Is CBT self-study your road to certification?

If you've decided to take the plunge and begin studying for your MCSE, you might be feeling daunted by the amount of work facing you. How do you know what to study, let alone pass the six examinations you must take? Many people solve this dilemma by signing up with a Microsoft Authorized Technical Education Center (ATEC) to attend MCSE study programs. (For more information about certification and training alternatives, see "Related Articles in Windows NT Magazine," page 78.) However, if you're already working as a systems administrator in the Windows NT world, you probably don't have the luxury of devoting 1 week to 4 weeks to a rigorous training program.

Then there's the cost. One training center in my area offers 11 MCSE training classes: The center's typical class requires 40 hours of classroom time and costs $1795. If you were to take all 11 of this center's MCSE classes, your total tuition bill would be $19,745. In addition to that amount, you'd have to shell out $100 for each of the six required MCSE examinations--with no guarantee that you'd pass on the first try.

The problems of time and cost associated with institutional training programs prompt many busy systems professionals to look for training alternatives. Some have found an answer in computer-based training (CBT) self-study programs. Self-study lets NT professionals customize and streamline the training process by targeting the gaps in their knowledge and selecting training materials to fill those gaps. Over the next several months, I'll guide you through the maze of CBT MCSE self-study options. This month, I'll point out pitfalls along the self-study trail and give you tips to help you choose wisely among the self-study alternatives. I'll provide an overview of the categories of self-study products, then narrow the focus to CBT options. In future articles, I'll review specific MCSE CBT solutions to help you choose the option that best meets your needs.

Self-Study Traps
Studying on your own for the MCSE exams can be an economical and practical way to achieve certification, but the self-study road has some obstacles. Two traps lie in wait for unwary MCSEs to-be: overconfidence and incompetence.

Trap #1: Overconfidence. Systems professionals often think they know more about Microsoft systems than they really do. No matter how long you've been working with Microsoft products, designing a self-study program that targets what you need to know to pass the MCSE exams can be risky. The MCSE tests contain esoteric material that can trip up the most seasoned Microsoft systems pro. Training centers highlight this obscure information, whereas self-studiers might dismiss it as insignificant.

For example, when I took a sample Windows 95 certification exam, the first question was, "What components are installed when you perform a 'compact' Windows 95 installation?" Despite the fact that I've been working with Windows since Windows was developed and have probably installed no fewer than 400 copies of Win95, I have never performed a compact installation. At first, I thought the test question highlighted obscure and superfluous information. But then I saw it from Micro-
soft's perspective: MCSEs must know how to support the complete product and understand all the product's capabilities, even if they never intend to use those capabilities. As an MCSE, you might receive tech-support phone calls from users who can't find a program on their computers because that program wasn't installed when the users performed a compact installation.

You can protect against overconfidence with adequate preparation. Before you begin your MCSE self-study regimen, visit Microsoft's MCSE Web pages (http://www.microsoft.com/mcp/certstep
/mcse.htm) and download the information about the examination process. Make sure you know exactly which exams you must take to get your certification. When you understand which exams you need, download the Microsoft curriculum for each examination. These curricula will explain exactly what you need to know to pass the exams. Learn the material thoroughly: For example, study the entire Win95 curriculum--no matter how many copies of Win95 you've installed.

Trap #2: Incompetence. The second trap you will encounter as a self-studier is incompetence. Microsoft certification is big business, and anyone can publish self-study materials. If you unwittingly select poor-quality self-study materials the mistake can be costly--both in the money you spend for the study materials and tests you fail, and in the time you devote to ineffectual studying.

To avoid the incompetence trap, make sure you buy self-study materials from a reputable vendor. Several leading companies produce high-quality self-study materials. By sticking with these vendors, you're virtually guaranteed to get comprehensive and accurate study materials. In addition, some of the reputable MCSE preparation companies offer a money-back guarantee: If you fail your MCSE tests and were using study materials from one of these companies, you are eligible to receive a refund on your purchase.

