Whats Next for Certifications?

Manager Dan Truax reveals Microsoft's policy on exams and its plans for future tests.

Until recently, Microsoft Corp.s attitude toward certifications for its platforms and technologies felt to many IT professionals more like a love-em-and-leave-em fling than a long-term relationship. IT professionals could cry all they wanted over the Redmond, Wash., companys penchant for decertifying old designations to no avail: When the certifications and the technologies got old, they got dumped.

But when a staggering 450,000-plus MCSEs (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineers) faced the prospect of their Windows NT 4.0 credentials getting junked at the end of last year—forcing them to seek new Windows 2000 certifications even though NT 4.0 was still bristling with life—a huge ruckus broke out. The brouhaha was large enough to make Microsoft not only reverse itself on the NT 4.0 decertification decision but on the notion of automatically retiring older titles altogether. eWeek IT Careers Managing Editor Lisa Vaas recently caught up with Group Manager of Microsoft Certification Strategies Dan Truax to chat about Microsofts current thinking on certification policy, as well as what to expect in coming months vis-a'-vis new exams and certifications.

eWeek: Could you describe Microsofts new policy on supporting certifications?

Truax: When customer demand for an exam has stopped, we will discontinue offering it, but we will always count the people whove taken the exam. They will always be able to count it toward their certification. But wed only discontinue an exam when customers no longer want or need it.

eWeek: IT people obviously made a lot of noise over the unpopular decision to decertify NT 4.0, I take it?

Truax: Individuals felt they were working in companies that still had NT 4.0 employed. They still wanted to demonstrate those skills and thought those skills were still valid. We received that [message] from a great many customers. Also, the industry was saying, "You should have a way to demonstrate people who have leading skills for new products [such as Windows 2000] but also continue recognizing the skills of those on current platforms."

eWeek: How complex will .Net be, and how will it change relevant job skills and roles?

Truax: I dont believe Windows .Net Server will significantly alter job roles of system administrators or system engineers. The core technologies those job roles are using are still there, and the new product only builds on that foundation. Active Directory is a good example. That core technology builds on from Windows 2000. It will not be a revolution in the way [system administrators or engineers do] their jobs. There will obviously be new tasks people perform that are .Net Server specific, but it will not be a major change to the job role as it might have been between NT 4.0 and Windows 2000.

eWeek: Theres talk that Microsoft is considering specialty desktop support and security certifications as options for [Microsoft Certified Professionals]. Why do you think we need a desktop support certification, when CompTIA [the Computing Technology Industry Association] already has entry-level certifications such as A+?

Truax: Our work with focus groups made it clear that it was necessary to separate the help desk and desktop support role from that of systems administrator and systems engineer. It clearly showed us theres a well-defined job role of a great number of people around supporting the desktop and doing help desk support that we should take a closer look at.

Were looking to do that in general where its appropriate. We try to focus on what we do best: Focus certification content on Microsoft products and techs. Those like [CompTIAs certifications] that focus on industry best practices, we dont mean to replace that. We want to partner with them to add value to what they do.

eWeek: In January, Microsoft said it wouldnt roll out any new security certifications to complement Bill Gates recently announced Trustworthy Computing initiative because there was enough security being taught in certifications as it was. Whats the current thinking on the need for a security certification?

Truax: Whereas with desktop, weve identified a potential need [for a separate certification]; with security, were in the job task analysis space now. Security, there are obviously two different ways to approach that: first, to have a specific certification. [Certified Information Systems Security Professional], for example. Another way is having security be a specialization within a job role. So far, the feedback from customers is that, for Microsoft to do a certification, [customers] first want these people to be certified on a given Microsoft platform.

Were finding that within a broad job role like systems engineer, people are more and more specializing in skills. Our electives have always allowed for that. If you focus on Exchange or messaging, you could take that as your elective. Or deep networking, you can use things like that for electives. As people specialize, they want a way to demonstrate to customers and companies the area they specialize in without listing the exams they take. So were digging in to what are the specializations and how would people want to show that to their customers and peers.

Were trying to understand, when customers say theres a need for this, what exactly is this need and how do we deliver.