MCSE: will your qualifications be worthless

Thousands of IT professionals face an expensive dilemma about the latest changes to the company's Microsoft-certified systems...

Thousands of IT professionals face an expensive dilemma about the latest changes to the company's Microsoft-certified systems engineer (MCSE) exams.

The software giant is scrapping the Windows NT4 exams. MCSEs at NT4 level have until 31 December to pass new tests on Windows 2000 and retain their MCSE certification.

Microsoft will not give out figures but IT skills experts estimate that there were 18,000 NT4 MCSEs in the UK, of which 6,000 have now upgraded to Windows 2000.

Jon Shepstone, business manager for Windows, hardware and communications at QA Training told CW360: "It took over four years to get 18,000 NT MCSEs. It's a very high expectation to expect the whole population to migrate to Windows 2000 by the end of the year."

Ayesha Okhai, Microsoft's skills business manager, said: "Microsoft is very happy with the number of people who have upgraded their MCSE credential to the Windows 2000 platform. That said, we are always assessing our offerings and evaluating ways to improve the MCP programme."

Okhai assured customers that Microsoft would make any changes they felt necessary. This did not appear to exclude extending the deadline.

Mark Harrison, IT manager at IT recruiter Plexian, claimed that IT professionals are enthusiastic about the certification because of the recession.

"Contractors are keeping money in the bank for rainy days. Permanent staff are more willing to fund themselves, but it is not their highest priority," said Harrison. "The underlying methodologies between NT4 and Windows 2000 are the same and they are reluctant to spend large amounts of cash in case they don't pass."

Shepstone, however, believes that NT4 and Windows 2000 differ significantly. "Active Directory is a big change in Windows 2000," he said. "Also the next generation of Windows XP and Windows.Net will be based on Windows 2000."

Okhai agrees: "The key thing that Windows 2000 represents is access into the .Net framework that will become an integral part of the way that companies do business in the future."

The cost of updating skills, however, is high. Exam costs can quickly mount up. "The Windows 2000 exams are much harder and you need seven exams to become an MSCE from scratch," said Alan Bellinger, sales and marketing director at IT training company Wave Technologies.

"With each exam costing £65, that's £450. The average person needs three goes to pass an exam, so it can mount up to over £1350."

In addition to the exam fees there is the cost of training. Shepstone said, "A ballpark figure is £5,000 - £7,000 for all the necessary courses."

IT professionals and the organisations that employ them have some difficult decisions to make. Despite "certification fatigue", few will be able to ignore Microsoft's demands.

Bellinger warned against ignoring Windows 2000 certification. Those who should be most concerned, he said, are systems integrators, value added resellers, and contractors.

"The implications of not upgrading mainly hit the channel," said Bellinger. "They need a number of MCSEs for competitive edge. If systems integrators and value added resellers have not got re-certification by the end of the year, they are shooting themselves in the foot. Apart from helping get new business, they gain brownie points with Microsoft."

According to Bellinger re-certification is also critical for contractors. "Contractors want to work on interesting jobs where the money is better," he said. "Those jobs are with early adopters of Windows 2000 technology and they need to prove they have the competence."

But Bellinger did not believe that IT departments will be rushing for re-certification. "It doesn't affect them," he claimed. " They want [IT staff] to gain the skills but not the certification. If you certify staff, they want more money or they leave."

Sarah Saunders, senior network consultant at recruitment company Pathway IT, thought this was a dangerous approach for companies to take. "The number one reason staff move is that a company is not providing them with enough new technology training," she said.

Saunders added that MCSE certification is no guarantee of work. "Qualifications are all well and good and can be a useful demonstration of skills, but it is more important to have hands-on experience."

Professionals who ignore the certification deadline present another problem for Microsoft. Harrison commented: "From a policing stance I can't see how Microsoft will strip CVs of certification.

"Also employers are not too fussed whether they have NT4 or MCSE certification. There is still a huge amount of infrastructure out there on NT4. At Plexian, 60% of our infrastructure - all the mission critical stuff - is on Windows 2000, but 40% is on NT4."

Saunders estimated that there is an equal demand for NT4 and Windows 2000. However, Shepstone pointed out: "Being decertified means no access to the support tools and forums that Microsoft offer. It will take a while to sink in, but NT4 certification will be worthless. It is three years out of date and companies need to move forward and expand their horizons."

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