This is not your father's boot camp

The Accelerated Certification Real Education Workshops (ACREW) MCSE Boot Camp in Evergreen, Colorado, isn't exactly the boot camp your father went through. This boot camp has instructors rather than drill sergeants, and gourmet food rather than compressed cardboard. But the MCSE boot camp isn't a spa--­attendees suffer from sleepless nights, high stress levels, and a feeling of being always under the gun.

ACREW has been in business since October 1996. The company pioneered the 16-day MCSE boot camp format.

ACREW's Soda Creek Lodge is fairly isolated in the Rocky Mountains. Boot camp recruits have no distractions from the nearby city of Denver. Thus, they can focus on the task at hand--­becoming MCSEs. The atmosphere is conducive to group study, which is what makes the program work and which is why I'm hanging an MCSE certificate on my office wall in the Windows NT Magazine Lab.

No Pain, No Gain
The boot camp method of obtaining your MCSE is challenging, but I prefer it to Microsoft's typical Authorized Technical Education Center (ATEC) classes. ATEC classes last a few hours each day for 1 or 2 weeks. After you complete a class, you take the corresponding Microsoft exam. If you pass the exam, you move on to the next class, until you pass all six exams. ATEC classes cost approximately $2000 each (which totals $12,000 per MCSE). In comparison, a boot camp consists of 16 to 18 hours of intense study each day for 2 weeks. An ACREW boot camp is 20 to 37 percent cheaper than a series of ATEC classes.

Most people can't take a 16-day sabbatical from work to attend an MCSE boot camp without using all their vacation time and then some. An improvement in the boot camp format would be 2- or 3-day MCSE boot camps that cover one or two of the required exams in a weekend. Then, individuals could better integrate MCSE study with their jobs and private lives.

However, if you can get away from work for a couple of weeks, I definitely recommend an MCSE boot camp, particularly the ACREW boot camp. I'd rather take the pain all in one shot than space it out over several weeks or a few weekends. Although I'd like to be certified on Microsoft Proxy Server, SQL Server, and NT Workstation just for the heck of it, I have no interest in dragging through classes every night for several weeks or trying to read one of the Microsoft Press books. Give me intense classes for 16 days in a row, then make them go away--­please don't prolong the agony.

The ACREW MCSE program consists of six exams covering various topics, including networking, OSs, trouble-shooting, and compatibility. The combination of exams I took to complete the MCSE requirements were Windows 95 (rather than NT Workstation), Networking Essentials, TCP/IP, NT Server, NT Enterprise Server, and Internet Information Server (IIS) 4.0. ACREW no longer offers the Win95 option.

Microsoft's test administrator, Sylvan Prometric, compiles the tests randomly from a pool of 150 questions, of which between 50 and 55 show up on an exam. The luck of the draw from test to test can improve your score dramatically. If you fail a test by only a few points, retake it right away. Sylvan takes about half an hour to set you up for another test.

Microsoft Press publishes a series of books that contain all the answers to the tests. Memorize the books and pass the tests--­easy in concept but quite difficult in practice. And the Microsoft Press authors don't make your task any easier. I've never read more obscure definitions or confusing explanations. One of our instructors speculated that Microsoft Press locks its authors in a closet and doesn't let them out until they come up with a text that doesn't make any sense. Because the Microsoft Press books contain such muddled information, I was glad to have the ACREW instructors, my classmates, and the Transcender practice tests that ACREW provided to help sort things out.

The Transcender tests are a great asset in preparing for the MCSE exams. Transcender offers three tests for each subject, covering a much broader range of information than the MCSE tests cover. What makes the Transcender tests so valuable is that their answers include not only why choice a is correct but also why choices b, c, and d are incorrect. For more information about Transcender's tests, see Michael P. Deignan, "MCSE CBT Self-Study Solutions," September 1998.

You might wonder whether I learned anything at the boot camp besides how to pass the MCSE exams. Let me assure you I did. I can network 1000 computers; tell you how many servers, hubs, switches, and routers you need and where you need them; configure the network; troubleshoot it; set up the trusts and permissions; and optimize the network's performance. In addition, I can add UNIX and Novell NetWare systems and devices to the mix and make all the components work together.

Rumor has it that you can increase your salary about $7000 after obtaining MCSE certification. Not bad for a couple of weeks' work, as grueling as it is. Boot camps aren't for everybody, but if you have the stamina, you'll reap the rewards.

Lots of Work, Lots of Help
ACREW's instructors are knowledgeable about the MCSE exams and about real-world network troubleshooting and design. The two instructors who worked with my 11-member class had opposite teaching styles, but they both managed to herd the class through the texts, chapter after chapter, concept after concept, as if they were clicking through cards in a Rolodex.

I found my fellow classmates to be as valuable as the instructors. Everyone wanted everyone else to pass, and we had study sessions every night, often into the morning hours. I believe the ACREW boot camp will lead to lifelong friendships for many of us.

Your instructors and classmates are important, but they aren't what makes or breaks you in an MCSE boot camp. Achieving certification is solely up to you.

Grab the Brass Ring

To obtain your MCSE certification, you need basic knowledge of computers and networks, good study habits, and dedication. To go through a boot camp program, you must be willing to forgo any semblance of a life, other than the life Bill Gates wants you to have, for a couple of weeks. If you meet these basic requirements, you can become an MCSE. Super-geek status is not a requirement. As one of the screens in ACREW's testing center and computer lab said, "You will pass...You will be an MCSE."

Going through MCSE boot camp is like going back to college and taking finals every day for 16 days. Boot camp is like completing a master's degree in two weeks. The experience involves defining your limits and surpassing them. The ACREW MCSE boot camp was an intense and incredible experience--­a real test of my strength and endurance. I'm proud to say I survived it. (For a chronicle of my boot camp experience, see the sidebar "Brian Goes to Camp.")

ACREW * 800-770-2254
Price: $7795 to $9595, depending on accomodations
Course Requirements:
The most successful candidates have a successful background in the computer industry. Each program has a minimum set of exams. The MCSE program requires the TCP/IP, Windows NT Workstation or Windows 95 Workstation, and NT Server tests.
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