For those of you whose Latin is rusty, "caveat emptor" means "let the buyer beware," an admonition that certainly applies to the Microsoft training business today. As of January 1, any Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT) can teach any course--without ever taking the corresponding exam. When I became an MCT 7 years ago, I had to take the course as a student and pass an exam before I could teach the class. Taking the class helped trainers understand the mechanics of how the class ran, and passing the exam demonstrated some understanding of the product or technology. (Novell required its instructors to pass Novell exams with a higher score than other students.) The combined requirement of class attendance and exam discouraged instructors from becoming certified to teach subjects that were outside of their core skill sets.

That situation has changed. MCTs with just an MCSE certification can teach Visual Basic (VB) classes, even if they have no programming experience at all. Similarly, MCTs with the MCSD can teach Windows 2000 classes without any network management experience. The situation becomes even worse when instructors have no real-world experience and yet find themselves teaching a wide range of topics. Presuming that all instructors can effectively teach the entire range of topics that a Microsoft certified training course covers makes no sense to any rational person, yet Microsoft seems to have made just that assumption when it removed the (minimal) testing requirement for instructors.

Microsoft justified its decision by saying that MCTs should be responsible for knowing their limits and shouldn't teach what they don't understand. Conveniently, this stance absolves Microsoft of the responsibility of policing the system. The problem is that the vast majority of MCTs work for training centers and don't always get to decide what they will or won't teach. Consider, for example, what would happen if you told your boss that you weren't going to accept a job assignment. You'd probably find yourself looking for a new job. So how can MCTs refuse when their employers say, "You WILL teach this class--be ready by Monday"?

This practice doesn't occur in all Microsoft Certified Technical Education Centers (CTECs), but it happens in enough of them that the training business is beginning to see the effects. The training business has declined, and anecdotal evidence shows that satisfaction with the effectiveness of training is down. As a result, Microsoft certifications are commanding less respect. Perhaps we can attribute some of this decline to the recent economic slowdown, but I suspect the companies that pay for training are starting to wonder whether they're seeing the increased productivity that effective training should engender. When you consider that companies pay not only the cost of the classes but also salaries, benefits, and opportunity costs when their employees are away from work, training is an expensive activity that needs to deliver tangible benefits.

What can you do about this situation? First, inform training center management, Microsoft, and your own manager when training doesn't produce the results you expected. You should report the unprepared instructor who reads from the book in class, for example. You should also make noise if, a few months later, you find that the training hasn't adequately prepared you for a job that it should have prepared you for. Microsoft seeks your feedback about its courseware, and you should give it whenever possible. How a training center reacts to your concerns will let you know whether it's in business to teach or, like a used car dealership disguised as a training company, to close deals quickly and send you on your way.

Second, contact the training center before you pay for the class and ask to see the trainer's transcript and resume. You can also ask to speak with the trainer about the class. Prepare a list of questions that will help you decide whether the trainer can teach you what you need to know. If you're satisfied with what you hear, request that the sales agreement require the center to use the trainer you interviewed or refund your money. Most training centers have a policy that lets students retake a class, but that's hardly an effective way to force the centers to maintain high levels of quality because they don't lose anything when they let you sit through the class a second time. Considering that taking the same class twice costs your company a significant amount of money and productivity, finding ways to encourage training centers to provide quality training the first time makes sense.

Always remember that you're the buyer in a buyer's market. You have no good reason to accept anything less than good value for your money, and the only way Microsoft will ever change its practices is if you remind the company of that fact whenever you can.