MS certification czar talks testing

Catherine Ketcher. Site Editor

NEW ORLEANS -- Microsoft's certification program not only tests the skills of Windows admins, it can also test their patience. The changes made to the tracks and the relevancy of certification itself have a lot of admins wondering about the value of the MCSE, MCSA and so forth. went right to the source, Microsoft's head of certification and training Lutz Ziob and his lieutenant David Lowe to ask about changes to the tracks and how the company is dealing with the perception that a Windows certification just doesn't have the luster it formerly did.

Can you explain the changes made to the MCSE and MCSA certification programs in preparation for Windows Server 2003? Why was it important to make those changes?

Lutz Ziob: In morphing our certification programs, we are catering to very distinct audiences. For IT pros [who] are already in Systems Administrator (SA) or Systems Engineer (SE) jobs, it's a matter of 'what else do I have to learn?' New professionals coming into the industry will start from scratch and build their skill set. We understand the different knowledge levels

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and experience they all bring to the table and have tailored the training to them.

The certification program wouldn't have been changed if the needs of our customers and the skill set that they will want hadn't changed. We've done our homework to understand what these needs are.

Any plans to announce security certification?

Lutz Ziob: Every single MCSE and MCSA has a security job today. It could be as simple as making sure password administration is right or making sure that switches are set correctly. Instead of rushing out and getting the first 5,000 new people certified as security experts, we want to focus on bringing currently employed MCSEs and MCSAs up to the level that they need to be as quickly as possible.

As security gains more importance and more specialized roles are created, it makes sense to look at how we can cater to it. We've been extremely active in the security knowledge space in the last two years.

David Lowe: There are already ways that individuals can demonstrate their skills around security knowledge. There is a large number of important security topics covered in our training courses, and we also test a number of security-focused skills in our core MCSA and MCSE tracks. We have specific exams around security implementation and design for Windows 2000, and we will have similar exams for Windows Server 2003. We even went back to exams that were not security focused. For example, a course for application developers around XML, and we added security best practices.

But we are also listening to what our customers are saying, and we have been investigating the possibility of introducing various specializations -- not just security.

What is Microsoft doing to prevent exam piracy?

Lutz Ziob: It's an industry-wide problem. We, as the 800-pound gorilla, are more exposed than other organizations. A major effort in which we are participating, along with test providers, Cisco, IBM, Novell, and CompTIA is an industry-wide initiative, called ITCSC (IT Certification Security Council). We also spend a lot of time and energy refreshing as often as possible, extending the question pool, deploying new test item types that are more difficult to pirate, and working with law enforcement.

"We have been investigating the possibility of introducing various specializations -- not just security." -- Lowe

Some Microsoft experts say that certification has lost its luster -- that anyone can get certified -- and real world experience is what really counts. Can you respond to that point of view?

Lutz Ziob: I don't believe that candidates, or that we as providers, can equate passing an exam to years and depth of experience. But, we can effectively measure the depth of knowledge, the breadth and depth of skills, and even how the skills are being applied. If you want to know what someone has done, where they've been, and how they've gained experience, then a resume and an interview is the better way. I believe the magic is in the mix of the two: you need an effective way of demonstrating that someone has skills and knowledge and can apply it. I think the combo of the two brings the desired result.

A recent industry poll found that more than half of 2,000 respondents are not going to renew either MCSE or MCSA. Are you seeing a reduced number of applicants?

Lutz Ziob: In a few of the programs we have, such as the MCAD, which is the application developer program, our current performance is flat. But despite tough economic conditions, the MCSA and MCSE programs have grown in the past two years. Overall the whole MS certification family has been pretty steady. Many people start with a MS certification, but often they move on to managerial roles, and we lose touch with them. Even though they move in a different direction, they're still grateful that we launched their career, but it's no longer necessary to come back and get tested on the MCSE once they move into that manager role.

What training advice can you offer to those making the big leap from Windows NT 4.0 to Windows Server 2003?

David Lowe: In the NT 4.0 timeframe, we didn't make as clear a distinction between the system administrator and system engineer roles. We did that in Windows 2000 when we brought out the MCSA certification track and even more so with the Windows 2003 where we have training and certification along both those paths, specifically for those two individual roles.

For MCSEs on Windows NT 4.0, we've identified that there's a much bigger gap not only in skills but also in knowledge of concepts like Active Directory, or a new domain model. But since people who are certified on Windows NT 4.0 have already demonstrated a breadth of knowledge with that operating system and with multi-platform environments, we're also going to recognize the Windows NT 4.0 MCSE as an elective within our Windows Server 2003 MCSE track.

Lutz Ziob: There are still customers who are happy with the NT 4.0 environment and who don't see the benefit of moving on. But for SAs and SEs who have not brushed up their skills and are still at the NT 4.0 level, realistically, there is still a ton to learn. The industry has moved on in terms of server capabilities, directory services, hosting and Web services, etc. They'll have to roll up their sleeves, but if they follow this path, they will be up to snuff again.


Article: Admins curious, but not rushing to Windows Server 2003 certification

Tip: Comparing Microsoft to other IT certifications

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