CXO

Is continuing ed an option for MCSE program?

Instead of taking six or seven tests every couple of years, does a continuing education approach to Microsoft certification make more sense? Erik Eckel thinks it does. He gives his reasons and asks for your feedback in this week's IT Certification Corner.


This isn’t your typical “My MCSE should last forever” article. Instead, it’s quite the opposite. Be careful if you visit an Internet newsgroup or TechRepublic discussion or enter an Internet chat room to discuss MCSE retirement dates. Make sure you wear an asbestos suit and a pair of dark sunglasses. The flames are liable to blind you and burn everything in their wake.

If there’s one topic that’s guaranteed to generate feedback and controversy, it’s Microsoft certification. For some reason, discussions of CompTIA exams, Cisco certifications, and Novell accreditation don’t result in the sharpened barbs and acidic rhetoric that Microsoft certification spawns.

I believe there are several reasons for this.

First, many more IT pros hold Microsoft certification than any other accreditation.

Second, in most cases, MCPs and MCSEs have had to work harder and longer at greater expense to receive their certifications. And before you hone your razor-tipped e-mails and send them my way, let me say that I’m not making comparisons between a CCIE and an MCSE, but between an MCSE and a CCNA, say, or an MCSE and a Network+ certified professional.

Third, Microsoft is releasing and retiring certifications faster than many IT departments can complete new OS and application deployments. The fast rate of new OS introductions doesn’t leave IT professionals much time to ramp up their own skills on the new platform, much less perfect their expertise to the point that they can pass a rigorous slate of new exams quickly.

What’s an IT pro to do?
Certifications demonstrate aptitude, understanding, and expertise. They do not demonstrate comprehensive and powerful knowledge, despite what some training centers and vendors might tell you.

Many in the IT industry have become jaded about Microsoft’s certification program. Some may be crestfallen following the promise of riches that never materialized. Others may still be reliving encounters they’ve had with inexperienced MCSEs.

That doesn’t mean Microsoft certification should be scrapped. It also doesn’t mean Microsoft is to blame. If you expect the world from an IT certification, you’re expecting too much. If you expect a certification to reflect an understanding of a minimum set of proven skills and expertise, you’re much more likely to have pleasant experiences when hiring certified professionals or earning an MCP or MCSE.

As mentioned in a previous column, I’ve decided to work to earn multiple Windows 2000 MCPs before the year is out. I may even add another vendor certification to my business card.

Despite all the rancor, misconceptions, and frustration, Microsoft’s certification program offers numerous benefits. Just review a recent think-tank study if you have doubts.

Changes for the better
Still, there’s plenty of room for improvement. I regularly receive comments from TechRepublic members describing ways in which certification programs could be improved. Some are, shall we say, from left field. Others have merit.

One suggestion that often arises could work well for technology professionals. Does it involve starting from scratch every few years or sitting through a four-hour, marathon testing session just to migrate skills you’ve already proven in the past and that doesn’t even earn you an MCP?

No.

IT certification should emulate the continuing education programs that architects, accountants, financial planners, attorneys, and others are required to complete in order to stay current in their professions. Why not do the same for Microsoft certification?

I know much has changed from Windows NT 4.0 to Windows 2000. However, network design principles, client system capabilities, general server usage, and other basic fundamentals haven’t changed drastically.

In the case of Windows 2000, continuing education programs could have been set up to test your understanding of the new features and options. Grab a few seminars or sit through a few online training sessions, take a test or two, and you’re good to go.

Microsoft could require that you complete a core set of exams—say, seven. Those skills would stay current for a year. Then, in the course of the next 12 months, you’d have to attend a few training seminars or visit a secure site online where you’d complete a few short assignments or even a test or two. You’d do so annually. Or you’d lose your accreditation.

Another benefit of such an ongoing certification program is that training could be targeted more specifically to a technologist’s job role. If your role places heavy emphasis on network security, you could focus on learning about new encryption protocols and firewall services. If your role places emphasis on user administration, you might elect to attend seminars on group policy usage instead.

You said it best
I’d love to take the credit for such an idea—unless you think the proposal’s lousy—but many TechRepublic members have expressed similar thoughts in the past.

Certainly, support exists for migrating Microsoft certification to a continuing education-based focus. One of the biggest problems an IT pro encounters when pursuing certification arises at home, and some of those pressures could be relieved.

Let there be no doubts or misunderstandings. If you elect to chase an IT certification, you must sacrifice leisure time that would have been spent with family and friends.

TechRepublic member Rand Hirt, a systems administrator for an insurance firm, captured the sentiment in an e-mail. He’s just completed the MCSE program, but now he’s fighting to keep it current.

“While I have begun to pursue my Win2K certification, I do wonder what value it really will have down the road, considering how fast Microsoft insists on pumping out new operating systems,” he said.

“My moment of truth came when announcing to my wife that I was beginning to prepare for my Win2K cert. She replied exasperatedly, ‘Don't they know how much of a toll this takes on a family to keep doing this?’ This response [was] based on the six-plus months it took me to get my current certification.”

Hirt, as others have written, sees value in moving to a continuing education focus.

“Once a [legal, accounting, etc.] certification is earned, it’s yours, provided that you maintain the yearly continuing education requirements,” Hirt wrote.

“This is how [another MCSE and I] think Microsoft should revise the MCSE program, which clearly is in serious trouble of becoming devalued. Operating systems are coming out too fast for someone to have to reinvent the wheel every time they want to maintain their certification. A yearly education/training/job experience requirement is a much better alternative. Basing certification solely on exams is foolish because of braindumps, etc. Also, notice that this differs from the A+ ‘it’s good forever’ model.”

Eckel’s take
The pace of technological evolution, often associated with Moore’s Law (which dictates that silicon processor power will double every 18 months), isn’t going to change anytime soon. The Economist reported in its May 10, 2001, issue that scientists believe Moore’s Law will hold true for another decade.

However, that doesn’t mean that new operating systems must come out every 18 months or that you must begin anew every time a new platform is released. The goal of a certification should be to keep your skills sharp, and moving to a continuing education focus could do just that.

Would a continuing ed approach work for Microsoft certification? Tell me what you think or post a comment below. Just remember: TechRepublic is a family-friendly site, and we can’t reprint any language the FCC considers gauche.

How do you feel about a continuing ed approach to certification?
We look forward to getting your input and hearing about your experiences regarding this topic. Join the discussion below or send the editor an e-mail.

 

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