In my column on September 30, I wrote about Microsoft's decision to terminate free access to the Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) site for Microsoft Certified Professionals (MCPs). Elimination of this benefit, while significant, might not affect those of you who don't work directly in applications development. I jokingly told some of my students the week I wrote the article that TechNet would be the next benefit that Microsoft would eliminate.

Well folks, until last week, I had no idea of my clairvoyant abilities. On October 22, Microsoft posted a notice on its MCP Web site declaring that it would no longer provide the free 1-year subscription to TechNet for newly knighted MCSEs. Instead, Microsoft is giving new MCSEs the chance to purchase a 1-year subscription of TechNet and get a 50 percent "rebate or discount off the estimated retail price of a 1-year subscription during their first year of certification."

I love the way Microsoft makes these announcements. First, it titles the announcement "New MCP Benefits." Then, it spends the first couple paragraphs of the announcement describing, in poetic prose, how the company is "committed to ensuring that membership in the MCP program is a valuable and enduring experience." Recognizing that people rarely read beyond the first few paragraphs of press announcements, Microsoft usually buries the bad news somewhere beyond the first page of the announcement (in this case, in the 10th paragraph).

Left untouched in this list of valued benefits is the Welcome Kit's lapel pin, certificate, and wallet card, which together identify you as an MCSE. I know that whenever I have difficulties troubleshooting Windows NT, I simply dig my MCSE lapel pin out of my wife's jewelry box and attach it to my shirt collar, and, as though by magic, I instantly recognize the problem and propose a solution that works.

I should point out that Microsoft has made some changes to its benefits package that might provide benefit to MCSEs. The first is a commitment to offer discounts on products and services from selected companies to MCPs. The second is a plan to offer easier access to online benefits, including exclusive offers, on the MCP secure Web site. However, having visited what the site refers to as the "premium benefits" page, I can tell you that I didn't find any benefits that come close to a free year of TechNet.

An additional "benefit" announced by Microsoft is the potential for special promotions for selected certification exams. Apparently, Microsoft will offer the first of these promotions to MCSEs working toward the new Windows 2000 (Win2K) MCSE certifications. The company promises more information about this benefit as the release date for the exams nears. Using my trusted Outlook calendar, I've scheduled a reminder for March 15, when I'll check to see whether this benefit has materialized. Yes, I'm being optimistic—we won't likely see the release of the first Win2K exam until the third quarter of 2000.

For MCSE candidates close to achieving MCSE status, December 31, 1999, is an important date. If you pass your sixth qualifying exam by that date, Microsoft will apparently honor your entitlement under the existing benefits package and give you a free 1-year subscription to TechNet. Believe me, it'd be well worth the extra effort to complete your certification by that date.

A New Advanced Exam from Microsoft?
From what I hear, Microsoft is considering creating an advanced certification, following the lead Cisco established with its Cisco Certified Internetworking Expert (CCIE) certification. The company might call the proposed certification Microsoft Certified Network Architect (MCNA). The level of sophistication expected of the network architect would be orders of magnitude higher than that of the network engineer. The focus would not be on how to do things, but why, when, and in what situations you would do such things. This would be a Design certification.

I understand that the Certification people at Microsoft have considered a hands-on, lab-based exam (similar to the CCIE practical exam), but have put that on the back burner for now—perhaps because it's spending a lot of time and resources getting the Win2K exams ready and out the door before the announced retirement dates for the NT 3.51 and 4.0 exams. And Microsoft is apparently concerned that a hands-on, lab-based exam wouldn't be cost effective for widespread delivery. If the company follows the Cisco model and establishes regional lab testing centers that charge examinees somewhere around $1000 for the privilege of taking the exam, the issue of cost effectiveness might be moot.