Becoming a Microsoft Certified System Engineer (MCSE) has its advantages: You will increase your marketability, which can advance your career, and you can reap financial rewards, because employers will generally pay more for your expertise. According to Microsoft, the world recognizes that with your MCSE, you have the knowledge and skills to effectively work with Windows NT and BackOffice. With these benefits in mind, let's examine the MCSE process.

After the release of NT 4.0, Microsoft modified the MCSE training path. The most important change was the division of the Server exam into two separate exams. One exam focuses on NT Server in a single-domain environment; the other concentrates on NT Server in an enterprise environment.

To help you understand the certification path for NT 4.0 MCSE status, Microsoft provides a course list at the Microsoft Training & Certification Web site, http://www.microsoft.com/train_cert. This path contains four groups that are generally referred to as core requirements. To become MCSE certified, candidates must pass six exams: one exam from each core requirement group and two elective exams.

Out with the Old
Of course, the certification path changes as network software products change, but the NT 4.0 certification requirements remain similar to the requirements for NT 3.51. Microsoft is in the process of revamping its course numbering system to avoid confusion that can result from the release of new courses (associated with the release of new software products or new versions of existing software products). Microsoft provides up-to-date information on its Web site and recommends that candidates refer to the Microsoft Training & Certification site for the most recent information about certification.

The length of the certification process depends on several factors, including your knowledge base and how much time you can devote to study. The average time to become an MCSE is about six months (one exam each month).

When you are choosing which exams to prepare for, be aware that the clock is ticking. Microsoft occasionally retires exams, which means that the exam no longer qualifies for MCSE certification. If you're an MCSE candidate, Microsoft will notify you that it plans to retire an exam, and you will have six months to pass either the required exam or an applicable alternative exam. Microsoft retired the exams for NT 3.1, and although the exams associated with Windows 3.1, Windows 3.11, and DOS still qualify for MCSE certification, Microsoft will also eventually retire these exams. Because of the time limit, I recommend that you not use these courses for certification.

As I mentioned, MCSE certification requires that you successfully pass six certification exams. An independent organization, Sylvan Prometric, administers the certification exams at Authorized Prometric Testing Centers. A passing score on an exam within group 1 or 2 results in qualification for Microsoft Certified Product Specialist status (MCPS), which is a first-level certification for a Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP--an MCSE also has MCPS and MCP status). If you are an MCP, Microsoft identifies and promotes you as an expert who knows how to design, implement, and support solutions with Microsoft products.

NT 4.0 Certification Path
Microsoft's Training & Certification Web site lists the exams that you need to pass for the NT 4.0 certification track. Clicking an exam name takes you to a site that gives you more information about how to prepare for the exam. Resources include

* the exam preparation guide, which provides information to help you prepare for the test, and a list of the topics you'll be tested on

* the exam study guide, which explains the origin of the exam, the types of items on the exam, and how the exam is scored

* the Microsoft official curriculum, which lists the courses Microsoft product groups designed to support the certification exam process and includes study guides and assessment exams

Candidates must also pass two elective exams to fulfill MCSE certification requirements. Table 1 lists these electives. Deciding which electives to take to satisfy MCSE requirements depends on your goals. For example, if your career is Internet-related, you will want to focus on passing the exam "Creating and Configuring a Web Server." If your career centers on database concepts, you will consider exams that relate to SQL Server. You need to review all available resources to make an informed decision about which electives are best for your career. You can find valuable information in resources such as Microsoft Certified Professional Magazine (http://www.mcpmag.com), Microsoft's Roadmap to Education and Certification, and a variety of online sources including Microsoft's Web site and Beverly Hills Software (http://www.bhs.com).

MCSE Training Centers
Once you have decided which exams you want to prepare for, instead of self-study, consider training classes at an education center. Microsoft has a vested interest in providing qualified individuals who are properly educated and trained in the installation and administration of its network operating system. The reason is obvious: In situations where poorly trained systems administrators control network operations, the perceived quality of NT can suffer.

