Microsoft IT Certifications – Which One is Right For Your Firm?

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By Kenneth M. McCall, MBA, MCP

Over the past several years, CPA firms of all sizes have been migrating away from their pure Novell NetWare networks to networks which are either completely based in Microsoft Windows NT or Windows 2000, or are a mixture of operating systems. This evolution has created a very real need for network administrators with measurable skills in the Microsoft server platforms. Until now, there were two ways that firms could look to IT professional certifications to document this expertise: the Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) or the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE). Now, effective in 2002, there is a third choice: The Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA). What does this new certification mean to the Managing Partner or Personnel Director of a CPA firm?

Let me begin by addressing the first argument that always arises when certifications are discussed. An IT certification or any certification taken only by itself means very little. There are many ways that someone with little or no real life experience can study for and pass the exams required to gain a certification. These are generally referred to as "paper certifications" and tell you nothing about the job candidate's true skills. There has always been, and remains today, no substitute for experience.

Having said that, we at Boomer Consulting believe that there is true value in using a certification to validate the skills gained through experience, and supplemented with formal training and education. A working network administrator, in the day-to-day course of his or her duties will master the tasks that are of immediate importance. However, unless they are exposed through training to additional features of the systems, and learn the recommended procedures to be used (and avoided!), it is unlikely that they will be able to gain the maximum in performance and security from their network. We believe that a certification, when coupled with documented work experience, is a valuable measure of competence.

So which certification is "right" for a CPA firm network administrator? You should begin by understanding that the three certifications (MCP, MCSA, MCSE) are very different, and are designed to document very different skill sets. The MCP should be viewed as an entry-level certification, and requires the passing of one single exam on a designated Microsoft product. For a network administrator, the logical test might be the one that covers Windows 2000 Server. These exams are not easy, and the successful candidate has shown not only knowledge on the system tested, but also discipline and dedication toward studying and preparing for the test. For these reasons, the MCP should be respected as a valuable credential, but by design, it is limited in scope to a single software product.

At the other end of the spectrum, the MCSE is the "capstone" credential in the Microsoft world and documents a broad and deep understanding of the various components of Microsoft networking, and networking concepts in general. Of specific interest to our discussion here, the MCSE requires knowledge in the planning, design, and implementation of network architecture and server system solutions. In other words, if you are planning a new network, a significant expansion of your existing architecture, the merging of multiple systems (as in a merger situation), or the addition of new wide area and remote access connections to your existing network, then the MCSE documents the skills that will be important to you. Note that these are above and well beyond the day-to-day requirements of maintaining an existing local area network! In order to achieve this level of knowledge, the MCSE candidate must pass seven different exams: four on core operating systems, one on network and infrastructure design, and two electives on supplemental technologies such as SQL Server or Exchange Server. An MCSE should be capable of planning and designing your network, in addition to supporting and administering it.

By contrast, the MCSA does not require the planning and design knowledge of the MCSE. It is targeted at a different niche: the systems administrator responsible for the day-to-day care and feeding of an existing network. In scope and complexity, it falls between the MCP and the MCSE. To become an MCSA requires the passing of four exams. These include one on a client operating system (Windows 2000 Professional or Windows XP Professional), a server operating system (Windows 2000 Server or Windows .NET Server (not yet available as of this writing)), a mandatory exam on Managing a Windows 2000 Network Environment, and an elective selected from a list that includes Implementing and Administering a Windows 2000 Network Infrastructure as well as many of the same MCSE electives such as Exchange Server or SQL Server.

It should be clear by now that there is no single “right” answer to which certification is most beneficial to the CPA firm. If your firm is a small one, with perhaps no full time IT professional and someone managing the network as a part time duty, then that person should probably pursue the MCP certification in the server system you are using. If your firm is housed in a single office location, has perhaps 25 or so computer workstations, and you are not planning any major expansions, you should have a full time network administrator, and that person should have or pursue the MCSA credential. If your firm is larger than this, or more complex in any dimension, then perhaps the MCSE documents the skill set you need. Large numbers of workstations, multiple office locations, wide area networking and extensive remote access needs, or planned mergers which will require system integration are all indicators of the need for skills possessed by MCSE's.

In our work with CPA firms all over the country, Boomer Consulting has observed that the desired ratio of IT professionals to supported users is denser in the CPA profession than in many other professions. General interest publications in the IT and networking areas sometimes refer to ratios of 50 users to one support professional. We believe that is too lean for a successful CPA firm. Given the number of different software applications in use, the need for them to co-exist compatibly on the network, and the common mix of desktop and notebook computers used by the staff, we have observed that the most successful firms are operating in the 20 or 25 to one ratio range. By applying this ratio, and the range of skills documented by the various certifications, we can begin to estimate what might be appropriate for any given firm. For example, a 100-person firm divided more or less evenly among three offices might justify four support professionals. In this scenario, with multiple offices to be tied together and integrated, a firm-wide Director of IT with an MCSE credential would seem appropriate. Each office should probably have its own Network Administrator, each of whom could be an MCSA. Obviously, this is an example scenario only, and all kinds of variables could dictate a different solution, but it may serve as illustration.

If you are responsible for the reliability, availability, and security of your firm's network resources it would be worth your time to consider the proper mix and number of IT support professionals you need. If you have experienced people in place, consider encouraging them to pursue the appropriate certification as documentation of what they already know and a chance to expand their depth of knowledge. If you need to hire some additional staff, consider how one or more of these certifications can be of use to you in making your selections. And remember, above all else, that successful firms view their technology resources as strategic assets, not as overhead expenses. Leverage these valuable assets with skilled professionals to maintain and enhance them for you!

Kenneth M. McCall is a Consultant at Boomer Consulting, Inc., an organization devoted to the application of computer technology and management consulting.

Ken assists CPA firms in The Technology Leadership Process™ by working with firms of all sizes in strategic planning and budgeting for their technology needs and has worked extensively in the area of training management for CPA firms. Ken is a facilitator for The Boomer Technology Circles™ and works with firms from across the country to make the best get better! He is also the developer and facilitator for The Consultants Training Program™ - where he assists firms in the development of their technology consulting practice.

In addition to his consulting work, Ken has developed a wide variety of practice management solutions using Microsoft Excel and Microsoft Access. His most recent projects have included the Boomer Budget BuilderTM planning template and The Firm HandicapperTM which are used by both clients and his fellow consultants in their work.

Ken is a contributing author to the Boomer BulletinTM – a technology newsletter with an international circulation of over 4,000. He is also published regularly in many state society newsletters, with his most recent articles being "Document Sharing", "Outsourcing Your CIO" and "Technology Consulting Keys to Success." He is a contributing author to Successful Technology Consulting… The Boomer Advantage, a book published by Boomer Consulting to assist firms in establishing themselves in the technology-consulting marketplace.

Ken has been with Boomer Consulting, Inc. since its formation in 1996. Prior to that, he served as the Firm Administrator for Varney & Associates, PA, Consultants and Certified Public Accountants. He has over 30 years of leadership experience, in both private industry and government, in the areas of training, financial management, and computer system integration.

He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics from Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania and a Master of Business Administration from Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. Ken is also a Microsoft Certified Professional.

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