The Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) is immensely popular. Over 456,000 individuals held this credential as of April 1, 2002, according to www.mcpmag.com. Likewise, uptake of its junior partner, the Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA) credential, is also booming. In fact, over 4,000 recipients were added in the five-week period between its introduction on January 22 and March 1, 2002. Numerous experts predict that MCSA will overtake MCSE in sheer numbers, probably some time in 2003. Together, they represent a huge population of certified professionals.
As two of the best-known and most widely-pursued IT certifications, it's important to understand the costs and benefits of MCSE and MCSA. Likewise, savvy IT professionals know that it takes more than a "piece of paper" to find meaningful employment.
With those concerns in mind, let's take a look at these two programs:
Costs: Microsoft exams cost $125 apiece. As a four-exam program, the MCSA costs a minimum of $500 for testing (assuming candidates pass all exams on their first try). As a seven-exam program, the MCSE costs a minimum of $875 (with the same assumptions). Actually, most candidates spend a minimum of $275 per topic if they self-study for certification ($125 per exam, $30 for an Exam Cram or similar book, $50 for a full-length study guide, and $70 for a set of practice tests). Thus, minimal actual costs for MCSA come to $1,100, while those for MCSE are $1,925. For those who take online or CBT courses, add $250 per topic; for classroom training, add anywhere from $1,200 to 2,500 per topic.
Time invested: For an MCSE, the average time to completion is between eight and 12 months; for the MCSA it's about half that time.
Job relevance: Microsoft's new Windows 2000, Windows XP Professional, and pending Server .NET exams all test for hands-on skills and operational knowledge, as well as rote learning about related tools, technologies, and concepts. This has increased the difficulty of these exams, but candidates and employers alike agree it has also made MCSA and MCSE more relevant to on-the-job needs. Although someone who holds an MCSA or MCSE is not guaranteed to be entirely ready for in-the-trenches, no-holds-barred IT work, most experts agree that Microsoft's new testing has raised the level of knowledge and skills that such individuals may be assumed to possess.
Continuous requalification: Don't forget that certifications go stale over time. Current MCSEs and MCSAs will have to take new exams and master new platforms and tools in the future. If the recent past is any indicator, Microsoft certified professionals (MCPs) should count on re-qualifying for their credentials on a three-to-four year schedule. Thus, certification costs and effort recur, and must be distributed over three- to four-year calendars.
The bottom line for the MCSE and MCSA is that if the costs and effort involved help their holders find better, more stable work and help employers make more effective use of their IT staffs, obtaining certification becomes a win-win situation. IT certs are likely to have the greatest value when they distinguish among individuals with otherwise similar work and technical experience. But for those who hope that certification can be a substitute for relevant, hands-on skills or knowledge, even Microsoft's programs are boosting their emphasis on real-world operational skills and knowledge. This suggests that a combination of experience and credentials always trump certification credentials by themselves.
Ed Tittel is a principal at a small content development company based in Austin, Texas, the creator of the Exam Cram series, and has worked on over 60 cert-related books on Microsoft, CIW, IT security, and Sun/Java related topics.