IS Workers Angry over Phase-Out of NT 4.0 Exams

SAN FRANCISCO (07/07/2000) - Some IS professionals are fuming over Microsoft Corp.'s plan to quickly phase out certification for Windows NT 4.0, a move critics say could make it harder for some companies to find qualified IT staff.

Microsoft has said its goal is merely to ensure that enough trained IS workers are available to support Windows 2000, its new operating system launched earlier this year. But some critics see the plan, which was announced late last year, as an aggressive attempt to force IS professionals -- and therefore customers -- to upgrade to its new OS.

"Reducing or eliminating support for older versions is a common way to 'encourage' customers to upgrade to the latest version of an operating system.

Reducing the pool of qualified technical support is an effective way to do this," said John Goodfriend, founder of Lanop Corp. in Jeffersonville, New York, which offers training in a variety of software platforms, including Windows, at 18 centers around the U.S.

The Windows NT certification is part of the Microsoft Certification Program, an important tool that helps companies to identify skilled IS workers for hiring purposes. Engineers take classes at training centers and universities around the world, and then take a series of exams set by Microsoft to become what's known as a Microsoft Certified Solutions Engineer (MCSE).

Late last year, Microsoft quietly informed engineers studying for the Windows NT 4.0 MCSE that they must complete their exams by Dec. 31, 2000, in order to become certified. Microsoft also said it would retire the NT 4.0 certification at the end of 2001, meaning engineers qualified in that operating system will need to upgrade to the Windows 2000 MCSE to remain certified.

Like other vendors, Microsoft has always phased out exams for older software as a way of encouraging the industry to adopt more current versions. But the plan to phase out the NT 4.0 MCSE -- which was announced even before Windows 2000 was released in February -- is far more aggressive than anything attempted before, critics said. Exams for the Windows NT 3.51 MCSE, for example, were still being offered in June this year, five years after the software was released.

"It will leave MCSEs who've invested six months to a year of their time and thousands of dollars with a certificate that Microsoft says will be worthless," Lanop's Goodfriend said. In addition, any corporations still using Windows NT after Dec. 31, 2001, will find it harder to identify qualified IT professionals because the relevant certification will no longer exist, he said.

"They'll have to believe what people write on their resumes," Goodfriend said.

The reality of the plan started to hit many IS professionals only in the past month or so. With six months left until the NT exams are phased out, some workers are having to make a tough call about whether to complete their Windows NT certification or begin studying for Windows 2000.

"I am still working toward that MCSE goal, but may not finish before they would change all of that and do away with what I have already accomplished," said one IS worker who asked not to be named. "If enough of us complain, maybe Mr. Gates will listen."

"I do not look forward to another year of study for (Windows 2000) when I have hardly reaped the benefits of 4.0 certification," said another IS worker, who recently became certified in NT 4.0 and who also asked not to be named.

Still others in the industry who say they have been loyal to Microsoft for years are rethinking their plans.

"I've loved Microsoft since Basic on the Apple. If I was cut, I'd bleed blue," said Tcat Houser, chief technology officer at TcatU.net Inc., a software training center in Seattle, Washington.

Houser, who is also a Microsoft Certified Trainer, said his company will no longer offer MCSE classes because of the decision to phase out the NT exams so quickly. Instead, TcatU.net has switched to offering CompTIA certification, a vendor-neutral program primarily for hardware engineers that was established several years ago by a large group of IT firms.

Goodfriend is also thinking of turning his back on the MCSE -- but not on Windows. The Lanop founder last week began trying to rally support for a new, independent certification program for Windows NT. He claims to have received positive feedback from corporations and other training centers interested in the new program, which he will offer next year if Microsoft goes ahead with its proposal.

Microsoft declined repeated requests to offer comment for this article.

According to information on its Web site, the company has looked at the expected adoption rate for Windows 2000 and has decided that retiring the NT MCSE was necessary in order to ensure a sufficient supply of IT workers for its new OS.

"A recent Gartner Group study predicts that Windows 2000 will be the most widely used operating system in the next few years -- more so than Windows NT and other operating systems," Microsoft said on its Web site. "Microsoft certification will reflect this shift by helping IT employers make sure that they have professionals who are up-to-date on Windows 2000 technology."

The software maker also noted that more than two years will have elapsed between the time Microsoft announced its plan to retire the NT MCSE and the date when the certification will actually expire. In addition, some engineers who already hold an NT certificate will be eligible to take an "accelerated" exam to upgrade to the Windows 2000 MCSE.

Nevertheless, critics counter that market forces, and not Microsoft, should dictate when IS professionals upgrade their skills to the new operating system.

"Microsoft is definitely using their monopoly power to stifle us technical support professionals and to coerce us to re-certify to Win 2000," said another MCSE who preferred not to be identified for this article.

Chris Le Tocq, an analyst with Gartner Group Inc. in San Jose, California, said it may be "a bit of a stretch" to accuse Microsoft of killing off the Windows NT certification in order to push users to upgrade to Windows 2000. However, retiring the Windows NT MCSE at the end of next year is a mistake, he said.

Like Goodfriend, Le Tocq believes the move will make it harder for companies who are still using Windows NT to identify trained IS professionals.

"Sometimes Microsoft's aggressive sales approach causes them to make this type of misjudgement," Le Tocq said. "I think sometimes when you're at a company that is focussing on day-to-day sales, you lose sight of the installed base."

Microsoft has earmarked US$2 billion to spend on developers over the next few years, primarily to benefit its .Net initiative, Le Tocq noted. The software maker may plan to use some of that money to subsidize the cost for workers who upgrade to the Windows 2000 certification, which would take some of the sting out of the plan, he said. Houser and Goodfriend said they've heard about no such offer.

"This feels like a misjudgement," Le Tocq said. He guessed that the initiative may have been put together by a more junior member of Microsoft's staff, and suggested that when senior officials become aware of it they may "fix it." In the meantime, some Windows NT engineers will continue to stew.

Microsoft has posted information about its Windows 2000 MCSE on its Web site here. Microsoft, in Redmond, Washington, can be reached at +1-425-882-8080 or http://www.microsoft.com/

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