The final demise of MCSA (and MCSD and MCSE) certification marks the end of an era
This feature first appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
The year was 2001, but I wasn’t on a space odyssey — instead, I was in rural Pennsylvania with several other IT professionals attending a Microsoft training boot camp. We were spending a week taking a rigorous regimen of morning-to-night courses, with the intent of earning Microsoft’s newest certification: the Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator on Windows 2000.
Microsoft created the MCSA on Windows 2000 to serve as a mid-level credential positioned between the entry-level Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) and expert-level Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) certifications. The MCSA wasn’t meant for network architects who designed and built networks from scratch. Rather, the MCSA was aimed at IT workers who managed the day-today operations of a Windows 2000 network.
The MCSA certification lived a turbulent existence over the two decades following its introduction, evolving to maintain its relevance to Microsoft’s changing product portfolio and to reflect ongoing advances in networking technology. The credential came under growing scrutiny in recent years, however, as Microsoft Learning (now Microsoft Learn) chose to shift its focus away from product-based certifications towards industry role-based training.
Finally, on March 26 of last year, Microsoft announced that all remaining MCSA exams would be retired by January 2021. The MCSA — along with its older sibling certifications for software developers (MCSD) and network engineers (MCSE) — would no longer be offered. After 20 years of existence, the MCSA would officially come to end of its rope.
How did we get here? Let’s take a look back at the original MCSA certification and the part it played in Microsoft’s strategy for its (at the time) new flagship server and desktop operating systems.
Hey! Hey! Win2K!
The release of Windows 2000 marked a major sea change for Microsoft’s desktop and server operating systems. While Win2K (as it came to be popularly abbreviated) was a continuation of the Windows NT product line, both Windows 2000 Professional (the desktop client OS) and Windows 2000 Server looked and felt much more modern compared to their Windows NT counterparts.
I was personally aware of this because just months before Win2K’s release, I had completed my training and passed the six exams required to earn the MCSE certification on Windows NT 4.0. The release of Win2K would mark my first experience with the IT industry phenomenon known as the certification treadmill — the ongoing cycle of new technology which requires you to take new training. At the time, I thought my newly minted MCSE would be sufficient to keep me industry-relevant for a few years. Caveat emptor, indeed!
Win2K introduced several new innovations to Microsoft networking, many of which are still in use today. These features include the Microsoft Management Console (MMC), Encrypting File System (EFS), Windows File Protection, Group Policy, and Plug and Play device driver support.
Most significantly, Win2K saw the debut of Active Directory, a network directory service that replaced Windows NT’s unwieldy domain controller monotheism, greatly improving the process of creating and managing networks.
Historical note: Microsoft’s Active Directory was not the first networking directory service, something that any veteran Certified Novell Engineer (CNE) will passionately explain to you if the subject comes up during a tech enthusiast discussion.
Active Directory was also a key technology in Exchange Server 2000, Microsoft’s popular mail server software, as Active Directory served as the database for Exchange. This integration added some incentive for organizations considering whether to upgrade their networking infrastructure to Windows 2000.
Boot camp retrospective
Boot camps weren’t new back in 2001, as this still-familiar format of intense training and studying compressed into a relatively short period of time had been used for years by many different industries. IT boot camps were popular at the time as the dotcom bubble was still intact, and there were plenty of opportunities to find new jobs in the industry.
To earn the MCSA on Win2K, candidates had to pass three core exams and one elective exam chosen from an approved list. It turned out that I had a head start over most of the class at the boot camp, as I had already passed two of the four MCSA exams before leaving my hometown.
The first exam I took was 70-210: Installing, Configuring, and Administering Windows 2000 Professional. That was the core desktop client exam that would later be joined by exam 70-270 created for Microsoft’s shiny new OS, Windows XP Professional, released in the second half of 2001. Windows XP would go on to become a global juggernaut, largely relegating Win2K Professional to the client OS dustbin not long after its release.
I had also passed one of the available elective exams, using my relatively fresh Windows NT expertise to successfully navigate exam 70-244: Supporting and Maintaining Windows NT Server 4.0. Other available elective exams covered Microsoft’s year 2000 edition products such as Internet Security and Acceleration (ISA) Server, Exchange Server, and SQL Server.
