Professionals who told us that their companies treat them like crown jewels. Here’s what they had to say about their companies, their benefits—and their plans to stick around.

"This is One Great Place to Work..."

We interviewed a handful of Microsoft Certified Professionals who told us that their companies treat them like crown jewels. Here’s what they had to say about their companies, their benefits—and their plans to stick around.

When you finished that final certification exam and returned to the office as a shiny new MCP (or MCSE or MCP+Internet or MCSD or…), did management roll out the red carpet? Send out email? Drop by to shake your hand and admire your transcript? Schedule a meeting to discuss a salary increase or bonus?

Or was it just another day at the office?

How you answer those questions may say a lot about how you feel about your company, how your company feels about certification, and how long you plan to work there.When we posted a reader survey on our Web site several months ago asking readers to nominate exceptional companies for MCPs, we received hundreds of nominations, ranging from tiny consulting firms with a single proud MCSE on board, to huge firms like Bank of America, Intel, Frito-Lay, IBM, and Hewlett-Packard.

In this article:

Companies Profiled:

"I Wish I'd Known About This Company Years Ago..." Readers tell us exactly why they think their company is a great place for MCPs.

Attention Managers: Are You Listening?On the other hand, readers gripe about ways to kill morale and reduce productivity at the work place.

On the nomination form, we asked respondents to answer a series of questions about how their companies treat them, especially regarding certification. Our questions ranged from the predictable—Does management pay for exams? For training? For materials? Do they offer extra compensation based on certification?—to questions about benefits, working hours, vacation time, public recognition for MCPs, and even the sorts of high-tech toys a company supplies. In answer after answer, nominators told us that their company is truly a great place to work, and why. From that list, we picked the top companies—firms that generated enough “yes” answers to make them seem truly exceptional (see the chart by clicking here). From those, we chose a handful of companies to profile—hence the six firms highlighted in this article.

Rest assured that we’re not under any illusions that these companies are the only ones out there doing special things for MCPs. Rather, we wanted to give you an idea of just how rosy the picture can be for a Microsoft Certified Professional at the right company, by showing you how some MCPs are treated.

The IT professionals that we interviewed for this story are aware that their skills are hot and that the market is similarly toasty; in fact, several told us they’re regularly contacted by head-hunters and other firms. But virtually every one also told us they have no plans to move on—they love their jobs, their companies, and the choices they’ve made. If that’s not your story, maybe it’s time to take a look at yourself and what you want, update your resume, check out some new certifications—or slide this article under the boss’s door after hours.

Investing in MCPs

It’s nested deep within the site, but log on to the Web site of First Tennessee National Corp., the parent company of First Tennessee Bank, and you’ll notice a discreetly placed hyperlink that leads to press releases touting praise from Fortune (“100 Best Companies to Work For in America,” rank: 14), BusinessWeek (first among non-S&P 500 companies with work-family strategies), and Working Mother (“100 Best Companies for Working Mothers”). Is it any wonder that FTB has ended up on our list of the best companies to work for as a Microsoft Certified Professional?

Not really, especially if you talk to Bob Robinson, a systems engineer and MCSE in the Finance and Accounting Division of FTB’s Memphis branch. He joined FTB long before it decided to adopt Windows NT in that branch two years ago.

“I love it here,” he says, citing FTB’s involvement with the community and its employee programs, which earned the bank accolades among companies much larger in size, such as PeopleSoft and Deloitte & Touche. But Robinson explains that it’s the company’s emphasis on keeping its IS personnel well-trained that makes him regard FTB so highly.

About two years ago, FTB’s key system architecture, upon which the company’s applications were running, was closing in on obsolescence, especially since the company that created the software had announced no more upgrades. To keep systems working, branch departments were given free reign to migrate to new solutions.

The Finance and Accounting department at the Memphis branch decided to base its systems on Windows NT and first looked within its company for experts who could help with the migration. One of these experts was Bob Robinson, and he had the certification to prove it. Robinson’s MCP title thus set an example for future hires.

