It’s a Long Way Down from the Top

Or, don’t look back—something might be gaining on you.


Ten years. Has it really been 10 years since some of us got our first shiny, new MCP cards? Well, yes, it has. Auntie’s not about to disclose her MCP number (let’s pretend I wrote this column after interviewing some other old fogies, shall we?), but yes, there were Microsoft certifications 10 years ago. Why, there was even Windows, albeit a crude, steam-driven, prototype sort of Windows.

Think back with me to late 1991 and early 1992 for a moment. Assuming you were out of high school then, you might remember: the collapse of the Soviet Union…the first map of the surface of Venus…Delphi becoming the first national online service to open an Internet gateway…and the CNE certification.

When Microsoft started dabbling in the certification business, Auntie was working alongside some other technicians in the backroom of a no-name computer manufacturer. We did it all: hardware, software, network installations. I well remember the one Certified NetWare Engineer (yes, that was the name of the CNE back then) on staff sniffing at this Johnny-come-lately certification. “That’s good enough for you junior folks,” he sniffed. “Real engineers get the CNE.” And off he went to string more network cable for one of our helpless customers.

Yes, in those days the CNE was the hot ticket to stardom and success. “Paper CNEs” were starting to appear, chasing the fabulous salaries that CNEs commanded. Novell ruled the networking landscape. Those of us working with Windows spent many hours configuring our primitive networking stacks (composed mainly, I believe, of twigs and rocks) to send and receive IPX packets so we could access the corporate NetWare servers. And, by accident or design, we earned our MCP and MCSE credentials along the way.

Fast-forward a decade. My oh-so-secure CNE friend got out of the computing business a few years back as Novell slipped from market leader to also-ran. Last I heard, he was running a chain of dry-cleaning shops in upstate New York. Meanwhile, those of us with the MCSE ticket have been commanding fabulous salaries, setting up worldwide networks, and enjoying the fact that we chose the right certification to pursue.

I recount this bit of history not to gloat (well, OK, not just to gloat) but to point out a trivial fact that we often overlook: The world of computing technology is anything but stable. The MCSE certification may be hot right now (along with a few others like the CCIE), but just how much do you want to bet that it will still be hot in 10 years? Want to stake your career on it? Just how much do you know about dry cleaning?

Sure, right now, Microsoft rules the computing roost. When we go out to configure networking stacks now, it’s to speak TCP/IP to our AD-enabled Windows domain controllers. But, what if Redmond falters? What if Jini, or Linux, or some networking system that’s only just emerging from academic labs sweeps the world? Ten years ago, many of us couldn’t imagine a network without a NetWare server. Now some MCSEs have never had to log on to one.

Like the rest of you, Auntie has a lot of eggs in the Microsoft basket. But she’s also got a few scattered around elsewhere. If you’re smart, you’ll take this occasion not just to look back, but to try to look forward as well. You know that the best way to pass the Microsoft certification exams is to develop real skills. The next step is to make sure that you have enough skills to weather changes in the wider computing landscape.

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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