About the MCSE Certification

The MCSE (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer) has been one of the most popular of the many computer certifications for a number of years. Industry sources estimate that the total number of holders of this certificate worldwide was more than 230,000 as of February 2004.

The MCSE is one of a set of certifications called the Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) that Microsoft Corporation created for the purpose of providing a pool of low-cost workers with skills in its products. Other MCP certifications are the Microsoft Certified Solution Developer (MCSD), the Microsoft Certified Product Specialist (MCPS) and the Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT).

The MCSE exists in several forms, including MCSE for Windows NT 4.0, MCSE for Windows 2000, and MCSE for Windows 2003. (Also called Windows Server 2003, Windows 2003 is an upgraded version of Windows 2000 that incorporates some of the features of Windows XP as well as enhancements to various services such as the IIS web server.) Subsequent to the creation of the MCSE for Windows 2003, Microsoft also introduced specialized MCSEs dealing with messaging and security.

Definition of Certification

A certification is a designation granted by a certification body to a person, usually as the result of passing one or more examinations, that indicates that the individual has specific knowledge, skills or abilities in the opinion of the certifying body. This term differs from license in that the latter is required by law in order to practice certain professions whereas certification is generally voluntary. Certification bodies are usually businesses or organizations of businesses.

Certifications can be classified in several ways, including whether they are generic or vendor-specific and according to the type of duration. Duration types include (1) perpetual, (2) requiring periodic renewal and (3) for a specific period of time, such as the period of vendor support for the product(s) covered by the certification.

Certifications are very common in industry, and particularly in the computer industry. They have been popular with employers because they can be an efficient means of determining who is qualified for various tasks. They have been popular with individuals because they are seen as a means of getting into the computer industry or advancing in it. They have also been popular with the substantial industry that sprang up to provide training courses and materials (e.g., textbooks) for candidates studying for the multitude of different certifications that were developed.

However, the proliferation of certification types and the rapid growth in the number of certified individuals during the 1990s together with the relative ease of acquisition for many such certifications led to their devaluation in the eyes of many employers. A major criticism of the certification process has been that it is often more a test of a candidate's ability to memorize facts than a true measure of their comprehension of the subject matter.

Some certification bodies have responded by modifying or expanding the content of the (usually) multiple-choice exams or by incorporating hands-on testing. However, this has apparently been far from sufficient to restore confidence in the system.

Requirements for the MCSE

According to information provided by Microsoft, an individual must pass seven timed, multiple choice examinations in order to obtain an MCSE certification. Five of them are so-called core exams, four of which cover the company's operating systems and one of which "provides proof of expertise for design skills for specific Microsoft server technologies." The remaining two cover elective topics.

The core exams for the Windows 2000 MCSE certification, for example, cover (1) installation and administration of Microsoft Windows 2000 or XP, (2) installation and administration of Microsoft Windows 2000 Server, (3) implementation and administration of a Microsoft Windows 2000 network infrastructure, (4) implementation and administration of a Microsoft Windows 2000 directory services infrastructure and (5) designing (a) security, (b) web services, (c) a network infrastructure or (d) a directory services infrastructure for Microsoft Windows 2000 or 2003. The two elective exams (6 and 7) can be selected from among more than 20 topics, including several each covering Microsoft SQL Server 7.0 (a database program), security, networks, web servers and directories.

Candidates can prepare for the exams by taking courses offered by specialist training companies and public schools, mainly junior colleges. They can also prepare through self study, for which abundant materials are available, including numerous books (both text books and cram books) and practice exams (in books and on CDROMs). The time required for preparation for each exam can range from several days to several months, depending on such factors as previous experience, aptitude, motivation and study habits.

Microsoft recommends that MCSE candidates have at least one year of experience implementing and administering networks with the following characteristics: (1) five to 150 physical locations, (2) network services and applications such as file and print, messaging, database, firewall, dial-in server, desktop management and website hosting and (3) connectivity requirements including connecting individual offices and users at remote locations to a corporate network and connecting corporate networks to the Internet.