Not all the branches use certification as a filter, but in the eyes of Joe Sutton, a vice president who oversees Robinson’s work, it’s a good indicator. “In the Finance and Accounting department, we demand a bit more experience,” Sutton explains. “We built a group that can respond quickly to problems. [A person who gets certified] is showing us initiative and a willingness to learn how to do the job better.” The certification isn’t a major factor in hiring, but “[the MCP title] plays a part,” says Robinson.

What makes the company so compelling for Robinson is that it has been liberal with his training requests, picking up the tab for off-site training and time off to attend courses, travel expenses, a few self-study products, and exam fees. As well, he has a say in where his career is headed—MCPs literally write their own tickets at FTB.

“We sit with our supervisors and fill out a personal development plan,” Robinson says. The plan maps out the employee’s goals for the coming year, including training and certification to help justify raises and bonuses.

“But [certification] doesn’t have a direct affect on bonuses or increases,” Sutton says. “It’s more indirect.”

To Robinson, the training and certification benefits are only the icing on the cake that is his job. He seems even more proud of being associated with a company that has active community outreach programs. FTB, for example, sponsors a Lesson Line phone system for teachers to use to post syllabuses, lessons, testing schedules, grades, study tips, and messages to parents. It also offers a nationally recognized Family Matters program that provides day care subsidies, telecommuting, job sharing, child- and elder-care referral services, flexible work hours, and 11 paid holidays throughout the yAtear (After all, it is a bank). And even the IS teams, while on-call 24-7, work “bankers hours” most of the time.

Take its perks for IS professionals, top it off with a record of community service and development, and you’ve got a career formula at First Tennessee National Corp. that’s like money in the bank.
—Michael Domingo

"I Wish I'd Known About This Company Years Ago..."
When you’re pleased with your employer, you’re really pleased. We asked those who nominated their companies as a great place for MCPs to tell us exactly why they think so. Some of these glowing comments left us wondering whether we shouldn’t brush off our own resumes and check some of these firms out.

“Our company has a Certification Wall with the names of each certified employee listed next to the title achieved. Our Tucson location is more than 30 percent certified and growing.”
—Donald Dockman, MCP
Keane, Inc.

“Software Architects expects new consultants to achieve their MCSD, at least at the branch where I’m employed. Their focus on certification and support helped me achieve my MCSD within three months of starting with them and my MCSE within 10 months. All certifications are displayed (framed) at the branch office, and everyone who passes an exam or achieves a certification is recognized individually at monthly company meetings.”
—Steven Smith, MCSE, MCSD
Software Architects

“My company offers $7,500 every year for training expenses. I also receive 20 paid days a year to use for personal training, in addition to two weeks paid vacation and 10 paid holidays. They pay [a bonus of] $1,000 for MCSE certification and $250 for an MCP [title]. We also can earn special incentive points that are redeemable for cool stuff like gift certificates, weekend trips, and paid days off. I wish I’d known about this company years ago.”
—Brad Mills, MCSE, MCP+Internet
CompAdept Corporation

“The general principle is that the company covers MCSE preparation. In my area, they arrange Microsoft Certified Training Providers to come in and run classes, as well as pays for books and tests.”
—Clare Gallagher, MCP
ABT Corporation

“Unisys provides a very nice Seiko Kinetic watch with both the Unisys and Microsoft logos on the dial when MCSD or MCSE certifications are obtained—and a couple of shirts to recognize each one.”
—Charles Dockery, MCSE, MCSD

“Analytical Software, Inc. (ASI) is very concerned about our education. They’ve offered current employees a $500 raise and $1,000 bonus for every test passed toward the MCSE title. When the MCSE is achieved, a $5,000 raise is awarded. ASI has also given paid time off for studying and taking exams (when the workload and profitability of the company allows for it). I’ve passed four tests towards MCSE certification and plan to take the last two [soon]. I’ve chosen self-study rather than spending the time and money on classes.”
—Alex Pierce, MCP
Analytical Software, Inc.

