The State of Microsoft Certification
10 years later: Where we are and where we go from here.
- By James Carrion
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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 email@example.com
and let me know what you think. While you are at it copy the Microsoft
certification program with an email as well at firstname.lastname@example.org.