Marching Orders

The Death of Paper MCSEs

This MCSE doesn't think he'd be able to pass the new performance-based questions recently added to the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer and Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator exams.

In June 2001 I went to a boot camp and earned my Windows 2000 Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) certification. If I were to try and do the same thing later this year, I'd fail miserably.

That's a good thing.

I'd fail because Microsoft has finally—let the trumpets sound—added performance-based or "simulation" questions to its MCSE and Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA) exams. The simulations will ask test-takers to perform actual configurations they'd have to do in the real world. For example, instead of answering a question on how to rebuild a broken mirror, you'd have to actually rebuild it in the simulation. What a concept!

And that's my problem. I've been out of the "real IT world"—the day-to-day job of running a network—for far too long to pass a hands-on Windows Server 2003 test. That, of course, should have been the goal all along: Sift out those with real Windows skills from those who can read books and pass tests, or worse, those who can memorize information from braindumps and pass tests.

I was a book reader. I got my first MCSE (Windows NT) in 1999, during the height of the Microsoft certification frenzy. I went to a Microsoft Certified Technical Education Center near Baltimore, with visions of dollar signs dancing in my head. After all, listening to the radio commercials and reading the newspaper ads in those days, you were convinced that if you passed the seven tests necessary and became a hallowed MCSE, IBM would be knocking on your door the next day, begging you to take a six-figure salary to be a systems administrator. So I plunked down the MasterCard and started on my IT journey.

Skip forward six months. I've passed my last exam (IIS), and get the paper and pin from Microsoft. I'm a systems engineer at last. The only problem was that I didn't know squat.

Sure, I did the simulations in the classroom; I read the books; I took copious notes; I even bought extra books on the topics and read those. But like a growing number of MCSEs, I'd be at a loss to apply any of what I'd learned to an actual running, non-pristine network. I was the very definition of the "paper MCSE": I had the certificate, but couldn't architect a real network if my life depended on it.

That isn't to say the time and money was completely wasted. In fact, having the title did land me my first job in IT, as an NT application specialist at a large media company. Not quite an IBM sysadmin, and a pay rate just a hair under six figures (starting salary: $30,000), but I didn't complain. I was finally in IT, doing what real IT people do.

The point, though, is that I should never have been able to get a high-level certification like the MCSE without having worked in the field. Nor should any of the other thousands who got their certs the same way. The glut of paper MCSEs that flooded the job market severely hurt the prestige of the title, and Microsoft's own training reputation took a big hit as well. In fact, having the MCSE eventually became a negative, since IT-savvy HR departments were immediately suspicious of the credential, knowing that its holders didn't need experience to get it.

Contrast that with the holy grail of IT certs, the Cisco Certified Internetworking Expert, or CCIE. In those days, you did have guaranteed employment if you obtained that title, and a six-figure salary was likely to come with it. Why? Because you couldn't get it without truly being an expert—and even lots of experts had to take that test multiple times. The CCIE is the ultimate hands-on lab practical, and employers know it; its reputation is gold.

Until recently, the MCSE's reputation was more fool's gold, but that's about to change. Although the new tests won't be as demanding as the CCIE or Red Hat exams, they'll be an order of magnitude more difficult than previous tests, for both the MCSE and MCSA. Now you'll have to get the experience before getting the credential, the way it should be. It's my prediction that the bell has tolled for the paper MCSE, and good riddance.

What does this mean for you? If you don't have Windows Server 2003 certification because you think it's worthless, it's time to take a second look; word will get out that it has real-world value. Heck, even if you do have a Windows 2003 MCSE or MCSA, you should seriously reconsider taking the tests again. That way, if in the future you're looking for work, you can point out that you have a certification that means something.

About the Author

Keith Ward is the editor in chief of Visual Studio Magazine.

