Maintaining your MCSE

The concept of obsolescence is nothing new to MCSEs. Those who were certified on the Windows NT 3.51 track needed to retest on the NT 4.0 track. MCSEs certified on the NT 4.0 track now either need to retest on the Windows 2000 track or lose the designation they worked so hard to earn. This time, however, the retesting experience will be more difficult, for two reasons. First, the exams place a premium on hands-on experience, thus raising the bar for future MCSEs. Second, Microsoft has given MCSEs a difficult deadline. If you earned your MCSE on the NT 4.0 track, your certification will be valid only until December 31, 2001. Microsoft retired the NT 4.0 exams and several popular electives on December 31, 2000, and had appeared immovable in its decision to make that date the last day to take these exams. However, Microsoft eventually yielded to the negative press and Internet newsgroup comments and announced in mid-December 2000 that the NT 4.0 and retired elective exams would be available until February 28, 2001. (See Table 1, page 52, for a list of these exams and the requirements for replacing them.) Currently, Microsoft is keeping to its decision to require any MCSE certified on the NT 4.0 track to replace these exams before December 31, 2001. So, if you haven't begun the process already, now is the time to come up with a plan for maintaining your MCSE and strategizing your exam preparation.

Streamlining the Required Exams
MCSEs who are certified on the NT 4.0 track and want to remain certified need credit for five required core exams: four of these are prescribed exams and one is a prescribed elective exam. MCSEs can take a shortcut through four of these five exams, however, as Figure 1 shows. If you passed the retired NT 4.0 exams—Exam 70-067, Exam 70-068, and Exam 70-073—you can take the accelerated track, Exam 70-240, for Win2K. You need to take the accelerated exam by the December 31, 2001, deadline.

The accelerated exam is a 4-hour exam that tests the same skills that Exam 70-210, Exam 70-215, Exam 70-216, and Exam 70-217 test. To protect the integrity of the pool of questions, however, Microsoft gives you only one attempt at passing the accelerated exam. If you fail, you need to take the four individual exams.

Don't fool yourself by thinking that the accelerated exam is easier to pass than the four individual exams, though. Because the accelerated exam tests the same skill set that the four exams cover, you need to be prepared enough to answer questions about all four subject areas at one time. Although the accelerated exam might not be any easier, the exam is an opportunity to save $400 and several hours. MCSEs certified on the NT 4.0 track can take the accelerated exam for free by requesting a voucher at the Microsoft Certified Professional Member Site at https://partnering.one.microsoft.com/mcp.

In addition to the accelerated exam or the four exams it replaces, you need to pass a Win2K design exam. You have three options for this requirement, as Figure 1 shows. You can elect to take an exam focusing on design of either Active Directory (AD—Exam 70-219), security (Exam 70-220), or network infrastructure (Exam 70-221). The design exam might be the most difficult test you must pass to maintain your MCSE certification. The design exams rely heavily on the use of case studies to test for a broad understanding of specific technology and of how the technology meets business needs.

Replacing Your Electives
In addition to needing to pass the required core and design elective exams, many MCSEs need to pass new elective exams before December 31, 2001. If both the Win2K certification track and the NT 4.0 track require that MCSEs pass two elective exams, why will some MCSEs have to pass new electives? Because along with the NT 4.0 exams, Microsoft retired several popular electives. Exams that Microsoft retired on December 31, 2000, include exams in Microsoft SQL Server 6.5, Microsoft Exchange Server 5.0, TCP/IP, and Microsoft Internet Information Server (IIS) 4.0. Table 1 lists electives that MCSEs must replace before December 31, 2001.

Both SQL Server 6.5 and Exchange Server 5.0 went through two product cycles before Microsoft retired the exams. (Two product cycles is the typical period of time for Microsoft to wait before retiring exams.) And now, at the same time MCSEs need to retest for the core exams on the Win2K track, the MCSEs who took the exams for these popular product versions also need to retest for their elective exams. MCSEs also frequently elected to take the exams in IIS 4.0 and TCP/IP because they saw these exams as easier paths to certification. Microsoft didn't update the certification exams for IIS or TCP/IP but instead incorporated that content into the Win2K exams.

If you need to replace retired electives, consider taking as electives the two Win2K design exams you didn't take to satisfy your core requirements. After you prepare for the required design exam that you elect to take, you might find that preparing for two additional design exams takes the least amount of work. This choice could make you an MCSE without having passed any exams in Microsoft BackOffice applications. This situation, however, is perfectly acceptable under the new track.

Another elective option is the new exam that Microsoft announced at the same time it announced the extension of the deadline for taking exams retired on December 31, 2000. This exam tests skills for maintaining an NT Server network but also requires skills for transitioning to Win2K. Candidates who pass this exam become Microsoft Certified Professionals (MCPs). Moreover, this exam can count as an elective exam on the Win2K MCSE certification track. The new exam will be available in beta version this spring.

