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Not another certification!

Don’t panic–the MCSA is anything but a waste of time.

Microsoft has done it again–it’s launched a major new certification program that you’re going to be hearing about for years to come. It’s the Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA) program, and it’s going to get a lot of press. Whether the program will be as successful as the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) remains to be seen.

The announcement of the new MCSA program rolled out of the Microsoft press machine in fall 2001, but the details of the program, including the requirements, emerged in early January. Most of the program was in place by the time the details were released, with the exception of a few exams. By the time you read this, the entire program should be up and running.

The MCSA is for people who perform network care and maintenance procedures, and it doesn’t require years of experience to earn. That makes it the good first step for anyone who has a little computer/network experience (six months to a year) and wants to tack a Microsoft certification onto his or her résumé.

Microsoft says that it created the program because it realized that not everyone taking care of a network needs to be able to design a new one–and design knowledge is one of the core requirements for the MCSE. The MCSA covers only the skills needed to manage and troubleshoot Windows 2000-based computers and networks.

If you are interested in becoming a network administrator, network engineer, systems administrator, or technical support specialist, you’ve probably looked at the MCSE program and wondered if you need everything in it. It makes sense for Microsoft to strip out the design-related materials and make a new certification for people who administer existing networks.

So far so good–the MCSA makes a lot of sense as an entry point to an IT career path for people who want to get a job taking care of networks. It also makes sense for the majority of small and medium-size companies that, once their network is in place, don’t think about upgrading for years.

What concerns me is that people who are thinking about acquiring CompTIA Network+ or A+ certifications might be tempted to switch to MCSA. The problem, as I see it, is that you’d be switching from vendor-neutral to vendor-specific training. If you’re just getting started on an IT career, narrowing your focus to one operating system (Windows 2000) could limit your job choices throughout your career.

If you have worked in network care and maintenance for several years and are not certified yet, you’ve got a decision to make between the CompTIA programs and the Microsoft programs. Opting for the MCSA at this point in your career might be the best move if you want to keep working with Windows-based networks.

If you already have an MCSE, Microsoft suggests that you may want to obtain the MCSA if you spend most of your time administering networks and want to certify your skills in these areas.

Depending on the MCSE electives exams you passed, to get an MCSA you may only need to pass one of the MCSA exams (70-218: Managing a Microsoft Windows 2000 Network Environment).

If you have neither certification, you can always get an MCSA first, see how your career goes for a year or so, and get the MCSE later if you need it. The two programs are designed to work separately, but once you have the MCSA you need only pass four additional exams to qualify for the MCSE. Not surprisingly, these exams focus on the planning and design aspects of creating new networks.

Since Microsoft has made it relatively easy to move from the MCSA to the MCSE, I wouldn’t be surprised to see people who are looking for a network certification program opt for MCSA first and add MCSE later. Because the MCSE program covers network administration, I don’t see a lot of incentive for current MCSE holders to go for the MCSA. However, anyone with a lapsed MCSE should look at getting an MCSA.

Program details

Even though the MCSA doesn’t require you to have years of networking experience, it isn’t a fluff certification. To obtain an MCSA, you need to pass three core and one elective exam. One of the three required exams must relate to client operating systems (2000 or XP) and the other two relate to networking systems.

The elective exams include one that relates to administrating different Microsoft servers, including SQL, NT, and Windows 2000. One of the elective exams is related to network security under Windows 2000. Microsoft will accept the CompTIA A+ and Network+ certifications (you must have both) or the CompTIA A+ or CompTIA Server+ (again, you need both) in lieu of the Microsoft elective exams.

Microsoft offers training courses to help prepare you for the exams. The total training time for the courses is less than a month. The total amount of time you spend in class depends on whether you need to take all the classes, and which classes you opt to take. You can always choose to take the exams without any class time–something current MCSEs might want to think about doing.

For complete details on the MCSA program, especially on the training and testing requirements, visit the training certification section of the Microsoft Web site.

Training opportunities

IT training companies are already offering MCSA classes. The Training Camp, a Microsoft certified training company, offers a nine-day program to get you ready for the exams. Doubtless, other national and regional IT training centers are gearing up to offer an MCSA program and will be offering programs by the time you read this.

If a training center near you isn’t offering an MCSA program, you can take the MCSE courses that relate to the exams (follow the course and book details for each exam on the Microsoft Web site). Microsoft is recommending MCSE materials, such as the MCSE training kit for Windows 2000, for MCSA training. You can find training centers in your area that are offering MCSE or MCSA classes by visiting the training and certification section of the Microsoft Web site and clicking on the Training Resources link. You can also find online training resources here.

Prognosis

The world always needs maintenance people. It may not be high-profile, but it’s steady work. The IT world, likewise, will always need maintenance people such as system engineers and technical-support personnel. The MCSA certification is aimed at the maintenance folks of the IT world, and it’s a good way to demonstrate your ability to keep the digital pipes free and clear.

It’s also a good way for people without years and years of hands-on experience to obtain a networking certification. Until the MCSA, the CompTIA certifications were the only ones IT newbies could obtain. Now, all we need is a certification that shows someone’s ability to learn about networks (no experience required), and we’ll be all set.

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