Certification Crossroads

Certifications are an important part of most IT professionals’ careers. Now, with more offerings than ever, which ones can help you most?

You’ve been granted a stay of execution by the governor. When Microsoft last October decided to reverse course and not decertify Windows NT 4.0 MCSEs, system administrators across the globe let out a sigh of relief. The guillotine blade poised to separate you from your title was permanently put in storage. You rejoice; you’ll always be an MCSE.

So now what?
Moving to the latest and greatest, for one. Many MCSEs have already started upgrading their certification to Windows 2000. Microsoft reported in November that 62,000 of you had already completed the process, and 175,000 had taken at least one Win2K test. As Win2K continues to assert itself in the market, there will be a growing need for the skills demonstrated by an MCSE, so those figures are likely to remain strong. And looming on the horizon is .NET.

On top of that, there’s a new certification on the block, aimed squarely at many of you whose day-to-day job function is to keep the network running: the MCSA, or Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator. The MCSA will require passing four tests, including a new one: 70-218, Managing a Windows 2000 Network Environment. “For a lot of people, MCSA is the job they do every day of their lives,” explained a Microsoft spokesperson.

In other words, you have more certification choices in front of you than ever—stay with the old, as in NT 4.0; upgrade to the new, as in Win2K; go for the MCSA; add a new Cisco or other vendor certification to your Microsoft portfolio; or decide certification’s overrated and rely solely on experience. What you pick from this smorgasbord can, and in many cases will, affect your future.

Windows 2000 = Business
Richard Pusey’s path is taking him toward his MCSE on Win2K. Pusey is manager of network services for the IT consulting firm The Technology Group, and the new certification translates into new clients. He’s an NT 4.0 MCSE and Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA), who’s angling for his Win2K MCSE immediately. For him, it’s not about the title—it’s about new business.

“I tell my boss, I see a lot of work with upgrades and migration from NT to 2000. When clients see I have a Cisco background as well as Win2K, they’ll say ‘This guy’s the guy.’”

Certification in Pusey’s case is a lot more for the clients than for his boss.

“We need [the certifications] to sell ourselves,” said Pusey, adding that credentials tend to hold more value for those outside the IT industry than inside. “For getting jobs [from clients] for my company and my career, getting six-month or eight-month contracts, certification does matter.”

What About Small Companies?

Not all certified individuals work for large, multinational companies, of course; but even the tiniest operations see a value in being credentialed. Erik Pitti, for instance, doesn’t get a bonus for his certification—he’d only be paying himself. It does have its advantages, though; advantages like helping stay in business. Pitti runs the San Diego-based, one-man IT services company Eriksoft that he started in 1996. His clients are mostly small businesses and schools, so he mainly works on Microsoft and Apple products. He’s an MCP, having finished the NT 4.0 core.

Pitti plans on getting Win2K certified and indicated he’ll do self-training for his preparation. When you’re a small company, every job is important, Pitti said. “I think my certification closed the deal [on potential jobs] once or twice.”
—Keith Ward

It more than matters for the people who work for Michael Fontaine—it’s the difference between being employed and not being employed. Fontaine, a network architect for Booz Allen Hamilton Inc., a large consulting group with 10,000 consultants throughout the world, said certification “is absolutely essential. All my engineers need MCSEs.” Fontaine oversees some contracts his company has with the federal government, and the government requires certification in many cases.

He’s currently working on a “huge” Win2K migration for a government client, necessitating the need for the new skill set.

“All my people are going through formal training on Win2K,” Fontaine said.

Despite that, Fontaine’s also happy that Microsoft has decided to ditch decertification plans.

“Keeping the NT 4.0 MCSE certification allows us to keep qualified NT 4.0 systems engineers on NT networks without being Win2K certified,” Fontaine said.

He also echoed a familiar refrain from other MCSEs. “Our administrators and engineers now have the luxury of making a more manageable transition from NT to Win2K/XP certification using a timeline that ‘tracks’ with the migration of their respective programs to the new OS.”

Keeping certification up to date is also critical for current, as well as prospective, Microsoft Certified Trainers. Levi, Ray & Shoup is a large IT services company; one component of its services is technical training. Dan McCain, manager of Education Services for the company, hires those MCTs. Unlike much of the computer industry, he’s seen his business grow lately, with students eager to achieve their Win2K MCSE.

“We’re seeing a big pick up in our student population, but not necessarily because of the deadline,” McCain said before the announcement of the now-moot deadline. “It’s more because their companies are putting in Win2K.”

Levi Strauss & Co. hasn’t migrated to Win2K yet. It’s still running an NT 4.0 environment, which is why Fred Brand was furious originally with the decision to decertify MCSEs. “Getting my [NT 4.0] MCSE originally was a major goal of mine,” Brand said.

