Experience, rather than certification, is key to success
At this point, I have chosen not to become certified by Microsoft. No, I'm not a rebel, I just believe that experience is more beneficial than Microsoft certification.

One problem with Microsoft certification is that the exams don't truly test a person's knowledge of Windows NT. Accurately testing a person's knowledge of NT is impossible because NT knowledge encompasses so many technologies, tools, techniques, and concepts. As a result, Microsoft has set a benchmark that basically says, "If you know this much, we'll give you the certification."

Another problem is that Microsoft certification is too easy to get. Many certification factories--companies that promise their students they will pass the certification exams by the time they finish the program--have popped up. All you must do to become certified is pay these certification factories a few thousand dollars. This ease of attainment has greatly diminished the value of Microsoft certification. (Can Microsoft improve its certification program? See the sidebar "How to Make Certification More Valuable," page 138.)

Until the value of Microsoft certification rises, I will continue to rely on my experience in the NT field to help me get and keep jobs. You can rely on your experience, too. Here's how.

How to Get a Job Without Certification
Despite the diminishing value of Microsoft certification, it sometimes gets the attention of potential employers. But before you wave your wallet in front of a certification factory, you need to realize that other ways exist to get the attention of potential employers.

Document all experience on your résumé, and get more experience, if needed. Concisely document all relevant experience on your résumé. If your résumé is a little light in the experience section, consider volunteering your services. Many not-for-profit and for-profit organizations can greatly benefit from extra help in managing their operating systems.

You, too, will benefit from volunteering. Because you'll likely be working with suboptimal systems, you'll hone your skills and become a more creative problem solver. You'll also gain contacts--a definite advantage considering that companies fill most jobs through word of mouth. Plus, you'll get a tremendous amount of personal satisfaction.

Work your way up. Most companies prefer to fill job vacancies with internal candidates, so consider accepting a position that might not be your dream job but can lead to it. Before you knock on an employer's door, get all the information you can about that company. Talk to current and past employees and do research to make sure that the company promotes from within, has an internal MIS department (some companies contract out MIS services), and is an organization that you want to work for.

Once you become an employee, make the MIS staff members your ally. If you're already a member of that department, go the extra mile by volunteering to take on extra responsibilities. If you don't work in the MIS department, communicate your career goals and offer your assistance to the MIS staff. MIS departments often have much more work than available staff, so if you are responsible and efficient, you'll become an important asset. However, help the department only when asked. If you charge in and start doing your thing, they might consider you a loose cannon.

Whether you work in MIS or another department, remember to work within your limitations. If you make a mistake, you might lose a powerful ally. In addition, always keep the MIS staff informed of your extra activities. The key is to communicate.

Be radical. Imagine that you are interviewing a job candidate who says, "I am so convinced that you will like my work that I will do it for free. Put me on probation for 30 days with no salary. If you don't like my work, get rid of me at any time and owe me nothing. But if you like my work, keep me and pay me back wages from the day I started. You have nothing to lose." You'd be certain about one trait of this job candidate: This person has a lot of confidence in his or her abilities.

This radical approach probably won't work in a large organization because of the costs involved with bringing on new staff. But it might work extremely well in small and midsized organizations.

How to Keep Your Job
MOST COMPANIES PREFER to fill job vacancies with INTERNAL CANDIDATES, SO consider accepting a position THAT MIGHT NOT BE YOUR dream job but can lead to it.

Certification might help you get a job, but only experience will let you keep it. Answering a question on an exam doesn't mean that you know what to do, especially when the pressure is on. For example, suppose the performance of your server, which controls a million-dollar-per-day online ordering system, suddenly drops 75 percent. Nothing you do seems to help, causing both management and the representatives taking customers' orders to freak out. What do you do? Who can you call? Unfortunately, certification does little to prepare you for handling such situations in the real world.

To prepare for real-world challenges, you need to continually expand your expertise and experience. You can increase your NT knowledge and skills several ways.

Find a mentor. A good way to find a mentor is to join an NT user group. Members of user groups have a broad range of skill levels and interests. Thus, they can be a valuable resource. To learn how to find user groups and how they can help you, see Charles Kelly, "Tap the Educational Resources of User Groups," page 160.

Read. Most of what you need to know has been written about. The value of vicarious learning is that you get to learn without pain. But, unfortunately, without pain, you might not retain the information you read. To help retain what you read, try to relate your experiences to the concepts being discussed.

Many books and magazines about NT are available. As a general reference, I have found Mastering Windows NT Server 4 by Mark Minasi and Peter Dyson (Sybex) particularly useful. Many other books deal with individual topics in greater detail, such as Mark Joseph Edwards' Internet Security with Windows NT (Duke Press) and my Troubleshooting and Configuring the Windows NT/95 Registry (SAMS Publishing).

I also recommend that you read Windows NT Magazine cover-to-cover every month and keep all your issues for future reference. Although the lab reviews might become dated, the information in the articles usually has a long shelf life.

Apply what you know. You can apply your knowledge and experience to new situations through extrapolation. For example, although NetWare and NT are different operating systems, they share several basic concepts, such as users, groups, and security procedures. So if you know how to network NetWare, you can probably extrapolate what you know so that you can network NT.

You can also apply your knowledge and experience to new situations through deductive reasoning (e.g., if A = B and B = C, then A = C). For example, I recently installed an application. I could run the application from Explorer, but when I tried to run it from the shortcut created by the application, I received an error message. I realized that this message was very similar to the kind you receive when your machine can't find an application that you've moved from one volume to another. So I applied the same fix: I looked in the shortcut to see where it pointed. The software vendor incorrectly coded the shortcut creation; the shortcut pointed to C:\Program Files instead of D:\. After I changed the code, I could launch the application from the shortcut.

Practice. Practice helps you gain experience. Break your system, and then fix it. (But don't break your production equipment.) If you can fix your system during practice, fixing it during emergencies will be much easier. This exercise will also help you learn what can go wrong with your system so that you can take preventive measures.

For example, you can change the IP address of an entry in your Do-main Name System (DNS) server and note what the error message is. Or you can change the DNS server address on your system, and see what happens. If you experience what messages you get when you have mistakes in your system, the next time you get real error messages, you will be better able to diagnose the problem.

Experience Is a Long-Term Investment
Although gaining experience rather than getting certification might take more time and effort, experience will serve you better in the long run. Experience will not only help you get a job, but also keep it.