SPECIAL WEEKEND UPDATE Because of the flood of IT professionals seeking to finish the Windows NT 4.0 certification exams before they expire at the end of December, Microsoft has extended the deadline for these exams from December 31, 2000 until February 28, 2001. The two-month extension is designed to eliminate what has turned into a scheduling nightmare for potential MCSE (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer) candidates, who have found testing centers to be booked around the clock through the end of the year. The grace period will allow these people to fulfill the requirements for the NT 4 version of the MCSE certification, which will expire at the end of 2001. And in a bid to keep NT 4 skills current, Microsoft has introduced a new NT 4 exam that more closely reflects that way that NT 4 is being used today, four years after its release. Microsoft says that the new exam, which will be an elective for Windows 2000-based certifications, will be available in beta form this March.

I spoke with Robert Stewart, Microsoft's general manager of training and certification, and Anne Marie McSweeney, Microsoft’s acting director of certification skills and assessment, about the changes. "We found that the testing centers that are offering the exams were literally getting booked 100 percent and, in some cases, staying open to midnight each day to satisfy the demand," Stewart said. "In the spirit of customer satisfaction, we decided to extend the dates through the end of February." Stewart noted that the demand for Windows 2000 certification is "super healthy" and said that the 2000 certification surpassed NT 4 last March and has been distancing itself from its predecessor ever since."

Microsoft's Windows certifications are designed primarily to ensure that the people planning and deploying Windows corporate rollouts have the knowledge and skill needed to do so. Four years after the release of Windows NT 4.0, it's unlikely that many corporations will be planning new NT 4 networks, and the retirement of the NT 4 exams reflect this. But NT 4 is still being used today, so Microsoft is creating a new NT 4 exam that more clearly reflects the way this OS is being used in 2000-2001. "We need a certification that is relevant for our users and partners," McSweeney told me. "So we're creating a new certification exam that tests skills about NT 4.0 in the real world today. It's a brand new exam, with a bit of Windows 2000 migration flavor. And it's also an elective of the new MSCE certification track for Windows 2000."

Microsoft has also some good news for MCSEs concerned about Whistler, the next version of Windows 2000. Many people are concerned that the arrival of Whistler in late 2001 will initiate a new round of certifications, along with the retirement of the Windows 2000 certification. But Microsoft says this isn't the case. Whistler exams will be interchangeable with Windows 2000 exams, so MCSE candidates will be able to mix and match them if necessary to obtain their certification. "Customers who pass Windows 2000 will not be required to upgrade to Whistler," McSweeney confirmed. "Whistler is in the Windows 2000 family, it's the same generation. So we're encouraging people to do 2000 and not skip a version and wait for Whistler."

Microsoft's certifications have evolved over time, and now more closely reflect the skill set that hiring managers are looking for, Stewart said. "We look at how we can make the certification valuable," he said. "What skills and attributes are hiring mangers looking for? They want people that can keep pace with technology. The new certifications reflect that." For more information about Microsoft's certification programs, please visit the Microsoft Web site