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Microsoft rescinds certification retirements
In an announcement that some anticipated, Microsoft declared that its certifications will no longer be retired. Instead, exams will merely be discontinued. By discontinuing exams instead of retiring them, IT professionals will retain their certification titles. In short, if you’re a Windows NT 4.0 MCP or MCSE today, you’ll still be a Windows NT 4.0 MCP or MCSE on Jan. 1, 2002.

In an earlier TechRepublic article, Anne Marie McSweeney, Microsoft’s director of certifications and skills assessment, said, “One of the things that we’re doing is we’re getting out of the prediction business…. People who currently hold certifications will never be decertified.”

In other words, Microsoft will no longer try to anticipate the demand for or the life span of its certifications. Instead, it will let the market determine which skill sets are needed.

The writing was on the wall
Despite the public outcry, Microsoft had staunchly stood by its plans to retire the NT 4.0 track certifications by year-end 2001. However, there were several warning signs during the past year foreshadowing its recent reversal.

The first indication of trouble was the delay in eliminating popular Windows NT 4.0 exams, which were held over from Dec. 31, 2000 to Feb. 28, 2001 due to demand. Why would IT pros be flocking to exam centers to take an exam that retires in 10 months? The answer is simple: Tons of organizations still use the NT 4.0 platform. There’s no question that Win2K offers vast improvements and enhancements; it’s just that not everyone can afford the time, training, or capital needed to upgrade, and many organizations have already consolidated around NT4 and will not be migrating any time soon.

The $25 exam fee discount that Microsoft offered over the summer proved to be the second warning. After all, there’s no need to offer a discount if business is brisk. Regardless, I, for one, took advantage of the discount. But my intention to begin stocking up on Win2K certs was soon tempered by the realization that WinXP exams are just around the corner. Would Win2K exams be retired as quickly as WinNT 4.0 exams? I didn’t want to take that chance.

The third sign of trouble was the promotion of the MCSE Early Achiever card for IT pros earning Win2K MCSE status by Oct. 31, 2001. With the United States at war and the economy sinking into the basement, it’s going to take a little more than a clubby ID card to get IT pros and companies to shell out $10,000 and dedicate the required time to training on an NOS platform they may not even be using yet.

A much-needed jolt
Microsoft’s training and certification staff deserve credit for having the fortitude to admit that the playing field has changed. By making a difficult decision, albeit late in the year, Microsoft has pulled out the electric paddles and given its certification program a much-needed jolt. In my opinion, IT professionals couldn’t ask for a better solution from the certification staff at Microsoft.

All those folks who had been taking a long, hard look at CompTIA, Red Hat, Novell, and Cisco certifications as a result of Microsoft’s hard-line practices may now reconsider. They’ll be doing so just in time for Microsoft.

Microsoft Certified Professional Magazine  (MCP Magazine) revealed that there are approximately 47,000 Win2K MCSEs. According to MCP Magazine’s other numbers, there are about 398,000 MCSEs total (factoring in the NT 4.0 certified masses). You needn’t have been a math major to determine that Microsoft was looking at a precipitous drop in the number of MCSEs in two months when the non-Win2K MCSEs were going to be retired.

Now, with retirements discarded in favor of discontinued exams, certifications will last indefinitely. Microsoft certifications will now hold value as long as the market believes they possess value, which should motivate you to pursue new certifications, based on your employer and the conditions in your regional market rather than Microsoft’s retirement schedule. Since Microsoft changed this policy, my concerns that a Win2K certification would be prematurely retired due to an aggressive Windows XP rollout are now a moot point.

No longer do I have an excuse to put off the Win2K server exam. Neither do you. In fact, the certification shakeup opens other options, too.

What should you do now?
If you passed the core four Windows NT 4.0 exams, you can now complete an NT 4.0 MCSE by passing electives that have not yet been retired (such as SQL Server 7.0 administration). If your organization will continue using the NT 4.0 platform, an NT 4.0 MCSE could be just the ticket you need to improve job security, lobby for a raise, develop additional skills, justify a promotion, and more.

If you were afraid to dig too deep into Win2K certifications for fear that they would be made obsolete by Windows XP certs, your excuse is gone. With Microsoft’s announcement, it now makes sense to again work toward a Win2K MCP or MCSE. Windows 2000 is likely to be in use in mainstream organizations for at least four more years. It’s likely to be around even longer than that in many others.

The Win2K accelerated exam is one casualty, though. If you intend to migrate from the NT 4.0 track to Win2K, rather than start fresh in the Win2K track, you’ll need to register for your accelerated exam voucher before Nov. 1, 2001 and take the test before the end of the year. Time is running out, so you should register today (really) if you intend to give the accelerated exam a go.

If you were among those feeling disenfranchised by the early retirement of the NT 4.0 track, you may consider taking time away from your Cisco or other vendor studies to bone up on WinXP exams. While it’s still too early to determine the role that WinXP Professional will play in the enterprise, it’s a safe bet that Windows .NET Server will be significant.

If you begin moving toward an XP certification right now, you can be confident that it will have value long after a new five-year auto loan is paid in full. That’s a very good thing, considering the fact that training and certification costs for an MCSE can now exceed the cost of a new car.

Another alternative is the new MCSA certification. If a full MCSE is not for you, but you wish to prove greater expertise than that demonstrated with an MCP, you’re in luck. As part of its announcement, Microsoft revealed details of its new Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator track. I’ll report on that new certification in its entirety in next week’s IT Certification Corner.

Eckel’s take
Given its recent announcement, Microsoft has taken a huge step to ensure that its certifications remain among the most valuable and respected in the IT industry.

Certainly the decision wasn’t an easy one for Microsoft, but I predict that its fallout will help to make Microsoft certifications more valuable than ever. With the retirement obstacle removed, it’s time to get cracking on your next cert.