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Microsoft certifications: Meaningful credentials or resume fluff?

The MCSE doesn't hurt your resume, but you'd better have experience too. Otherwise your MCSE may be just a piece of paper.

I can't count the number of times I've been asked to comment on and provide guidance to individuals seeking certification and IT skills in hopes of landing a job. They ask me which is the best Microsoft certification for them. Unfortunately, there is no simple or universal answer to that question, but here is a summary of my responses to this question and similar ones.


Microsoft certification is extremely popular for many reasons. Most organizations use Microsoft products, and therefore they are more likely to consider new employees who are certified on Microsoft products. Microsoft and many other organizations (such as publications and Web sites that perform salary surveys) convey the idea that the more certifications you obtain, the higher your salary will be. And while they're not exactly easy to get, Microsoft certifications are viewed as being obtainable without extensive experience or intensive study.

In my opinion, Microsoft certification should be pursued for one reason: to provide a form of assurance that you have the knowledge and experience of working with Microsoft products. I don't agree that all people who have obtained Microsoft certifications are equal. Those who have learned through hands-on, real-world experience are much better selections as employees than those who only learned enough from study materials to pass the exams. Certification should never be considered a substitution for experience. For entry-level or apprenticeship-type positions, certification is better than nothing. But for mid- to high-level positions, certifications are not as important as experience, especially not Microsoft certifications.

I hate to knock Microsoft certifications, but I do need to offer a bit of reality and perspective. It is possible to obtain a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) certification without ever touching a networked computer. This fact, in light of the prestige associated with MCSE, seems ridiculous. In comparison, becoming a Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA), which is Cisco's entry-level certification, is nearly impossible to achieve without time on a router. In fact, Cisco's top-end certification, Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE), has a greater than 90% first-attempt fail rate and is absolutely impossible to pass without a reasonable amount of real-world router experience. The Windows 2000 MCSE is a solid step in the right direction when compared with the Windows NT MCSE. Hopefully, the Windows .NET MCSE will offer further improvements.

If you want to be a networking professional, and you want to focus your work on Microsoft products, that's great -- go for an MCSE. But don't expect to get a $65,000 per year job just by waving around a certificate with Bill Gates' signature stamped on it. It won't happen. You need to focus on getting a job that offers you hands-on experience working with and managing a wide range of hardware and software products. As you gain the experience, obtain the corresponding certifications from Microsoft and other certification vendors. Backing certification with experience is the only way to move up the job ladder.

Another fault with certification programs in general is that they rarely address real-world situations. I don't know of any organization that uses a single vendor for its hardware or software. Thus, no one certification addresses the skill set actually required in a real-world networking situation. Just because you have an MCSE doesn't mean you can handle a networking problem with a failed router or corrupted NetWare server. It doesn't even mean you can properly handle an issue with a virus infection or a security breach on a Microsoft server.

Don't stick with just one vendor's certifications, not even Microsoft's. Even if you don't get past the first or second level, seek out certifications in every area where you have experience. These areas could include Cisco, NetWare, Java, databases, programming and security, among others.

Certifications come with assumptions. Employers who see a certification listed on your resume will assume you can perform work tasks related to that certification. If you can't back up your certifications with capabilities, then don't reveal them. For example, if you list a Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) certification on Windows 2000 Professional, you should be able to perform basic common tasks, such as remote installations, and know how to troubleshoot various device failures. Likewise, if you list an MCSE, you should be able to configure Active Directory, configure DDNS and delegate administration authority to subadministrators, among other complex activities.

So, how much Microsoft certification do you need? You only need as much as your experience, skills and capabilities can bear out. If you can't handle the work associated with the higher-level certifications, don't obtain them until you can.


James Michael Stewart is a writer, trainer and researcher for LANWrights, Inc.

This was last published in September 2002

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