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 Virtualization Review.

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