Brand is a senior LAN analyst at Levi’s headquarters in San Francisco. Not only is the company still using NT, but users are standardized on Windows 98. Thus, Win2K certification means little to him, career-wise, at this point.

“NT 4.0 isn’t nearly ready to go away,” Brand says. He felt that Microsoft’s reasons for dropping the NT 4.0 title was “to get people to move to Win2K” by pushing it into companies like his through its MCSE population.

His certification’s now secure, and although he still might go after his Win2K MCSE in time, he still gets work benefits from his “old” MCSE. A major one is having his opinion on IT matters respected more among other technical personnel at his company.

“The engineering department didn’t know me [and would often question his decisions], so I started adding MCSE to my e-mail signature. Once I did that, my decisions didn’t get questioned as much from other individuals,” Brand said.

“Not all certification-related perks are financial”...

A hiring manager at one of the nation’s largest managed hosting companies said certification tells him a lot about current, and future, employees. Joe Crawford is assistant vice-president of engineering at Digex Inc., headquartered in Laurel, Maryland. An MCSE on NT 4.0 himself, Crawford said there are more than 100 MCPs on staff at Digex, most of them in operations and engineering, with the rest sprinkled throughout the company. He estimates that about 80 percent of those are MCSEs.

“We believe if people are going to come here, either they’ll be certified, or they’ll get certified. We’re encouraging our NT MCSEs to get certified on Win2K. We’re not telling them to, but encouraging them to. [We tell them], ‘If you want to move up and want to grow, you’ll get certified.’ It’s a third-party validation of their expertise.”

At Digex, Crawford explained, certification isn’t about a scrap of paper and lapel pin. It’s an important part of an overall educational philosophy at the company.

“We really value employee training. If it weren’t the MCSE, it would be something else. We need to keep them trained and challenged, we need to continue having training all the time.” He added that most of his NT 4.0 MCPs and MCSEs are “very excited” about adding the Win2K certification.

An employee who gets his or her MCSE on Win2K is better situated to advance in the company, Crawford said, but not because of the title. Rather, it’s what certification says about that person. A Microsoft certified worker “is probably more likely to become a leader in the technical realm, to move up to a senior engineer position, or entry into supervising. At that level, you really have to know what you’re talking about. You need that knowledge if you’re going to be leading first-level administrators. It also says something about that person,—that they’re trying to get better.”

Crawford lays out the impact of certification in his company bluntly. “For the most part, if you have three or four employees, and two of them get certified, we’re going to look highly on those [who get certified]. We place value on those who really want to excel, who are always being challenged.”

The Perks
Some companies also give workers financial incentives to get certified. Booz Allen Hamilton, for instance.

“We give people financial recognition for certification,” said Fontaine.

But not all certification-related perks are financial. Nick Clark is IT manager for Kerber, Eck and Braeckel, a firm of certified public accountants and management consultants. He’s an NT 4.0 MCSE, and has been in the industry about six years.

Perk No. 1, he said, is “The level of respect you get, not just within the IT community, but what [others] see you can do vs. what someone else can do. Companies say ‘Hey, this guy is worth having around.’”

His company certainly thinks so. Clark said, “When I started working here, I came in with my MCP, and quickly showed them how important it was [to be certified.] Now they’re on board with certification stuff.” They’re so on board, in fact, that they want him to upgrade his certification to Win2K and have come up with a creative incentive program. They’ll pay all the freight for an MCSE boot camp as long as he stays with the company for two years after attaining it.

Certification vs. Experience
Clark gets questioned often by people he knows who want to break into IT with no experience. They want to know if they should get certified first.

“The first comment out of my mouth is, ‘Are you doing it for the money?’ You’ve got to really want to do it. The biggest thing I tell them is to get some experience and a lower-level job and work their way up; they’ve got to put in the time if they want to learn more. They’ve got to earn their stripes. I did.”

That brings up something of a chicken-and-egg question for the novice: Should you get certification first or experience first?

If you want to work for Unisys, the answer is: It depends. If you want an entry-level job, certification may be enough to get you that. If you want to be a consultant, you’d better bring more than just your MCP ID card.

Unisys has about 700 MCSEs in North America, according to Tony Neuser, director of the Microsoft solutions practice for the continent. If you want an entry-level position at Unisys and bring only your MCSE and no experience to the table, would you have at least a shot of getting hired?

“Sure. For example, Unisys has new-hire programs aimed at cultivating the skills of promising individuals who are degreed and/or certified but need some experience under their belt to increase both skills and confidence,” Neuser said.

Credentials tend to hold more value for those outside the IT industry than inside.

He’s more wary than ever, though, of those with just a title. “There’s still not that assuredness that right out of the gate, by virtue of those initials, this guy knows his stuff. Whether you’re a mechanic or doctor, you have to demonstrate what you know, and I think folks would love to see that.”

