You're an IT professional, and you need to learn Microsoft SQL Server 7.0, Microsoft IIS, or some other software. You have several training alternatives. You can buy some books and take the learn-it-yourself approach. On-the-job training, with coworkers as mentors, is another option. You can also use public newsgroups (in which experienced users help less-experienced users), magazines, or videotapes for training.

However, if you have the necessary time and money, classroom training with a live instructor is often the best way to gain a solid foundation in the use of new software. Not everyone can afford to take 3 to 5 days off work and pay the $1000 to $2000 that many software classes cost. But for many people, spending several days concentrating on acquiring a new skill with a qualified instructor is the most effective learning environment.

Several avenues are available to students who want to learn to use Microsoft products in an Instructor-Led Training (ILT) environment. One widely used option is Microsoft's Certified Technical Education Centers (CTECs), the ILT arm of the company's training and certification program. Formerly called Authorized Technical Education Centers (ATECs), CTECs received a new name to align with other Microsoft partner programs, such as the Microsoft Certified Solution Provider (MCSP) program, which for many years carried the name Microsoft Solution Provider program. The word certified in the newer names signifies that Microsoft-certified people staff the programs.

Below, I explain what to expect in a CTEC training environment and describe the requirements CTECs must fulfill. Then, I briefly touch on other avenues for ILT training.

What to Expect at a CTEC

As a CTEC student, you'll spend 3 to 5 full days immersed in training. The sessions will likely occur in a classroom that has a computer for each student. The CTEC will provide you with a student workbook containing Microsoft Official Curriculum (MOC) material, which typically includes printed copies of all the slides the instructor will present. The workbook includes material that supplements the information in the slides. You might also receive CD-ROMs that contain additional reference material and evaluation copies of software that the class uses.

The class will consist of instructor presentations and lab time. Some classes also include animated video presentations that the instructor can run to illustrate key conceptual ideas. Some lab exercises require you to work with a partner, and some require you to work independently. The instructor will be available during lab time to help you with any steps that are unclear or to explain aspects of the software that you don't understand.

The instructor is the most important component of your CTEC training. All CTEC instructors must be Microsoft Certified Trainers (MCTs), but as of January 2001, the requirements for becoming or remaining an MCT changed (for details, see the sidebar "Your Trainer's Qualifications"). The quality of your instructor determines whether your time in the classroom provides more value than other training avenues you could have pursued. Not all instructors are of equal quality. Some instructors have been teaching similar subject matter for years and spend part of their time working with the product in a consulting environment. Other instructors might have been certified for only a short time and might never have used the product in a real-world environment.

To get the most out of your training experience, ask specific questions about the class and the instructor you're considering before you register. For suggestions about questions to ask, see the sidebar "Choosing a Training Center," page 48.

While you're in class, pay attention to how much your instructor's remarks keep strictly to the information on the slides; you'll get an idea whether your instructor has worked extensively with the software. Instructors with considerable experience often add suggestions or anecdotes to their presentations. Feel free to ask questions about topics you don't understand and topics that particularly interest you. If you need more information about certain topics, you can look to a variety of other sources outside of class.

Requirements to Become a CTEC

To become a CTEC, a business must meet the following requirements:

  • The business must submit to Microsoft an online application (you can find the application at http://certpartner.one.microsoft.com/programguide/certifiedpartner/default.asp). The business must also submit a Technical-Training Business Plan, prepared according to the guidelines available at http://www.microsoft.com/ctec/guide/appendix/append1.htm. Microsoft won't process the application without the business plan.
  • The business must be an established training center and must have provided public training for at least 1 year before applying.
  • The business must be a Microsoft Certified Partner (e.g., an MCSP).
  • Two MCTs must be associated with only the business that is seeking CTEC status. The MCTs don't need to be employees, but no more than one CTEC can use the same MCT number. By meeting these requirements, businesses signal that they're capable of providing training. Because a business must provide training for at least 1 year before applying to become a CTEC, applicants usually have much of the necessary infrastructure in place before they apply.

