In the wake of Windows 2000 come dreaded changes to MCSE certification. Staying current, whether you're an experienced MCSE or just beginning your IT career, demands that you begin the overwhelming process of certification on the Win2K track now. The certification process can be a maze of curriculum paths, testing centers, training providers, and self-study materials. In this article, I outline changes to MCSE certification, list the required and elective exams you need to take, and suggest test-preparation options.

Transformed Tests
Microsoft is always moving ahead, as the number of MCSE exams the company has retired on the Windows NT 4.0 track demonstrates, forcing MCSEs certified on this track to retest. Microsoft is also moving ahead in its commitment to increase the worth of MCSE certification.

The popularity of training programs for earlier MCSE certification tracks contributed to a market that was saturated with unseasoned IT recruits. With the Win2K certification track, however, Microsoft has introduced an MCSE program that requires a higher degree of applied practice in planning, design, security, and overall product knowledge than earlier tracks did. To become certified, you'll need to demonstrate technical proficiency, troubleshooting skills, and problem-solving abilities that only well-seasoned exam candidates possess.

Exams and courses for the Win2K certification track
To ensure that the exams on the Win2K track measure the skill sets that are necessary for Win2K proficiency, Microsoft offered beta exams to an extensive but select group of MCSEs. Most of the new exams' content measures responses to scenarios and product expertise. Select-and-place questions require the candidate to review sample Win2K screen captures, select the step or steps that answer the question, and arrange the steps in a graphical solution. In short, if you don't have substantial knowledge of the product, chances are you won't pass the exam. Microsoft recommends that MCSE candidates have at least 1 year of hands-on product and troubleshooting experience before attempting the exams.

MCSEs who are certified on the NT 4.0 track will discover that exam results are reported differently on the Win2K track. After you complete an exam, the testing computer displays a message that states whether you pass or fail. If you fail, you receive a printout stating so. If you pass, you receive a printout with your score. Whether you pass or fail, you don't receive any indication of your strong or weak areas, which the printout gave you for exams on the NT 4.0 track. This lack of information makes studying for an exam retake more difficult. However, the lack of information also increases security by making exam replication more difficult for test-preparation companies.

Starting from the Beginning
For students who have limited practical knowledge of Win2K, instructor-led training is a logical first step for acquiring the hands-on experience necessary to pass the exams. Candidates who are just beginning the MCSE certification track (or candidates who are certified on the NT 4.0 track but want to start from the beginning of the Win2K track) need to take the four core exams that Table 1 lists. To complete the core requirements, candidates need to choose one additional exam from the group of three core design exams that Table 2 shows.

Candidates also need to pass two elective exams. You can take design exams for these electives. However, you can't count as an elective the design exam you take to fulfill the core requirement. With so many exams being retired, a concern for many students is which electives remain as credit for certification. The sidebar "Elective Exam Options," page 42, lists nondesign elective exams that you can take for MCSE certification on the Win2K track.

Another option for elective credit is an exam that Microsoft announced in December 2000 as a way to "ease transition to Windows 2000." This exam, which is scheduled to become available in spring 2001, will test a candidate's competence in everyday management of NT Server 4.0. A candidate who passes this exam becomes a Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) and can later apply this exam as elective credit toward MCSE certification.

Learning Experience
The challenge of passing seven exams is intimidating, not to mention expensive, for those who decide to play the certification game. Equally intimidating can be the profusion of available courses you can choose from to prepare for these exams. Microsoft Certified Technical Education Centers (CTECs) offer weeklong classes, seminars, workshops, 1- or 2-day add-on courses, and custom combinations of two or more classes based on the Microsoft Official Curriculum (MOC). Tables 1 and 2 list the MOC courses beside the exams for which the courses help you prepare.

Course 2151 introduces networking, protocols, and basic server administration. The partner course, Course 2152, provides in-depth training for Win2K client-server administration, with an emphasis on server administration. You need to take both courses to prepare for core requirements Exam 70-210 and Exam 70-215. Course 2153 prepares you for core Exam 70-216 through detailed study of DNS, WINS, IP address assignment, VPN, routing, remote access, and Microsoft Certificate Server. Course 2154 gives you necessary background for Exam 70-217 by teaching how Active Directory (AD) works, including implementation, setup, and AD structure.

