The Certification Train Changes Tracks--Again

A recent Microsoft announcement about changes to the Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA) and MCSE certifications has left many IT professionals feeling railroaded yet again. If you've spent any time pursuing Microsoft certifications, you know that change and controversy are nothing new. In fact, the last time that Microsoft handled a certification upgrade without significant controversy was in 1996, when the company rolled out Windows NT 4.0. More recently, Microsoft's decision to retire the NT 4.0 MCSE exams and certifications—and the subsequent decision to retract the retirement of the credential—are now infamous and still fresh in people's minds. As a result, the company has a delicate path to tread to retain the trust of its certified professionals.

Last year, as people began to wonder whether they should certify in Windows 2000 or hold out for the Microsoft .NET exams, Microsoft announced that exams on the two tracks would be interchangeable. In other words, you could mix and match exams from the two tracks to earn MCSA or MCSE certifications. This approach made sense because it protected the Win2K track from instant obsolescence, but it wasn't adequate going forward because people who took the time to certify on the .NET exams wouldn't necessarily differentiate themselves from people who took the Win2K exams or mixed and matched. Therefore, earlier this month, Microsoft announced that the certification tracks will no longer be interchangeable. Microsoft says that in response to customer feedback, it's making the .NET certification track independent of the Win2K track and offering current Win2K MCSAs and MCSEs the chance to take one or two upgrade exams to update their certifications to .NET.

The meaning of this announcement depends on where you are with your certifications. If you're already a Win2K MCSA or MCSE, you don't have to take an update exam to remain an MCSE, so whether you want to spend the time to update your certification is up to you.

If you're just getting started with certifications and haven't invested much time and money in Win2K-related resources (e.g., books, training courses), you're almost certainly better off waiting for .NET, despite Microsoft's recommendations to the contrary. I don't mean to imply that you shouldn't study, because much of what you learn about Win2K is transferable, but you should skip the certification step unless you feel like doing it.

If you're an NT 4.0 MCSE, be prepared to have to certify on .NET (or Win2K) to retain your certification. Microsoft hasn't announced any specific plans yet with regard to NT 4.0-certified professionals, but I think it's likely that the .NET track will mark the end of the line for the NT 4.0 certification, just as the introduction of the Win2K track brought an end to the NT 3.51 track.

If you're already well into the Win2K track, you should finish that track instead of waiting for .NET so that you don't lose what you've already invested. Microsoft won't require you to take the upgrade exams to maintain your certification status, and your certification will be good at least until the next round of exams.

Microsoft has received a lot of criticism for once again changing the rules halfway through the game, and the company's claims that these changes resulted from "customer feedback" are rather dubious. However, the changes do make sense. Now the question is whether people can get past Microsoft's continued bungling of its certification program and the feelings of betrayal to see the logic behind the changes. Time will tell.

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