Once through the door, though, Unisys is another company that highlights the importance of certification by specific rewards. Neuser said if an employee asks, “‘If I get my MCSE, am I more likely to get a promotion or salary increase?’ Come performance evaluation time, they would be more likely to if they can show they got a certification they didn’t have before.”

Unisys employees used to get a bonus for attaining their NT 4.0 MCSE. A decision on doing something similar for the Win2K version hasn’t been made yet, Neuser said.

For some veterans, there comes a time when certification doesn’t matter in their careers, when experience is the only factor. For Ivan Gomes, for instance, titles may have been important early on, but no longer. Gomes is an NT 4.0 MCSE, CNE and Compaq ASE. As an IT consultant for the Chicago-based consulting firm Interactive Business Systems, he’s been doing high-end network design since 1989. He’s also a member of IEEE, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and the International Who’s Who for Information Technology.

For his clients, Gomes said, “Certifications aren’t essential to have. They feel that experience” is more important. For the most part, Gomes said his clients “hardly actually ask if you’re certified… Not once in the past two years has a client asked if I’ve been certified.

“They ask you questions about problems and by your answers, they feel comfortable [or not]. With the type of work I’m doing, the clientele are technical experts. They have experience.”

Gomes also serves as his company’s technical screener for prospective hires. He says he’s much less concerned with credentials than an interviewees’ problem-solving and troubleshooting skills. He handles those interviews in much the same way his potential clients do.

“I ask them technical questions and make decisions based on their answers. You can tell sometimes that they’ve learned enough to pass the exams, but when you give them real-life problems that we face in an IT environment,” the ones who aren’t ready will struggle, Gomes said.

Filling the Gap with the MCSA
What about those who don’t want to do sophisticated network design, like Gomes, and don’t have the time, energy and/or money needed for a certification as encompassing as an MCSE, but do more on their jobs than an MCP? As Unisys’ Neuser said, “There’s an awfully big gap between the one-exam MCP and seven-test MCSE; a big gap in there.”

The MCSA fills that gap like putty. The four-test credential is yet another option, and currently, it’s unclear how the industry will react to it.

For his part, Booz Allen Hamilton’s Fontaine thinks it’s a good thing. “We are also looking forward to the new Microsoft systems administrator certification. This new track will hopefully allow many of our technicians and administrators to fill positions that require technical knowledge of specific computer systems but not necessarily at the technical level of an MCSE,” Fontaine said.

Clark, IT manager for Kerber, Eck and Braeckel, is taking a “wait and see” attitude. “When I saw that, I thought, ‘Well, it’s about time.’ Now I’m doing MCSE stuff, but there’s a lot of people who fall into that category.” He added that an MCP coworker might go the MCSA route and eventually move up to the MCSE, but not Clark. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m an MCSE and I’m going to stay an MCSE.”

Responding to comments like that, Microsoft said it doesn’t want the MCSA viewed as a less important or stringent title than MCSE. Robert Stewart, Microsoft’s general manager for training and certification, said not to call the MCSA a “mid-level” title.

“We’re going to avoid using the word ‘mid-level,’ because we see it as a very valuable job function credential in itself. [Mid-level] makes it seem to be lesser than the MCSE, and we’re not applying the lesser or more [labels]. We’re saying the MCSA is a valid job function, and hundreds of thousands have that job function around the world. I think it tends to be a bit insulting to those who [will] hold that credential.”

Digex’s Crawford questions how many in IT will be satisfied with the MCSA title. He said his company will view it “probably as a stepping stone [on the way to the MCSE]. You’re not going to stop there, but it’s a way to gauge that someone’s moving in the right direction.”

For him, the MCSE is still the primary goal. “MCSE continues to be the watermark. We just encourage people to get their MCSE and if they get that [MCSA] along the way, great,” Crawford said. There will also continue to be work for those who decide not to get Win2K certified right away. “We have such a large population of both [NT and 2000 systems] that NT’s not going away, and we’ll always need people who know it.”

What Next?
That may be true, but it’s also true that, according to MCP Magazine’s August 2001 salary survey, MCSEs on Win2K earn an average of $4,400 more per year than MCSEs on NT 4.0. That’s typical of new certifications, as the law of supply and demand kicks in. It’ll undoubtedly be true in the not-too-distant future as well, when the .NET Server and XP exams are unveiled, and then the exams for the products now code-named Longhorn and Blackcomb, and then…well, you get the idea.

So, what should you do about certification? You have a plethora of options, but you would do well to heed the words of Crawford and apply them to your own career goals: “I want the kind of employee that’s going to be self-motivated and continue to grow. We view training as ongoing. No matter what level you’re at, you need to continually push yourself. [Certification] is just another step.”

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