A warmed-over MCSE program is no pinnacle

Apparently the head of certifications at Microsoft (Tim Sneath) has said that Microsoft is going to make the MCSE exams “harder for everyone” by introducing new types of questions for which answers are harder to memorize. In other words, they want to eliminate the “certification by rote learning”, brain dumps, and question sharing activities that have made MCSE certification far less valuable than it should be.

Of course, this aspiration comes from the same organization (Microsoft Learning – MSL) that eliminated the Microsoft Certified Master (MCM) and Microsoft Certified Architect (MCA) programs last year, much to the dismay of those who had invested large amounts of time, energy, and money into attaining those accreditations, both of which were firmly based in knowledge acquisition and the ability to put that knowledge into effective practice. I thought that the decision was a bad one then and nothing has happened since to make me change that view.

MSL promised that they would look at creating another “pinnacle” to replace MCA and MCM. In this case, the pinnacle would be the top of the Microsoft accreditation stack and recognize the best of the best in the various technical disciplines. The good thing that could have happened here is an expansion of the numbers who achieved the peak, probably at the cost of some weakening of the high standards demanded by MCM and MCA. I would not have had a problem with this because not everyone can afford the time and cash commitment implicit in travelling to Redmond for MCM training or to go through the time-intense nature of MCA board interviews. It would have been good had a solution been found to allow an MCM-lite accreditation be rolled out on a worldwide basis at reduced cost. Of course, in order to be credible as a “pinnacle”, that accreditation would have had to be maintained at a much higher level than the average MCSE. A 90% MCM would have been a good goal.

However, the problem here is that even an MCM-lite program would have taken a lot of resources and brainpower to deliver. Even if Microsoft had found a good set of tutors available to deliver MCM training around the world, huge effort would have been required to develop the training – and to keep the knowledge refreshed in a world where change occurs on a quarterly cadence. I’m sure that budget was a huge obstacle to overcome.

It seems therefore that MSL has elected to attempt to tweak the MCSE program and force standards higher. Increasing the complexity of the questions asked is a more cost-efficient way of raising standards because the work can be done centrally and then deployed through existing testing mechanisms. MSL can say that they are responding to the needs of customers and IT professionals alike and all is well in the world.

But it really isn’t. Although some increase in the effort required to attain MCSE certification might happen initially, the ecosystem that surrounds Microsoft accreditation will respond. Organizations who deliver training focused on passing MCSE exams will flex and change to accommodate the new testing regime. Question dump sites will continue. People will continue to find ways to game the system. And even if MSL continue to tweak and improve the exams and testing methodologies, they will really only be staying one step ahead of others who make money today from MCSE training and want to continue to do so in the future. It’s a hard place to be.

At the end of the day, I don’t think this approach will improve the level of technical competence of certified individuals very much at all. It might move the needle a tad but it’s hardly going to represent a new pinnacle for the certification stack. On the upside, MSL look good because they are responding to concerns about the MCSE program and are doing so in a cost-effective manner, so the people who read program reviews and monitor budget spreadsheets will be happy.

It’s sad, but MSL seems set on a path that does not accommodate the 1% or so of the technical community who wish to extend themselves and become the best of the best. MCM and MCA were flawed programs  but they represented an obvious and well-earned pinnacle for Microsoft certification. A warmed over MCSE (2014 model) will not.

A missed opportunity…

Follow Tony @12Knocksinna


About Tony Redmond

Lead author for the Office 365 for IT Pros eBook and writer about all aspects of the Office 365 ecosystem.
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3 Responses to A warmed-over MCSE program is no pinnacle

  1. Michael Przytula says:

    Tony I totally agree with you. What shocked me even more was the announcement at WPC of ‘virtual proctered exams’, allowing people to do the exams remotey in their own homes vs going to a prometric center…. Call me jaded, but that just sounds like an even larger recipie for lowering the bar.

  2. The time and energy required to work on a certification in most of the big products has gotten so heavy that it is a fulltime job in itself. Some of us know what we are doing but spend most of our time actually making money for our companies. It seems that there are some people at the company whose job is to get the certs required to keep the various partner agreements in place. Then the others are doing the daily grind of keeping the business going. I stopped chasing certs many years ago. I’m investing my time in gaining my Doctorate.

  3. Mark Wilson says:

    For years, I’ve criticised Microsoft exams for being too easy – for example, one exam I took a few years ago (I won’t say which one, for reasons of NDA), had 52 questions and they were the same 52 questions I’d seen in a test exam (not a brain dump – an actual test exam sold as a learning aid) – clearly a very low bar; however recently I’ve seen a shift in the opposite direction.

    Some exams are now incredibly difficult to pass – for example 70-341 and 342 require knowledge of design, implementation and support of Exchange, down to the level of memorising PowerShell command syntax (isn’t that what get-help is for?!). I manage a team of Exchange and Lync subject matter experts in a large systems integrator – and the investment we’ve made in study, MOC courses, and of course many years experience of designing and implementing Exchange solutions is not resulting in exam passes – because the tests require some kind of demi-god who works at all phases in the product lifecycle and has deep knowledge. Added to that there is a huge cross-over between the “core” and “advanced” exams…

    I’d like to see a sensible standard of exam that is achievable; yet focuses on the real roles people perform in the real world. It’s OK someone at MSL deciding that the MCSE has to be harder; but the way to do it is not increasing both breadth and depth of exams – it’s about having a set of exams that relate to real-world activities… there are very few professional IT organisations where the same people design, implement and support a system at all levels…

    And, as exam passes build to create partner competencies, if something isn’t done soon, we’ll see partners walking away from the Microsoft Partner Network as the investment in passing exams will outweigh the benefit of holding particular competencies… after all, a track record of delivery is what counts…

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