Ever wish you could direct certification questions directly to a team of Microsoft employees? I had the opportunity, and I let it rip. You might be surprised just how candid some of their answers were.
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Microsoft Official Curriculum General Manager Robert Stewart, Instructional Designer Gerry Lang, and Group Manager of Content Development Dean Murray gave me their undivided attention via conference call two Fridays ago. Here’s what they said.

Why aren’t finalized Win2K MOCs available upon code release?
While the question is simple, the answer is complex. I can summarize the MOC team’s explanation by saying that in order to build, test, and distribute a quality curriculum that tracks accurately to the respective exams, the MOC team requires development and testing time after the final code is released to manufacturing.

It’s not possible, after all, for them to receive the code before it’s finished. And, what’s the option? Delay the code’s release until the MOCs are ready? That’d be foolish, in my opinion.

In addition to writing the courseware, they also need to test it. Then they need to physically reproduce the materials, burn the accompanying CDs, and coordinate distribution to thousands of training centers worldwide.

And then there’s the added emphasis on trainers, which MCTs should be happy to hear.

“We’re over-investing on trainers,” the team said. They’ve got to have the best CDs, notes, and materials. “Trainers,” the MOC team stated, “determine a class’s success.”

I wasn’t about to let them off that easily, though. After all, Redmond has already announced the retirement of our NT exams, right? If 800,000-plus MCPs have to play to their aggressive tempo, then they’re not exempt from the same demands.

Why kill off the NT 4 MCSE so soon?
You know as well as I do what most of us want to hear. You’re waiting for that news report. Admit it, you want to go to our site and see the following headline: Microsoft delays WinNT retirements.

Well, that isn’t going to happen. Instead, there’s been confusion as to how long the accelerated Windows 2000 exam, 70-240, will actually be available. Just for the record, you have until Dec. 31, 2001 to pass it.

You may have read elsewhere that this exam is to expire Dec. 31, 2000. Not true. Just remember that candidates must pass the prerequisites (Windows NT Server 4.0, Windows NT Workstation 4.0, and Windows NT Server in the Enterprise) to qualify for the accelerated exam.

Why retire the accelerated exam at all? Why shouldn’t IT pros that have earned their NT 4 MCSE be able to claim the designation in 2002?

Well, Microsoft certainly doesn’t want folks passing themselves off in 2002 as having Windows 2000 skills when all they’ve achieved is Windows NT 4 expertise. And, that’s understandable.

But can’t we compromise?

Why not retire some of the NT 4 exams, and keep TCP/IP and IIS?
Here’s where the MOC guys put their cards on the table. “What were we supposed to do?” they asked. Release Windows 2000 and then say, “Oh, by the way, all the NT 4 MCSE exams retire in nine months”?

Without the advance notice of retirement, there’d be problems. “What’s the right thing to do? If you don’t have Windows 2000 skills in two years, you’re going to be in trouble,” the MOC team said. “We would hear ‘NT 4 dried up, and now I can’t get a job.’ It’s our duty to equip MCSEs.”

The advance notice route was the one Microsoft took, even if it meant making us worried that we couldn’t do much more than tinker with the new OS or take beta classes in the interim. All the while, the knowledge that our certs were expiring raised our anxiety another notch.

I’ll have a Coke and a Xanax, please. Thanks.

I think we all agree it would have been bad having just nine months’ notice. Really bad.

But why the retirement of TCP/IP and IIS? We all know NT 4 systems are going to be in use for many years, despite the inroads that Windows 2000 is sure to make. And the IIS expertise and TCP/IP skills, especially, are going to be critical for a long time to come.

We agree, is what I heard back. In fact, TCP/IP skills are so important they’ll be tested on every Windows 2000 exam a candidate takes. To have just one test, and an elective at that, cover such skills just didn’t get it done, I was told.

And that’s when the marketing line (you knew it was coming) came: “We’re customer-satisfaction focused.”

How does the customer’s satisfaction benefit when the NT 4 exams are being retired (relatively) early?
Here’s where I appreciated the candidness of the MOC team’s answer. They shared with me feedback they’ve received as the MCSE certification process has matured.

“Our customers are telling us they want more value from Windows 2000 certification than [they received from] NT 4 certification.”

As a result, look for the bar to be raised higher. Much higher.

We’re not just talking an additional exam in the process. While the Windows 2000 MCSE requires the successful completion of seven exams, as opposed to six under the old track, the exams are going to be more difficult.

How much more difficult?

“TCP/IP’s been incorporated into the Windows 2000 classes. DNS is mandatory for Active Directory, and you have to know TCP/IP [to operate DNS properly],” the MOC team said.

Further, designing a network infrastructure, designing a directory services infrastructure, and configuring network security will now receive their own tests. In fact, I was told, “the new certification track is so comprehensive that the first four Windows 2000 exams, essentially, equal the entire Windows NT 4 MCSE.”

  • Exam 70-210: Installing, Configuring and Administering Microsoft Windows 2000 Professional
  • Exam 70-215: Installing, Configuring and Administering Microsoft Windows 2000 Server
  • Exam 70-216: Implementing and Administering a Microsoft Windows 2000 Network Infrastructure
  • Exam 70-217: Implementing and Administering a Microsoft Windows 2000 Directory Services Infrastructure

Is this a move to weed out paper MCSEs?
I’ve been called a paper MCSE. Others say MCSEs are those folks who attend a one-week boot camp, then go secure paper. So, I had to ask.

“We’re looking to strengthen the program,” they said. “We’re looking to enhance candidates’ skill sets. We’re focusing on industry needs and day-to-day job skills.”

Thus, it’s a safe bet that hands-on expertise in an enterprise environment, or a lab simulating a corporate network, will be prerequisite for passing the new slate of exams. Book-smarts alone will no longer cut the mustard, if it ever did.

How’s an IT pro supposed to keep up?
You want real world? I’m not talking seven-strangers-picked-to-live-in-Hawaii-and-travel-the-world-on-MTV’s-dime. I’m talking about the challenges that systems engineers and support personnel face every day.

I asked: How are IT professionals supposed to maintain their enterprise networks, which already command a good 50-plus hours of their week, and prepare for migration to a Windows 2000 network? Then, to top it off: How are these same IT pros, already pressed to maintain their networks and plan the deployment of a new, drastically different OS, supposed to sharpen their expertise to the level that they can pass multiple certification exams within a year-and-a-half?

If the MOC team’s answer proves true, you’ll be happy. I was told the preparation time has been accelerated, due to forthcoming improvements in the Microsoft exams and courseware. One class, combined with your real-world experience, should be sufficient for seeing you successfully through an exam, which will better test real-world expertise.

Erik Eckel is no stranger to Microsoft training. He’s invested hundreds of hours in Microsoft training classes, gone seven-for-seven on MCSE exams, and read numerous vendor and third-party training guides, manuals, and courseware binders. He’s earned MCP, MCP+I, and MCSE designations.

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