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Reader Comments:

Mon, Jan 16, 2006 Cane Netherlands

I do fully agree with this article, thanks. I have several people within my company for maintaining Microsoft Windows networks. Some with good practical experience and some with the 'old' MCSE paper and practical experience. Those with the 'old' MCSE paper where a lot less as good as those with good experience in maintaining (problem/ solution ratio). More research would be needed, one thing is for sure, the 'old' MCSE paper only tells something about the capability for memorizing questions and answers (bravo) and/ or about reading capability's. The 'old' MCSE paper tells nothing about the capability for maintaining Microsoft Windows networks!

Fri, Jan 13, 2006 Anthony Anonymous

I have 9 years industry experience, completing my MCSE NT 4 in 1999. I am part qualified in 2003 but have decided to quit the industry.

The last FIVE (UK) companies I have contracted to have ALL outsourced their IT to India. Not surprisingly, the salary for a basic MCSE is almost half what it was four years ago in the UK.

At the same time the UK government is hammering IT professionals with IR35 - I pay 35% tax regardless of what I earn. With some companies advertising for MCSE 2003 system admins paying between £16-£20k it is simply no longer finacially viable to self-qualify - whether book training on my home network or sitting courses. The return is simply not there for the time out and cost of courses.

I did recently consider flying to India for a cheap bootcamp - the only way I can afford to requalify on the UK's low salaries without taking weeks out. I have always avoided them before because they get you through the exam rather than teach you what you need to know. But isn't this part of the same trend? Both jobs and training are going abroad. I am getting increasingly desperate offers from training companies with up to 60% discounts on courses but they still cannot compete on price with the sub-continent.

The clincher for me? Seeing adverts for two jobs at a company where the position of receptionist (required skills: photocopying, switchboard, and coffee making) was paying more than second-line support. Probably because you cannot outsource your front-of-house overseas...

Thu, Jul 14, 2005 Becky Nagel

Hi Kurt -- I think I know what this might be! We also published this article on our sister site -- which has ratings on it exactly as you describe! To add further complication, there's actually two versions of this article on both sites (one that's hidden on each). Also, I had another reader who read a news story on it then wondered where his comment went, but it was actually here. Sorry for all the confusing possibilities (aren't we fun ;-), but I think the might be the right answer. I'll check it out as soon as I get a minute. In the meantime, feel free to e-mail me at

Sat, Jul 9, 2005 Kurt Hudson Tempe


It wasn't just my comments that were deleted. There were lots of comments that were deleted from this "Death of Paper MCSEs" article by Keith Ward. I counted over 10 comments that contained no profanity or any other questionable comments that were simply removed. Furthermore, the rating scale for this article was removed about the same time. I think the rating was about 1.5 (possibly as high as 2.5 for this article out of a possible 5).

I have since written my own article about these simulation questions and their flaws. The article should be posted later this month on a different technical article Web site. I won't post the name of that site here because I don't want to see another one of my comments deleted.

Wed, Jun 29, 2005 Anonymous Anonymous

Try taking the exam without doing any of the simulations. A friend of mine scored in the high 900s by skipping the simulations. Not sure how long that will last, but it is better than failing because the simulations are broken.

Fri, Jun 24, 2005 Anonymous Anonymous

Did you do any research or have any forthought before cranking out this article? Seems like you read a press release from Microsoft and went to town. I get the impression that you wouldn't be able to pass the exam if it were only multiple choice. Based on the apparent lack of research you did for this article, I'd guess you'd be too lazy to study for an exam (even if it were just downloading a braindump).

Fri, Jun 24, 2005 Anonymous Anonymous

Clearly, Keith Ward is Microsoft's b*tch!

Sat, May 28, 2005 PAPER&PRACTICEMCSE South America

I really appreciated all the posts. They are much more valuable than the article itself. Read from start to finish. Great posts from everyone.

