How much are the letters "MCSE" worth to you? Some analysts claim you can increase your earnings by up to $8000 per year as a Microsoft Certified System Engineer (MCSE). Certification is no guarantee that you'll get that high-paying job, but if you do, the increased earning potential will just about cover your training costs--that is, if you go the traditional route of class-based instruction.

Windows NT Magazine staff members recently attended a class, Supporting Microsoft Windows NT 3.51 Workstation, to get an insider's look at certification classes, what they offer, and whether they're worth the cost. Here's what we saw, what we learned, and how we felt about the training as a total (buzzword alert!) end-user experience.

The Students
I attended the class with two Windows NT Magazine staff members, Jane Morrill and Dean Porter, and our company's network administrator, John Green. We all have different backgrounds and different amounts of computer experience (programming, applications, and hardware) and Windows NT experience (from relative NT novice to down-and-dirty lab work).

The ATEC
Knowledge Alliance, an Advanced Technical Education Center (ATEC), provided the training. A division of Entex Information Services (a PC systems integration business), Knowledge Alliance is the new name for the conglomeration of Random Access, Training Access, and several other ATECs that Entex absorbed under one corporate roof. Entex is an international company.

With a customizable curriculum and adaptable scheduling, Knowledge Alliance offers several training options to accommodate different learning styles. Companies can schedule training classes, either on site or at the closest education center, at any time. Knowledge Alliance can change the class activities and material to suit specific applications.

The company offers the full line of Microsoft certification courses, from a one-day introduction to NT to the full MCSE track (you get a 20% discount if you do it all). In addition, you can arrange training by purchasing coupons that you can redeem at any time or by buying an open ticket that's good for six or 12 months that lets you attend an unlimited number of classes.

The Class
The MCSE track classes are Supporting NT 3.51 Workstation, Supporting NT 3.51 Server, Windows 95, and NT Networking. Elective courses include Systems Management Server, and SNA Server. We took Supporting NT Workstation because most people usually take it first in the MCSE track.

This class lays the groundwork for understanding the basics of NT's internals (architecture, file systems, etc.), how to use and configure NT, how to support and troubleshoot NT, and how to interoperate with NT. Knowledge Alliance presents the Microsoft class in the prescribed modular format with labs and sample questions. The class consists of the following sections:

Module 1: The Microsoft Windows NT Environment

Module 2: Installing Microsoft Windows NT Workstation

Module 3: Account Administration

Module 4: Configuring the Microsoft Windows NT Environment

Module 5: Choosing a File System

Module 6: Protecting Local Resources

Module 7: Securing the System

Module 8: Booting Microsoft Windows NT

Module 9: The Microsoft Windows NT Networking Environment

Module 10: Accessing Network Resources

Module 11: Printing from Microsoft Windows NT

Module 12: Interoperating with Internet Packet eXchange (IPX) and TCP/IP Networks

Module 13: Remote Access Service (RAS)

Module 14: Optimizing Performance

Module 15: Moving from a Workgroup to a Domain

Module 16: Supporting Applications

Module 17: Troubleshooting Microsoft Windows NT

Knowledge Alliance paces the five-day class so you average three modules each day. If you take each module in sequence, you build from installing to using NT in a logical progression. Interspersed labs illustrate the concepts each module presents.

The class materials include printouts of the presentation slides with full explanations of the terms and technologies, tables and illustrations, screen shots, and examples. You also get two versions of a lab manual: one with answers to the exercises and questions and one without. The labs cover everything the instructor talks about in the lecture sections.

Joel's Experience
I went in expecting a face-blasting, brain-melting, extreme-sport experience. I based my expectation on what everyone was telling me about Microsoft training and testing--that it's as bad as college finals. It wasn't quite all that. I could barely see straight after my engineering finals, but this class left me feeling pretty good about my NT knowledge.

On one hand, I thought the class was a little slow--not quite as brain-fryingly intense and in depth as I expected or wanted. On the other hand, the calm, measured approach gave me time to absorb what the instructor was presenting and to read the supplemental explanations in the student materials. The labs never took as long as officially allotted, which was a blessing in disguise: The extra time let me experiment with the Microsoft Roadmap to Education and Certification kit sample exams, fiddle with the system (without fear of screwing up a product review), and let my brain relax a little.

Knowledge Alliance is not responsible for the pace or intensity because the company doesn't design the class or materials. However, Knowledge Alliance is responsible for the environment and the instructor--both were first rate.

Our instructor was Mike Fahy, a fully certified MCSE and trainer. He was knowledgeable and friendly. He answered questions effectively and researched those he didn't know off the top of his head. He was good at involving class members in answering and asking questions and defining terms. The only fault I found with the instructor was that he didn't know about some of the latest developments on upcoming technologies and products. I can only imagine the difficulty of staying current on the latest trends in the user sector while teaching every day.

The training environment was nice, with new Compaq ProLinea Pentium computers, ample work space, and doughnuts every morning. The facility was clean and efficient, and apart from being an hour-and-a-half drive from my office, served its purpose well.

What criticisms do I have? None pertaining to Knowledge Alliance's part of the equation. However, for Microsoft's part, I have a few recommendations. First, remove the mistakes and inconsistencies from the student materials. The instructor had to point out several instances where the text was incorrect. Second, build faster-paced intermediate and advanced classes for students who have NT experience. (Microsoft has obviously aimed Supporting Windows NT 3.51 Workstation at people without any NT background.) Last, include more sample questions that truly represent what's on the exam.

