By now, you've heard or seen the fairy tale that's making the rounds in radio and newspaper advertisements across the country: A person with absolutely no computer experience walks into a training center, surrenders a large amount of money, and, 2 weeks to a year later, with MCSE certification in hand, breezes into a job with a huge salary and exceptional benefits. In one variation, the MCSE candidate enters an elite boot camp where specially trained instructors, through an intensive, exhaustive infusion of years of experience earned on the front lines of network administration, turn students into lean, mean, troubleshooting machines. My guess is that the only training companies capable of fulfilling such promises are those that employ fairy godmothers or 1960s science-fiction television's advanced learning machines.

If a car salesman claimed to have a Yugo that could become a Mercedes at the press of a button, most people would probably be just a bit suspicious. But for some reason, people prove P.T. Barnum right when it comes to certification training. Maybe it's because we hold education in such high esteem, or perhaps people are just that desperate for a better job. I'm sure there are many reasons, but they amount to a huge leap of faith that usually falls flat after the money changes hands.

The truth is that Microsoft products are complex, and when they interact with each other, they only become exponentially more complex. Perhaps people with exceptional IQs can learn everything in a couple of weeks, but most of us need a bit longer. Furthermore, just because we know how something works doesn't mean that we can immediately apply that knowledge to a new problem. Usually, we require many exposures to a problem before we can readily formulate a solution. We call such exposure experience.

After many years of experience with Microsoft products, I can typically arrive at a solution faster and more efficiently than someone with less experience. However, it's unreasonable to expect that I or anyone else can magically impart years of real-world knowledge and experience. For most of us, nothing substitutes for learning from mistakes over time.

Time is the key factor in training. Students with significant exposure to a product need less time to learn the new features, while students with no exposure need substantially more time. Students new to IT need to develop a solid understanding of the concepts behind networking, software design, and computer technology before they can hope to solve more than the most basic problems. When one product's operation depends on another product—as is the case with Windows 2000, Windows NT, and all the BackOffice Server products—you often need a solid understanding of all products involved before a problem's cause becomes clear. Contrary to what the fairy tale advertisements claim, it takes time for all that information to sink in to the point that you can use it effectively.

How can you skip to the fairy tale ending without your own fairy godmother? First, get experience—there's no substitute for it. Even limited experience is more valuable than none at all. A friend volunteered to manage her church's Web site to teach herself Web site design and management. One of my students is learning about networking by connecting several computers to play computer games with friends. Just remember, there's no such thing as worthless experience.

Second, read everything you can, whether or not it seems to apply to what you're working on. With so many products that interact with each other, a problem with one product is more than likely the result of another product's malfunctioning. Exposure to a broad range of products will help you narrow a problem's potential causes.

Third, and most important, take time. You know best how you learn and how long it takes to absorb something new. Don't let the constant rush around you press you faster than your limits. If you're transitioning to a new career that will occupy you for a decade or longer, what are a few extra months of preparation? I can assure you that computers will still be here a year from now, and there will always be demand for good learners.