Mon, May 16, 2005 Becky Nagel Editor,

Hi Kurt -- Our apologies if your post was deleted. We've been dealing with some spam posts and yours might have accidently gotten in the mix when removing. We definitely do not remove posts just because they're negative in any way (just check the rest of the site ;-). I hope you'll take the time to repost your original comment, and again, our apologies for hassle. -- Becky (

Fri, May 13, 2005 Kurt Hudson Tempe

Wow, I made a comment about this article last night and it was removed today. I just pointed out that someone is trying to hide all the negative reaction to this article. There were no less than 32 comments two days ago. Seems like someone is deleting what they don't want other people to read. There is a story here, I think, about those trying to publish this bogus story.

Wed, May 11, 2005 Darrell Fresno

This is an EXCELLENT column. I've had my MCSE since "99" also. Where I'm employed, I work more on the front end than the back end. If I had to take the "03" MCSE exams, I wouldn't stand a chance. Do I care, not really. I'm doin well at what I'm doing, and I make decent $$. I also was suckered into the "you'll make a 6 figure income" scam that was going on then. I went from driving truck to being an IT Pro. Am I happy with my achievments...YOU BET! Don't berate the "paper MCSE", I use parts of my MCSE training every day...I'm just not a "Server God."

Wed, May 11, 2005 Anonymous Anonymous

what he said above but in english.

Mon, Apr 25, 2005 Anonymous Anonymous

Maybe it's that you didn't have a grasp of the basic. You will not aquire the basic without experience with the subject and I might add you should always be prepared to learn new basics. The animal teeth are always sharp.

Fri, Apr 22, 2005 Dudely Lubekin Sacramento, CA

As several others have mentioned, my "paper MCSE" was a stepping stone into the IT industry. I learned more in my first 8 weeks doing desktop support than I learned in my MOC 8 week coursework. From there, I was able to grab bits and pieces of my MCSE studying and apply them to my real world experience, and things finally started coming together. now, 6 years later, I have a good job, a decent salary, and a decent real-world knowledge more comparable to that which MS probably intended for their certificate holders. I'm glad they are changing the format, after years of experience I might not know the answer on paper, but could work it out sitting at a system. I still plan on attending a class to nail down the MS official expectations... Recently got my RHCT, and though it's a practical sim based exam, it was still mostly study based - I am by no means ready to administer or support a RH environment, but have a good starting knowledge.

Mon, Apr 18, 2005 Loyal Anonymous

The paper MCSE debate is as old as a degree debate. Does a college grad hold up to a guy with no degree and 20years in the field. The MCSE for pros in the field show they are keeping current on technology changes to keep value on the resume. For newbs and rookies it shows hard work and dedication to try to be noticed for hire. I hold multiple phone and multiple network certifications and have a little over 5 years of experience. I am taking tests for my MCSE2003 and even with experience I find them challenging. My problem with the sim exams is that they are scoring them poorly. A correct answer can still land you a lower score as they have a flawed way of scoring your clicks. I have server experience and work with active directory term services and more 5 days a week and in consulting on the side. I work on various environments, Wans Lans and multiple hybred systems with multiple vendors. There are litteraly hundreds of ways to do the same thing, but on the 70-290 exam there is only one way to get points scored highly and other ways, you are still correct, but not as correct as you need to be pass. They need to publish the "one correct way" to be fair to those of us who may work more in command line, or rhose of us that work more in GUI. Shortcut clicks, or not to short cut? What are you scoring? You will always have paper MCSE's and you will always have clueless people who have degrees from good schools, experience will always rule, but how do you get hired without the credentials? Leave the newbs and rookies alone, any HR person can see an MCSE versus an MCSE with 10 years experience and know that if they want to hire one on the cheap they take the first. if they want to get less errors on the network and don't mind paying more for the improved uptime then they hire the second.

Sun, Apr 17, 2005 chuku Israel

every word is right. I had my paper MCSE before doing a minute in real world but...
if you want to start working in this field it's a problem getting inside & the papaer cert can give you the required lead against other starters!
I'm now few years into IT & I truely believe that cert got no meaning...

