Just when you think your Microsoft certification game plan is set, the playing field shifts. In December, the Redmond software giant announced it was reversing its decision to permit mixing and matching of exams for the Windows 2000 and .NET certification tracks. The switch met with consternation and some confusion. Here’s what you need to know about what’s really changing and how you can best move forward.

No more mix-and-match
Back in July 2001, Microsoft announced that IT professionals could earn MCSE certification by selecting from a smorgasbord of Windows 2000 and .NET exams. It even published exam numbers and titles. The idea was that IT pros would pick from available and eligible exams to piece together an MCSE.

When the new MCSA accreditation was announced, the same deal was in place; IT pros could earn the new system administrator credential by selecting from the available Windows 2000 and .NET exams listed as eligible for MCSA certification.

That all changed last month, when Microsoft announced that it’s eliminating the combined approach. Instead, Redmond will form separate tracks.

“The mix-and-match strategy wasn’t just about having a single version of the credential that spanned both platform versions,” said Dan Truax, Director of Microsoft Certification Business and Product Strategy.

At one time, based on some customer feedback Microsoft had received, Truax felt that “customers [wanted] to be able to take exams in the newer version but be able to count them back toward the older track.”

That’s not what Truax said he hears now.

“What led us to this upgrade strategy was that I very clearly heard from customers that is not what they wanted. The change we made to go from mix-and-match to a clear upgrade path was because customers said—every single person I talked to in the last six months said very clearly—I don’t want to take new exams and count them toward my old credential. If I’m taking new exams, I want to be recognized on the new version.”

Win2K and .NET: Two tracks
The impact of the announcement is simple: Windows 2000 and Windows .NET now form two tracks, not one. IT pros will earn accreditation in a single track, depending upon the exams taken.

The only catch is that if you’ve earned certification on the Windows 2000 platform, you won’t be .NET certified. But Microsoft certified professionals need not worry that their electives will be rendered ineligible or otherwise invalidated.

“Anyone who’s certified in Windows 2000 today will always be certified in Windows 2000,” Truax said. “Over time, we may retire specific exams if customer demand goes away for an exam, but we will not decertify or take that credential away from the individuals who have it.”

New upgrade exams
Although candidates who have earned Windows 2000 MCSAs or MCSEs may have thought they were already .NET certified, they’ll need to pass new upgrade exams to be certified in .NET. But they don’t have to start from scratch. Some type of accelerated tests will be offered for both the .NET MCSA and MCSE tracks. Microsoft will release more details early this year.

Truax hopes that unlike the Windows NT 4.0 to Windows 2000 Accelerated test (Exam 70-240), the .NET upgrade tests will more closely resemble regular exams. For example, IT professionals who fail the .NET upgrade exam will likely be able to give it another try.

“My overall goal is to provide our customers [with] as easy and simple and straightforward [an] upgrade path as possible,” he said. “We want this exam, from a customer experience point of view, to be as close to a normal exam as possible.”

Upgrading to a .NET MCSA or MCSE will thus require that candidates pass at least one more exam and possibly more, depending on the way the final track requirements fall out.

Eckel’s take
In retrospect, it doesn’t make much sense to combine the Windows 2000 and .NET tracks under the same program. The move to separate the two platforms is for the best, but the reversal likely adds to the distrust many certified professionals feel toward Microsoft.

Regardless, the change is occurring. Your best bet is to determine which platform you’ll be working with most and focus on it. I don’t recommend earning certification in both tracks, at least for the next year, as it’s unlikely most network administrators will need .NET certification by then. In fact, depending on your organization’s licensing decision, you may already know that your company has committed to using Windows 2000 for the next several years and is planning to skip .NET. Unless you’ll be actively working with .NET in the next year-and-a-half, Windows 2000 skills will probably suit you best.

Should you decide to move forward with .NET, though, you’ll soon be able to do so. The new .NET MCSA exams are expected to go live in the summer. The new MCSE tests, meanwhile, should go live in the fall.