Microsoft Upgrades Its Top Certification

REDMOND, Wash., May 22, 2000 — Microsoft is making it more challenging than ever for technology professionals to become Microsoft Certified Systems Engineers.

With many companies expected to adopt Windows 2000, and the need for more highly skilled workers to help them plan and manage that migration, Microsoft is raising the bar for MCSE candidates by revamping the tests required for its new MCSE Windows 2000 credential — including rigorous testing for real-world skills. Not only must the next generation of MCSEs know how to design, develop and manage Windows 2000 applications and related Microsoft server products, they must also prove their skills and experience on new performance-based exams that test hands-on experience rather than rote memorization of facts.

“The people who become certified on Windows 2000 will be the cream of the crop,”
said Donna Senko, Microsoft’s director of certification and skills assessment.
“This credential is going to have high value in the marketplace.”

Microsoft began offering limited beta editions of the new exams in April, and expects to broadly release live versions later this year. Although Microsoft will retire the Windows NT 4.0 exams by December, MCSEs and other technology professionals will have another 12 months — until Dec. 31, 2001 — to pass the new tests and retain their MCSE certification.

Hands-on Experience

Microsoft looked within the information technology industry to base these changes on. The response was clear: If you want to be an MCSE,
“you really need the hands-on experience,”
said Andy Meyer, chief operating officer for Omnitech Corporate Solutions, an IT consulting firm in Englewood, N.J., that employs nine MCSEs.

A job-tasks analysis conducted by Southern Illinois University reached the same conclusion. The analysis, which included more than 2,800 technology professionals in 85 countries, found troubleshooting, design and analysis were the most important job tasks for these workers.

These real-world skills form the foundation of the new MCSE certification, Senko said.

“Microsoft realizes a vast majority of current MCSEs have the necessary experience and skills,”
she said.
“But we want to eliminate any doubt for companies that rely on these technology professionals day in and day out. We have done this by creating a certification system that ensures those who pass the tests have the necessary experience and skills.”

Microsoft worked with more than 200 veteran technology professionals to determine the specific knowledge and abilities MCSEs need. These professionals then helped write and review each of the hundreds of questions created for the tests.

“These people are in the trenches. They are doing the job,”
said Kris Vezina, Microsoft’s group manager for exam content development.
“They helped us determine the right things to ask and craft the questions correctly.”

The Windows 2000 exams also test MCSE candidates in new ways. In-depth case studies and problem-solving scenarios require test-takers to synthesize their knowledge and demonstrate their skills to complete tasks MCSEs face every day. For example, test-takers might be given a diagram of a computer network and asked to assign duties to individual computers based on each PC’s specifications. They do this by selecting and pasting information on the computer screen.

Along with such
“select and place”
questions, there are
“hot areas.”
These questions pop up on the computer screen and require test-takers to select correct options as they complete simulated tasks.

MCSE candidates must pass five core exams and two electives to receive the new Windows 2000 certification. Those who have passed all three Windows NT 4.0 exams are one step ahead. They have the option of taking the
“accelerated”
exam, which covers four of the five requirements. This exam is offered one time free of charge.

Microsoft expects MCSE candidates to need at least a year of hands-on experience installing and administering a network operating system to pass the tests. Employees from IntelliNet agree. Five who took beta versions of the new exams were impressed by the rigor, said Gary Simon, education consultant for the Atlanta, Ga., firm that offers consulting, education, planning and deployment of new technology. They all agreed, Simon said, that it would be
“virtually impossible”
to pass the new tests by simply studying from books or attending classes.

“If you want the new MCSE certification, it is essential you have experience,”
Simon said.

High demand

The rigor of the new tests may reduce the number of MCSEs, Senko said. But she added, those who upgrade will be the best and most qualified.

They should also have plenty of work, experts predict, as companies and businesses shift to Windows 2000 over the next few year. A study by the Gartner Group predicts Windows 2000 will be the most prevalent network operating system by 2001, with annual sales of as much as $50 million. A million and a half copies of the upgraded operating system sold in the first two months of its release in February — not including enterprise agreements with large corporate accounts. That’s four times the rate of Windows NT. As a result, Gartner analyst Michael Silver expects the worldwide market for Windows 2000-related services to grow as businesses and organizations trust more of their operations to the new operating system.

“A lot of organizations are looking to put mission-critical projects and servers on Windows 2000,”
Silver told PC Week Online.
“IT managers feel they are risking their businesses on this operating system, and they really want someone who has some good experience and know-how.”

By 2003, Silver predicts 90 percent of organizations will have hired outside support to deploy Windows 2000. That compares to 50 percent that used service providers to prepare for the shift.

Companies are eager for IT professionals who have demonstrated their knowledge with Windows 2000.
“These elite technology professionals can expect plenty of work and rising pay,”
said Chris Gurko, a network engineer at Business Technologies Inc. (BTI) in Cleveland, Ohio.
“Companies that are making the migration are looking for experienced professionals to help them deploy and support Windows 2000. Many just need someone on board to begin the planning process for migration down the road.”

Getting ready

To gain the skills needed for the new MCSE exams, technology professionals have a variety of options, including online, instructor-led and self-study courses — or a combination of all three, called hybrid training. The training is available through Microsoft Certified Technical Education Centers (Microsoft CTECs) and independent courseware vendors. Other self-paced options include Microsoft Press materials. In addition, Microsoft has created the Microsoft Certified Professional Practice Test Provider Program to provide practice materials that allow MCSE candidates with hands-on experience to test their knowledge prior to taking the real exams. In addition, Microsoft’s Practice Test Provider Program evaluates practice test providers to help candidates select products that offer the highest quality.

MCSE candidates also have two options for taking the new tests. Prometric and Virtual University Enterprises administer the exams worldwide.

Concerns

TTThe transition to the new certification standard has raised questions among technology professionals. Some have asked why current MCSEs get only one chance to pass the accelerated exam. The reason, Senko said, is to preserve testing integrity. Microsoft wants to ensure those who take the accelerated exam pass based on skills and knowledge, not repeated test taking, which can provide an unfair advantage, she said. Those who fail the accelerated test, or who consider it too comprehensive, can take the four core exams individually.

The timing of Microsoft’s retirement of the Windows NT 4.0 certification track has also raised questions. Why retire the MCSE NT 4.0 track early, some technology professionals ask, when the historic pattern has been to retain tracks for two versions of a product? Senko said the pace of technology is changing faster than ever before, with new innovations emerging every 12 to 18 months.

“People who want to stay current in the marketplace need to understand they have to move with the technology,”
she said.
“The industry is incredibly dynamic and we want a credential that reflects this.”

Although some organizations might not plan to switch to Windows 2000 for more than a year, Senko said that MCSEs and other technology professionals would be wise to get upgraded as soon as possible to help plan for the switch.
“We are providing candidates time to plan their certification goals, acquire the new skills and prepare for exams,”
she explained.

Omnitech’s Meyer expects all nine of the consulting firm’s MCSEs to get upgraded by the end of the year. One of those MCSEs recently completed the new testing. His assessment?
“Very tough,”
Meyer said.
“That is what we’ve needed. It sets a standard.”

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