Wed, Apr 13, 2005 BG Anonymous

I think the basis of the story is saying there was a deficiency in the NT 4.0 MCSE testing process. I went to a MCSE training school and while it did increase my knowledge and understanding of Windows it also taught how to "pass the test". There were people who had problems using the mouse but passed the tests. I also agree that at the time an MCSE was needed to open the doors. I was hired not just because of an MCSE but also because the Helpdesk manager understood part of attending the school was showing the desire to learn. A "paper" MCSE helped me get my first IT related job. Overall I think the point is as technology has improved Microsoft is making an effort to advance its testing methods to mimick other certs in the industry.

Wed, Apr 13, 2005 Bashkim Kosova

Actualy- as I see it, simulations would and are much simpler to pas then the clasic check questions! WHY- well, if you have ever seen the screen in the simulation (read:done it in real world) then you'll know what you should do. I gues for all those that know that you passed a simulation would mean that they would beleve that you could do it in real world scenario too!
I think that with simulation test the assesments are more accurate-real, and the EMPLOEES will (hopefully) appriciate it.

Wed, Apr 13, 2005 MoTsKi Philippines

MCSE Certification is the first step to get noticed. It doesn't matter if it is paper based or gained from a lot of experience. If you got it from paper, good for you. But if you got it because you have experience, your SUPER!

Tue, Apr 12, 2005 anonymous Anonymous

Good idea. So good that I think they should do the same with drivers license, CPA, bar exam, Medical license - any professional license. No one should be "able to get a high-level certification like the MCSE without having worked in the field."
My point is that the real problem with - Paper MCSEs, is that there's an assumption that having MCSE means you're a walking encyclopedia w/photographic memory & should be able to solve any & every tech problem on the fly. Why can't it just simply be a bare minimum diploma? In the legal & accounting profession, what are the expectations of someone who just passed the bar or got their CPA? Why is a new car drivers insurance rate high?

Sat, Apr 9, 2005 Cyros LA

I have 5 years experience and i earned MCSE NT4.0 in thet year 2000, i earned MCSE with MY experince and lab ,not braindump and after that i earned $ 65,000 salery , thats because i know what i learned not only MCSE paper !,
if any budy take a experince and know the technology will be success ,if only u think about MCSE,Redhat or .... paper ,then good job is not coming to u

Fri, Apr 8, 2005 RAYRAY IN THE ATL

I'm a MCSE and i earned it by using all the material i could effort to buy. Including Books, Cheet Sheets and Braindumps. I Didn't start out a master MCSE because i didn't have much experience. But, once i read the Books, Cheat Sheets and Braindump i began to learn more and more. I now work for a major company in the packing business in there Information Technology Department. With the Experience i gained under my belt now i have become a Better MCSE. I still have a long way to go what about you.........

Thu, Apr 7, 2005 Hose B Los Angeles

From the perspective of one who is trying to break into the IT field, I look at the Microsoft certification process as a logical extension of my undergraduate classes in college. For those who already work in the field and have the practical experience, my hat's off to you. But, recognize that us noobs need a place to start. Oh sure, I can get a part-time job at Best Buy, peddle some hardware and maybe give out some non-erroneous advice...but, the so-called real IT jobs require a baseline cert. It's a age old dilemma - how do you get real experience if you can't even get in the door? What few help desk jobs not already outsourced offshore require the MCSE (not MCSA). Fortunately, I have found some really great mentorship programs that, someday, I too, can act all high and mighty and look down on the non-IT underlings of the world and ruminate..."let them eat cake."

