Surf's up, but you've got bigger plans

By now you must have heard about how MCSE certification helps increase your salary and attract customers to your company. But perhaps you're intimidated by the prospect of all those Microsoft tests. What you might not realize is that an efficient option exists for passing the tests and earning your MCSE: going through an MCSE boot camp. I recently attended NT School's 2-week MCSE boot camp in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

NT School holds its boot camp at the Marriott Residence Inn, located about 20 minutes from Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. The Residence Inn has all the amenities you'd want for any situation--­vacation or MCSE boot camp. But don't imagine you're there to enjoy the surf or to visit Walt Disney World: Boot camp is all work and no play. The hotel provides everything you need, so you can focus on the task at hand--­getting your MCSE. The hotel's large conference facility serves as the boot camp's central command.

To successfully obtain MCSE certification, you need three things: a can-do attitude, a suitable environment, and sound information. Having the right attitude is up to you, but the Residence Inn provides an appropriate environment, and NT School provides high-quality instruction. NT School's MCSE boot camp is a great program, and I give it due credit for the fact that my business cards now sport the MCSE logo.

Why Boot Camp?
Several programs exist for obtaining your MCSE. For example, you can initiate a self-study program, take a Microsoft Authorized Technical Education Center (ATEC) class, or attend a boot camp.

Self-study materials include videos, manuals, and computer programs. These materials might cost you $200 to $4000. A major disadvantage of self-study programs is outside distractions. In addition, you might have a difficult time determining which material is most important. And after several weeks of studying, the information won't be fresh in your mind when you take the exams.

ATEC classes cover one topic at a time, for several class sessions over a 1- or 2-week period. The classes cost about $2000 each. ATEC classes have several disadvantages. First, the Microsoft Press materials that ATEC instructors present often aren't the best information available. Second, instructors cover the material as if the students were brand-new users of the product or technology, and they rarely offer tips or tricks for taking the tests. Finally, students have no guarantee that they can retake an ATEC class if they fail an exam.

MCSE boot camps are springing up everywhere. You've probably seen boot camp ads on the Internet and in the back of computer magazines. Boot camps typically last for 2 weeks and involve harrowing 14-hour days. Boot camps might seem expensive, but in the long run they're cheaper than attending a series of ATEC classes. A disadvantage of boot camps is that your life is hell for 2 weeks. However, a boot camp is an efficient program for obtaining your MCSE. (For another Lab Guy's boot camp perspective, see Brian Gallagher, "ACREW MCSE Boot Camp," January 1999.)

NT School
NT School's MCSE program consists of six exams covering the essentials for MCSE certification: Windows NT Workstation, NT Server, NT Server in the Enterprise, TCP/IP, Networking Essentials, and Internet Information Server (IIS) 4.0. NT School's lead instructor, Barry Kaufman (MCSE and MCT), has more than 100 customized PowerPoint slides for each topic. These slides include key information that you need to pass the exams. Kaufman also provides plenty of exam tips and tricks during his presentations.

NT School uses the Exam Cram series of books from Certification Insider Press (a division of The Coriolis Group) as study aids. These books are great supplements. My class also discovered that the books are useful for putting your knowledge to the test. After we covered a chapter in each of the Exam Cram books, we tried to answer the study questions--­but in many instances the author's answer was wrong or not the best choice. Having to justify our answers forced us to think more critically about the questions. This reasoning process showed whether we truly knew the material or were just memorizing answers.

NT School provides students with CICPrep examination software to simulate tests for every exam except IIS 4.0. For IIS, we used PC Age's LearnByDoing software. This software was useful but had one glitch: If your answer is technically correct but isn't in the software's database of correct procedures for a given problem, the software sends you an error message.

Although NT School has considered using Transcender's InternetCert software for its useful simulation questions, the company didn't use it for the boot camp I attended. Transcender sent me InternetCert the week before I went to boot camp, so I used the software as a study supplement for the IIS 4.0 exam. InternetCert shows you not only whether you answered a question correctly but also what the correct solution is (if you answered the question incorrectly). I ran through all three IIS practice exams and answered only the simulation questions. Practicing with Transcender's IIS simulations proved invaluable at exam time: The questions helped me become comfortable performing tasks rather than just answering multiple-choice questions. I recommend InternetCert to anyone studying for an MCSE.

Virtual University Enterprises (VUE), one of two Microsoft-authorized test sites, administers NT School's MCSE exams on-site. Each test draws randomly from a large pool of questions, with 50 to 60 questions appearing on each exam. The tests that I took let you back up to a previous question at any time, and you can review all questions before ending the exam. Microsoft began implementing the adaptive test model toward the end of my boot camp. The adaptive test includes 25 to 36 random questions, and you can't back up to a previous question or review your answers at the end of the exam. Regardless of the type of test you take, you must know the material and be able to recall it in a high-pressure exam environment.

A complaint about certification boot camps is that they produce paper MCSEs. Although some boot camps might accept all applicants and herd them through the material, NT School doesn't. NT School screens prospective students to ensure they have the appropriate background to handle the intense and difficult 2-week training. NT School has even turned away students (and their money) when they didn't meet the course requirements. In such a case, NT School directs candidates to an ATEC, where they can beef up their experience and skills. The average student in my NT School class had 8 years of network experience and had been supporting NT for at least 1 year.

The Right Stuff
The MCSE boot camp's goal isn't to turn computer neophytes into MCSE-certified techno-geeks. Instead, the boot camp experience appeals to individuals with previous NT and network experience. No school can guarantee that you'll get your MCSE, but a good school will give you the necessary tools.

To obtain your MCSE in a boot camp environment, you need the right attitude, the right atmosphere, and the right information. I went to boot camp with the right attitude: positive and totally focused. I absorbed every morsel of information and did every practice question, sometimes twice. When I failed my TCP/IP exam by one question and my IIS 4.0 exam by two questions, I wasn't discouraged. NT School provided the right atmosphere and the right information. With NT School's instruction, I passed all six exams within 14 days, with only two retakes.

MCSE boot camps aren't for the fainthearted or inexperienced computer user. Everyone in my class had extensive network experience, and boot camp still created a lot of mental anguish. Two weeks after boot camp ended, I was almost fully recovered. I was starting to sleep again, and food was beginning to taste good.

I won't soon forget my boot camp experience, but the pain I endured is well worth the certification I now possess. If I were to attend boot camp again, I might do things differently (see the sidebar "10 Keys to MCSE Boot Camp Success" for pointers). However, I would again choose a boot camp format to obtain my MCSE certification, and I would again choose NT School.

NT School MCSE Boot Camp
Contact:
NT School * 954-370-7583 or 800-330-1446
Web: http://www.ntschool.com
Price: $7190; includes hotel suite for 14 nights, breakfast and lunch daily, some dinners, classroom instruction, books and other class materials, six exam vouchers, a backpack, and an NT School T-shirt and ball cap
Course Requirements:
At least 1 year of experience in the computer field, At least 1 year of experience in computer networking, including familiarity with basic networking protocols