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For (Microsoft) certification, timing is everything

When to take Microsoft certifications.

Why is it a good idea to chase newer Microsoft certifications as opposed to older ones? This is a common question...

that frequently comes up in many forms. During the earliest stages of an exam's life, chasing a new certification is usually a good idea only for a limited audience within the general certification community. Some examples include:

  • Early adopters. Some organizations (especially hardware or system vendors, training companies, and other "leading edge" outfits) are forced to lead the charge into new products and platforms and need their technical people to take exams early in their life cycles. Other companies try to exploit the competitive advantages that arise from early adoption of a platform, especially while their competitors are waiting for a first service pack, or the market uptake of such products or platforms.
  • Developers or service organizations. Some organizations make their livelihoods by writing software for particular products or platforms, or by offering services or support for such products or platforms. By moving into new environments early, these companies can deliver their products or services in a timely manner--namely, before the majority of companies and organizations start to migrate from a previous generation of products or platforms to the latest generation. In many cases, membership in official Microsoft developer programs requires keeping more current on certification exams than do related certification programs such as MCSA or MCSE.
  • Training companies. Those who teach others how to use specific products or platforms must master their subject matter and learn how to work within their environments before they can adequately represent latest generation tools, technologies, products, platforms, and so forth. Likewise, membership in Microsoft training programs often requires that individuals track new exams early in their life cycles, either to teach those topics or to maintain relevant instructor credentials such as the MCSE and MCT.

For everyone else, the demographics of adoption and the availability of aftermarket training and study materials means that it's better to wait. Let me explain why.

  • Migration lag. Based on observation of the transition from Windows NT Server 3.51 to 4.0, and 4.0 to 2000, it's apparent that the majority of companies and organizations wait 18 to 24 months after a major OS release to start migrating in earnest. Common sense indicates that this means savvy Microsoft professionals should start studying and taking such exams no later than 12 to 18 months after their release to be ready when their employer is ready to take the "current generation" plunge. Of course, averages pale in comparison to real, on-the-ground requirements wherever you may work (or wish to work). So by all means anticipate real migrations by six to 12 months so you can be ready when migration gets underway in your neighborhood.
  • Aftermarket catch-up. Because Microsoft is famous for changing coverage items, updating objectives and refocusing on various technical issues between beta and initial release of commercial exams, it's often wise to wait three to six months after an exam is released before taking it. That gives publishers, practice test vendors, and other training or information outfits the opportunity to take the real exam and create relevant and useful study materials. It also gives time for a meaningful common body of exam knowledge to emerge from which individuals who don't have to sit on the leading edge can benefit. I always question study materials that ship very close (or on) the release date for an exam, because that means their content is probably based exclusively on the beta questions and other advance intelligence that authors can garner about an exam. The benefits of exposure to the "real thing" and experience with the topic cannot be overemphasized.

Given what kind of work you do, where your organization sits on the migration timeline, and how important new OSes or products may be within those contexts, you should be able to figure out when to take newer MCP exams versus older ones. Suffice it to say that given a release of Server .NET late in 2002 or early in 2003, many MCPs won't have to take the new exams (70-275, 70-276, 70-277, and 70-278) seriously until 2004 at the earliest. Thus, those whose MCSE or MCSA requirements are well underway should consider sticking to the Windows 2000-based exams. But whichever path you choose, good luck with your Microsoft certs!

For more information about the major Microsoft systems administrator certs, including listings of known Server .NET exams, please visit:
MCSE Requirements
MCSA Requirements

Ed Tittel is a principal at a small content development company based in Austin, Texas, and the creator of the Exam Cram series, and has worked on over 30 certification-related books on Microsoft, Novell, and Sun related topics. If you have a comment, question or feedback about this tip, you can contact him at

This was last published in May 2002

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