This left me with two more core exams to tackle during the boot camp:
70-215: Installing, Configuring, and Administering Windows 2000 Server
70-218: Managing a Windows 2000 Network Environment
The boot camp attendees were byand-large already working in the IT industry. We came from a variety of IT industry fields, not to mention a large cross-section of the United States and Canada. I was occasionally stymied when trying to parse some of the thicker accents and regional dialects when students asked questions or made comments during a class. To be fair, the instructor also sometimes had to ask students to repeat themselves.
I still remember very clearly when I took the Windows 2000 Server exam. The passing grade for the exam was 600, and after I’d answered the last question and clicked the submit button, my score came up on the screen: 600. If I had missed one question more, I would have failed the exam.
My instructor opened the door to the exam room and gave me a wry smile. “You didn’t waste any excess energy on that exam,” he said with a laugh.
I would go on to pass the second core exam, although I don’t remember my score. I do remember using the provided scrap paper to jot down some of the arcane aspects of Active Directory I’d crammed into my brain over days of practical labs and study sessions, before I began answering exam questions.
My experience at the boot camp was a positive one. A few months after I flew home, I received my Microsoft MCSA certification wallet card in the mail. Not only that, I discovered that I was one of the first five thousand people worldwide to earn the MCSA credential. It was a pretty cool achievement at a time when I was still finding my pace on the certification treadmill.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a heavy toll on IT training centers, including those that offer boot camp-style education. Flying across borders and taking live instructor-led courses with people from across the continent seems to have existed in another age. While virtual classrooms have admirably filled the gap during the last 18 months, we can be hopeful we will see a return to real classrooms in the near future.
Some MCSA-ncient history
The MCSA proved to be a highly popular certification for Microsoft and would remain in its training portfolio for two decades. A year after the MCSA on Win2K release, Microsoft modified the certification by splitting it into two different specializations. The credential was redubbed as the MCSA: Security and MCSA: Messaging certifications. Microsoft would later duplicate this strate – gy when it created the updated MCSA on Windows Server 2003.
While new versions of Windows Server were being released, MCSA hung in there as a certification option. There were MCSA certifications for Windows Server 2008, 2012, and 2016. (Historical note: There was also an MCSA: Windows 8 certification at one point, which lasted about as long as a tweet.)
As Microsoft continued to transform its certification program over the next two decades, the MCSA made the jump to more esoteric disciplines and platforms, resulting in the following certifications:
MCSA: Office 365
MCSA: Business Intelligence Reporting
MCSA: Cloud Platform
MCSA: Dynamics 365 for Operations
MCSA: Universal Windows Platform
MCSA: Web Applications
From its Windows 2000 origins, the MCSA evolved into an intermediate-level credential that was slotted into several different Microsoft offerings. The company also continued to use the MCSA as a gateway to its expert-level MCSE certifications, since many of the MCSA exams gave credit towards the more advanced MCSE.
End of an era
For those in the know, the alarm bells signaling the ultimate departure of the MCSA certification family (along with the MCSE and MCSD credentials) began sounding as far back as 2015, rising in pitch throughout 2018 and 2019. By 2020, with Microsoft tilting its focus on certification heavily toward the Azure-centric realm of role-based credentials, reminders like this one, from a blog post dated Feb. 28 (and updated March 26), had become commonplace:
“All remaining exams associated with Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate (MCSA), Microsoft Certified Solutions Developer (MCSD), Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE) will retire on Jan. 31, 2021.
“Microsoft’s focus on role-based training and certifications can help you develop necessary skills and experience to advance in an accelerated and increasingly competitive cloud-based world. Role-based training and certifications are kept current with new features and services that Microsoft is constantly adding to the cloud solution areas, minimizing skill gaps associated with the applicable job roles.”
The MCSA certification came into being when the IT industry was in a white heat of activity and lived on through numerous peaks and valleys, including a trio of severe global financial crises. Its run has come to an end, and it will live on only as a legacy item on MCP transcripts. (Technically, existing MCSA certs, as well as extant MCSE and MCSD credentials, are still considered active, following a timeline that runs out next year. Talk about your dragged-out farewells.)
But for two decades — a Methuselian amount of time in the world of high tech — the MCSA was a valuable credential for mid-level IT pros looking to validate their skills with Microsoft software. It should be remembered as a popular component of Microsoft’s certification portfolio, and a valuable artifact in the history of IT education.