I receive hundreds of emails from readers each month. The subjects include thanks, criticism, requests to write, and requests for technical support. I try to answer each message, and some messages appear in the Letters section of the magazine. But one group of letters has been so thought provoking that we dedicated this issue to answering them.

One reader asked, "I am thinking about mortgaging my house to get the $20,000 required for MCSE (Microsoft Certified System Engineer) training. Is it worth it? How much money can I make as an MCSE?"

Rather than give a quick answer, I rallied the troops, and we set out to find enough information about training and certification to let you come to your own conclusion. We asked MCSEs how they earned their certificate. We researched the various methods for getting training. We asked recruiters what an MCSE can expect to earn. This issue covers the concerns you'll have whether you're seeking training to improve your marketability as an IS professional, or whether you're considering training as a way to upgrade your organization's ability to support users.

Last September, I was on a panel with IBM and Microsoft. I asked these vendors how they support the enterprise. IBM responded that it has a long history of providing total support for the global enterprise: "We can take care of every PC, minicomputer, and mainframe in the enterprise--anywhere in the world." One call does it all.

As a former IS manager in an IBM AS/400 shop, I can tell you IBM's hardware support is great. Within two hours of a support call, an IBM support engineer (SE) was always in our office to fix the problem. We were usually up and running an hour or so later. Software support was much weaker, in my opinion, but we could always count on reaching a sympathetic SE.

Microsoft's response to my question about support was different. This company's model revolves around high-volume, low-cost software, so Microsoft relies on its partners (solution providers) for enterprise customer support--online, on site, on CD, over the Web, by fax, by phone, and more. For example, one solution provider is Digital Equipment. Its mission is to support any NT machine, regardless of who made it, anywhere in the world, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. (That sounds like IBM!) Digital Equipment has 25,000 SEs to back this mission.

Our mission is to help NT users. This month, we help you sort out the offerings available for training and support and determine whether they're worth your while.

P.S. Check out our new (free!) technical support forum on our Web site