Microsoft's New Testing Paradigm
With the release of NT 4.0, the number of certified professionals increased dramatically. Unfortunately, the credibility associated with the certification declined as the number of MCSEs increased. You can attribute this decline only partially to the law of supply and demand. Microsoft certification has become a big business that focuses heavily on teaching to reach certification at the expense of teaching real-world skills. Braindumps (Web sites at which examinees share test information), test-preparation software, and condensed training programs combine to decrease the value of MCSE certification in the eyes of many who make hiring decisions. Microsoft took heed of the criticism and made significant changes to certification with the Win2K certification track. You need to understand these changes before you prepare for the exams.

First, in mid-1999, Microsoft began enforcing the nondisclosure agreement (NDA) for the exams. As a result, many braindump sites that MCSE candidates used to prepare for certification no longer exist. In addition, Microsoft uses a larger pool of questions for the tests in the Win2K track, which makes the exams much more difficult for companies that make test preparation software to replicate.

The biggest change Microsoft has made is increasing the emphasis on hands-on experience, a focus I noticed with my first Win2K exam. I have passed more than 10 Win2K exams (for MCP, MCSE, and Microsoft Certified Trainer—MCT—certifications) and found that the exams' questions require knowledge beyond what you can find in the Microsoft Official Curriculum (MOC) instructor-led training material or Microsoft Press self-study training kits. Answering these questions is difficult unless you have experience implementing the Win2K features in question. To a certain extent, you could say the same thing about the NT 4.0 exams, but the number of questions that require hands-on, beyond-the-book knowledge is much greater for the Win2K exams.

In addition to emphasizing real-world experience, Microsoft formatted the exams with complex case studies and select-and-place questions (for which you need to graphically synthesize solutions) to discourage memorization (and sharing) of the questions. The new format further underscores Microsoft's commitment to test for experience and applied knowledge over theory.

Self vs. Instructor-Led Study
Most MCSEs would agree with the philosophy behind these changes. As a result of the changes, however, not only do MCSEs certified on the NT 4.0 track need to retest soon but preparation for the Win2K exams will be more difficult than preparation for the NT 4.0 exams. To help you prepare for the new Win2K exams, Microsoft has produced a variety of classroom and self-study courses that target individual exams. The quality of this curriculum is excellent, but you need to supplement this training with either hands-on experience in a production environment or with extensive lab time.

If you have the time and work in a Win2K environment or have access to sufficient lab resources, then self-study is a viable option. The key to self-study success is to go beyond the labs that the self-study material provides and actually implement and test the features that you learn about. For example, some certification tests will ask about configuration parameters two or three levels deep into the program interface; you'll be more likely to recall the necessary information if you've actually configured these parameters than if you try to remember a screen shot from a book. Of course, if you've migrated your production network to Win2K, this valuable experience replaces lab time.

If you don't have the time or access to a test environment for self-study, then instructor-led training is the way to go. As with self-study, the premium is in going beyond the provided labs and getting additional hands-on time. The step-by-step labs in most training courses are a good place to start, but you'll need additional depth and breadth of experience to build the skill sets you need to pass the exams. Look for Microsoft Certified Technical Education Centers (CTECs) with trainers who have practical experience with Win2K and who are more than just a couple of weeks ahead of you on the certification track. Microsoft began Win2K training back when Win2K was known as NT 5.0 Beta 2, which means you can locate a trainer who has 2 or more years of experience with Win2K technology even though the final release of Win2K has only been available for just over a year. Asking for trainer credentials also encourages the training centers to staff with the best.

Considering the cost of a week of training combined with a week out of the office, you'll want to make sure that you get your money's worth. Look for training providers that add value by customizing the standard classes to provide additional hands-on opportunities in real-world scenarios.

Worth the Work?
If you're just beginning the process of certification under the Win2K track, you'll be doing a lot of work between now and the December 31 deadline for MCSE maintenance. Is it worth it? The answer depends on several factors, including your job requirements, availability for training, the time and commitment trade-offs you'll make for exam preparation, and perhaps most important, whether you believe Microsoft really raises the credibility bar with the Win2K track. If the changes to MCSE certification result in renewed credibility, increased job opportunities, and career growth, then Microsoft will have succeeded.

If Win2K is going to further penetrate the enterprise environment, such success will be necessary. Microsoft needs an enterprise-level certification program that inspires confidence in the people who make hiring and purchasing decisions. Testing real-world skills with new question formats, enforcing the NDA on examinees, and creating larger question pools are a great beginning. But the forces for no-pain, easy certification will also be working hard to find ways to circumvent these changes. Will Microsoft prevail in the end? I'm betting it will. See you at the testing center.