Wednesday, August 19, 1998
I'm up at 6:00 a.m., which isn't unusual for a workday. What's unusual is where I'll be working. Today isn't just any Wednesday morning; today is the first day of Accelerated Certification Real Education Workshops (ACREW) MCSE Boot Camp.

The ACREW headquarters is about 20 miles west of Denver, Colorado, nestled in the trees at the end of a dirt road in the Rocky Mountains. The lodge that houses the boot camp was once a stagecoach stop, later a brothel, and more recently a bed and breakfast. Sitting on 10 acres of pine trees and old stagecoach trails, the mammoth moss-rock and wood structure looks like a mountain home for the Brady Bunch.

Previous attendees warned me that boot camp will be harrowing: Days will start early and end late, and study sessions will be frequent and long. I'm just hoping I have a strong enough networking and Windows NT background and enough room in my skull to cram in whatever knowledge I need to pass the six tests that Microsoft deems necessary to obtain an MCSE certification. With my lucky combat boots strapped firmly in place, and caffeine slowly winding up the gray matter in my head, I set out for the 16-day ordeal.

So far my class has only five members. We're studying for the Windows 95 and Networking Essentials exams. Seven more classmates will join us later in the week as we move on to other areas, including TCP/IP, NT Workstation, NT Server, NT Enterprise Server, and Internet Information Server (IIS) 4.0.

Taking only a 5-minute break every hour, we blaze through six chapters in Microsoft's Win95 training manual. I'm taking notes, highlighting paragraphs, tagging pages with multicolored neon tabs--whatever it takes to get the information from the book into my brain.

Initially, I haphazardly tag pages that contain important information. After a while, the top and side of my Microsoft Press manuals look like they have a strange psychedelic growth on them. Eventually I learn to tag only the side of the pages, and I start labeling the tags with titles such as RAS, NetWare, and Muy Importante. This method is more organized and proves to be a great time-saver during study sessions.

The first day of class starts at 8:30 a.m. and lasts until 6:00 p.m. The group study session lasts until about 11:30 p.m., and I read until 1:00 a.m. One day down, and 15 to go.

Thursday, August 20, 1998
This is my first real day of boot camp. My brain full light started blinking at 10:30 this morning and hasn't stopped. And we're still on Win95! Our instructor informs us that Microsoft recently rewrote the Win95 test and that it is much harder than previous versions. The test now focuses on installation, configuration, and networking.

As we progress, the experience gap between my four classmates and me becomes evident. Unlike my classmates, I'm not a systems administrator who has to deal with or answer to users every day. Instead, I'm a journalist who tests and reviews products in a controlled environment. But I'm not totally lost. Today is tough (covering NetWare compatibility; binary-naming scenarios for IP addresses; the passwords, policies, and permissions associated with Win95 networking; and a thousand other things I can't regurgitate right now), but my classmates and I are equally weary at the end of the day.

One thing is for sure: Becoming an MCSE is one of the toughest challenges I've faced in a long time. At this point the tests seem years away, which is good. I've been clobbered by a ton of information, and I'm going to need some time to recover. I'm thinking about 14 more days of this and dreading every second. I can't imagine what I will feel like on the last day, other than relieved.

Friday, August 21, 1998
It's a little after midnight. Another recruit and I have just finished wrapping up the night's drilling. So many acronyms, so many switches, so many screens, and so little time. These marathon study sessions remind me of cramming for college finals, only they're more intense. But I feel more enlightened and even a little more optimistic than I did last night. I wonder how I'll do when the tests begin. Three days down, and 13 to go.

Saturday, August 22, 1998
Every night I've been here, I've studied until midnight or so. I've been reading, rereading, and reciting silly mnemonics such as Can We Buy Larger Hard Drives? (to remember the order of networking queries and communications: Cache, Windows Internet Naming Service--WINS, Broadcast, LM Hosts, Hosts, and Domain Name System--DNS). Fun stuff.

Tonight we study for more than 7 hours. We're frantically cramming for the first round of tests tomorrow--Win95 and Networking Essentials. At 2:20 a.m., I collapse on a leather couch in front of the lodge's fireplace. Fear and loathing abound.

Sunday, August 23, 1998
The Win95 tests today are dreadfully difficult. I'm proud to say that we all pass the tests and become Microsoft Certified Professionals (MCPs). When you become an MCP, Microsoft sends you a package that includes an information packet, logos to use on business cards and advertisements, and a certificate that Bill Gates signed. The certificate is a great disappointment; I'm almost sure the signature is a fake, just printed on. I start to wonder whether Bill even signs MCSE certificates; I doubt it.

The Networking Essentials test is no easier than the Win95 test. You need 793 points to pass, and I score 793 on the nose. When I see my score, my stomach falls three stories, and I breathe a huge sigh of relief. I leave the test quarters and head into the dining room, which has become a communal gathering area. My classmates look up and ask, "Doctor?" I smile and nod. (As the old joke goes, What do you call someone who graduates from medical school at the bottom of his class? A doctor.) Two tests down, four to go, and 10 more days to get through.

