By Michael Aldridge
When I got my first "real" IT job back in 1998, I set my sights on the most prestigious certification that existed back then: the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) certification. Sure, the first step was to become a Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP). But what did the MCP title really mean? After all, passing any Microsoft exam would enable you to become an MCP. So a developer, a database administrator, and a server administrator might all have the same generic MCP certification. This lack of specificity caused many techs – and many HR managers – to yawn at the MCP credential. Instead, techs set their sights on a certification that indicated to employers exactly what skills they possessed. For server administrators, the MCSE was that certification.
Back then, we knew what it took to become an MCSE and we knew what an MCSE could do. Even better, employers and HR managers had confidence that an MCSE could administer a Windows NT-based domain. If you had an MCSE, you really knew your stuff. The certification commanded respect.
Eventually, Microsoft introduced the Windows 2000 exam track for the MCSE. At first, Microsoft threatened to retire the MCSE credential for those who took the old NT Server 4.0 exams and did not upgrade. However, Microsoft listened to the concerns of its certified individuals and created the "MCSE on Windows NT 4.0" designation. A few years later, Microsoft created the Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA) certification as a stepping stone to the MCSE.
Fast forward to a few years ago, when Microsoft announced that the MCSA and MCSE certifications would not be available beyond the Windows Server 2003 track. Instead, the Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (MCTS) and Microsoft Certified Information Technology Professional (MCITP) certifications would be offered for the Windows Server 2008 tracks.
Many people speculated on why Microsoft abandoned the acronym of its well-known flagship certification. Some believed that the change was a result of pressure from countries that regulate the title "Engineer" and expect specific standards from those who hold this title. While this may indeed be a valid reason for changing the acronym, why didn't Microsoft simply change the E in MCSE to mean "Expert"? In 2001, MCPMag.com readers recommended that exact solution.
Some speculated that the MCSE had become devalued in the eyes of many techs and employers because of the proliferation of braindumps, which are illegal collections of questions stolen from the live exam that enable people to cheat their way to a certification. If this were true, why didn't – and doesn't – Microsoft take a firmer stance against braindump vendors and/or people who use braindumps to cheat?
Others believed that the new MCTS and MCITP certifications would address the "generic MCP" problem by adding designations to each certification title. In addition, these designations would allow Microsoft to create very specific tracks that would highlight the particular skills of a certified individual. Unfortunately, this led to certification bloat. Currently, there are a mind-boggling 59 MCTS certifications and 15 MCITP certifications. In short, it is a bewildering mess. After all, what is the real difference between an MCITP: Enterprise Desktop Support Technician on Windows 7 and an MCITP: Enterprise Desktop Administrator on Windows 7? If we techs have a tough time figuring it out, how would HR managers be expected to know? Are we indeed back to the problem of "What does it really mean to be an MCTS or an MCITP?"
We've had about six years to get used to these new designations. Correspondingly, HR and IT managers have gotten used to them as well. We've learned which MCITP tracks we should pursue, and we've worked to conquer them. And we've accepted the fact that, at some point, the MCSA and MCSE will no longer be achievable.
On April 11, 2012, Microsoft announced the launch of its new "flagship" certification, the Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE), along with the lower-level stepping stone, the Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate (MCSA). In addition, Microsoft has gone back and applied this new acronym expansion to the older iterations of these certifications. Many techs were surprised, particularly those who believed that discontinuing the MCSE was a bad idea.
But wait... everything is not back to the way it was. According to Microsoft, the new MCSE will focus on solutions, not products. And the MCSE track for IT administrators is called MCSE: Private Cloud, which deals primarily with System Center 2012, not Windows Server 2008.
Can a certification truly be a flagship certification if it is based on a technology that most companies don't use? Perhaps System Center 2012 will grow in popularity. But in my opinion, a flagship certification should be one that is the most central, the most visible, and the most popular.
Frankly, I believe this announcement creates more uncertainty than it solves. It is clear that Microsoft wants to capitalize on the acronym that most of us old-timer techs have held near and dear to our hearts. But creating a certification with the same acronym as the old server-based certification, while shifting the focus from a server technology to a management platform, is certain to cause confusion. Microsoft has announced that the old MCSA and old MCSE will continue to be lifetime certifications, so techs will continue to list those certifications on their resumes. So now when HR managers see "MCSE" on a prospective employee's resume, will they truly know what that candidate can do?
To add to the confusion, Microsoft has announced the launch of several other MCSA and MCSE tracks, such as MCSA: SQL Server 2012, MCSE: Data Platform, and MCSE: Business Intelligence. I will ask a similar question to the ones I asked earlier: What does it really mean to be an MCSE?
The new MCSA: Windows Server 2008 certification focuses on server-based technologies. Yet the MCITP: Server Administrator on Windows Server 2008 certification continues to exist. Indeed, both of these certifications are achieved by passing the same three exams: 70-640, 70-642, and 70-646.
Furthermore, the MCITP: Enterprise Administrator on Windows Server 2008 certification still exists, but there is no corresponding MCSE certification. When Windows Server 8 is released, will there be an equivalent MCSE-level certification?
As I previously mentioned, the old MCSA and MCSE certifications will continue to be lifetime certifications. But the new MCSA and MCSE certifications will require periodic recertification. Recertification is a sensitive issue with many techs. However, both Cisco and CompTIA require recertification, so it was just a matter of time before Microsoft adopted the same practice. And recertification requirements don't concern me nearly as much as the aforementioned potential for confusion does.
Over time, perhaps IT professionals, HR managers, and CIOs will grow accustomed to these new changes. In my opinion, Microsoft is about six years too late in implementing them. Had Microsoft made these changes back then, the transition would have been relatively seamless and would have eliminated most of the confusion.