In practice, however, candidates often have little if any of this real-world experience, as many of them are preparing for the exams in an attempt to obtain their first computer-related employment. In fact, it is not unusual for candidates to have little computer experience or knowledge of any type. Nevertheless, many such people have eventually passed all of the exams and have been able to begin or enhance their computer technician careers.

The big lure of the MCSE has been, of course, the promise of well-paying jobs. Microsoft's list of benefits does not mention compensation or employment guarantees, but it does include: (1) "Industry recognition of your knowledge and proficiency with Microsoft products and technologies," (2) a 50 percent discount or rebate for a one-year subscription to Microsoft TechNet or TechNet, (3) the right to use the MCSE logo on business documents, (4) a certificate, transcript, wallet card and lapel pin to identify the holder as an MCP to colleagues and clients, (5) access to Microsoft product and technical information through a private MCP Web site, (6) discounts on related services and products, (7) invitations to Microsoft and MCP Magazine conferences, technical training sessions and special events and (8) an invitation to join the MCP Database, which allows registered members to locate other members nearby who share similar interests.

Big Business

Producing MCSEs became a big business during the 1990s. It brought substantial profits to a variety of companies, and there have been strong incentives to keep cranking them out at a rapid pace -- even if it leads to some undesirable consequences.

One party that has certainly benefitted, and continues to benefit, from the existence of a huge army of MCSEs is Microsoft. This is because it is easier for Microsoft to sell its not inexpensive -- and extremely lucrative -- products, including upgrades, if there are vast numbers of specialists who are eager to install them and keep them running. Also, the fact that MCSEs are churned out in very large numbers helps keep their compensation levels down, thus reducing overall costs for users and thereby helping make Microsoft products more attractive to businesses.

MCSE certification also became a very big business for the many companies which provide classes and other types of training to help people cram for the exams. Certification classes likewise became an important source of income for revenue-strapped junior colleges. The demand to obtain MCSEs was so great, in fact, that certification boot camps, which promised to condense the time required for exam preparation into a few days, sprang up from out of nowhere. Another beneficiary was been the publishing industry, which turned out a plethora of books and other study aids (such as practice exams) to assist and encourage certification candidates.

Value of the MCSE to the Holder

There is a diversity of opinions regarding the value of the MCSE to its holders. On the one hand, its advocates point out that this certification can help people to get started in the IT (information technology) field, as many companies made it a requirement for specific jobs. In certain cases, it can also result in a promotion and increased compensation.

On the other hand, its detractors point out that, although some employers like them, others are not as enthusiastic, particularly because of their concern about the lack of real world IT experience of the holders.

Also to be kept in mind is that attaining an MCSE can require a great deal of time and expense in order to cram for and pass all of the exams. This expense is not only for the seven required exams at U.S.$125 each, but it is also for the numerous thick cram books which can add up to many additional hundreds of dollars. Classes can add several thousand dollars more to the total cost. There is also the lengthy preparation time and the stress to consider.

Moreover, unlike some other IT certifications, the MCSE is not permanent. It expires after a few years as new versions of Microsoft products are introduced and support is discontinued for the old ones. Thus, it is necessary to take additional exams for the new product versions in order to stay certified.

Some indication of the quality of MCSE training is provided by the fact that it is generally relatively difficult for an MCSE to learn Unix or Linux, whereas it is usually much easier for a Unix or Linux expert to learn the tasks that an MCSE performs. The reason is that studying Unix or Linux teaches one more about how computers really work at a fundamental level, whereas MCSE training places more emphasis on memorizing a series of procedures that are specific to just a single family of operating systems. This disparity in skill levels is reflected in a difference in compensation: Unix specialists are generally paid significantly more than are MCSEs.

Another factor the aspiring computer professional should keep in mind is that the growth rate of demand for Microsoft specialists could slow down or even turn negative as a result of the saturation of the market for Microsoft products and the rising market share for Linux and other free software (such as MySQL in place of Microsoft's SQL Server).

Created June 6, 2004. Copyright © 2004. All Rights Reserved.