Thu, Apr 7, 2005 Jose Tampa Florida

I've been in the IT field for about 28 years. I got my MCSE 2000 and 2003, and I help maintain about 60 servers. This new Microsoft training certification is just bull****. In order to get the experience you have to get the certifications first. Anyone can get an MCP, but the MCSE certification shows promise. Hardly anyone is hired out of the street, unless they use Windows as a hobby, and show signs of greatness. Also the Microsoft examines cover so many areas in the IT field, how could anyone ever be consider proficient in so many areas at one time. One year I’m the exchange guy, the other year, I’m the terminal server guy, and the third year the company throws a wrench at me and make me the CISCO Call Manager guy. By the time I get to manage the DNS server to gain experience, I might be 103-years old. Finally, we have the Microsoft World and then the real world. I see no major changes in the hiring process and certification. If you have the credentials, they will hire you and see how you work out. You guys write like no one will hire me because I know CRITIX vs. Windows Terminal solution or NETAPP instead of the Microsoft storage and replication solution.

Thu, Apr 7, 2005 "Outraged" Ipswich , England

I have MCSE NT4, 2000 & 2003.

I think a previous comment: "a paper tech jounalist" sums up this article. The MCSE exams provide an excellent theorectical base for one's work. I never thought they proved skills competency. Indeed for example, I would not want to go for a medical operation knowing that the surgeon had little theorectical knowledge.

Any dummy knows a "network support" job is a blend of theory and practice.

Practice is practice and cannot be demonstrated by an MCSE exam sat in front of a computer, no matter how sophisticated the questions are.

Long live the Certification Programme: it proves "a baseline" from which one can build one's job skills.

Wed, Mar 30, 2005 Anonymous Anonymous

Very Good, Explained why we had so many problems with a so called MSCE we had haha

Wed, Mar 30, 2005 Anonymous Anonymous

My view is while there is no substitution for actual hands-on experience; these exams are useful for hiring managers in that they are meant to provide a baseline. There are several problems though:
a) People are dishonest – claiming certifications they have never taken on their CV (in my experience HR never do due-diligence on credentials)
b) Training courses lag behind current versions. e.g in the transition for IISv5 to v6 I went through a massive learning curve but it’s all part of an IT professionals job
c) As a CISSP I would find value in course / exam that took me through MS security architecture at a fairly deep technical level. I don’t need to know what buttons to press, but I do need to know how to build a robust service for MS shops, including complimentary components.
d) The perception I have with MSCE-type training is that there is a conflict of interest in that the course writers are MS advocates, just read form the manual and do not critically analyse the offering

Tue, Mar 29, 2005 A.B. Toronto

Rich has no clue what he is talking about - he probably just loves Linux and wants to bash Microsoft, and Anonymous obviously doesn't know that Microsoft has been known (though unofficially), to infiltrate braindump sites with incorrect questions and answers so that they are unreliable. Braindump do not work nearly as well as they used to!

Tue, Mar 29, 2005 Anonymous Redmond

Death of the paper MCSE? Please. It won't take long for braindumps have all the exam simulations listed in a step-by-step cheat sheet. Maybe you should write about something you actually know about, or are you a paper tech journalist also.

Sun, Mar 27, 2005 Miroslav Serbia & Montenegro

I need just one more exam to became MCSA,
070 – 291, bad luck or ...........

Sun, Mar 27, 2005 jj james

You've missed the point, any credital's value is set in the marketplace, not in your mind. The MCSE worth is not what you hope it to be, but how others value it. Now that Microsoft is changing it, it will be valued differently -- maybe, more inline with your expectations. Is this good or bad -- actually neither.

Sat, Mar 26, 2005 Pete Anonymous

This is quite true. The new exam will be hard to pass and should be able to judge the test-takers knowledge more accurately. This will also reduce the effectiveness of brain dumps site and force people to study hard to achive the certification.


Sat, Mar 26, 2005 Rich Cleveland

Good, no paper MCSE's, fewer Microsoft certified reps. Spells a great future for Linux. No more will Microsoft be able to get their software on the coporate network just because of the number of reps that pushed the product. Now the number will equal out between those pushing for Linux vs those who can only work on Microsoft. Cost will win out, guess who that will be? Not Microsoft! Hooray for all those Linux-Unix Pros who blasted the paper MCSE's - Microsoft took the bait! Death not of just the Paper MCSE but Microsoft as well!

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