“We have a semi-annual certification contest among the employees. Bonuses and prizes are awarded for various categories, such as most certifications, most exams, highest score, and most improved. Prizes are awarded on both an individual and a team basis.”
—Erik J. Sawyer, MCSE+Internet, MCSD
New Technology Partners

“We have a small IS department, and I’m the first certified employee. However, my company supported me all the way and paid for all my certification expenses. [Since it’s such] a small business, I think that’s commendable.”
—James J. Kliora, MCSE
Motorola Employees Credit Union

“NCR is one of the best companies to work for [regarding] education and certification. They’ve always emphasized training and always paid for the training, travel involved, and the time necessary to take it. Depending on your business unit, you may also attend conferences such as COMDEX, TechEd, and others, as well as local trade shows and conferences. I have friends who work for other companies and NCR has been the best when it comes to training.”
—Richard Cressy, MCSE, MCP+Internet
NCR Corporation

A Perfect Job Choice

Joining tiny BlueRidge Solutions in 1997 might have been one of the best decisions Susan Mosby ever made. “I felt that they were very sincere about giving employees every opportunity to grow,” she explains. Apparently, her first impression was correct. Today, just 15 months later, she’s a general manager and junior partner in the company, as well as a full-fledged MCP in TCP/IP, Windows 95, NT Server, and NT for the Enterprise. With about 15 employees, Phoenix, Arizona-based BlueRidge Solutions is a consulting services firm that specializes in Internet, intranet, and extranet solutions, custom software development, and networking infrastructures.

Mosby said the company’s youth and small size were important factors in the company’s appeal, and in fact, the work environment at BlueRidge is flexible and relatively free of bureaucracy. “Nothing’s set in stone,” she explains. “You can negotiate your own deals.” For example, she has access to a notebook computer, works at a large-screen monitor (as does everyone in the company), has her own office, and can work from home when she chooses.

Despite its small size, the company allows employees to trade bonuses and overtime for vacation time, if preferred. And although BlueRidge officially offers two weeks vacation and one week of sick leave a year, owner Michael Pandelakis confessed, “We enforce neither.”

The company also appears to recognize the value of certification. BlueRidge has a specific per-exam training budget for any employee interested in seeking certification. (That includes the company’s receptionist/administrative assistant, who is currently pursuing certification in Access.) The budget varies depending on the difficulty of the exam and the added value that certification in that topic will bring to the company. For example, $500 might be budgeted for an employee to train for and pass a Windows 95 exam; for a Windows NT exam, the budget might be $2,000 or more. An employee can spend the allocated budget amount as he or she chooses—on training, books, or CTEC courses, for example. Whatever isn’t spent is given to the employee as a bonus upon passing that exam, and there’s an additional bonus for passing core exams such as Networking Essentials. “I’m a hands-on, self-motivated person, so this works just great for me,” Mosby says.

BlueRidge currently has three MCPs on staff, with several more people studying for their first exam for either the MCSE or MCSD program. Most people obtain their certification after joining the company.

Working for a small firm often brings a strong sense of camaraderie. “When you leave to take an exam, you’re likely to get a big good luck cheer going out the door.” And once someone achieves a certification, everyone knows immediately. “They make a big deal out of it,” Mosby explains, “mentioning it any chance they get.”

The company’s support doesn’t end when certification is attained. Fees and travel for job-related conferences and seminars are reimbursed, as are magazines, books, and professional association dues. “As long say they’re doing something that benefits the company and furthers their careers, I’ll support them,” Pandelakis explains. “If that means sending people to TechEd, a Microsoft PDC [Professional Developers Conference], or any other conference, great.”

Mosby believes that BlueRidge compensates its employees based on their overall progress—including certification. “The more knowledge and experience you gain,” she explains, “the more compensated you are. I’ve been very well compensated as I pass to higher levels.” Pandelakis insists that this doesn’t make his company unique. “The market is dynamic and open,” he explains. “You publish salary information in your magazine! I’d rather know what other people are earning than not know and lose people.”

When seeking new employees, Pandelakis always looks for certification. “We know it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re experts,” he explains, “but it does prove that they can learn and apply themselves.” The company also actively seeks certifications through its headhunting and job placement services. Likewise, when talking with potential clients Pandelakis not only stresses the certifications that apply to that engagement but encourages the prospective clients to interview the staff directly.