Design courses build your knowledge of infrastructure. Course 1561 emphasizes customizing AD for an organization's particular needs and prepares students for Exam 70-219. Course 2010 also can be helpful enrichment for Exam 70-219, although the course is seldom offered as such. Course 2150—which concentrates on implementing a security design and emphasizes remote access, firewalls, and certificates—prepares candidates for Exam 70-220. Course 1562, for Exam 70-221, is a detailed design course for the entire network infrastructure, including DNS, remote access, and WINS. No MOC course teaches Win2K Professional support. To educate themselves about Win2K Pro, many IT professionals either enroll in custom courses or study MCSE Training Kit: Windows 2000 Professional (Microsoft Press, 2000).

Not every CTEC offers courses for every elective exam. To find out which CTECs offer which courses for which electives, visit the Microsoft Training and Certification Web site at http://www.microsoft.com/trainingandservices.

For MCSE Veterans
MCSEs (or MCPs who passed Exam 70-067: Implementing and Supporting Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0; Exam 70-068: Implementing and Supporting Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0 in the Enterprise; and Exam 70-073: Implementing and Supporting Microsoft Windows NT Workstation 4.0) are eligible for an alternative Win2K certification track. Microsoft is offering Exam 70-240: Microsoft Windows 2000 Accelerated Exam for MCPs Certified on Microsoft Windows NT 4.0, until December 31, 2001. This exam takes the place of the four required core exams. If you fail Exam 70-240, you can't take it again; you need to start at the beginning of the track and take all four required core exams. The MOC also offers courses to prepare candidates for the accelerated exam. Course 1560: Updating Support Skills from Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 to Microsoft Windows 2000 is an accelerated overview of Win2K, AD, and guidelines for building network infrastructure. Course 2154 can also be helpful for candidates with limited Win2K experience.

In addition to passing the accelerated exam, candidates on the fast track must pass a design exam and pass (or have passed) two current elective exams. Electives that a candidate took for the NT 4.0 track could qualify as current if Microsoft hasn't slated the exams for retirement. MCSEs must replace any exam they have passed that Microsoft has retired, within a year of the exam's retirement. For more information about retired exams and exam options for MCSEs certified on the NT 4.0 track, see Robert McIntosh, "Don't Lose Your Certification," page 51.

Selecting an Education Provider
After you choose your certification and education paths, you face the challenge of selecting a training provider. (If you attempt self-study, you face greater challenges. In addition to the discipline required to complete a self-study approach, you need six or more PCs to complete certain course objectives.) With the advent of Win2K and the transformation of the certification process, Microsoft also revamped the CTEC program and requires education centers to adhere to more rigorous quality-assurance standards.

Choose a CTEC in your area that also provides consulting services. Ask whether the facility uses contract trainers and full-time instructors who only teach or whether the center uses its employees to teach as well as consult. Instructors who have real-world experience bring it with them into the classroom, to the students' benefit. Also, seek a classroom environment with a small enough maximum class size to allow for individualized instruction. You can often locate these CTECs by their reputations for customer service. For more information about choosing a CTEC, see Kalen Delaney, "Instructor-Led Training," page 45.

Microsoft is restructuring the Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT) program in addition to the MCSE exams. As of January 1, 2001, MCTs need to be a certified MCSE, MCSD, or Microsoft Certified Database Administrator (MCDBA). MCTs also need to comply with new quality-assurance standards that govern continuing education and course preparation and delivery. MCTs need to earn 15 continuing education credits each year, including credits for trainer skills courses, to keep their MCT certifications valid. They also need to log at least 10 days per year as course instructors.

Tools for the Trek
Study guides and test-preparation software can be an invaluable supplement to experience and training, whether inside the classroom or out. MOC courses teach you the technology, but self-study materials can help you focus on what you need to know to pass the exam.

The most helpful self-study technique can be question analysis. Familiarizing yourself with question types and understanding what makes one answer correct and the others incorrect will undoubtedly improve your exam scores.

Microsoft Press's MCSE Training Kit series offers official study guides for specific exams. The Coriolis Group publishes the Exam Cram series, which is popular with MCSE candidates because the books are an inexpensive way to get your hands on sample questions, answer explanations, and study sheets. As an MCT, I also hear many of my students praise Transcender's software for the software's exam simulations' likeness to the real exams. Transcender also offers a money-back guarantee. Another popular test-preparation software provider is Self Test Software. Because test-preparation materials abound, and because the material for the Win2K certification track is still in its infancy, students might have trouble identifying helpful self-study material. I advise you to ask around and use what has worked for others.

Ultimately, however, hands-on training is the key to certification success. An MCSE who is certified on the Win2K track demonstrates quantifiable knowledge not only of theoretical concepts but also of practical application of these concepts. Only experience will secure your MCSE certification.