Monday, August 24, 1998
In general, boot camp is hell. I'm totally sleep deprived and flat-out exhausted. My brain aches like never before. But my belly is happy.

ACREW advertises gourmet meals, and it isn't kidding. Breakfasts consist of fruit smoothies, cereal, fresh fruit, and assorted juices and sodas; today we also have raspberry pancakes. We eat lunch and dinner on a large outside deck: Greek meatloaf stuffed with black olives and feta cheese; grilled salmon marinated in lime juice, spices, and beer; a Philly cheesesteak sandwich to die for; and steaks that Ruth's Chris Steak House would be proud to serve. In addition, the cook has a knack for showing up with snacks just before you realize you're hungry. He brings us fresh fruit, Pop-Tarts, miniature candy bars, coffee, and brain brew tea as late as 11:30 p.m., without us asking. With such high stress levels, I'm grateful for not having to worry about where my next meal is coming from.

Tuesday, August 25, 1998
It's 6:14 a.m., and I've been up since 4:45 a.m., tossing and turning, churning through questions and concepts I don't quite grasp. Octets and routers, protocols and packets--I think I'm going to be sick.

I'm now staying at the Ashley House Bed and Breakfast, a couple of miles from the ACREW headquarters. I stayed at ACREW's lodge at first, to get the full boot camp experience. However, ACREW can house only eight students, so I switched accommodations. I thought I'd try studying alone last night, but I'm not sure that was such a great idea. Tonight I think I'll stay at the ACREW lodge and see whether I can get some help from my peers. I'm nervous about the TCP/IP test on Thursday.

Our class is full now, with 11 members. (The class was supposed to have 12 students, but someone backed out at the last minute.) The new recruits came in on Sunday. But enough chitchat. I have a lot to learn, and not much time to study.

Wednesday, August 26, 1998
Class is over for the day, and I'm thinking of ways to tell the instructor I'm not up to taking the TCP/IP test tomorrow. The binary gobbledygook associated with defining IP connections on local and global networks eludes me except for sporadic moments of clarity. I'm starting to think this whole experience is a cruel joke and that I'm totally unqualified to be in this class. Under no circumstances do I want to take a test that I don't understand the basic concepts of. I tell one of my classmates that I intend to skip the test, and she doesn't hesitate before responding, "No, you'll be fine. We'll work it out."

Five of us proceed with a 3 1/2-hour study session in the main classroom. We pore over Transcender tests until 11:30 p.m. The study session is helpful, even for the more experienced classmates who lead the impromptu class. We all contribute to solving the problems, and those who understand the concepts make sure the rest of us also understand. At one point my eyes begin to glaze over as we're going through a TCP/IP Transcender test. One of my classmates stops in midsentence. Looking right at me, he asks, "Do you understand this? It's very important that you understand this, Brian. Tell me why this works, why this answer is right--you can't pass the test without it."

Despite all the studying, I'm uncertain about tomorrow's test. As I try to fall asleep, my gut churns painfully, as if I've just slammed a 16-oz. glass of ice-cold espresso with a shot of dopplebock and a twist of Tabasco. I need to score 750 to pass the TCP/IP test, and I think I'll be lucky to score 600.

Thursday, August 27, 1998
My worst fears are realized. A classmate asks the standard question, "Doctor?" I reply, "No, nurse." I fail the TCP/IP test, with a score of 741. I feel bad, but not as bad as I thought I would. I came pretty close, especially considering how poorly I thought I'd do. Of course I'll retake the test before boot camp is over, and I'm sure I'll pass the next time.

I begin studying the TCP/IP Transcender exams with our instructor and the only other recruit who didn't pass the exam. They're both a great help. This afternoon, my classmate and I score a combined 850 on the test. I know I can do it.

My wife and son come for a visit today. Troy, who is 1 year old, started walking the day before I left for boot camp. Now he's cruising all over the place. Taking a break to enjoy my family feels great.

Friday, August 28, 1998
No test today, but on Monday we have two--NT Server and NT Workstation. While the rest of the class takes NT Workstation, I'll retake the TCP/IP test. I don't need to take the NT Workstation test, because I've already passed the Win95 test, which covers my MCSE workstation requirements.

Today is the tenth day of boot camp. After class I hitch a ride into Denver with another classmate who has been commuting (when she hasn't slept in the back of her truck in the ACREW driveway). At home, I sit with my wife, my son, and my dog, looking at the 350 or so sunflowers in our garden. They are blooming radiantly, as are the dahlias, zinnias, nasturtiums, and marigolds. My son is walking at will--it's amazing. This place feels almost foreign, and an incredible wave of guilt washes over me for being here and for not having my face buried in a book or glued to a monitor.

