MCSE concerns rankle IT pros

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

          Months of confusion regarding Microsoft'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 on to 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, 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.

          Garrette Slonacher, a network engineer at Response Computer Group in Milford, Delaware, failed the accelerated exam in December. Slonacher says he "doesn't have time to study five hours a night" in addition to working and spending time with his family. His employer spent $US10,000 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 sceptical as to how long it will be recognised 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 in Vienna, Virginia, 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 in Elkridge, Marylan.d And if Microsoft decides to retire a particular certification, people can simply explain on their résumés that they were "certified until Microsoft cancelled the exam," he adds.

          The best move for time-pressed IT workers is to be selective about their Microsoft certifications, says Pierce. "There is no need to be certified in everything Microsoft does. It's not realistic," he says. "Companies are not always quick to jump on the latest Microsoft product until multiple service packs have been released and the bugs have been eliminated."

          In addition, says Pierce, IT workers would be better prepared in the marketplace if they broadened their skills by getting certified through other vendors or organizations.

          Dash is a freelance writer in Lewes, Delaware.

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