Expand your knowledge and experience beyond the traditional curriculum

The initials MCSE aren't enough anymore to sell your skills. How do you make MCSE certification count? You need to supplement your training courses with hands-on experience and include a specialized area of study. Good preparation and a careful approach to training will help you gain a competitive edge and separate you from the weak pool of MCSEs.

Core Requirements
To earn MCSE certification, you must pass six exams: four core exams and two electives. (You can get a complete list of MCSE exam requirements from Microsoft's Web site at http://www.microsoft.com. For an overview of the MCSE certification process, see Jordan Ayala, "Training the Microsoft Way," page 122.) You can follow one of two tracks for certification: the Windows NT 3.51 track or the Windows NT 4.0 track. I'll focus on the NT 4.0 track because the NT 3.51 track is quickly becoming obsolete.

An MCSE is a strong credential, and to obtain it, you must demonstrate knowledge of networking fundamentals. Exam 70-058: Networking Essentials is re- quired, regardless of the track you decide to pursue. Microsoft waives this exam for people with Novell and Banyan certification because these people have a comparable network foundation. However, I recommend that all MCSEs take the Microsoft exam because it deals exclusively with Microsoft's networking products and philosophy of networking.

In addition to Networking Essentials, Microsoft requires three other exams in the NT 4.0 track core requirement. You can take the exams in any order.

I recommend that you take one of the client exams--exams 70-030, 70-048, 70-063, 70-064, or 70-073--first. Don't take these exams lightly. Many people--including me--find that the exam they choose for this core requirement is the most difficult one of the series. I found 70-063: Implementing and Supporting Microsoft Windows 95 somewhat difficult. I had worked with Windows 95 only as a client to NT Server or a personal workstation. A lot of the NetWare-oriented services confused me because I was used to working exclusively with the Novell Client32 NetWare solution rather than the inherent Microsoft solutions. If you choose Win95 as your target client exam, look into the availability of the recently revised Win95 exam: 70-064. This exam includes many updates to the operating system that have occurred in the past year; this exam is scheduled to be available this spring.

I recommend that you don't take the Windows 3.1 or Windows 3.11 exam. Microsoft is planning to retire these exams in September 1998. The other option, and the one I recommend for an NT professional, is 70-073: Implementing and Supporting Microsoft Windows NT Workstation 4.0. If you plan to support and work with both NT 3.51 and 4.0, consider taking both exams. However, only one of these exams can count toward your core requirements.

The remaining two exams--70-067: Implementing and Supporting Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0 and 70-068: Implementing and Supporting Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0 in the Enterprise--are the meat of the core requirements and reflect the NT 4.0 exam track. The three NT exams are related. If you plan to take one, prepare for all three because elements of all three topics appear on each exam. For exams 70-067 and 70-068, you must know all the inherent features of the operating system, the operating system's interoperability, and its enterprise features.

Dual NT Tracks
Although NT 4.0 is popular, a strong install base of NT 3.5x still exists. If you possess an MCSE under the NT 4.0 track, you might have to support NT 3.51. If you can pass the NT 4.0 exams easily, you won't have too much trouble with the two exams for NT 3.51: 70-042: Implementing and Supporting Microsoft Windows NT Workstation 3.51 and 70-043: Implementing and Supporting Microsoft Windows NT Server 3.51. Passing these exams is not extremely important, but it can help you strengthen your NT credentials.

When Microsoft developed the curriculum track for NT 4.0, it split what was formerly one exam for NT Server 3.51 into two exams for NT Server 4.0. People who took the NT 4.0 exams before the 3.51 exam tell me they found exam 70-043 a breeze after passing the two exams for NT 4.0. In contrast, only one-fourth of the NT Server 4.0 exam is new material beyond the NT Server 3.51 exam.

The Unofficial Core Requirement
Anybody who plans to work with networks, regardless of the network operating system, will have to deal with TCP/IP. The protocol is the recommended default protocol in NT and is the backbone of the Internet. The two elective TCP/IP exams--70-059: Internetworking with Microsoft TCP/IP on Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 and the older 70-053: Internetworking Microsoft TCP/IP on Microsoft Windows NT (3.5-3.51)--are not mandatory for MCSE certification. But I think one of them should be. With the popularity of the Internet and the rise of complex heterogeneous intra-networks, employers will be looking for people with a strong TCP/IP background. The NT version track you choose will determine which of the two exams you want to take. I recommend you choose this exam as one of your electives. That choice leaves you with only one elective exam. But why stop there? Why not increase your marketability?

Using the Electives to Determine Your Specialty
Most of the MCSE training options give you six exam options. Although you can choose from more than six elective exams, the companies that produce training materials produce materials for only two of what they see are the most popular electives: Internet Information Server (IIS) and Exchange. If you want a specialized area of focus, you might have to dig to obtain the knowledge you need to pass those exams. Finding materials outside of Microsoft's products for applications such as SNA, Systems Management Server (SMS), and SQL Server will be more difficult. But if you want to focus on one of these areas, make the extra effort. Let's look at some of the topics you can specialize in.

