The State of Microsoft Certification

10 years later: Where we are and where we go from here.


Looking back down the road after many years in the computer industry, I have to say it has been a very interesting journey. I can remember when Microsoft did not have a certification program and computer education centers were adorned primarily with red banners instead of blue. How quickly things change. Certification programs have come and gone, but in today's world, certification is a mainstay of a computer professional's career. Love them or hate them, the need to fill in your resume and business card with all those acronyms—MCP, MCSE, MCSD, MCT, etc.—is simply a part of life as an IT professional. This month I want to experience a little bit of nostalgia and examine the progress made by the Microsoft Certification program over the last decade, and then take a look at what may lie ahead. Take a walk with me back down that road.

The Certification Game Begins
In 1988, as a young computer tech working for Florida State University, I was asked to help with the installation of the university's first local area network, an ARCNET network with a Novell 2.X file server. My only experience up to that time with any sort of networking was a peer-to-peer serial link system (I had to solder the cable to the DB-9 connectors) that allowed for basic file copying between IBM PCs. My supervisor informed me that a Certified Novell Engineer from our local Novell reseller would be doing the installation and I was just to watch.

I didn't know what a CNE was at that time, but I figured with such a fancy title, it must be some individual with actual engineering background and who had many, many years of experience. The gentleman in the crisp suit came in with the server in his arms, and set about installing the operating system. Midway through the install, however, the system froze. Confidently he attempted to diagnose the problem. He moved a jumper here, reset a card there, and after four hours and a lunch break later, threw up his hands in the air and said, "I have to go and get a replacement part, this hard drive must be bad", and he left.

Since no one was around, and the system was dead anyway, I figured I'd give it a go. After tinkering with the hardware, with my nose deep in the documentation, an hour later that little server sprang to life, and I thought to myself: "I can be a CNE."

At the time I may have made light of that gentleman's credentials because of his failure to perform, but I quickly regained my respect for the CNE designation, as it soon became apparent that only Computer Professionals were seeking and gaining the credential. These were folks who truly did have experience whether it was in the mainframe world or small systems—computer experience, nonetheless.

In 1993, Microsoft released Windows NT 3.1; soon after, the company launched its MCSE certification. As I sat in my first NT class and experienced firsthand how easy it was for me to access a Novell server from my NT computer, I knew it was time to pursue yet another certification. In 1996, I added the MCSE and MCT credentials to my resume. Again, I observed that my peers who were also pursuing certification were primarily computer professionals.

Certification for the Masses
In the late '90s it became apparent that certification programs were not only proliferating, but also that Microsoft certifications in particular were the ticket to a better paying and potentially more satisfying job. Computer professionals scrambled to add the initials to their business cards, while at the same time non-professionals had their eye on jumping ship to the computer industry where advertised vacancies were in the hundreds of thousands. Training companies sprang up to meet the demand.

As I sat in my first NT class and experienced firsthand how easy it was for me to access a Novell server from my NT computer, I knew it was time to pursue yet another certification.

This proliferation of people certified on paper but lacking in real-world experience sparked controversy. Many "old timer" IT professionals who, despite their many years of demonstrated experience were not certified, felt pressure from coworkers and employers to pass tests to prove their worth. The term "paper MCP" was thrown around to differentiate those with the certification but no real experience in the field. We've all heard horror stories of a new hire whose resume reflected five certifications but who wasn't able to figure out how to map a simple network drive. Employers have slowly warmed up to the idea that experience "does matter." When the recent recession ushered in an IT hiring ice age, many paper MCPs faced a serious dilemma, reminiscent of the chicken and the egg: "How do I get hired without experience and how do I get experience if I can't get hired?"

Lately, MCPs have figured out that the best way to differentiate themselves from even equally experienced peers and get a foot up in a competitive job market is to add diverse certifications like Cisco, Compaq, Checkpoint, CISSP, etc. to their resume, or to upgrade their current certifications to reflect current technology. Microsoft's certification group has kept stride with these changes in the industry by introducing diversity in its programs; hence, it added both the Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA) and Microsoft Certified Application Developer (MCAD) this year.

A Decade of Microsoft Testing
I remember the NT 3.51 and NT 4.0 exams to be relatively straightforward and a good test taker could use routine test taking skills, like process of elimination, to narrow down the right choice on even an ambiguous question. The question pools rarely changed and purchasing a good commercial practice exam product like Transcender was all one would need to get the edge to pass. Those days are gone.

