Scale applications to the enterprise

Just a few years ago, Novell's CNE certification was the rage among computer professionals. Today, the MCSE certification has replaced the CNE certification as the most sought-after training for computer professionals. What is the MCSE certification and why do you need it? Can it really help you in your job? To help answer these questions, you need to look at the certification program, what is necessary to pass the tests, and what you need to do to add MCSE to your business cards.

Training to Fill a Need
According to Microsoft, more than 160,000 individuals have become Microsoft certified (product specialists, systems engineers, solutions developers, and trainers), with 10,000 more joining the ranks every month. The main reason behind these growing numbers seems to be the desire to increase income. These individuals are also improving their skills to perform their job. Few situations are worse than seeing a new piece of software that the CIO just bought sitting on your desk with a little note that says your company needs to deploy this package within the month. You don't know what the software is, you don't know what to do with it, and the job security brought by those old complicated sys-tems only you know how to run just went right out the window. Getting on-the-job training, or even before-the-job training, can help alleviate these problems: You still have to deploy the new software, but at least you'll know how to do it.

Some companies are beginning to pay for training and certification while employees work (e.g., through classes and self-paced guides). Other companies have personal performance reviews and goals or offer salary increases--as much as $8000 or $10,000--tied to your success in becoming certified. In fact, 59 percent of surveyed MCSEs reported a salary increase after achieving this goal. For others, certification is a necessary part of their work, and the reward is keeping their job. Even high schools and colleges are getting into the act with computer-oriented vocational training aimed at Microsoft certification.

Companies have deployed hundreds of thousands of Windows NT servers throughout the computing industry, and somebody needs to manage these servers and the associated applications. That person might as well be you, right?

In fact, an estimated 41,000 IS professional positions are available just at Microsoft Certified Solutions Providers (MCSPs) around the world--17,000 of which are in the US. This number doesn't include the thousands of IS jobs available in MIS departments at Fortune 1000 enterprises. Many of these companies are gambling their futures on NT, and rather than finding that the operating system and applications can't handle their needs, they're discovering that not enough qualified professionals are available for developer, administrator, and technical staff positions.

In response to this scarcity of qualified workers, Authorized Technical Education Centers (ATECs) have cropped up all over the country to provide training. ATECs specialize in training individuals in operating systems, applications, and development on various products--not just Microsoft products (you can generally find Novell, UNIX, Lotus, Oracle, and many other classes at the same ATEC). To be an MCSP, the ATEC must offer Microsoft-certified classes and materials (including special seminars and introductory classes, in addition to the 3-day and 5-day in-depth classes). Individuals with varying levels of experience, including industry veterans looking to expand their knowledge base, computer novices who want a new lease on their careers, and developers searching for new technologies, take classes from ATECs. Often, these students have been thrown into supporting a new platform or application at work and are frantically trying to get up to speed.

Choosing a Path
ticket Once you decide to pursue Microsoft certification, you have to determine which path to take. A systems administrator will probably want to become a full MCSE, which requires passing four Microsoft operating system exams and two elective exams (for a list of exams, see the sidebar, "Certification Roadmap--A Path to Success," page 124). A programmer will probably want to become an MCSD, which requires passing two core technology exams and two elective exams that provide a valid and reliable measure of technical proficiency and expertise. Individuals responsible for a particular aspect of their company's information systems might want to study to become an MCP. The MCP requires passing at least one Microsoft operating system exam.

Individuals who want to go the extra mile in their training efforts might want to become a Microsoft Certified Trainer (MSCT), particularly if they want to work for one of the hundreds of ATECs or for a company that provides its own training. The requirements to become an MSCT can vary according to the individual's previous experience (for more information on what's required, visit Microsoft's training and certification Web site at http://www.microsoft.com/train_cert). In this article, I'll provide an overview of the MCSE certification process.

Reality Check
Unfortunately, becoming certified as an MCSE solely to obtain an MIS position may not be practical. For example, if you decide on class-based training, you can spend between $8000 and $12,000 to become certified, which can cancel out the higher salary you might achieve after certification. Most people find class-based training isn't enough to pass the tests because the exams require a detailed knowledge of the subject beyond what an instructor can cover during a 1-week course. Also, because of the difficulty of the material, you can expect to spend about 6 months obtaining your MSCE certification. Finally, Microsoft aims the tests predominantly at administrator-type strategic functions that you learn by using and deploying the products, rather than by listening to what an instructor might present in a class.

