Measuring Up MCPs
Anne Marie McSweeney, director of certification and skills assessment group at Microsoft, spoke to editors from Microsoft Certified Professional Magazine and CertCities.com during Fusion, the company's partner conference, which took place in Anaheim, California in July 2001.
- By Dian Schaffhauser
Tell us about the new unnamed
systems administrator and developer certifications
Microsoft announced at the conference.
When we looked at the [Windows 2000] MCSE
credential, we really did make a shift. We raised
the bar. We said, OK, to make this credential
valuable in the workplace, we need to raise the
requirements. And we need to target this to people
who are doing the designing [of the network].
We know that when we did that, there's a whole
group of people who do the implementation stuff.
They don't do the design that an MCSE would do.
When we raised the bar, we left a void.
It became apparent as we went through this big
shift that maybe people should start with the
MCP and be happy there. But something we're finding
is that while the MCP is a great entry into the
professional market, it doesn't quite have the
same definition. An MCSE—you know what kind
of job that person can do. There are all of these
exams, and you can combine them in all these different
ways to make a job function. We haven't been too
prescriptive about what those job functions are.
OK, take this and this and this exam, and this
is what you are. But the time [has come] to do
that for the system administrator... That was
really a screaming need.
We really needed to do this because there's going
to be a big population of people who a) know that
certification makes a difference to their certification
and their lives and b) [for which] there's going
to be a huge demand. When you start looking at
Windows 2000 and you look at the technology adoption
curve, we're right at the beginning. The opportunity
now is for people who are doing planning,... designing
those environments. Once that curve goes—continues
to move—then there's going to be a high demand
for people who are going to be administering that
system on a day to day basis.
We want to be cautious about positioning [the
systems administrator certification ] as "in-between."
This is a profession in and of itself. There are
people [who] are systems administrators. Just
like you can say, there's certainly nurses out
there. They don't think of their professions as
a stepping-stone to [becoming] a doctor. They
have technical skill sets that as a baseline they
share with doctors, but they certainly have a
lot of soft skills that doctors don't have. I
don't want a doctor drawing my blood—I want
a nurse. There's a difference in their professions.
I want to be careful about insulting people in
that profession, because they do have a unique
set of skills that make that profession important.
Now, are we going to test on that uniqueness?
Probably not. But we don't want it viewed as,
oh, yeah, if you're a system administrator, you're
on your way to [the MCSE]. It's an end to itself.
Certainly, there are people who go on from that
to become system engineers, just like there are
nurses who go on to become doctors.
In terms of the number of exams, we're certainly
looking at fewer than [the] seven [required by
We're doing a lot of solution concept testing
with a lot of hiring managers and end users in
medium and large sized organizations. We have
several concepts we're testing with them in terms
of the framework to see which one resonates with
them... This is the first time we've done this
We've [studied] what is the skill set that person
needs to be in this profession? Here's the skill
set. If we put this exam, this exam, and this
exam in place, would that test the skill set or
put this exam, this exam, and this exam, would
that test the skill set?
We had three or four different scenarios, potential
sets of exam combinations, including some potential
new exams. It's the first time we've actually
Usually when we put a framework together,...
we spend most of our time on the front end. Does
this skill set need a certification? Are there
some things that the system administrator would
need to know that the design engineer wouldn't
need to know on a day-to-day basis? Is there something
they need to demonstrate at that realm that we
don't have in the existing tests now?
Will "supporting" exams
be part of that—like the supporting exams
that were part of the Windows NT 4.0 certification?
We're not going in that direction. That
is a potential [direction] we might have gone
in. But what we've found is that the supporting
stuff was covered in the four exams we have for
Windows 2000. And the hope is that we'll start
integrating that stuff more as we come up with
the troubleshooting scenarios.
There would be more things about hardware. More
things about the network, maybe more basic things.
There are some exams that are overkill for this
credential. Maybe [the candidate] needs to know
concepts about things covered in our other exams,
and our other exams tend to have things at that
very high level of Bloom's Taxonomy. Can you do
this? Maybe there's another exam that covers this
at a different level - not can you do this, but
do you know what this means?
I think the key message we want to get out is
that we're going one step further in getting customer
feedback to help shape this credential.
We do like the model that some exams will count
toward the MCSE credential, so it's not a diversion
— there will exams in the MCSE core requirements
that will be in the systems administration credential
as well. It's a matter of which one, how many,
and is there some gap that's missing between those
two job functions?
We know the design exams are absolutely not going
to be a part of this.
The feedback we've gotten from people has not
been about the design element. The part they've
mostly stressed about is the year's experience.
They haven't hit on the design stuff yet. I don't
really know why. Maybe it's because reality hasn't
set in and people haven't hit that point yet.
They're kind of stressed about the aggressive
retirement. People seem to be more affected by
that than the idea that the bar's been raised
Not only do you need to keep your credentials
current [and] you have to keep yourself more current
than before, now there's this extra element of
In NT 4.0 we did have design elements in there.
But quite frankly, you can do a lot more with
Windows 2000 than you could with NT 4.0. It's
more complex, so the designing is more complex.
