What was once an education for life is now just the beginning, as employers look for skills beyond a traditional education. Many companies prefer and even expect you to supplement on-the-job experience with formal training. Besides gaining you financial rewards, becoming a Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) brings many career-enhancing benefits.

According to Jeff Zwier, technical recruiting professional with Wujcik and Associates in Chicago, Illinois, "Certification is a way of validating your technology skills in the eyes of hiring managers. Companies perceive individuals who expend time, effort, and even a significant amount of their money on training as having a greater commitment to their career."

You must meet several requirements if you want the Microsoft Certified System Engineer (MCSE), Microsoft Certified Solution Developer (MCSD), or Microsoft Certified Trainer rating. An MCSE must pass six exams. This certification includes training for Windows NT, Windows 3.1, Windows for Workgroups (WFW), and Windows 95. Microsoft is moving the MCSE program toward an enterprise focus, so the program will drop the consumer OS-related courses and add advanced NT exams. Among the six exams, two must be from this list of electives: SQL Server, SNA Server, SMS, and Exchange: The BackOffice Product Line.

An MCSD must pass exams in the Windows Open Systems Architecture (WOSA) and complete two of these electives: SQL Server, Access, Visual Basic (VB), and FoxPro. Passing these exams requires some experience with the product and some training or study.

To prepare for an MCP exam, you can choose from official Microsoft classes, non-Microsoft classes, Microsoft self-paced training kits, third-party training materials such as CD-ROMs and videotapes, and exam preparation tools. Knowing what each of these options entails is the first step on the road to certification.

Official Microsoft Classes
Microsoft offers classes for advanced topics, including NT, SQL Server, SNA Server, and TCP/IP. These classes usually meet for four or five days. Microsoft provides the materials and ensures that they meet at a Microsoft Authorized Technical Education Center (ATEC) or Authorized Academic Training Provider (AATP). The classroom, computers, and audio-visual aids must meet Microsoft standards. The instructor must be a Microsoft Certified Trainer for the course. The ATEC or AATP provides each student with a computer during the class for the hands-on labs that reinforce each module's material.

Although most students will take the course exam, the courses emphasize learning how to use the software rather than passing the exam. At the end of a course, each student evaluates the training center and the instructor. In this way, Microsoft can maintain the course standards at a high level.

Because Microsoft provides the course materials and publicly advertises the course syllabus, the classes don't usually deviate from their outline. Although Microsoft structures the classes, the instructors can add value by teaching the course in the context of their experiences and those of the students.

Non-Microsoft Classes
Other organizations and individuals offer courses on the same topics as Microsoft's classes. For example, Mark Minasi of TechTeach International teaches two-day seminars on NT. Although the instructor demonstrates techniques on a computer, the students don't sit at or operate computers during the class.

Which approach you choose depends on your learning style and level of knowledge. Some students like to try techniques in labs that go with the course. But other students enjoy being able to concentrate on the material without working on a computer. Unless labs are designed well (most Microsoft courses have effective lab sessions), they take up valuable time and equipment. The seminar approach can be better for advanced users who need detail. The classroom and lab approach can be better for new users who need to see techniques on screen for them to make sense.

If outside classes and seminars are not practical, you can arrange customized, inhouse classes with ATECs and other organizations. An inhouse class can cost less because you provide the facilities and computers.

The benefit of such classes is that you can tailor the course to the students' needs and experiences. You can also focus the class toward the company's needs and address specific issues.

Disadvantages of inhouse training include students leaving class feeling they're not in a learning environment. I find that students from different organizations often benefit from exchanging information among their classmates. Also, students who work together succumb to the temptation to play around and send messages back and forth on the computers.

The classes I've discussed so far are intensive, all-day courses. Few opportunities are available to learn BackOffice software in the evening. Even fewer courses give each student a computer: Because the class facilitator must install, configure, and rearrange the software on the computers during the class, the computers aren't available for anything else.

A big consideration when you're deciding how to spend your training dollars is that some courses, including Microsoft's and Minasi's, teach the subject thoroughly, so that you will know enough to pass the exam and be able to apply what you learn in the real world. Other companies claim you can learn enough to pass the exam by covering the entire BackOffice suite in two days. These classes can't teach the basics in this short time and are suitable only if you know the software but not the exam questions.

Self-Paced Training Kits
Not everyone responds to a structured class approach. People who prefer to learn at their own rate can choose self-paced study. (Microsoft likes the term "self-paced training" rather than "self-study," which implies gathering study materials and planning the course yourself.) Several companies offer study kits for the courses and exams in the Microsoft certification program.

Microsoft offers NT, Win95, and Networking Essentials self-paced training kits. These kits provide all materials, which Microsoft divides into lessons and organizes in a logical flow. The NT kit, for example, is similar to an ATEC class, but with more frequent and shorter labs and demonstrations. These kits contain a book and CD-ROM, and for NT, a videotape. You can study the material at your own pace and repeat a module as often as you need. Each kit costs between $150 and $200, and of course, you need the software.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle with Microsoft's self-paced training kits is the hardware they require. For the NT course, you need two computers, each with 16MB of RAM and 100MB of free disk space. To complete the Server section, you need 180MB of free disk space on one computer. For the disk striping exercises, you need three hard disks in one computer. You have to network computers, even if you have just a two-computer link via Ethernet cards. You also need the NT Workstation and Server software, a third computer that you configure as a Novell server, and a Macintosh.

Because you need to install a new OS, you don't want to use production systems for these exercises, but you need more hardware and software than most people have at home. Only the NT and Win95 courses make you rebuild the entire OS from scratch. You can run the Networking Essentials kit with little impact on the computer and the network. In fact, you can run most demonstrations and labs from the CD-ROM.