Don't get me wrong: The MCSE certification is worth pursuing. However, you need to balance your training with experience, and consider the pitfalls as you proceed. For example, becoming an MCSE doesn't necessarily mean you know what you're doing. Many MCSEs have the piece of paper, but aren't effective administrators or IS planners. Combining practical experience with product knowledge is important (for an innovative approach to pursuing your MCSE while getting the academic instruction of a university program, see the sidebar, "MCSE+MCIS = Marketability," page 126). To round out your experience, knowledge of application development doesn't hurt. Such knowledge is becoming more important because of the proliferation of custom applications and scripting environments, with tools such as the Microsoft Management Console (MMC) and Outlook, and Web-based business and workflow applications.

A final consideration is that getting certified once doesn't mean you're certified for life. The requirements do change. Microsoft retires exams and changes the course materials as it updates the products, so you have to retake the tests to maintain your edge and your certification. For example, holding NT 3.51 certification doesn't mean you'll be qualified to support NT 5.0.

A Touch of Class
Individual classes that help you prepare for certification can cost anywhere from $500 to $2500. You might decide that you don't need to take all the classes or any of them. This decision depends on how you learn best. If you're like me, you need to be told something three or four times before you remember it: Hear the information in class, read it in the materials, practice it with an exercise, and repeat it on a test.

If you're lucky enough to be able to read the information once and repeat it, you might be able to get away with using self-paced training materials. In this case, try to borrow copies of the student guides used in class or purchase one of the myriad books on the market from Microsoft Press, Que, Duke Press, and others (for a look at two such books, see the sidebar, "Exam Cram and MCSE Training Guides," page 128). These resources contain most of the exam content and might include some exercises, but they often lack the real-world examples, in-depth technical detail, and answers to your questions that the instructor's insight adds during the class.

Of course, not all classes are worth the time or money. This factor usually depends on the instructor or the quality of the ATEC and the subject matter. If you spend every day working on administering Windows desktops, you might not need to take a class to cover these skills, because the classroom won't offer much information that you don't already know. In these situations, I suggest you buy a $50 book to brush up on areas you don't work in often, and go take the test.

Taking the Tests
Most administrators with a Novell background and a CNE certification discover that obtaining the MCSE certification isn't quite as easy as the CNE. In fact, Microsoft purposely designed the classes and exams to be more difficult than the CNE equivalents to add more value to the MCSE designation. So before you run off to take your first MCSE exam, you will want to do a little homework about taking the tests.

ticket Start by calling Sylvan Prometric (800-755-3926), the only authorized testing agent for the MCSE exams, to find the nearest testing center and schedule a time to take your exam. Stepping into one of the testing centers for the first time can be intimidating. The tests are completely computer based. This approach makes taking each test easier in many ways and gives you results quicker (however, the computer won't tell you whether your answers to the questions are right or wrong during the test). The average amount of time you have to complete the test is 90 minutes. Most tests consist of 50 to 60 multiple choice or multiple option (no essay) questions in sequence, and many include illustrative graphics and diagrams to help you. And as you might expect, you can't take anything into the exam with you.

During the test, you can mark questions you may not be sure about for later review, and if you have the time, you can step back through all your answers to double check them. This ability to go back and check your answers is nice, but be careful you don't second guess yourself or you might change a correct answer to an incorrect one. Here are some other test-taking tips.

  • Taking an exam without studying is not a good idea, because the test will probably include a question that you didn't think of, and a study guide might broaden your base of topics.
  • The tests tend to focus on administrative tasks, so the questions target situations you might encounter in a real work environment, rather than an idealized product deployment.
  • The tests don't contain many theoretical questions. For example, the NT Server test contains questions about the NT core technology (including questions relating to the NT Loader sequence, DLLs, and drivers), but you also need to be prepared for questions outside of this scope.
  • Be aware of which test you're taking. The test may not be in sync with the class you took to prepare because of a lag between the time when Microsoft released the product, when you completed the class materials, and when Microsoft last updated the exam.
  • Use several study methods (e.g., sample tests and books).
  • *During the exam, take advantage of the opportunity to mark questions that you are unsure of so you can go back and check your answer. Frequently, by building on the same concepts, a later question will accidentally contain the answer to an earlier question.

  • Use the diagrams on the test to help clarify the text descriptions of the scenarios.