Systems management. Individuals certified in SMS are in high demand. Outside the MCSE realm, SMS technical trainers are also in demand. Because SMS and SQL Server are tied tightly with one another, you need a strong background in both. I recommend both 70-018: Implementing and Supporting Microsoft Systems Management Server 1.2 and 70-026: Systems Administration for Microsoft SQL Server 6.5. I recommend that you have strong knowledge, possibly even certification, in all desktop operating systems you are working with.

Database administration. If you want to specialize in relational database administration, consider taking a few additional certification exams to strengthen your skills. Take exam 70-026 and a more advanced exam, such as 70-027: Implementing a Database Design on Microsoft SQL Server 6.5. You might want to go beyond these two exams to master all facets of Microsoft's Open Database Connectivity (ODBC) solution. You can get certified in front-end applications and development tools such as Visual Basic, Excel, and Access.

Let me also mention the use of non-Microsoft back ends. If you have experience with other vendors' products such as Oracle, DB2, and Sybase SQL Server, you'll have a competitive edge over applicants who have only Microsoft SQL Server experience. This approach usually benefits you even if a potential employer uses a database management system (DBMS) platform you are not familiar with. You have demonstrated versatility and crossplatform knowledge.

Mail and messaging services. With every major release of Exchange, Microsoft releases a new exam. The two most recent exams, 70-076: Implementing and Supporting Microsoft Exchange Server 5.0 and 70-081: Implementing and Supporting Microsoft Exchange Server 5.5, offer certification for these credentials. These exams are thorough and require not only the knowledge of Microsoft proprietary technologies but also demonstrated knowledge of standard messaging technologies such as X.400, Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP), and Post Office Protocol (POP) 3. If you are planning to specialize in Exchange, you might want to nail down all client messaging and groupware products such as the Microsoft Exchange Client, Fax Clients for Windows 95 and NT Workstation, Outlook, and Outlook Express.

To strengthen your skills, study equivalent products from other vendors such as Lotus and Netscape. Although Microsoft has positioned Exchange to go head to head with these competing products, not all organizations have jumped on the Microsoft bandwagon in this area.

Internet services. Specializing in Internet services is a wise move in light of the rise of Internet popularity for Microsoft products. Several exams can help you strengthen your Microsoft Internet credentials. The TCP/IP exam is a must for establishing a core skill set of TCP/IP internetworking. I also recommend that you take one of the two IIS exams: 70-077: Implementing and Supporting Microsoft Internet Information Server 3.0 and Microsoft Index Server 1.1 or 70-087: Implementing and Supporting Microsoft Internet Information Server 4.0. Because Internet security, address sharing, and caching are often issues in Internet-connected sites, you might want to become certified in Microsoft Proxy Server. Two exams are available for Proxy Server: 70-078: Implementing and Supporting Microsoft Proxy Server 1.0 and 70-088: Implementing and Supporting Microsoft Proxy Server 2.0.

On the client side, Microsoft now offers an exam for deploying, installing, and managing clients running Internet Explorer (IE) 4.0. This exam, 70-079: Implementing and Supporting Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0 by Using the Internet Explorer Administration Kit, was in beta when I wrote this article.

If you want to specialize in Microsoft Internet Services (either through a specialized MCSE or using the Microsoft Certified Internet Specialist program), you must demonstrate knowledge of both server and client applications. Exam 70-079 is the only exam that certifies an Internet Client program. For full-scale Internet and intranet design, I recommend that you obtain skills in HTML and ActiveX.

In December 1997, Microsoft introduced a certification for Internet Services called MCSE + Internet. The requirements include the MCSE exam requirements plus a few add-ons. For a list of the requirements, visit Microsoft's Web site (http://www.microsoft.com).

Host connectivity. If you have experience in SNA networks, OS/400, or any environment that still uses mainframes and minis, you can specialize in host connectivity. This major will help you through many front doors. Microsoft has two exams for its SNA Server package: 70-013: Implementing and Supporting Microsoft SNA Server 3.0 and 70-085: Implementing and Supporting Microsoft SNA Server 4.0. These courses are not popular electives because obtaining practice time in an SNA environment is difficult. You will find little certification assistance outside Microsoft's official curriculum. Because Microsoft does not offer a separate SNA or IBM mainframe integration track, if you want to specialize in this area, you must strengthen your skills with other third-party products such as Rumba, KEA, or EXTRA! Mainframe.

Presenting Your Credentials
When you share your resume with a prospective employer, include a copy of your Microsoft Official Transcript. You can obtain a copy of this document from Sylvan Prometric--the company that administers Microsoft certification exams--but usually you will receive an updated copy of your transcript as you pass each exam. Also, keep a list of satisfied clients and or former employers who can validate your skills. Affiliation with corporate-independent professional organizations such as Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), or Network Professionals Association (NPA) never hurts an applicant.

Avoid going into a job interview with nothing more than exam questions memorized. Adding a specialty to your credentials might make the difference. And if you are certified, don't be surprised if you don't get that high-paying job without significant networking experience.