Catch up with training opportunities around the country

Do you need an inexpensive and easy way to keep your technical skills sharp and increase your value in the job market? You can find it in your local user group.

In the early days of personal computing, computer user groups started as a haven for techies to gain skills and knowledge they couldn't get anywhere else. These computer user groups gradually became less technical and more appropriate for the home and hobby user. But in the past few years, the original concept of user groups has resurfaced in Windows NT-based user groups.

Find a Group
User groups run the gamut of size and experience. In October 1993, Microsoft's Bill Gates helped the Washington, D.C. area launch the first NT user group, the Advanced Systems User Group, at the same time the company was launching NT. Since then, the user group has changed its name to the Association of Windows NT Systems Professionals and uses the acronym NT*Pro, which more accurately reflects the goals of the group and its members.

NT*Pro has grown to more than 18,000 members in 4 years. Membership is free and includes a monthly email newsletter. (Visit NT*Pro's Web site at http://www.ntpro.org to subscribe to the newsletter or join the group.) NT*Pro hosts at least 10 free meetings each month for special interest user groups. The monthly meetings offer a chance to interact with and learn from internationally recognized professionals who are NT*Pro members. For example, if your interest is SQL Server, you can attend NT*Pro monthly meetings lead by Brian Moran, a specialist in SQL Server tuning and performance. Spyros Sakellariadis, an MCSE and certified trainer, heads an Exchange Server group. And for more information about NT Server, Roy Beasley and C.J. Salzano lead monthly user group meetings in Maryland and Virginia. NT*Pro speakers concentrate on technology rather than products and provide high-quality technical expertise.

NT*Pro is only one of many user groups that offer technical education opportunities. Most NT user groups see education as their primary focus.

The BackOffice Professional's Association (BOPA) in Bellevue, Washington, serves as an Internet-based, nonprofit virtual community for education, technical support, and communication among Microsoft Certified Professionals (MCPs). Sean Mathias, Marjorie James, and the crew at BOPA bring together experienced MCPs, MCSEs, and MCSDs and provide affordable peer-to-peer support, technical problem solving, and previews of future technology. (Visit the group's Web site at http://www.bopa.org.)

One of BOPA's primary missions is to help its membership obtain additional Microsoft certifications. To obtain additional certifications, members must pass Sylvan Prometric exams developed by Microsoft's Certification and Exam Development Group. BOPA sponsors a Certification Study Group that meets twice a month. A BOPA member who is a Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT) chairs the study group. The group focuses on a specific Prometric test and on specific troublesome questions. The results of these study sessions not only increase members' chances of passing tests but also give members valuable skills in everyday network troubleshooting.

BOPA works with local Microsoft Authorized Technical Education Centers (ATECs) and Authorized Academic Training Programs (AATPs) to offer discounts for members who take instructor-led classes based on Microsoft Official Curriculum (MOC). The group distributes Microsoft Press self-study information at meetings.

If you live in the St. Louis area, Bryan Muehlberger (bryan@directpoint.net), of DirectPoint Information Group, leads the Windows NT User Group of St. Louis (WNTUG-STL). This group has grown to more than 220 members in less than 1 year.

WNTUG-STL meetings help professionals keep up with changes in the industry. Meeting topics highlight NT and BackOffice. WNTUG-STL covers topics on troubleshooting, integration, hardware solutions, and software solutions. The group sponsors open discussions about administration and maintenance of servers and related applications.

WNTUG-STL has formed partnerships with local ATECs and the local Microsoft office to help members with certification. The group offers discounts on classes, two-for-one deals, and day-long seminars on different technologies. Members also benefit from relationships with other people in the industry. Members share solutions that have worked for them. (If you're in the St. Louis area and would like to attend or join WNTUG-STL, join the mailing list at http://www.directpoint.net/wntug-stl/mailinglist.html. Joining the mailing list will automatically enroll you as a member of WNTUG-STL, and membership is free.)

If you prefer a tropical climate, visit the Big Island NT Users Group (BINTUG), led by Mathew Pierce in Waimea, Hawaii (http://www.bintug.org). By offering classes through the local community education program, providing a lending library from which members can borrow references, and pooling the knowledge of individual members as a living knowledge base, BINTUG attracts both the neophyte and expert. BINTUG class topics range from small business networking to data security modeling and from migrating Windows 95 desktops to NT to developing NT-based Internet and intranet applications.

Don't Miss the Opportunity
I've given you a brief glimpse of the types of user groups across the US. Many other user groups offer similar services and opportunities. To find a user group near you, see the WANTUG list of NT User Groups (http://www.wantug.org), or check the list of user groups on page 223. Also, Robin Hoye highlights a user group in Windows NT Magazine's weekly UPDATE email newsletter.