Keeping certifications valuable

Obtaining technical certifications, particularly in the Information Technology field, is a time-honored way for job candidates to stand out in a crowd. It's also a good way for people already working in the field to demonstrate their ongoing interest in maintaining a current and usable knowledge base.

But with a recent and dramatic upswing in the number of individuals pursuing IT certifications, there's been a strong move to protect and enhance the perceived value of those credentials. This applies to the vendors or organizations that offer such certifications, and to the individuals who pursue them.

Nowhere is this as true as it is at Microsoft, which announced the outlines for a new and improved Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) program for Windows 2000 last fall. These new Win2K exams began rolling out in June, starting with Win2K Professional and Server. Where NT 4.0 is concerned, the proliferation of study guides, exam crams, and practice tests has made it easy -- some think too easy � for individuals to memorize large amounts of content and pass the current exams without having much real-world knowledge or experience, if any.

Thus, Microsoft has changed the format and content of its Windows 2000 exams to test for the kinds of hands-on experience and intimate knowledge that practitioners will need to function well in the workplace. Most of those individuals lucky enough to have been invited to participate in Microsoft's latest round of beta exams say that these new-generation tests are much less theoretical, and more operations-focused than their predecessors.

Changes include more "interface driving," where test-takers must click their way through the interface to troubleshoot a problem, configure a system or service, or examine an existing configuration. Other changes involve complex, multi-tabbed question formats that require test-takers to combine their knowledge about multiple subject areas--about networking protocols and services, for instance--as they would have to do as a matter of routine in the workplace.

The net results for the Windows 2000 MCSE program will be tougher exams that require more experience with the software, and more understanding of the tools and technologies involved in installing, deploying, and managing Windows 2000 in the workplace. But although would-be MCSEs will have to work harder and longer to ready themselves to pass such exams, everybody should benefit from their increased relevance and content. Employers will benefit because the new certification will attest to good administration and troubleshooting skills. MCSEs will benefit because their new certifications will mean more to them in the workplace. And Microsoft will benefit because its Windows 2000 MCSE certification will increase in value, for all the reasons I've already mentioned.

Other vendors are sensitive to the same issues as well. Novell has worked hard to update its certification exams and training materials regularly, both to keep its materials relevant to the workplace, and to keep up with the ever-changing technology scene. (In fact, Novell had to take many of the same steps outlined above for Micrsoft in the early 1990s when the "paper CNE" phenomenon for its Certified Novell Engineer program went through a similar crisis.) Likewise, Cisco is in the process of refreshing most of its certifications, not only to make sure they stay relevant to operating and administering their equipment and software, but also to incorporate the new capabilities and technologies it is continually acquiring.

By monitoring the usability and relevance of their certifications, vendors and organizations hope to ensure that their programs show up in the places that count the most--on the resumes of successful professionals in their fields. That's why you'll see ongoing efforts to keep such programs useful and relevant to the employers who consider them, and the individuals who pursue them.


This was first published in August 2000

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