To find the most reputable vendors of self-study materials, ask MCSEs you know what worked for them. Another indicator of high-quality self-study materials is Microsoft certification. Choose vendors that provide Microsoft-certified self-study materials or use presenters or writers who are Microsoft Certified Trainers (MCTs).

Finally, when you purchase books, videos, or other self-study materials, stay with the latest edition of the product. Purchasing the most up-to-date versions of self-study products means you'll have information that incorporates corrections to any mistakes made in earlier versions.

Self-Study Products
A full range of self-study materials currently fills the market. Products can cost from tens of dollars to thousands of dollars and comprise everything from printed reading material to interactive training software.

Study guides. On the first step of the self-study products ladder, you'll find printed study guides that you might think of as Cliffs Notes for certification exams. These guides take Microsoft's curriculum and present in terse terms some of the information you'll need to pass various certification exams. Unfortunately, these guides often read like reference manuals, and although their content can be excellent, the presentation is dry. A disadvantage to study guides is that, although they give correct answers to particular questions, they don't tell why the answers are correct.

Study manuals. A step up from study guides are the comprehensive preparation study manuals that virtually every major US publisher produces. Most publishers provide several manuals that cover one or more of the MCSE examinations. These manuals usually base their information on Microsoft's curricula. The best of the manuals present comprehensive information: correct answers to exam questions and explanations why the answers are correct.

Study guides and manuals work for many self-studiers, but reading them requires a large amount of time. In addition, if you don't absorb information well from reading, study guides and manuals might not help you prepare adequately for the MCSE exams. In that case, these self-study materials might serve you best as bookshelf references.

Training videos. The next step up from printed study materials is training videos. Videos cover the key areas of information you must learn to pass your exams, and they often contain interactive learning assignments you can perform at a computer keyboard as you watch the video. You can review the material and repeat the assignments as often as you choose. However, a significant drawback to videos is that they're not portable--you need a VCR and television to use them. In addition, videos are expensive: One 2-hour video, which might cover the material included in five or six chapters of a typical study manual, can cost 50 percent to 100 percent more than one manual.

Training CD-ROMs. The next step up is CD-ROM-based training materials. CD-ROM training materials are popular self-study resources. Typically, a training CD-ROM combines the contents of a study manual and multimedia links that launch interactive demonstrations at key points in the text. CD-ROM training materials can consist of text-only or video-only demonstrations, but such products are becoming scarce as vendors migrate to a multimedia approach--what I call the full-blown CBT solutions.

CBT solutions. The top rung of the ladder in self-study materials is computer-based solutions. CBT products let you study as your schedule allows, whether at home, in your office, or on the road with a laptop. Several vendors offer comprehensive CBT solutions, software packages that combine the best of the range of self-study materials: study guides, training manuals, training CD-ROMs, and two extremely useful specialty programs--simulation and sample-examination software.

Simulation software lets you simulate certain activities on NT servers. Simulation software can be particularly valuable if you don't have a nonessential Windows environment to practice on (e.g., you can't access a nonproduction NT server at your business for self-study assignments). When you load sim-
ulation software on an NT server, you can change network configurations and practice other learning activities you otherwise couldn't safely perform.

Sample-examination software is probably the most important self-study resource you can buy. Sample-examination programs simulate actual MCSE examinations. Although these programs don't present the exact questions you'll encounter in the MCSE exams, many of the questions are very close to the exam questions. The value of sample-exam packages is that they help you pinpoint weak areas in your grasp of an exam's curriculum. The drawback to sample-exam software is these packages' limited pool of questions: If you use one program too long, you'll learn correct answers without knowing why the answers are correct.

Using a comprehensive CBT program is easy. You just follow the lesson plan the vendor presents: Study the material, perform the simulations, and take the sample examination. If you use the sample exam to identify your weak points, you can return to the relevant sections in the program to bone up. Loop through this process several times, and you'll be ready for anything Microsoft throws at you in the MCSE exams.

The Road to Certification
Which category of self-study material you choose depends on your learning style and needs. Next month, I'll begin reviewing a variety of CBT solutions to help you get a feel for their features and decide whether one or more of these solutions can help you embark on the self-study road to MCSE certification.