Today, Microsoft's tests have a more stringent non-disclosure agreement, constantly changing question pools, and new questions types, such as drag and drop and case study, in addition to the standard multiple choice. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition has two different definitions for the word Psychometry: "a.) The ability or art of divining information about people or events associated with an object solely by touching or being near to it and b.) any branch of psychology concerned with psychological measurements." If you've taken a recent Microsoft exam, you probably agree that either definition might describe your experience. If I could summarize the essential nature of these exams in a few words, grueling and ambiguous comes to mind. Exam questions are longer, wordier, and just downright tricky. I'm not sure whether Microsoft psychometricians are contributing to the creation of question pools, but I've noticed more test takers coming into the testing center with their favorite totem to try and swing the passing score in their favor. Microsoft assures you that these questions are continuously refined through the beta process and through test taker feedback, but the same ambiguous questions seem to appear time and again on the exam.

The certification group has also taken a more active role in safeguarding exams by being more secretive about the entire exam development and delivery process. So much so that they eliminated divulging the minimum passing scores for exams and no longer tell test takers what their passing or failing score was on an exam. [This article was written before Microsoft's reconsideration of this practice; see "Microsoft Considers Change in Pass/Fail Policy" in News.-Ed.] At the end of the exam, the screen simply flashes either PASS or FAIL.

Future Trends
If I had to look into my crystal ball and make a prediction, I'd say that Microsoft certification is probably going to face some radical changes in the future. As I mentioned, today's formula for success is "experience + diversification". Unfortunately, there are only so many sets of initials that fit on a business card and no matter how many tests you pass, because of the very nature of any standard exam, it does not conclusively demonstrate your knowledge level or troubleshooting ability. I think that the next logical formula for certification success will be "experience + demonstrated knowledge + diversification". A medical student might get into medical school with the right test scores and have a brilliant academic career, but no hospital will hire a doctor and put that person on a surgical team unless that doctor has had a hands-on documented internship.

For the new MCP who lacks experience, a Microsoft Certified Internship program comes to mind, where corporations can hire entry-level techs under the guidelines of the program and give them the hands-on training that they need.

I believe that Microsoft should introduce a hands-on competency certification similar to the Cisco CCIE lab. Through a structured set of labs that are continuously changed, MCSEs or MCSDs would demonstrate that they can build and troubleshoot a Microsoft based network or program in a Microsoft environment. This, then, could become the premier Microsoft certification and, if properly administered and promoted, would give employers a new sense of confidence when hiring individuals with this designation. Whether the new certification is called "Platinum MCSE/MCSD" or "MCSE/MCSD Plus" doesn't really matter.

For the new MCP who lacks experience, a Microsoft Certified Internship program comes to mind, where corporations can hire entry-level techs under the guidelines of the program and give them the hands-on training that they need. In exchange for this internship experience, lower salaries would be negotiated, which will help to deflate the current expectation that acquiring a paper certification will lead to a $70K plus instant annual salary.

So the obvious question is, what can the MCP community do to actively lobby Microsoft for these changes? Many MCPs were disillusioned by the events surrounding the retirement and resurrection of the NT 4.0 certification. Voices of protest seemed to fall on deaf ears at Microsoft certification. To intelligently convince Microsoft certification that these changes are not only necessary but also beneficial to all, a win-win solution needs to be crafted. Microsoft could administer both the "Platinum MCSE/MCSD" and "MCP Internship" program and therefore directly benefit through new revenue streams. I'd be willing to fork over money to conclusively demonstrate my experience level and I believe that many others in the community would do the same. Employers could pay a fee to participate in the internship program in exchange for acquiring new talent at lower salary levels.

In retrospect, the MCP certification game over the last ten years has not only benefited my professional career but the careers of many others. Although it has its critics, I'm a big fan of certification. As the IT profession has evolved from the minority elite of computer geeks and hacks to the more mainstream profession that it is today, Microsoft certification has evolved right with it. The next natural step in that evolution has yet to be determined, but I know that I will be right there along with my fellow MCPs when it does. I'm hoping that the future certifications based on hand-on competency exams and the entry-level internship programs are both seen as necessary and beneficial to the MCP community at large. Please feel free to drop me an email at jcarrion@mntview.com and let me know what you think. While you are at it copy the Microsoft certification program with an email as well at mcphelp@microsoft.com.

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