There are certainly design engineers. They came
to that place in a whole bunch of ways. There
are people who came from the systems administrator
world and have that kind of bent, those kinds
of skills. As well, there are design engineers
who came from the design discipline. They never
did systems administration. They always did design.
They knew how to do it, but they didn't do it
on a day-to-day basis.
What about the developer
This is focused at a different job function.
One way to look at it is the premier credentials
really combine two things: implementation and
design. So if you look at the solution developer,
that was always focused on people who design a
solution and develop it.
If you kind of look at how the certification
evolved. We're like everybody else. We started
out, our primary reason for being was to have
a credential so that the partner channel could
qualify themselves as partners. That's where our
first focus was: What kind of skill set did we
want our first partners to demonstrate?
For the solution developer, it had to be more
than just implementation. You're never going to
get to implementation if you don't have a design.
If the design is done wrong, everything is going
to go downhill from there. You'll never need the
So the solution developer has always been directed
at somebody who's more a consultant, somebody
who could really go in and define the user requirements,
architect the needs, not necessarily that coder.
The guy sitting at his desk coding an Office
application, he doesn't need to be an MCSD. He's
similar to the developer, the hardcore programmer.
When he's looking at the big picture, he's that
MCSD. When he's looking at the code, he's the
other. This development credential is targeted
at the coder.
How does Microsoft plan
to address the needs of the small and medium business
in terms of certification?
We went out and looked at the characteristics
of jobs in small, medium and large organizations
for systems administrators: what the tasks are
you do, what your environments look like, how
you rate the importance and difficulties of each
of those tasks... We did this prior to coming
out with the Windows 2000 tracks. What we really
found out is that [IT professionals in] medium
and large organizations tended—you could
group them together—they tended to behave
similarly. They tended to have the same amount
of time doing particular tasks. The computing
environments tended to be at similar levels of
The MCSE credential is really targeted at that
For small organizations, the MCSE, the MCP exams,
are, I think, overkill.
When we went out and looked at where certification
added value, where certification had an impact
in the industry, what we were finding is that
for small companies, certification wasn't that
valuable to them. It was hard to put people into
job functions, because when you're in a small
company, you're a jack-of-all-trades and job functions
were more diverse. People had to wear so many
different hats. Those companies tended not to
use certification as a hiring credential.
Some credentials we have will span from the small
organizations to the large organizations. But
when you start to talking about an Active Directory,
it's unlikely a small company's going to install
that. However, in the large companies, Active
Directory is essential.
So we're mostly focused on where we can make
a difference, which is in the medium to large
What distinguishes the
medium and large organization?
Branch offices: That's a big difference,
and adds a whole level of complexity that you
wouldn't have if you have a LAN or a home network.
You're talking about somebody who's going beyond
a LAN, and they're actually connecting over a
WAN , over the Internet or over an intranet. That's
one of the big differences.
There's an element of a lot of clients. But clients
can be anything—handhelds [and so on].
Another thing: lots of servers.
You have roaming and roving people.
Tell us about the Windows XP exams.
We strive to have the exam out in beta when it
launches. But this is one that will be early...
In order to release early, it'll have to beta
early. That means the release will hit really
close to product launch.
Will we see any new item
types in the new exams?
That's a constant. How can we better mimic
reality? In the developer world, 70-100 was our
first break into [testing] using case studies.
We like experimenting on the developer side.
I'm in the Star Trek mode now: Wouldn't it be
cool to have snippets of code that you have to
debug? We're not there yet, but certainly our
imaginations are taking us there. When technology
can keep pace with imagination you'll see us try
to break into that more.
How's Windows 2000 certification
We're ahead of where we were on NT 4.0.
Of course, we came out with the Windows 2000
exams closer to the product launch, so there's
more time to ramp up.
How will the XP/.NET exams
fit into the MCSE scheme?
Windows 2000 to .NET is an evolution.
It's not the same kind of thing as NT 4.0 to Windows
We'll have Windows 2000 Professional, or the
candidate can take Windows.NET Pro. They can take
Windows 2000 Server or they can take Windows .NET
Server. They can mix and match. The same is the
same with Net and the Directory.
Wasn't Microsoft saying
that it recommended people get Windows 2000 certification
before considering tackling .NET Server exams?
There's some grayness in the messaging.
Let me try to clarify. We're trying to tell people,
you're going to waste nothing—you're going
to have a leg up if you know Windows 2000. You're
going to be ahead of the game here... It behooves
you to learn this stuff. Then you just have an
incremental [learning] curve here.
What I think they're trying to get through in
the positioning is, why go through this? Why take
it in one giant step instead of two incremental
What are the job prospects
for IT professionals right now?
The dot-com implosion has had an effect
on job prospects. But the latest ITTA IT skills
gap study found that there's 900,000 IT jobs in
The three areas of growth are network design
and administration, programming and software engineering,
and technical support.
The other place that's really strong is in the
But I'm not going to deny that the timing hasn't
It's all about opportunity. The number one reason
individuals become certified is because it provides
better opportunities for them. And one of the
ways that translates is that you get to do more
interesting projects, you get better salaries.