Individual Exam Pointers
Knowing what to study for each exam will give you the upper hand in passing. The themes you will see running through all the exams are capacity planning and troubleshooting--issues that administrators face every day. Although I don't have room to tell you everything to look for on every exam, I've provided a few pointers on the exams I'm familiar with to help get you started (see also Emmett Dulaney, "A Study Guide for Microsoft's TCP/IP on Windows NT 4.0 Exam," page 144).

Windows NT Workstation. The desktop exam emphasizes file security, such as shares, access on an NTFS volume, and peer-to-peer networking. In addition, Remote Access Service (RAS) plays a key role, with questions on topics such as multilink connections. You'll find a variety of questions on the test in a format such as, "You're managing a workgroup with five NT workstations, with users A, B, and C. User A needs to grant access to files located on one of the workstations to user B. What should she do?" followed by several options.

Windows NT Server. The server exam consists predominantly of performance and network planning questions. If you want to pass, you also need to know your NetWare. NT Server's interoperability with this legacy environment is a critical feature of the product, and Microsoft heavily emphasizes this fact on the test. You can plan for questions that cover logon scripts, security, and client and gateway services for NetWare.

SQL Server. The SQL Server administration exam is not simple. Replication, which is one of the newest features of the product, gets a high percentage of questions. Make sure you understand this topic thoroughly. Other key areas include database planning for storage requirements, databases spanning multiple devices, where SQL Server stores the global table templates, and user security for tables.

Exchange Server. Many individuals consider the Exchange Server exam to be the most complicated of the bunch. The 5.0 exam drills you on topics including connectors (MS Mail, Internet, etc.), how the Mail Transfer Agent (MTA) works, and client configuration and public folders. Passing this exam requires that you study, use the product, and read everything you can get your hands on.

Systems Management Server (SMS). For such a complex product, the SMS exam is surprisingly manageable. The class I took placed a lot of emphasis on topics such as which services perform which functions and where files are located, but the exam focuses on site planning and software distribution. Don't discount knowing how SMS works, and understand the concepts of enterprise deployment.

Looking for Help
Across the industry, book publishers and software companies are producing training materials; use all available resources in your quest for certification. Depending on the level of certification you're seeking, different resources will have different value. Some resources I've found valuable include

  • Microsoft's Web site (http://www.microsoft.com), which contains sample tests, course outlines, online training, and registration for exams. It's a great place to visit so that you can keep updated on the world of the MCSE.
  • Microsoft Certified Professional Magazine, which is a quality resource that discusses topics ranging from getting certified to helping you make the most of your advanced knowledge. Microsoft offers a complimentary subscription after you become an MCP (you can also buy the magazine).
  • Self-guided study aids, which include books, training kits, and sample exams that will help you target your study toward less familiar areas.
  • The Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN), user groups, magazines, and forums can be great resources for study material. Use the Web, read technical magazines such as Windows NT Magazine, go to user group meetings (which can also be a great resource for jobs), and keep an eye on discussion groups and chat forums. You never know what useful tidbit of information you might find. In particular, MSDN, which you can find on Microsoft's Web site, and its associated subscription service offer everything from software betas to special support services.
  • The Microsoft TechNet subscription CD-ROM service, a leading source of technical information for supporting Microsoft products, can answer most questions you form while studying for your exams.
  • Practice makes perfect. Never forget that working with the software, knowing the administrative tools, understanding installation and how the products function is the most valuable resource. If you have friends who have been through the certification process, or even if they haven't, talk to them about the ways they use the products.

Making the Grade
The MCSE certification gives you many tools to be successful, ultimately improves your earning potential, and gives you an edge over your competitors. The detailed product knowledge you get from taking classes and studying for the tests can help you perform your job. The certification process can also enable you to tap into the power of the products you own or plan to deploy to enhance your business with new capabilities. For example, I knew I could distribute software with SMS, but until I took the class, I didn't know that I could distribute the operating system. Being certified helps you fully use your systems and reduces your cost of ownership.

If you're thinking about certification as a way to break into the NT computer industry, check with local companies, placement centers, and schools for details on available training programs, and what benefits you can expect from holding certification. Eventually, you can expect to see a surplus of MCSEs, but right now not enough individuals are certified to go around. Will jobs still be open by the time you finish? I think so--this industry is showing no sign of slowing any time soon.