The good news about retiring the MS NT 4.0 exams

There are plenty of people in the Microsoft certification camp who are more than just a little bit bent about the company's decision to retire the Windows NT 4.0 exams at the end of this year, and the related MCP, MCP+I, MCSE, MCSE+I, MCDBA, and other certifications based on those exams at the end of next year. In fact, if you hold a certification based on Windows NT 3.51, you have until July 31, 2001 to upgrade your certification for...

Windows 2000; if your certification is based on Windows NT 4.0, you have until the end of next year--December 31, 2001 that is--to upgrade your certification for Windows 2000.

Surveys from industry analysts like IDC and the Gartner Group indicate that medium to large companies and organizations plan to migrate to Windows 2000 in more or less the following proportions:

Migrate in Percentage
2000 10
2001 20
2002 25
2003 25
after 2003 20

In plain terms, this means that Microsoft is forcing certified professionals to upgrade their credentials at the point when less than half (35%) will have started upgrading to Windows 2000 (and of those 35% who start in 2000 or 2001, half again probably won't finish migrating until 2002). If I can put words in the mouths of my colleagues, those words would be "Too much! Too soon!"

Nevertheless, MCP and related certifications are Microsoft's game and they can play it however they want to. Timing issues aside, the most interesting aspect of the new exams is the steps Microsoft is taking to protect what they call "credential value" and "exam validity."

The biggest changes to the MCSE and other Microsoft certifications from Windows NT to Windows 2000 don't just relate to the changes in content and capabilities in the software. They also relate to a change in exam design and delivery strategy. In fact, there's plenty of evidence that Microsoft noticed that MCSEs were becoming a dime a dozen, and that they have taken serious steps to ensure that the MCSE retains its value as a professional certification. Hence the notion of protecting "credential value"�coupled with the fact that MS has worked hard and long to change both the nature of the exams and how information about them gets distributed. This strategy will keep candidates from simply memorizing a bunch of facts and getting their certification as a result.

The Windows 2000 exam and certification materials repeatedly stress the notion that successful candidates must have significant hands-on experience, troubleshooting skills, and problem-solving abilities. In fact, Microsoft claims that nearly half the exam items "demand troubleshooting skills acquired through hands-on experience" and "working knowledge" of related software tools, consoles, and utilities. Likewise, they specifically mention that exam items have been "designed to discourage memorization of exam items" as a viable approach for exam preparation. New question types include operating simulated interfaces, examining information from multiple tools and administrative facilities, to address complex scenarios that do a pretty good job of matching situations you're likely to encounter on the job.

Likewise, Microsoft has tightened up its Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) and now requires test-takers to acknowledge that they may only take exams as part of the certification process. They've also taken steps to block access to multiple views of the same question banks--for instance, by not permitting individuals who take and pass all four of the Core Windows 2000 exams (70-210, 70-215, 70-216, and 70-217) to take the 70-240 Accelerated Windows 2000 exam, even if such individuals otherwise qualify. Vice-versa, those who take and pass 70-240 are not permitted to take any of the Core exams thereafter.

To some people, this is perceived as further evidence that Microsoft isn't going to rest until it really does rule the world. But I actually understand and appreciate what Microsoft's intentions are, amidst all the changes, rules, security controls, and regulations. They really do want to boost the value of the MCSE back to its pre-1998 glory days, and to make sure that what people are tested on has some bearing on what they must know how to do in the workplace. I don't fully agree with their timing or their apparently high-handed methods, but the results are unarguable, based on my own experience and reports from others who've taken the new exams. They're harder, but fairer, and they really do go after the kinds of information that practicing network professionals need to know.

I'm not sure if anything can return the value of the MCSE to its halcyon days, but Microsoft certainly is giving it a serious try!

Ed Tittel is a principal at a small content development company based in Austin, Texas, and the creator of the Exam Cram series. Ed has worked on over 30 certification-related books on Microsoft, Novell, and Sun related topics.


This was first published in November 2000

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