The dark side of certification

Maybe the IS industry needs to get rid of MCSE certification—and CNE and CCIE certification, too. At least, we need to reconsider who hands them out.

Before you break out your bazookas, hear me out. Like many of you, I passed the necessary tests to get my MCSE. I know that for some of you, having that certification has meant making a bit (or perhaps a truckload) more money than you were making before you had the certification. I don't want to interfere with anyone's ability to make money. Don't misunderstand what I'm saying. I think certification's a great idea. What troubles me is that vendors control certification of their products. This situation is a problem whether you're talking about Novell handing out CNEs, Microsoft issuing MCSEs, or Cisco awarding CCIEs.

I'd rather see a nonprofit industry group coordinating certification. I have several reasons for this preference, but the most significant reason is that a self-certifying vendor can use its certification programs to help create a market for its products. By forcing IS people to study new and perhaps unpopular versions of software, the vendor can skew customer attention toward products the market is reluctant to accept.

By controlling certification requirements, vendors can control which version of their software people focus on. For example, a few years ago, the IS industry developed a consensus that Novell NetWare 3.x was the premier network OS. The product was well understood, stable, and widespread. Knowing NetWare 3.x was the first step toward finding a job because more than half the businesses that used LANs were running NetWare 3.x. Getting a CNE was like receiving a license to print money.

Then came NetWare 4.0. For more than 2 years, customers resisted using the new version, for several reasons. In 1995, NetWare 4.0 probably had a smaller market share than Windows NT had. Despite NetWare 4.0's unpopularity, many people who wanted to break into the network business studied 4.0 rather than 3.x. Why? Novell saw that 4.0 wasn't selling, so the company changed the rules for earning a CNE. The focus of the CNE tests went from 3.x to 4.0. The message from Novell was if you want one of these lucrative CNEs, you must help sell the unpopular NetWare 4.0 product. Don't bother studying the version of NetWare that people use in the real world, at least not if you want your CNE. (Of course, Novell has now worked the kinks out of Novell Directory Services—NDS—and NetWare 4.0 and 5.0 are doing well.)

How does this anecdote apply to MCSEs? Many administrators in the NT world took at least 2 years to decide that NT 4.0 was ready for their production environments. Some enterprises still don't use NT Server 4.0, although such companies are becoming scarce. If you get an MCSE nowadays, your only real option is an NT 4.0 concentration. Theoretically, the NT 3.51 certification is still available, but I'm not sure how you'd get it. Microsoft retired or is about to retire most of the core NT 3.51 tests. Suppose your NT 3.51-based enterprise wants to hire experts for its network and advertises for MCSEs. Who are you likely to get? NT 4.0 ex-perts, of course.

Windows 2000 (Win2K) will supposedly ship in October 1999. Imagine that early reports say the OS is a bit unstable. Worse, imagine that Microsoft decides to change how it licenses the product—you can buy Win2K for only 1 year at a time. Each year, you'll have to buy a new copy of Win2K, and you have no guarantee that Microsoft won't jack the price through the roof after we're all hooked. Businesses respond by sticking with NT 4.0 Service Pack 5 (SP5). Next, Microsoft changes the rules for certification. Do you want to retain your MCSE certification? You must recertify in Win2K, even if your clients don't use Win2K. You can choose not to recertify, but what company will hire an NT consultant who's not certified?

An MCSE should be a technical certification—not a sales certification. Independent certification would help protect that distinction.