Mosby is proud of what she’s achieved over the past 15 months, but she’s quick to point out that a company like BlueRidge might not be for everyone. “They expect a lot from you,” she says. “But if you’re driven and self-motivated, it can be extremely rewarding.”
—Clara Parkes

The Solution Provider Advantage

Aaron Young, a consulting engineer with Corporate Software & Technology, Inc., joined his company for three reasons: “Benefits, the pay, the other perks.” Although he was already on his way to certification at his previous job as a supervisor maintaining networks for MFS Network Technologies, a company that provides EZPass for electronic tolls, he found the opportunities for learning and advancement greater at CS&T. Currently, he’s picking up as much as he can about SQL Server, Internet Information Server, and Exchange; he’s one exam away from his MCSE title.

CS&T, a Microsoft Certified Solution Provider with 300 consultants, serves Fortune 1000 clients from its headquarters in Norwood, Massachusetts and regional offices in New York City and Washington, D.C. The company provides software procurement, deployment, license management, and technology services in Microsoft, IBM, Lotus, and other technologies.

Young is part of a group of two dozen CS&T support people working for Phizer Pharmaceuticals, Inc., an international pharmaceutical company best known for developing the drug Viagra.

According to Mike Bruzik, who as CS&T’s Practice Manager at Pfizer heads up the team that Young joined a year ago, “At CS&T certification is not only valued, but is required for participation in the various bonus programs offered to employees.” MCSE certification is also a significant factor in base compensation. As a result, over 90 percent of CS&T employees at Pfizer have at least one MCP certification, and there’s a direct, long-term correlation between salary and certifications. “We also have a management-by-objectives program, in which certification may become an objective for an employee.”

For 1999 the company offers two weeks of out-of-house classroom study per staff member either at its regional headquarters in New Jersey (CS&T is a CTEC) or through outside training providers. The company provides additional work hours off for self-study and fully covers the cost of training, study materials, and exams related to certification. Self-study materials purchased for the team are put into a library for everybody to use.

Likewise, newly certified staff members get public recognition via email and company conference calls. Recently the company decided to allow its MCPs to show off their status through logos on new business cards.

CS&T values personal development, and engineers can have a succession of diverse assignments without leaving the company. For example, prior to joining the CS&T team at Pfizer, Young was deployed for six months by CS&T at the United Nations on a Banyan Vines to Windows NT 4.0 migration. “Once a technical professional spends the prescribed length of time in a position, [he or she] can transfer to a different managed services account or project team,” Bruzik said. “But winning a new post requires the employee to develop an internal track record of successful performance.”

Concludes Bruzik, “CS&T values personal and professional development. If people aren’t developing, they’re going to fall behind the technology curve… [Certification] enhances the credibility of everybody working for us, and allows CS&T to get more complex and varied types of assignments for its staff.”
—Dian Schaffhauser

Flying with Eagles

The last company David Kueffner worked for offered him a financial incentive to get certified. He’d been there 10 years. And, as he puts it, if he’d stuck around for another four months, they would have given him “another 5,000 reasons” to get certified. In spite of that enticement, he’s happy he accepted his current post as a technical analyst for Sprint Paranet.

This fast-growing Houston-based computer network services company, which employs 1,500 analysts, currently operates in 25 branch offices around the U.S.

Kueffner became interested when he heard about the firm’s approach to training and cross-training. He sat through a rigorous four-stage interview to get hired, but once in, the fun began.

Staffers receive two weeks of instructor-led training each year, as well as access to a well-stocked library of self-study materials—books, CDs, and other resources. The advantage of this approach, Kueffner says, is that “It gives us the flexibility to organize our scheduling and training.” What the employee chooses to study is a personal decision, based on where that person wants to develop his or her skills.

Once someone achieves a certification, that person’s name goes into the monthly newsletter; he or she gets recognition among peers at the monthly branch or area meeting; and a news blip goes out in the weekly branch emailer. “You’re constantly being brought before your peers to show what kind of effort you’re putting forth,” Kueffner says.