Saturday, August 29, 1998
This morning I wake up at 5:30 a.m. in my room at the Ashley House. I keep closing my eyes, trying to catch a few more winks, to no avail. Lurking exams taunt me. I finally rise at 5:55 a.m. and shower. By 6:20 a.m. I'm coasting down U.S. 40 on my bicycle, freezing in the cool mountain air. As I ride, I realize that sometime in the past 10 days I've crossed a mental threshold: I want to be an MCSE. I'm not so sure about my desire to cater to network users for a living, but I want that certification. I have tests on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday--5 days to freedom.

Sunday, August 30, 1998
Stress is evident in everybody now. Even the short-timers, who are here for an 11-day tour (everything but Networking Essentials), are getting a little goofy. One guy from a Texas-based computer manufacturer is eating bugs. We think he's crazy, but we've all crossed over into boot-camp mentality.

Superstitions begin to emerge on test days. One guy wears a lucky bathrobe, and someone else has lucky undergarments. I wear my lucky combat boots every day, and I call my wife before each test, insisting she wish me good luck just one more time.

I'm studying like crazy to retake the TCP/IP test, and I fear I'm neglecting the other areas. Keeping up with the class when you have a different test hanging over your head is difficult.

Monday, August 31, 1998
Today is test day, and I fail again. This time it's NT Server--I need 764 to pass, but I score only 727. I retake the TCP/IP test and score 844, way over the top. I feel great about it. Tomorrow is the NT Enterprise Server test, and my classmates and I have a study session planned. Boot camp ends in 3 days.

Tuesday, September 1, 1998
I fail the NT Enterprise Server test, which is a real letdown. When you complete one of the MCSE tests, you know immediately how you did. The pain of watching the bar graph come up red instead of green after you hit the final key on the computerized test is piercing. I'm not just angry that I failed the test; I'm angry that I thought I knew the information but still failed.

I take off on my bicycle and start tearing around the rutted mountain roads to clear my head. I yell at the top of my lungs, cursing myself for my poor performance. "What's wrong with you?" I yell. "Doesn't your brain function anymore? Is everybody else here that much brighter than you? C'mon Brian, get with it!" Somewhere during my tirade I make up my mind to retake the NT Server and NT Enterprise Server tests this afternoon. Three tests in one day. What could it hurt?

I return to the ACREW headquarters and talk to a classmate who also failed the NT Enterprise Server test. Some tears are shed. The stress is unbelievable--hard to understand unless you've been there. We study a bit and retake the test. This time we both pass.

After the Enterprise test, I retake NT Server. I fail again, with the same score--727. But I'm not too disappointed. After all, I'm two-thirds of the way there, which is impressive for someone whose sole intention was to not utterly embarrass himself. I start to think that I have half a chance of actually becoming an MCSE.

Wednesday, September 2, 1998
Everyone in class is edgy today. We have one more test to take (IIS 4.0) and only 1 day to learn the material. We drill through chapter after chapter, example after example, and the time ticks slowly by.

Before the day is over, we've been in class for 14 hours straight. We finish right at 10:00 p.m. We have essentially no time to study. After the instructor leaves, everyone freaks out. "We're dead" is the unanimous conclusion. Someone kicks a chair in frustration.

And we study; the whole class studies. One by one, people drop off into slumber. I manage to stay up until 12:30 a.m. or so before I nod off on the futon downstairs.

Thursday, September 3, 1998
I wake up right around 4:30 a.m., dreading the test to come. My eyes are sore, my head hurts, and I don't give a damn whether I pass the test--at least not whether I pass it today.

Everyone's mood is eerily silent this morning. When the instructor shows up, no one has much to say to him, other than to ask some desperate questions about a particular IIS feature or function. I just want out of here.

To my surprise, almost everyone passes the test. I get the top score--872. Now the only thing standing between me and an MCSE is the NT Server exam.

Monday, October 5, 1998
A month and 3 days have passed since boot camp ended. I've been studying Transcender tests for the past 2 weeks, preparing to retake the NT Server exam. My last scores were 982, 891, and 984 on the first, second, and third exams, respectively. I figure I'm ready.

I dreamed about the test all last night. Tossing and turning, I woke up at 2:00 a.m., 2:48 a.m., 4:01 a.m., and 6:15 a.m. Each time, I remembered dreaming about taking the test, and I kept seeing the green and red bar graphs that indicate passing and failing.

I take the test at a local community college. The only thing I write on my scratch paper is the word Green. It works, and sure enough, I see a green bar. I pass the test with a score of 872--hallelujah!

As I exit the building, I let out a scream so loud it paralyzes a group of small children on a nearby playground. The last time I felt this elated was the day my son was born. Move over, everybody. I'm an MCSE, and I'm feeling dangerous.