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It was a surprising announcement. Microsoft has decided to reverse its previous decision to expire Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) certifications for Windows NT 4.0 at the end of 2001.

A company statement released on Thursday said that current MCSE certifications will not decertify on December 31, 2001, as originally announced but will be valid indefinitely.

“I’m really quite surprised that Microsoft has not only delayed the retirement for IT professionals certified on the Windows NT 4.0 platform but rescinded the retirement entirely,” said Erik Eckel, the editor-in-chief of TechRepublic’s TechProGuild and an MCSE. “The Microsoft certification track was simply marching to the beat of the 1999 tech industry drummer, which is long dead.”

Microsoft said the move to retain the certifications was made in response to the slowing economic climate in the IT industry. The downturn has extended the need for NT 4.0 expertise. The new approach means that the value of older, yet valid Microsoft certifications, will be based on how relevant the certification’s skills are to the IT marketplace.

Microsoft’s decision to retire the MCSE certifications in 2001 was made in 1999, a year in which the IT market was strong. Now, with a slowing economy and a cap on many budgets, some organizations lack the resources to allow IT managers and other techs to be recertified. Many organizations also still rely on NT 4.0 servers and have delayed the installation of Windows 2000 systems.

“One of the things that we’re doing is we’re getting out of the prediction business,” said Anne Marie McSweeney, the director of certifications and skills assessment for Microsoft.

The announcement also spearheaded Microsoft’s changing policy on certification expirations, in general. The company said that new certifications will not expire and will reflect the operating system or platform associated with a certification’s core exams.

“People who currently hold certifications will never be decertified. There will be a time stamp on their certification and the industry will determine the value of that particular time stamp certification,” said McSweeney. Time stamps will appear on all relevant certification documents, she added.

Already upgraded?
Microsoft’s new strategy stems from an assessment of the needs of the IT industry and of Microsoft customers. According to the company, many customers still need NT 4.0 expertise. The revamped certification system recognizes this need.

“I think that people who were currently holding certifications [questioned] why should this be taken away,” said McSweeney.

But according to McSweeney, 47,000 MCSEs have already upgraded their certification and 150,000 people have passed a Windows 2000 exam.

“We’re really happy with [the] number of MCSEs on Windows 2000,” McSweeney said.

But what happens to those who already upgraded? The new announcement means there will be two valid MCSE certifications. Microsoft will make a distinction between those who have upgraded and those who haven’t.

IT professionals who complete the upgrade will be known as an “MCSE on Microsoft Windows 2000,” while those with the current certification will be known as a “MCSE on Windows NT 4.0.”

McSweeney said that the people who upgraded are in a prime position to work with organizations planning and installing Windows 2000 environments. “There’s a huge demand out there for people with these skills,” she said.

Certs that will expire
Not all certifications were saved by the company’s change in policy. Some will expire at the year’s end. According to Microsoft Certified Professional Magazine, Microsoft won’t offer new credentials in:

* MCSE+I
* MCP+I
* MCP+Site Builder under Windows 2000
* MCP+Site Builder under Windows .NET Server

More about the new program
Microsoft has published a FAQ about the changes to the certification program. Find out if your current certification was affected by the changes.
Initial reaction
In the past, Microsoft was rigid about expiration dates on certifications and ending support for certain operating systems. This new stance on its certification program has astonished some members of the IT community.

Many TechRepublic members told us that they are relieved that Microsoft understands that there is still a need for Windows NT 4.0 expertise and that the pressure to upgrade was alleviated.

“I am elated that they have rescinded the mandatory recert,” said Lynne Sabuco, an IT administrator in Illinois and a MCSE. “I fully support programs that keep IT professionals up-to-date on the latest technologies but was disturbed that they would retire a certification that still had value in the workplace.”

One TechRepublic member, heGovernor, said, “I can feel a little better about upgrading, because I now know that I’m upgrading because I feel it’s the best thing to do and not because I have to.”

“If I spend $10,000 for a product, I expect it to last longer than 24 months. I expect the same for my certification,” said Paul G. Hudson, a Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) on Windows NT 4.0.