It's often been said—with an appropriate degree of sarcasm—that the nice thing about IT standards is that there are so many to choose from. This situation is certainly true of objective standards that are supposed to measure knowledge, such as the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) credential that you're no doubt familiar with. Microsoft has often been taken to task for the fact that many MCSE holders crammed their brains with test-related knowledge, passed the tests, then went on to get jobs for which they were not necessarily qualified. Microsoft Learning has attacked this problem by steadily adding simulations and other performance-based components to the exam. However, Cisco's IT credentials, such as the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE), remain the gold standard in the eyes of many hiring managers.

For a look at why Cisco's program is rated so highly, take a look at the CCIE requirements. Each specialization of CCIE (for example, CCIE Voice) requires you to take a lengthy, and complex, written test—and then you have to pass an eight-hour, $1,400 lab exam. Here's what Cisco says about the CCIE Routing and Switching lab:

"The Cisco documentation CD is available in the lab room, but the exam assumes knowledge of the more common protocols and technologies. As of March 2006, the documentation can only be navigated using the index; the search function has been disabled. No outside reference materials are permitted in the lab room. You must report any suspected equipment issues to the proctor during the exam; adjustments cannot be made once the exam is over." (CCIE Routing and Switching Track: Lab Exam)

In other words, you go into the lab empty-handed and fix every problem you can find using nothing more than the product documentation; of course, there's no Internet access, so don't even think of searching for solutions there. This combination of written and hands-on testing sets a very high bar.

Microsoft has offered the Exchange Ranger program for several years. It was originally offered only to Microsoft employees and was later expanded to include employees of Microsoft partners. The Ranger program comprised six weeks of extremely intense, all-day training, with surprise exams, lots of pressure, and a review board at the end at which candidates had to perform the equivalent of a thesis defense to successfully earn Ranger certification. Getting Ranger certification was expensive ($25,000 tuition) and time-consuming, and the program couldn't scale up because it was so resource-intensive for Microsoft.

In 2005, the Ranger program was melded with the then-new Microsoft Certified Architect (MCA) program, yielding the MCA: Messaging credential. The MCA program combines the Ranger program's focus on extremely deep training by expert instructors with frequent written testing, capped off by a lab-based final exam and a visit to the peer review board. However, the MCA certification introduced a new wrinkle: apprentice status. After you completed the training and either the certification exam or the review board, you earned MCA: Messaging apprentice status and could complete the other component at your own pace. This made MCA: Messaging much more attractive to people wanting in-depth training and the potential benefits that come from having performance-based proof of knowledge. However, apprentice status was confusing, so Microsoft has revamped the program again to simplify the credential and formalize a certification for those in that “nearly there” status.

The new program, the Microsoft Certified Master (MCM) certification, serves as a capstone certification for the Microsoft technical certifications. In addition, MCM is a prerequisite for the MCA credential, so if you earn the MCM: Exchange Server 2007 credential, you're ready to move on to working on your MCA: Messaging. What exactly does the MCM credential cover? I'll answer that, and other questions, in next week's UPDATE.