Contact Info
Microsoft * 206-882-8080
Microsoft ATEC * http://www.microsoft.com/train_cert for Microsoft Training and Certification
TechTeach International * 703-276-8940 (inhouse)
Public classes: Call Alexander Hamilton Institute at 908-852-3699.
Email: donnac@mmco.com
Web: http://www.mmco.com
Friesen, Kaye and Associates * 613-829-3412
Transcender * 615-726-8779
Email: mscert@transcender.com
Web: http://www.transcender.com
BeachFrontQuizzer
Net-Com Image * 713-992-3131 or 888-286-2345
Email: 76411.3033@compuserve.com or bfquiz@concentric.net
Price: $58 for each unit $233 for a six-pack (includes four core courses and two electives of your choice)

The other major obstacle to self-paced training in a corporate setting is that few employers let employees do self-paced training during work hours. So the employee feels pressure to study at home and sometimes resents having to do so. In contrast, employees who attend class treat it like a break from the routine and have a positive attitude.

Microsoft is moving toward combining the two styles of learning for some products. For Access, VB, and other programming tools, the company has developed self-paced training for both individual study and instructor-led classes. Microsoft will emphasize the self-paced mode for working with the software in the class, but an instructor will cover the concepts and provide guidance. There's no substitute for being able to ask someone when your lab exercise doesn't work.

Microsoft is also integrating a classroom setting with self-paced training in other ways. In August 1995, Microsoft joined forces with several online classroom providers to launch the Microsoft Online University (MOLI) on the Microsoft Network (MSN), and Microsoft recently announced the beta Web launch of MOLI. The sidebar, "Microsoft's Online University," on page 60 explains MOLI.

Microsoft isn't the only company evaluating and applying teaching methods. Friesen, Kaye and Associates runs the Instructional Techniques workshops that most certified Microsoft trainers attend. This group has calculated the student's retention rate of the material. If an instructor presents the information orally, the retention rate is 35% after three hours. If the instructor presents the information visually, the retention rate is 72% after three hours. If the instructor presents the information both orally and visually (e.g., showing a slide and explaining it), the retention rate is 85% after three hours. After three days, the oral retention rate is 10%, the visual retention rate is 20%, and the oral and visual retention rate is 65%.

These findings raise some interesting questions. If the oral and visual retention rate is 85%, is it the same if the students watch a videotape of the same class? Is the retention rate similar if the students look at a slide on a computer screen while listening to the narration through speakers on a multimedia system? I suspect retention rates are not nearly as high because people are desensitized to television, and multimedia probably falls in the same category. With any electronic medium, in contrast to the classroom, no true interaction occurs between the instructor and the student.

Third-Party Training Materials
Several companies offer self-study packages, including every course you need to be an MCSE. Two types of third-party training materials are videotapes and CD-ROMs. The CD-ROM is convenient when you're short on desk space. In contrast, several people can watch a videotape.

Learning from a CD-ROM lets you control the pace, but you lose personal interaction. With a videotape, an instructor can appear on screen to simulate the classroom experience. Many companies find that CD-ROM-based training looks great at first, but people get bored and walk away.

One company that provides training on both CD-ROM and videotape is LearnKey, Incorporated. It provides 11 videotapes to prepare for the MCSE exams. To get an idea of what LearnKey videos include, see the sidebar, "Training for the Video Generation," on page 62.

Other training companies provide CD-ROM-based training because 650MB of storage holds a lot of material. Unfortunately, cramming lots of material on a CD is exactly what many training companies do. You don't build a training course by simply filling a CD-ROM and handing it to the student. Sorting through data is hard even if you know what you're looking for, and students usually don't know where to begin.

Microsoft recognizes that even with videotapes and CD-ROM-based training, instructor-led classes are a good idea. Students who want to go the self-paced route can sign up for classes through MOLI and benefit from the available instructor. Large companies can consider bringing MOLI in house. For instance, a company can provide a dedicated training lab where students can study during working hours or on their own time. Instructors running the lab can be available for assistance and encouragement. But students must take the responsibility for completing the course.

Exam Preparation Tools
Once you complete any type of course, you have to prepare for the exam. Two tools that can help you prepare for an MCP exam are practice exams and local user groups. Both resources let you sharpen your skills before taking a real test.

Practice exams can help you gauge your knowledge of the subject. By taking the practice exam, you can identify areas that need attention and focus on weak points.

For example, Transcender has a line of Examinator practice exams. When you get an answer wrong, the software-based practice exam gives the right answer and explains why it's correct.

Another product is Net-Com Image's BeachFrontQuizzer. This database of questions lets you test in specific areas, such as NT installation, hard-disk management, and networking. Or you can take a simulated exam that mixes questions on various topics, as in the real exam. You can measure your progress as you repeat the tests. You can download a demonstration copy (QUIZDEMO.ZIP) from CompuServe (GO WINUTIL). An updated demo, BFQUIZ.ZIP, will be available this month from the Internet.

I found the questions on the practice NT Server test harder than those on the real exam. The practice questions are more detailed than the test. Not that knowing more detail than you need is bad: If you can pass these simulated tests, you're definitely ready to take the exam. In contrast, the NT Workstation questions seem easier, but this exam is usually easier than the NT Server one.

You can turn on an option to immediately see whether your answer is correct. The program supplies the correct answer, but not an explanation. So this software is more useful as a preparation for the test than as a learning tool.

If you can't afford such tools or want additional help, don't overlook the study opportunities that your local user group offers. It can often identify local training opportunities and connect you with other members who are studying for MCP exams. For details about user group offerings, see the sidebar, "Learning from User Groups," on page 64.

You can trust Microsoft's structured training methods, and other vendors have innovative training tools. Which learning track is right for you? The answer depends on the class, the demands on your time, your learning style, and your budget.