The strategy springs from the company’s goal of keeping employee turnover low. “They want to make sure you’re engaged in their activities. The compensation is good. The training is good.”

The company also provides for cross-training by allowing people to move to new positions. Kueffner, who has a background in networking and Windows NT, intends to focus on Unix this year. His reasoning? “It will benefit me when [Windows 2000] is released.”

Life at Sprint Paranet is “really geared towards eagles,” Kueffner says. “They want that 20 percent of people who shine and are always putting out the effort. Do you feel confident with this? Then go do it. You don’t want to fail, but at the same time [you want to] look for the good projects that will continually help you grow.”
—Dian Schaffhauser

Attention Managers: Are You Listening?
Obviously, not all of you are pleased with your employers. When we asked you to nominate the best companies to work for, some of you stepped up to nominate the worst. (And many of you included your names, surprisingly, which we’ve reduced to initials to protect the rashest among you.) Given the heat of the current job market, we’re not sure why some of these MCPs are still with the firms they described (in fact, some of them say they aren’t). But if you work for a company like this, maybe it’s time to schedule a heart-to-heart with your manager. If you’re still there after you finish this article, that is.

“This is a nomination for the ‘Worst Company.’ I’ve yet to receive any bonus, raise, or promotion for any of my certifications (including A+).”
—Name withheld by request, MCSE, MCP+Internet

“When, at a performance evaluation, I told [my firm] that I was going to pass my final exam for my MCSE certification the following week, I was bluntly told to my face, “Don’t expect that to make a difference.” I received—and accepted—an offer with another company the very next day with a 35 percent pay increase. Two other MCSEs there (out of five total) quit the same day I did, for the same reason: poor pay and poor recognition of our achievements. Indeed, [the company] actively discouraged me from taking classes that I had paid for at my own expense, for fear it might reduce my billable hours!”
—D.G., MCP+Internet

“I didn’t even get a ‘Congratulations’ from my manager after I passed my last test. [On] the one before that, the HR manager had to say something to him after realizing that he had not mentioned my achievement. I would like to nominate them for the ‘Least Supportive Company’.”
—Name withheld by request

“The official company policy at this time is a ridiculously low bonus of $100 when achieving MCSD or MCSE certification.”
—Name withheld by request, MCSD

“I’ve been given the excuse that, ‘as soon as you get your MCSE or other certification you will leave.’ That is the justification for not assisting in educational progress.”

“While the company has a budget for [computer-based training] materials, courses are not forthcoming. Employees are expected to study in their own time.”
— Name withheld by request, MCP

“I achieved my MCSE certification in six weeks. Now, more than six weeks later, [I was] recognized with $100. The attitude of the company is that certifications are important, but [they] don’t command any additional compensation or advancement.”
—W.E., MCSE, MCP+Internet

“I wish I were allowed ‘company time’ for studying, and that [my firm] would pay for testing. Based on past experiences, I believe that I will find it easier to move out than up...”

A High-Tech Home at Last

Steven Gould’s employment experiences over the past several years run the gamut. He’s gone from an employer who told him certification was worthless even as he worked nights to earn it, to working for a dream firm for MCPs.

After years of globe-trotting, Gould has found a high-tech home in Dallas, Texas with DRT Systems, a technology consulting firm owned by Deloitte & Touche Consulting Group. DRT provides integration services and solutions, focusing on e-commerce, to public and private sector clients across a broad range of industries. It has 12 offices throughout North America, with headquarters in Toronto. The Dallas branch where Gould works as a lead consultant has about 75 people.

Born and raised in England, Gould moved to the U.S. in 1993 and began studying for his MCSD title with a co-worker in 1995. Gould financed his studies himself, earning his MCP certification in 1996. He began working for a consulting company where, although his employer told him certification was worthless, he continued to pursue his MCSD nights and weekends.

