Microsoft Certification: A Measure of Competence or Profit-Making Scheme?

As I write this commentary, it seems fatuous to talk about computers. On September 11, I was teaching in a hotel a few blocks from the Pentagon when flight 77 crashed into that building. The flight carried one of my college friends. And, as I know that many of you suffered far worse losses, talking about anything other than that incomprehensible attack seems almost disrespectful. But because I'm not an expert in foreign policy, aviation law, or civil liberties, I think that it'd be even more fatuous and disrespectful for me to think that I could add anything useful to the conversation. So, if you will, permit me this month to talk about another matter that isn't nearly as important, but that carries, I think, some significance and some time-sensitivity for many of us.

From September 4 through 8, I attended TechMentor in San Francisco. This terrific conference is aimed at Windows 2000 and Windows NT administrators, but it has an added certification flavor—a sort of "exam-cram" track that offered Microsoft certification tests at half price. I've never taken any of the MCSE Win2K 2000 certification tests, so this opportunity was a great convenience for me. I live a good distance from a testing center, and I don't care enough about Microsoft certification to drive 45 minutes to a testing center when I have other things to do.

Why don't I care about Microsoft certification? Well, whether it's Novell, Cisco Systems, or Microsoft, a vendor controlling certification on its own product is like a fox guarding the hen house. I like the idea of certification, but I'd prefer that an independent, nonprofit organization conduct the programs.

I'm not criticizing Microsoft; it's a profit-making company exercising its right to expand its brand or franchise and make a few more bucks. My complaint is with personnel and human resources staff members—the folks who hire techies—who have latched on to the MCSE certification as an easy, no-brains way to cull their stacks of resumes. As a result, certification has become a required guild license—a false measure of competence that can deny a capable but uncertified person a job. Whereas many MCSEs are competent or even outstanding, I've met and worked with many people who are NT experts but lack Microsoft's seal of approval. Some of the best contributors to Windows 2000 Magazine do a great job but lack MCSE certification. However, many firms mindlessly choose a freshly certified MCSE boot camper over someone with experience but no certification solely because of the Microsoft imprimatur.

Why, then, did I bother getting certified in NT 4.0 and NT 3.51? Curiosity, and the fact that many people use my books to help study for certification tests (even though I explain that the books aren't exam-cram books; they're how-to-do-your-job books). Although helping people pass the certification exams isn't a job that I asked for, it seems to be one that I have. So I periodically take the tests relevant to my books; I take them cold—no exam crams, no study guides, and no real idea of what the tests will ask.

So I jumped at the chance to take the four core tests all in one place, in one 24-hour period, and at half price. Although I can't relate to you the exact questions, and wouldn't anyway, here are my impressions:

I took the Win2K Professional exam first because I've always found the Workstation tests to be tougher than the Server tests, and I was right. As with NT 4.0 and 3.51 Workstation exams, the Win2K Pro test had a flurry of what-have-you-memorized trivia questions about things that I don't use but would, in the real world, figure out when necessary with a few mouse clicks. "How do you change between input locales, install fonts, or configure Accessibility settings?" Offhand, I don't know, but I guarantee that I could find the answers in 3 minutes with a few mouse clicks. But ask me why my workstation can ping the server but can't log on to the domain, and I suspect I'd find an absence of useful support knowledge. (That question wasn't on the test, but questions such as that are better measures of a person's worth as a problem solver than questions that you can answer with a little bit of research.) The nitpicky nature of many of the questions led me to expect to fail, but you can have a very low score—barely half the questions—and still pass. I wonder what the thought was behind that strategy? Did the test designers know that their questions were arbitrarily picky, and instead of working harder on a better set of questions, they tried to make up for the questions' quality by setting the bar low?

The Win2K Server and Network Infrastructure exams focused on the irrelevant. The Win2K Server test asked a ridiculous number of questions about Win2K's software RAID system. Most people who really need RAID 5 buy a hardware solution, not a software solution. Only about one-fifth of my job as an administrator lies in configuring storage, but the test didn't reflect that. The Network Infrastructure test asked several questions that assumed that large companies use Win2K boxes as their enterprise IP routers. I've never found anyone who uses Win2K's IP routing abilities except for small businesses and test labs. The Directory Services exam was a pretty fair review of Active Directory (AD) elements; Anyone who knows about domains, sites, organizational units (OUs), group policies, and DNS/AD interaction will pass easily,

The tests have a smaller percentage of simple "the sky is (choose one) red/green/blue/orange" questions and a larger percentage of mini-case studies. That's probably the strongest aspect of the tests and shows improvement.

But my biggest complaint about Microsoft certification: As I'm sure you know, Microsoft will decertify all MCSEs who haven't completed their Win2K certification by December 31, 2001. Although I've consulted and taught for all types and sizes of businesses, I've found very few that run AD (although plenty of labs run AD environments); instead, I've found far more NT 4.0-based domains and even NT 4.0 workstations and servers. What's the motivating factor for decertifying these professionals when the product behind their certification is very much alive, well, and in need of support expertise? Sadly, it appears the certification folks are an arm of Microsoft's marketing department.

Microsoft has every right to make this change. The injustice lies with the people outside of Microsoft who have elevated MCSE certification's importance. For those professionals for whom MCSE certification led to a start in the business, I hope that losing their certification won't mean losing their jobs. But in a time of recession, businesses must often make workforce cuts, and what better, cleaner, less arbitrary, nearly lawsuit-proof way than by flushing the newly uncertified?

According to Dian Schaffhauser of 101 Communications, Microsoft only decertified the last of the NT 3.51 MCSEs this past June. It was, in my opinion, reasonable to decertify these professionals because support and use of NT 3.51 is almost completely gone. But why NT 4.0? If anyone's listening at Microsoft, I'd ask you to reconsider. I agree that it was a good idea, business-wise, to try to motivate people to learn Win2K, as they're then more likely to recommend and use the product. But times are tough, and it'd be a shame if decertifying current NT experts made times tougher. And if anyone's listening in the Human Resources departments around the world, please stop using MCSE certification as a touchstone of competence.

Let me close this month by returning briefly to this month's larger events. This newsletter goes out to about 200,000 of you, and although I can't ever know you all, I often get nearly a thousand replies to these commentaries. So I think it's fair to say that if we haven't all become friends, that we're at least good acquaintances. So I hope I'm not presuming too much when I say that I'm thankful for those of you who are still with me, and hope that those who were taken from me—and from all of us—on September 11 have found peace.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.