I recently had a chance to talk with the attendees of an MCSE boot camp during the last half of their 2-week-long journey from uncertified to MCSE, and it opened my eyes to an awful truth: The MCSE certification is here to stay. Anyone who's read my articles about the Microsoft certification programs over the past 10 years knows that I'm troubled by the notion of a certification controlled by a vendor. But I guess people like having letters after their names, and human resources (HR) departments often don't take the time to evaluate people for their experience, preferring instead to filter people based on the letters after their names--so I surrender.

But if we're going to have certifications such as MCSE, Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) and the like, why not make them useful? Why not teach people what they'll actually need and use, instead of using Microsoft certification tests as a means of showcasing every Microsoft technology, no matter how little it's used? Along those lines, here are a few thoughts:
- Skip the technologies that almost nobody uses. Do we really need as many questions about NTBackup as are on the server test? Sure, I use the tool because it's free and I'm cheap, but most folks use a third-party backup tool. Ditto for SNMP, Internet Authentication Service (IAS), RRAS, PPTP, and Microsoft Certificate Server. I'm not saying that they're not good implementations of SNMP, Remote Authentication Dial-In User Service (RADIUS), IP routing, or VPN. But in my experience, most folks go to non-Microsoft vendors for those things. The Infrastructure test's depiction of a firm's multisite network built using a Windows server as the backbone IP router is ludicrous, and asking people to design networks in an imaginary universe in which Cisco Systems, Check Point Software Technologies, and a host of other vendors don't exist is silly. Worse yet, imagine if a freshly minted MCSE were to actually recommend and try to implement an all-Microsoft solution. Yikes.
- Focus on products and technologies that everyone uses or would use if they knew how. Which services can you safely disable on a Web server? How do you set up and, more important, back up and restore a share configured with one of Windows Server 2003's most attractive new services, Microsoft Volume Shadow Copy Service (VSS)?

Part of the MCSE certification is a mandatory test on the most recent version or two of Windows NT Workstation; as far as I know, you can currently get your MCSE with either the Windows XP Professional Edition or Windows 2000 Professional tests. But much of the real world still uses (and probably will use for a long time to come) Windows 9x. I use and like XP, but I wouldn't force my clients to use it. If a customer wants to use Win98, then I should be able to support it, and the Win98 test ought to be a valid substitute for the XP or Win2K tests for MCSE candidates.
- The exam should include questions about limitations in Microsoft software. For example, how can you give a user permissions to create and modify files in a folder but prevent that user from being able to delete files in the folder? Answer: In a practical sense, you can't because most file-oriented applications let you modify files by clicking File/Save, and that command first saves the current document in memory to a new file. Then, the application deletes the old file and renames the new file to the old file's name. Here's another example (this question is probably the number-one question I get from ex-Novell administrators): I've created a share that contains several folders. I set NTFS permissions on those folders to give different groups of users different access levels. How can I keep Windows from showing users folders to which they're denied access? Answer: You can't. How can I configure a user's copy of Microsoft Office Outlook 2003 to support full remote procedure call (RPC)-style connectivity to a Microsoft Exchange Server server when the user has more than one mailbox on the Exchange server? You can't. How can I set different password requirements for groups in a domain? Again, impossible. Asking questions such as these prepares a would-be Microsoft expert to be able to support people in the real world.
- When necessary, discuss third-party software. Remote Installation Service (RIS) is a neat product, but I only rarely come across clients that use it to roll out desktops. Most administrators couldn't care less about RIS; they use Symantec's Norton Ghost or similar product. So why not include a thorough set of questions about using Sysprep and Ghost in the XP test? And include questions about backup. It's a good idea to ensure that people can use some kind of backup tool, but not a good idea to require that they understand NTBackup. Why not require that the test subject answer three questions about backup, but let him or her choose whether to answer them about NTBackup, VERITAS Software's Backup Exec, UltraBac Software's UltraBac, or some other major backup software?
- Don't ask memorization questions; isn't that what Help is for? I recall a question in the NT 3.5 TCP/IP test that asked what command will dump NetBIOS names for a host, given its IP address. I knew that Nbtstat was the command, and that the option was either -A or -a, but I couldn't remember which one. (-A takes IP addresses; -a takes host names. I don't know why it's not smart enough to handle either parameter--Ping, Nslookup, and a few dozen other IP-related utilities can process either.) I found the question infuriating. What's the point of the "/?" command if I'm expected to memorize parameters? Similarly, the Win2K test asked something about the accessibility tools, a question that I could easily answer in about three clicks, had I access to a Win2K desktop. That's the whole point of a GUI.

Just imagine: If these tests really tested useful knowledge, then these certifications would be worthwhile. Of course, it'd be far better if the certification were controlled by an independent nonprofit third-party organization, but you can't have everything.