To remain a CTEC, an organization must comply with the following rules:

  • CTECs must meet minimum sales figures for MOC kits. This number—either 50 or 100 kits per quarter— depends on the size of the metropolitan area in which the CTEC is located.
  • All public classes that a CTEC offers must use MOC kits if an appropriate course exists. An MCT must teach the classes, and the training room must meet Microsoft's minimum hardware requirements.
  • CTECs must publish and submit their customer satisfaction requirements (e.g., options for retaking classes, money-back guarantees) to Microsoft. CTECs must provide this information to customers upon request.
  • CTECs must abide by Microsoft privacy and fraud standards, which are similar to current software licensing agreements. Each software kit has an End User License Agreement (EULA), which prevents unauthorized duplication.
  • CTECs in the United States must pay a yearly fee of $2500; fees vary by country and region.
  • CTECs must agree to site inspections and audits. A CTEC that doesn't comply with the requirements risks losing its certification. Microsoft accepts complaints from students about CTECs and investigates reports of rule violations.

Microsoft develops most of the MOC materials inhouse, although third-party vendors under the direction of Microsoft's MOC group develop some courses. If no MOC exists for a course that a CTEC wants to offer, the training center can use curriculum materials from a source other than Microsoft. But CTECs rarely use non-Microsoft curriculum. Even if a third-party alternative contains more technical depth, better examples, or fewer mistakes, many students choose the courses that are marked "Official," as in MOC.

Microsoft Independent Courseware Vendors (ICVs) produce self-study material that Microsoft can certify as preparatory material for certification. This material is intended for self-study, not for ILT.

A CTEC can offer private classes anywhere, with no restrictions on courseware or instructor. In addition, CTECs can sell MOC kits to organizations or to individuals even if the CTEC supplies no training to those customers. Some CTECs might choose not to sell the courseware separate from classes because doing so might cut into the center's training revenue, but Microsoft doesn't require that training accompany MOC sales.

Other Channels for ILT

Microsoft supports an Authorized Academic Training Program (AATP). Only accredited academic institutions can become AATPs, and organizations can't participate in both the AATP and CTEC programs. AATP students are typically students at an academic institution. AATPs are typically lower-cost alternatives to CTECs, so you might want to investigate enrolling at a community college or vocational training center that participates in the AATP. AATPs typically offer evening classes, which might span a much longer period of time than CTEC classes.

An AATP institution receives a special licensing agreement to use Microsoft software for training purposes only. Like CTECs, AATP institutions can purchase MOC materials directly from Microsoft. AATPs can also use Microsoft Academic Learning Series training kits, which are geared to the academic environment. Instructor guides for the classroom materials are available, and instructors can spread out the presentations over a trimester or semester of short classes, rather than compressing them into a few days of training. AATP instructors don't need to be MCTs, but they must be Microsoft Certified Professionals (MCPs).

You can also select from other ILT programs that focus on Microsoft products but aren't managed according to Microsoft's rules. An Internet search for computer training can produce hundreds of links to such programs. Some ILT programs are smaller than CTECs, and they're often independent of vendors. The list of questions in the sidebar "Choosing a Training Center" might help you determine the quality of a facility that isn't endorsed by Microsoft.

Another training option you might consider is online training (aka e-learning). This form of instruction combines the benefit of having an instructor of whom you can ask questions and have the flexibility to train during hours that are convenient for you.

Many Training Methods

ILT isn't for everyone and doesn't fit every situation. Some students might prefer an instructor for their first exposure to a new product or technology, but then prefer to work independently to acquire related or more advanced training.

When you're investigating an ILT solution, do your homework before you sign up for a class. Find out all you can about the learning environment, the policies of the training organization, and the background and qualifications of the instructor. The more up-front investigation you perform, the better your chance of selecting a high-quality class.