain and demonstrate their skills with these new technologies.

“Microsoft has always been very conscious of the number of certifications and maintained the theory of responding to industry need. The number of credentials has and will remain flexible in response to job roles. There is no magic number and we will continue listening to our customers and the industry to determine what they need from a certification program,” Truax said.

When it comes to what those “in the trenches” would like to see from the MCP program in the next 10 years, Braton said, “Well, I’m glad Microsoft extended the NT certification—I’d have hated to see them cut that off. But, with .NET coming to fruition and the fact that a lot of people haven’t gone to Win2K, I’d like to see [Microsoft] extend the NT and Win2K certifications for six or seven more years.

“Also, I’d like to see Microsoft make it so that you have to have ‘references’ that you are a certified person—that you’re not only book-smart, but that people have seen you do the job. In the Certified Public Accountant profession, you have to serve an apprenticeship after you take the test, but prior to certification. Something like that would be great, but I don’t see it happening.”

McLaughlin seems more confident that the certification process will evolve. He predicts that Microsoft skills assessment is “almost going to go to a hands-on certification…. That you can do more than just figure it out on paper, but you will actually have to do it. I don’t think Microsoft will handle that itself. Right now, anyone can have those initials after their name, but people want to see more. It’s like a college degree—experience just shows that much more.”

McLaughlin said that he plans to keep up on his certifications (he’s currently working to upgrade his NT 4.0 MCSE to Win2K).

“In my business as a consultant, it’s my credential, just like any other profession. It means I’m able to ask the right questions and get my clients what they need.”

Braton said he, too, plans on keeping his certifications current for another 10 years. “I’ll keep up on my certifications because I plan on staying in the industry. I love it. And, to support my clients, I not only have to understand the technology, but know what Microsoft is thinking.”

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