Jane's Experience
Jane had a somewhat different experience. "When I decided to take the class, I expected to be left far behind, but I wasn't. The course is an excellent introduction to NT. It has enough detail for you to understand things, but not so much that you need a master's degree in computer science to grasp it. I will need to study a great deal before I am ready to take the certification test, but I wasn't in the least bit lost. The materials are clear and thorough, and the instructor was completely capable of explaining whatever topics came up.

"I recommend the class to anyone needing a comprehensive overview of NT Workstation. I'm looking forward to the NT Server class--but not yet. One certification test at a time."

John's Experience
John also found the class worthwhile. "I've worked with NT Workstation and Server in an administrative capacity for six months. My on-the-job training gave me a leg up over other students, some of whom had little background with Windows-based systems. I was pleasantly surprised to see the instructor present the material in a way that kept all audiences engaged.

"The instructor provided a good overview of the class materials on the first morning. Throughout the class, he frequently illustrated NT facilities by drawing analogies to NetWare or UNIX concepts that many of us are familiar with.

"Although the Microsoft-supplied student workbooks include plenty of architectural and conceptual material, the class definitely focuses on the practical aspects of NT administration. Hands-on laboratory sessions follow 16 of the 17 modules and let you prove--or clarify--your understanding of the material.

"Students who prefer not to take notes in class will be pleased with the take-home materials. You get a 600-page student guide that includes everything the instructor presented in class, the student lab manual, and an instructor's laboratory guide that explains the correct answers for later review.

"That's not to say Microsoft couldn't improve on the class materials. I often wanted a more in-depth understanding of what NT is doing in the background. Microsoft can satisfy this need by including technical discussions of architectural logic, which students can investigate further outside the classroom.

"I also felt that a concise outline of primary concepts, definitions, and elements would be of tremendous value. This outline might include, for example, the key parameters to NT elements, such as how long can a password and UserID be? What characters are valid? What are the default permissions and their corresponding special permissions? In outline format, I think Microsoft could distill the entire student guide to less than 25 pages of key facts, figures, concepts, and definitions."

Dean's Experience
Dean was expecting an extremely thorough experience to prepare for the certification exam. "Overall, I think the class was quite useful. However, after taking the class, I'm not certain I can pass the test. I did learn a lot of new bits of information about NT that will help with the test, but I don't know if I got enough detail."

Dean also praised the instructor. "He took time to answer questions, and he followed up on those he couldn't answer immediately. He also provided tips on what the test will cover.

"We had a few problems with machines not working in the student lab, and the initial setup on each machine was a little different. For example, the hard drive on my machine had four partitions, and the machine next to me had three partitions. This inconsistency took some time away from the class, but it helped me learn about configuring NT on different systems and solving problems that arise.

"I wasn't too fond of the student material's format. The lab manual was in two binders, which no one explained. I thought the manual was in two parts; however, one binder was the working lab manual and the other was a reprint of the original with the answers filled in. I had a hard time writing in the working lab manual because the binder got in the way. So I took the manual apart by pulling out the pages I needed and putting them back when I was done.

"The main student guide, an unwieldy three-ring binder, was just as hard to work with. Although it had good descriptions and graphics for the module topics, I found distracting mistakes throughout. For example, on one page, the guide says that NT Workstation can handle up to four processors, but on another page it says only two. Also, terms and concepts come up before the topics are covered in the manual. Some sort of outline or goal section at the beginning of the manual is lacking."

What's It Really Worth?
Three big questions are: Did the class help? Will I pass the test? Is it worth $2125? The answers depend on the individual. I need everything spelled out once in an organized fashion so I can commit it to memory. I also need the same material presented three times: once in class (both aural and visual), once in homework such as labs and sample quizzes, and once on the exam. Seeing one thing, practicing another, and testing something else is very difficult for me to grasp. Still, other people like the extended out-of-class research.

Although I learned about NT Workstation, like Dean, I didn't feel the class was enough to let me pass the exam. I tried some sample tests using Net-Com Image's, BeachFrontQuizzer (for a brief review, see Michael Reilly's "A Training Alternatives Roadmap" on page 59), and well, I didn't pass. For me to feel prepared for the test, Knowledge Alliance would have to hammer more detail into my head. So I have reservations about the $2125 price tag. As I move toward my MCSE certification, I hope that the classes get harder and more detailed.

People new to NT will find this first class in the track rewarding because it gives a comprehensive overview of NT Workstation features and functionality. However, in addition to the class, newcomers will need a good amount of extracurricular research to pass the exams.

Students who have extensive NT experience might not get as much from formalized training, at least in the early stages. They may need only to use a self-paced training guide to pass the exam.

I recommend Microsoft's Roadmap to Education and Certification kit, which includes sample test questions (these seemed easier than BeachFrontQuizzer's, because I answered them correctly!), a planning guide, and other helpful resources. If you're serious about becoming a Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP), MCSE, or Microsoft Certified Solution Developer (MCSD), make extensive use of other materials, such as Microsoft's self-paced training kits for NT Workstation, NT Server, Networking, and Win95. You can also look for study guides, the Microsoft Resource Kit, online forums, and Microsoft TechNet. Also, note that if you're already a Certified Network Engineer (CNE), a Certified Banyan Engineer (CBE), a UNIX-deity, etc., you can waive one of the core exams on networking as you work toward your MCSE certification.