To help systems administrators better understand Microsoft's network operating systems, Microsoft has established a network of Authorized Technical Education Centers (ATECs). Additionally, Microsoft has developed relationships with traditional educational institutions (i.e., universities and colleges) under its Authorized Academic Training Program (AATP), for delivering its official curriculum to registered academic certification candidates. Microsoft maintains stringent standards to ensure a quality education. You need to find out whether the training institution is an ATEC or AATP.

As a second step, visit the training center. Visiting before making a training decision is important for a number of reasons. First, it gives you an opportunity to view the classrooms. Make sure you're comfortable with the classroom size and the number of students. Second, visiting gives you the chance to see the students and a trainer in action. During class breaks, ask students how they like the facility and their instructor. Also, check the equipment in the classroom. Make sure the computers are relatively new and have enough memory for MCSE courses.

Remember, the goal of training is two-fold: to obtain a quality education that will let you better perform the job functions of a Microsoft network systems engineer and to pass the requisite six exams and obtain MCSE status. Selecting the right training center can go a long way toward meeting your MCSE goal.

Staying on Track
When you reach the end of the path and become an MCSE, the journey's not over. You must keep your expertise current to maintain your certification. When Microsoft retires an exam, you will be decertified unless you pass the required current exam (or an applicable alternative) within a specified time (a minimum of six months).

The benefits to MCSE training can include better job opportunities and a better salary. If your job involves working with NT and BackOffice, you might want to start your trek down the certification path.

MCSE Training Centers
Once you have decided which exams you want to prepare for, instead of self-study, consider training classes at an education center. Microsoft has a vested interest in providing qualified individuals who are properly educated and trained in the installation and administration of its network operating system. The reason is obvious: In situations where poorly trained systems administrators control network operations, the perceived quality of NT can suffer.

To help systems administrators better understand Microsoft's network operating systems, Microsoft has established a network of Authorized Technical Education Centers (ATECs). Additionally, Microsoft has developed relationships with traditional educational institutions (i.e., universities and colleges) under its Authorized Academic Training Program (AATP), for delivering its official curriculum to registered academic certification candidates. Microsoft maintains stringent standards to ensure a quality education. You need to find out whether the training institution is an ATEC or AATP.

As a second step, visit the training center. Visiting before making a training decision is important for a number of reasons. First, it gives you an opportunity to view the classrooms. Make sure you're comfortable with the classroom size and the number of students. Second, visiting gives you the chance to see the students and a trainer in action. During class breaks, ask students how they like the facility and their instructor. Also, check the equipment in the classroom. Make sure the computers are relatively new and have enough memory for MCSE courses.

Remember, the goal of training is two-fold: to obtain a quality education that will let you better perform the job functions of a Microsoft network systems engineer and to pass the requisite six exams and obtain MCSE status. Selecting the right training center can go a long way toward meeting your MCSE goal.

Staying on Track
When you reach the end of the path and become an MCSE, the journey's not over. You must keep your expertise current to maintain your certification. When Microsoft retires an exam, you will be decertified unless you pass the required current exam (or an applicable alternative) within a specified time (a minimum of six months).

The benefits to MCSE training can include better job opportunities and a better salary. If your job involves working with NT and BackOffice, you might want to start your trek down the certification path.

Navigating the certification path

TABLE 1:  MCSE Electives
Course Number Exam Number Title
688 70-59 Internetworking with Microsoft TCP/IP
684 70-12 Supporting SNA Server
771 70-76 Core Technologies of Microsoft Exchange Server
732 70-14 Supporting Microsoft Systems Management Server
750 70-27 Implementing a Database Design on SQL Server
867 70-26 System Administration for Microsoft SQL Server
826 70-77 Creating and Configuring a Web Server
664 70-78 Supporting Microsoft Proxy Server