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When Did You Say You Got Your MCSE?

Hiring managers may soon be asking IT candidates a new question: When did you take your Microsoft certification exams?

Microsoft Learning is adding hands-on simulation questions to most of its core exams for the Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA) and Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) tracks. The process starts with exams 70-290, Managing and Maintaining a Windows Server 2003 Environment, and 70-291, Implementing, Managing, and Maintaining a Windows Server 2003 Network Infrastructure, later this month.

The move is a welcome change for the Microsoft certified community, which for years has been clamoring for the kind of hands-on testing that Cisco, Red Hat and Novell have for their certification exams. "It's a sure-fire way to weed out those who aren’t ready or qualified to become Microsoft certified," says Andy Barkl, owner of Phoenix-based training firm WeTrainIT.com.

While Microsoft seeded unscored simulation items into at least one exam a few years ago, this is the first time the company is prepared to do a large, full-scale rollout of scored simulations.

According to Al Valvano, group product manager for the Microsoft Learning Group, the rollout didn't take place sooner because the technology on both the testing and exam-delivery side has only recently come together. "The technology is incredibly complex," he said, "particularly if you want to develop it and roll it out on a scale the size of the Microsoft certification program."

While Microsoft contends that other question types introduced over the past few years—including case studies and scenario-based questions—also fill the performance-based bill, the success of the Cisco and Red Hat programs show the cachet that true hands-on items can bring. Even a sprinkling of simulation questions throughout an exam can boost the reputation of a credential significantly, because it reduces the ability to pass exams using self-study guides or online cheat-sheets called "braindumps."

Lori Chung

"A significant portion of the exams
[will be simulations]."

Al Valvano, Group Product Manager
for the Microsoft Learning Group

Trying to guess the answer—which you can do with multiple-choice or drag-and-drop questions—isn't an option for performance-based questions. The knowledge gleaned from daily maintenance of a Windows server offers the best hope of getting simulation questions right.

And it appears the number of simulation questions added to at least some of the core Windows 2003 exams will be substantial. "Our goal is a significant portion of the exams [will be simulations] where it makes sense," Valvano said.

IT hiring managers already use certification as a resume filter. As they get wind that these newer exams test hands-on skills, employers may scrutinize transcripts to see if exams contained performance-based questions.

However, Microsoft won't be making it easy for hiring managers to figure out who’s taken what versions of the exams. According to Valvano, the company considered several options, but decided not to distinguish those who passed exams with simulations.

This is where it will come back to the "when," at least in the short-term: Only by comparing the dates of when exams were taken to when particular exams were released will hiring managers be able to tell which contained simulation items.

Even so, MCPs who fear being passed over for candidates who have "better" credentials might consider re-taking some exams. Microsoft doesn’t expect hordes of MCSEs to take this route, but the potential exists if hiring managers begin to emphasize the newer exams.

"People will form opinions on the value and worth of this. We do feel pretty strongly though, that we will always have credential tracks that comprise multiple testing methodologies. What we're just trying to do here is elevate the program as a whole and to utilize this technology in the right way and with the right kinds of questions," Valvano said.

About the Author

Michael Domingo is the editor of MCPmag.com. Becky Nagel is the editor of CertCities.com and Redmondmag.com.

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