The payoff came on the day he picked up his final MCSD exam scores at a local Microsoft Authorized Technical Education Center. A consultant from DRT noticed his scores, learned that Gould had just obtained his MCSD, and asked for his resume on the spot. Soon after, Gould joined DRT.

After years of pursuing certification with little outside support, Gould is pleased to have found a company that places a high value on certification. Not only does DRT pay for training, books, CDs, and the exams, but it also awards a bonus upon certification. For his MCSD, Gould was given two retroactive bonuses when he joined the company—one for the MCP exam he first had to pass, and another for the MCSD.

Public recognition is also part of DRT’s certification policy. Newly certified workers are recognized during the monthly company meetings, and often in the company newsletter or via email. DRT promotes its certified staffers outside the company as well. When bidding for Microsoft-related consulting jobs, Regional Manager Bill Shearer always stresses certification. “Clients respect it,” he explains. “It’s a big deal to them, and it weighs heavily in their decision.”

The company strongly encourages its employees to take at least two training courses each year to keep up to date in specific areas of technology. Ongoing technical training “is treated as part of your job,” Gould explains. DRT also pays for any courses, exams, conferences, and travel deemed necessary by management for career and skill development.

The high-tech benefits policy at DRT is, “If you can justify it, it’s yours.” Gould has been offered a notebook computer several times, but prefers to work on his own system at home. Within the next three years, Shearer intends to equip everyone with full systems (including large-screen monitors) for use at home or at client sites.

“It’s just a great company to work for,” Gould says. “Previous companies gave me no help, no recognition. I only pursued certification to improve my skills. DRT pays for my course materials, pays for my exams, and gives me a bonus when I get certified! What more could a guy ask for?”

Despite several calls a week from recruiters, Gould has no immediate plans to leave DRT. “I’m quite happy here,” he says. “The president of our company started off as a consultant on the same level as I am. Now, 20 years later, he’s the president. So who knows—I might stick around that long!”
—Clara Parkes

Giving Credit Where It’s Due

Here’s how much Star One Federal Credit Union values its first MCSE, Fred Shuherk. Between the time he nominated the firm as a great place to work, to when we finally tracked him down for an interview, he was promoted to Senior Web Specialist at the 100-person non-profit in the heart of Silicon Valley. In his new position, he’ll help administer the company’s IIS 4.0 Server and its interface with Micorsoft SQL Server, along with other products and technologies. The promotion, he says, is “a direct result of obtaining my MCSE and MCP+Internet certifications… They probably wouldn’t have given me the support and administration of [the intranet site] without the MCP+I title.”

“I started out as an associate” at Star One, Shuherk says, “a little guy on the bottom floor” with a background in finance, PCs, and computer operations. He earned his Microsoft certifications without spending a cent of his own money. Instead, Star One picked up the tab for everything.
In the three years he’s been at the credit union, his income has increased significantly—as much as 30 percent. And despite being in the heart of high-tech Silicon Valley, Shuherk says the company has no problem keeping employees. “The turnover is very low. People stay here a long time… The average employee stays six to seven years” and many stay beyond 20 years. “That’s huge for a company this size.”

Star One, one of the largest federal credit unions in the country and among the largest in California, boasts $1.6 billion in assets and employees. Shuherk supports a range of Microsoft products including Windows NT, Internet Information Server, SQL Server, a RAS server, NT Workstation, Windows 95, and Exchange Server.

To promote certification, the company paid for outside instruction first, then purchased a set of self-study materials (a $2,500 package of books, CDs, and other materials from Platinum Technologies). Shuherk also used the free “Pep” practice exams from Microsoft’s MCP site. He says that management encouraged him all the way. “My boss would say, ‘If you need time out to study, go to the lunchroom for an hour.” Shuherk felt support from top management on down, he says, including payment of a bonus upon certification.

In fact, when he failed one exam in the MCSE series (the only test he took twice), he returned to the company dejected, only to be told, “Don’t even worry about the money; that’s part of the process.” Now a second employee has become an MCSE, several others are in progress, and Shuherk says he and colleagues are “pressuring” another. “We’re telling her, ‘Come on; it’s great. Come on.’”
—Linda Briggs

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