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Analysis: Why go early for Win2k MCSE; why wait

As someone who writes regularly on the topic of Windows certification, I hear regularly from lots of different members of the MCSE community---to the tune of 200-plus e-mails and phone calls every month. Since the Windows 2000 exams started to go live in June 2000, I've noticed some interesting trends inside this community that help explain why some people jump on new certifications and others wait.

There's a distinct vanguard group within the MCSE community that tends to jump on new things early and often. Microsoft itself has taken note of this, and I believe that's why they've switched from open beta tests -- where anyone who signed up could take the beta -- to invitation-only beta tests -- where only current MCSEs, development partners, instructors, those who submit regular feedback on test items, and other pro-active individuals get invited to take the exams.

According to input from numerous members of this vanguard group, the primary reasons why some candidates jump into testing early are job-related. Some of these reasons are obvious, others are not. For example:

  • Content and software developers tend to take the new exams early because they're targeting materials for the new environment that the exams test for. Or because they're targeting those exams themselves. This is especially true for technical book authors like me, and for practice test developers who need to simulate the content, look and feel of these exams.
  • Trainers who wish to teach courses to prepare other candidates for the new exams must obviously take and pass these exams as early as they can to get into the classroom with this material as soon as possible.
  • Although many organizations are still waiting, or only starting, to deploy Windows 2000, many of the engineers responsible for planning and managing the deployment of this new environment take certification tests early on to help them prepare for what is to follow next.
  • Companies and organizations with substantial investments in Windows 2000 technology--such as Compaq, Dell, and Unisys among many others--require their systems engineers and support staff to certify Windows 2000 early on in order to support their customers.
  • Job seekers who want to use an MCSE as a "foot in the door" often tackle the most current certification to maximize their chances of finding a new job. This is especially true at trade schools like ITT, the Chubb Institute, DeVry Institute and other programs where they offer shorter, more intense curricula to put students to work as soon as possible.

My informal analysis of the total population involved--including those who already have MCSEs and want to upgrade their credentials, and those who are pursuing their first MCSE certification -- suggests that this group represents less than one-third of the total population. But because these individuals will blaze the trail for others, they exercise a disproportionate influence on the lore and informal information that will guide exam preferences from here on out.

Another third of the total MCSE population will deliberately choose not to get too close to the leading edge. These individuals seem to have adopted a "wait and see" attitude toward the Windows 2000 MCSE program. Many of them plan to get moving in mid-year, or about one year behind the introduction of the core exams. Here's what this group is saying:

  • "My company has no immediate plans to upgrade. Why should I rush out and upgrade my MCSE when I won't be able to use what I learn until 2002?"
  • "I learned the hard way while prepping for Windows NT 4.0 exams that the longer you can wait to take the exam, the more help you get from books and practice tests. Why not wait if it makes my job easier?"
  • "I didn't finish my MCSE until recently. I plan to take a six-month break, at least, until I start studying again. MCSEs have lives too!"
  • "I qualified for the free 70-240 exam, and I want to pass it on my one and only try. I've already started studying, but I don't plan on taking the exam until I'm good and ready. It's worth $400 to me if I can pass." Most individuals who shared their views on this subject indicated that they thought this would happen in Q3 2001 and added that personal budget sensitivity was a strong motivator for this strategy.
  • "Microsoft says you need one year of hands-on experience with Windows 2000 before you take the exams. I'm taking them at their word and getting the experience before I start tackling the exams." This sentiment is particularly strong among those who are obtaining their first MCSE in their spare time, who want to maximize the return on their efforts.

This group doesn't appear to be driven by work-related requirements to go out and finish the new exams; rather they seem driven by a more conservative attitude where time, money or convenience is more important than immediate certification. If I had a choice, I'd be among this group myself.

The final third of the MCSE community sits between the leading and trailing edge groups. These people neither feel compelled to take Windows 2000 exams early nor can they supply strong reasons why they haven't started taking those exams yet. I suspect that this group is focused on day-to-day workload and that they'll get around to these exams when a compelling reason presents itself. So far, it's clear that this middle-of-the-pack group hasn't yet found a compelling reason to start taking the Windows 2000 exams just yet.

So what will be a compelling reason? There's nothing like an imminent deadline to get people moving. In fact, Microsoft extended the deadline for the retirement of the Windows NT 4.0 Core exams, IIS and TCP/IP in mid-December because there was more demand than seats in Prometric or Vue testing centers. I suspect demand for seats come November and December of 2001 (70-240 retires on Dec. 31, 2001) will be almost as strong for more or less the same reason. Only when most people confront the brute fact that they'll lose their MCSEs if they don't upgrade will they get moving.

The moral of the story is: It's OK to wait to take Windows 2000 MCSE exams unless you've got work-related reasons to certify now. But it's not OK to wait too long. If you plan to take 70-240--or any other exams for that matter-- in November or December of 2001, my advice is to book a seat in the testing center of your choice as far in advance as you possibly can.

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

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