Knowledge Alliance

MCSE training reviewed.

Joel Sloss

June 30, 1996

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

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

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

Knowledge Alliance, an Advanced Technical Education Center (ATEC), providedthe training. A division of Entex Information Services (a PC systems integrationbusiness), Knowledge Alliance is the new name for the conglomeration of RandomAccess, Training Access, and several other ATECs that Entex absorbed under onecorporate roof. Entex is an international company.

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

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

The Class
The MCSE track classes are Supporting NT 3.51 Workstation, Supporting NT3.51 Server, Windows 95, and NT Networking. Elective courses include SystemsManagement Server, and SNA Server. We took Supporting NT Workstation becausemost people usually take it first in the MCSE track.

This class lays the groundwork for understanding the basics of NT'sinternals (architecture, file systems, etc.), how to use and configure NT, howto support and troubleshoot NT, and how to interoperate with NT. KnowledgeAlliance presents the Microsoft class in the prescribed modular format with labsand 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/IPNetworks

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 moduleseach day. If you take each module in sequence, you build from installing tousing NT in a logical progression. Interspersed labs illustrate the conceptseach module presents.

The class materials include printouts of the presentation slides with fullexplanations of the terms and technologies, tables and illustrations, screenshots, and examples. You also get two versions of a lab manual: one with answersto the exercises and questions and one without. The labs cover everything theinstructor talks about in the lecture sections.

Joel's Experience
I went in expecting a face-blasting, brain-melting, extreme-sportexperience. I based my expectation on what everyone was telling me aboutMicrosoft training and testing--that it's as bad as college finals. It wasn'tquite all that. I could barely see straight after my engineering finals, butthis class left me feeling pretty good about my NT knowledge.

On one hand, I thought the class was a little slow--not quite asbrain-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 waspresenting and to read the supplemental explanations in the student materials.The labs never took as long as officially allotted, which was a blessing indisguise: The extra time let me experiment with the Microsoft Roadmap toEducation and Certification kit sample exams, fiddle with the system (withoutfear of screwing up a product review), and let my brain relax a little.

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

Our instructor was Mike Fahy, a fully certified MCSE and trainer. He wasknowledgeable and friendly. He answered questions effectively and researchedthose he didn't know off the top of his head. He was good at involving classmembers in answering and asking questions and defining terms. The only fault Ifound with the instructor was that he didn't know about some of the latestdevelopments on upcoming technologies and products. I can only imagine thedifficulty of staying current on the latest trends in the user sector whileteaching every day.

The training environment was nice, with new Compaq ProLinea Pentiumcomputers, ample work space, and doughnuts every morning. The facility was cleanand 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 ofthe equation. However, for Microsoft's part, I have a few recommendations.First, remove the mistakes and inconsistencies from the student materials. Theinstructor had to point out several instances where the text was incorrect.Second, build faster-paced intermediate and advanced classes for students whohave NT experience. (Microsoft has obviously aimed Supporting Windows NT 3.51Workstation at people without any NT background.) Last, include more samplequestions that truly represent what's on the exam.

Jane's Experience
Jane had a somewhat different experience. "When I decided to take theclass, I expected to be left far behind, but I wasn't. The course is anexcellent 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 certificationtest, 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 ofNT Workstation. I'm looking forward to the NT Server class--but not yet. Onecertification test at a time."

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

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

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

"Students who prefer not to take notes in class will be pleased withthe take-home materials. You get a 600-page student guide that includeseverything the instructor presented in class, the student lab manual, and aninstructor's laboratory guide that explains the correct answers for laterreview.

"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 thebackground. Microsoft can satisfy this need by including technical discussionsof architectural logic, which students can investigate further outside theclassroom.

"I also felt that a concise outline of primary concepts, definitions,and elements would be of tremendous value. This outline might include, forexample, the key parameters to NT elements, such as how long can a password andUserID be? What characters are valid? What are the default permissions and theircorresponding special permissions? In outline format, I think Microsoft coulddistill 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 thecertification 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 lotof new bits of information about NT that will help with the test, but I don'tknow 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 providedtips 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, thehard drive on my machine had four partitions, and the machine next to me hadthree partitions. This inconsistency took some time away from the class, but ithelped me learn about configuring NT on different systems and solving problemsthat arise.

"I wasn't too fond of the student material's format. The lab manualwas in two binders, which no one explained. I thought the manual was in twoparts; however, one binder was the working lab manual and the other was areprint of the original with the answers filled in. I had a hard time writing inthe working lab manual because the binder got in the way. So I took the manualapart 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 ashard to work with. Although it had good descriptions and graphics for the moduletopics, I found distracting mistakes throughout. For example, on one page, theguide says that NT Workstation can handle up to four processors, but on anotherpage it says only two. Also, terms and concepts come up before the topics arecovered in the manual. Some sort of outline or goal section at the beginning ofthe manual is lacking."

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

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

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

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

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

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