MCSE concerns rankle IT pros

Months of confusion regarding Microsoft Corp.’s position on its Windows NT 4.0 certification exam have left some IT professionals feeling uncertain about the future of their credentials.

In 2000, the software maker announced that the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) NT 4.0 certification would expire by the end of 2001 and that IT professionals certified on NT 4.0 would have to upgrade to Windows 2000 in order for their certifications to remain valid. Some critics saw this as an attempt to strong-arm IT workers and the industry at large to migrate to Windows 2000.

In response to these complaints, Microsoft reversed its position in October. But in spite of the turnaround, some IT workers say they are still wary of the company’s policy regarding certification exams.

Certification Bandwagon

“A lot of people jumped onto the certification bandwagon in hopes of finishing the MCSE certification within six to nine months or a year,” says Matt Pierce, a network administrator at Saferent Inc., a Denver-based company that provides applicant-screening services for apartment communities. But when Microsoft announced it would retire the NT 4.0 exams, some IT workers abandoned the idea of getting certified in a technology that’s on its way out, he says.

Then, when Microsoft reversed its decision and said it wouldn’t retire NT 4.0, IT professionals lost valuable time that they could have spent preparing for the NT 4.0 exams, Pierce adds.

One compromise Microsoft offered until the end of last year was an accelerated Windows 2000 track for those who had passed three NT 4.0 exams. If an IT worker were to pass a one-shot examination, he could forgo the normal four core exams and become certified in Windows 2000. Three elective exams were also required in either case. But Microsoft stopped offering the one-shot exam in December of last year.

A network engineer at Response Computer Group Inc. in Milford, Del., who failed the accelerated exam in December, says he “doesn’t have time to study five hours a night” in addition to working and spending time with his family. The engineer, who asked not to be named, said his employer spent US$10,000 to send him to an MCSE “boot camp” to prepare for the MCSE NT 4.0 exams.

Slonacher says he was shocked when he heard that Microsoft would retire the certifications. “I didn’t think I’d lose the certification,” he says. “If you get a degree in electronic engineering, you don’t lose the engineering degree because of new technology.”

Even though Microsoft decided not to retire the MCSE NT 4.0 credential, Slonacher is skeptical as to how long it will be recognized before Microsoft begins pushing newer technologies such as .Net instead of Windows 2000.

“Everybody is still overwhelmed by Win 2k and Active Directory, even though [they have been] out for a long time,” says Pierce. As Microsoft introduces new platforms, such as .Net and XP, it’s difficult to keep up with every new technology, he says.

Anne Marie McSweeney, director of certification skills and assessment at Microsoft, says the company decided in October that it wouldn’t “decertify” any other Microsoft certificate holders. “People in the program can be assured that they are [certified] for life,” she adds.

A Change of Heart

David Sanders, general manager of Management Systems Designers Inc. in Vienna, Va., applauds Microsoft for reversing its decision last fall. This change of heart allows companies and IT professionals greater flexibility to use the technologies with which they are most comfortable, says Sanders, whose company is a certified Microsoft Solution Provider that does high-tech work for federal agencies.

Although some larger companies have specified that they want to hire people who are certified in the latest versions of Windows, NT is still very popular, notes Sanders. “When you look at the business community, NT and derivatives still dominate,” he says.

Yet some analysts think getting recertified is the only way to stay competitive in the technology industry. “If you play in this game, there is a constant recertification process,” says Dave Murphy, membership director at the International Association of Information Technology Trainers Ltd. in Elkridge, Md. And if Microsoft decides to retire a particular certification, people can simply explain on their r