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If you happen to meet any man in the computer industry who boasts of being an official MCP, do not be shocked. He may well be a male chauvinist pig, but what he is actually talking about is his status as a Microsoft Certified Professional.

Since the Seattle-based software company started the MCP programme in 1992, more than 1,300 people have gained certification. To do so, they take a series of Microsoft Official Curriculum courses, followed by exams in every subject.

Membership allows them to put MCP on their CVs, and to receive a free subscription to a specialist magazine. They also receive priority help at the end of a phone line, and a year's free access to a company program for trying out partially-completed software. There are four grades of certification: a Certified Trainer (MCT), who is qualified to initiate others into the courses; a Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), who is trained to devise solutions using Microsoft's Windows NT and BackOffice; a Certified Solution Developer (MCSD), who is qualified to develop business solutions using Microsoft's Windows '95, Office and BackOffice; and the Microsoft Certified Product Specialist (MCPS), who is qualified to provide support to users of all Microsoft's desktop products.

Microsoft's sales pitch for the programme is that customers can be assured that they are getting a professional when they hire an MCP. The subtext is alarming for Microsoft's competitors. If it succeeds, the programme will increase the attractiveness of Microsoft's products, by creating a pool of talented people who know how to get the best out of them.

Since nobody wants to waste their time learning two different pieces of software that do the same thing, the programme will also lock those same professionals into using Microsoft products.

And as if all that were not enough, Microsoft developers and training companies make money from the courses, too: £1,000 for a five-day course and £65 each time for the exams.