I can clearly remember the golden days when I entered the world of Windows NT and the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE). Microsoft had recently delivered a powerful new suite of products called BackOffice. Companies had started to realize NT's promise as a keystone of their IS departments. And a new generation of IS professionals--MCSEs--emerged to implement solutions based on those products.

In the "old" days--a mere 3 years ago--mastery of Microsoft products meant being knowledgeable in the arcane lore of MS-DOS, Windows for Workgroups (WFW), and Microsoft Mail. Such mastery also meant being knowledgeable in the new technologies of NT and the BackOffice products, such as SQL Server, SNA Server, and Systems Management Server (SMS).

I used both classroom and self-study methods to prepare for my original MCSE exams. I remember being amazed at the utter confusion that existed not only for students, but also for teachers and authors of MCSE preparation guides. NT was a young product, and its ways were still a mystery to most. The MCSE program was obviously a young discipline in the throes of major change and growth.

Obvious, too, was that Microsoft was positioning the MCSE as a keystone of its overall NT and BackOffice deployment plan. Without a strong presence of certified technicians to back up products in the field, a new network operating system is all but doomed to failure.

Having experienced the thoroughness of Microsoft's earlier courses, study guides, and exams, I was confident that Microsoft planned to rely on the quality, rather than the quantity, of MCSEs to succeed. Certainly, I thought, Microsoft will avoid the mistakes made by its nemesis, Novell.

Novell had legions of Certified Network Engineers (CNEs) whose education, in many cases, was questionable. Those CNEs often attended one of the many CNE mills--training centers geared toward passing CNE exams rather than providing hands-on experience with the product. Because the CNE exams accommodated this study method, you could become a CNE with just book knowledge and little or no practical experience. I can still remember a colleague, who had just received his CNE after attending a mill, marveling aloud at how unbelievable it was that he aced all the exams without ever touching a NetWare server console. Within the industry, this type of certification was affectionately referred to as the Paper CNE.

Wildfire Growth
As time went on, Microsoft's one-two punch of NT and BackOffice, combined with its aggressive and efficient marketing campaign, increased Microsoft's market penetration. The increase in market share, in turn, increased the demand for MCSEs.

The growth was phenomenal. In late 1994, I called Microsoft to find out the total number of MCSEs worldwide. About 2600 people had become MCSEs. I called again 6 months and learned that more than 6000 people had earned this certification. When I realized that the number of MCSEs had more than doubled in 6 months, I concluded that the certification train couldn't be stopped and might even derail somewhere down the line. After all, satisfying high consumer demand and maintaining high quality is a challenge for any organization, whether it's producing widgets or qualified engineers.

How do the MCSE numbers stack up today? According to the September/October 1997 issue of Microsoft Certified Professional Magazine, there were 25,756 MCSEs worldwide. The growth of the MCSE program in 1997 represented a 132 percent increase over the growth during 1996, and this percentage of growth has been projected to increase even further in 1998. The magazine also reported that 106,933 people had become Microsoft Certified Professionals (MCPs).

Paper MCSEs: Et Tu, Microsoft?
The MCSE program's phenomenal growth raises several questions, the most important of which is, "Has Microsoft maintained the quality of the program?" To help answer this question, I will describe a recent personal experience.

My company is a Microsoft solutions provider that works almost exclusively with Microsoft technologies. Thus, I'm always on the lookout for sharp NT- and BackOffice-qualified engineers. My core staff of consultants is from the old school; they are MCSEs who received their original certifications based on earlier products, such as NT 3.5x, WFW, and Microsoft Mail.

In the old days, you could safely assume that MCSEs had a basic understanding of networking and product technologies. I began the hiring process with this assumption. My belief in the quality of the MCSE credential was so strong that I stated in the job advertisement, "Non-MCPs need not apply." Why risk hiring anyone else when I knew firsthand that Microsoft's experience-based certification guaranteed an acceptable level of knowledge?

When looking at the incoming resumes, I discovered that many of the job candidates were from the new school. They were MCSEs and MCPs who received their certifications based on newer products, such as NT 4.0 and Internet Information Server (IIS) 3.0.

I interviewed several MCPs and a few MCSEs. By the time I finished, I had received a sobering education about the current state of Microsoft certification. To illustrate, here is a snippet from one interview with an MCSE:

Me: You'll be able to access company and Internet resources using our RAS server via a PPP connection.
MCSE: (blank stare)
Me: You do know what PPP is, right?
MCSE: Umm, no. Sorry, I don't. Can you explain it to me real quick?

I remember wondering how this person could have passed the same tests I had taken. On further discussion, the job candidate revealed that he had been through fast-track MCSE training--training whose sole purpose is to pump out MCSEs as fast as possible into the job market. He bragged about how well the classes prepared him for the exams. He went on to say that, to the students' delight, the training program primarily focused on how to pass the Microsoft exams and not on understanding Microsoft technologies and products. The job candidate had attended the Cliffs Notes School of MCSE Training--and his knowledge of the field reflected it.

During the interviews, several other job applicants mentioned that practice exams (such as those from Transcender) greatly helped them pass the Microsoft exams because the practice questions were virtually identical to the real exam questions. When you already know the questions on (and hence the answers to) an exam, you can more easily pass it without fully understanding the topics at hand.

Throughout the rest of the interview process, I ran into several other fast-track MCSEs and MCPs who had similar gaping holes in their knowledge. I soon lost my concern (and respect) for the MCSE credential and shifted my focus to whether the candidate had hands-on experience and practical knowledge.

Keeping the Faith
Although my experience was certainly disappointing, I still believe in the value of the MCSE credential. Several training centers and study programs continue to produce high-quality, educated graduates who not only pass the exams, but also demonstrate an understanding of the technologies and products in real-life situations.

However, the existence of fast-track programs signals a general reduction in the quality of Microsoft's training and certification programs. Recent articles in several industry publications have echoed these sentiments, such as the LAN Times article, "Is Microsoft's Certification Too Easy?" (http://www.lantimes.com/97/97sep/x709c028a.html.) Employers need to be aware that possessing an MCSE no longer guarantees expertise; you need to verify applicants' knowledge of the field.

I hope that Microsoft will realize the negative effect of watering down the MCSE program and take steps to resolve this problem. I only hope that Microsoft and the industry as a whole will take action before it's too late.