A Training Alternatives Roadmap

Michael Reilly traces various routes to Microsoft certification.

Michael D. Reilly

June 30, 1996

11 Min Read
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What was once an education for life is now just the beginning,as employers look for skills beyond a traditional education. Many companiesprefer and even expect you to supplement on-the-job experience with formaltraining. Besides gaining you financial rewards, becoming a Microsoft CertifiedProfessional (MCP) brings many career-enhancing benefits.

According to Jeff Zwier, technical recruiting professional with Wujcik andAssociates in Chicago, Illinois, "Certification is a way of validating yourtechnology skills in the eyes of hiring managers. Companies perceive individualswho expend time, effort, and even a significant amount of their money ontraining as having a greater commitment to their career."

You must meet several requirements if you want the Microsoft CertifiedSystem Engineer (MCSE), Microsoft Certified Solution Developer (MCSD), orMicrosoft Certified Trainer rating. An MCSE must pass six exams. Thiscertification includes training for Windows NT, Windows 3.1, Windows forWorkgroups (WFW), and Windows 95. Microsoft is moving the MCSE program toward anenterprise focus, so the program will drop the consumer OS-related courses andadd advanced NT exams. Among the six exams, two must be from this list ofelectives: SQL Server, SNA Server, SMS, and Exchange: The BackOffice ProductLine.

An MCSD must pass exams in the Windows Open Systems Architecture (WOSA) andcomplete two of these electives: SQL Server, Access, Visual Basic (VB), andFoxPro. Passing these exams requires some experience with the product and sometraining 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 trainingmaterials such as CD-ROMs and videotapes, and exam preparation tools. Knowingwhat each of these options entails is the first step on the road tocertification.

Official Microsoft Classes
Microsoft offers classes for advanced topics, including NT, SQL Server, SNAServer, and TCP/IP. These classes usually meet for four or five days. Microsoftprovides the materials and ensures that they meet at a Microsoft AuthorizedTechnical Education Center (ATEC) or Authorized Academic Training Provider(AATP). The classroom, computers, and audio-visual aids must meet Microsoftstandards. 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 thehands-on labs that reinforce each module's material.

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

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

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

Which approach you choose depends on your learning style and level ofknowledge. Some students like to try techniques in labs that go with the course.But other students enjoy being able to concentrate on the material withoutworking on a computer. Unless labs are designed well (most Microsoft courseshave effective lab sessions), they take up valuable time and equipment. Theseminar approach can be better for advanced users who need detail. The classroomand lab approach can be better for new users who need to see techniques onscreen for them to make sense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps the biggest obstacle with Microsoft's self-paced training kits isthe hardware they require. For the NT course, you need two computers, each with16MB of RAM and 100MB of free disk space. To complete the Server section, youneed 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, evenif you have just a two-computer link via Ethernet cards. You also need the NTWorkstation and Server software, a third computer that you configure as a Novellserver, and a Macintosh.

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

Contact Info

Microsoft * 206-882-8080Microsoft ATEC * http://www.microsoft.com/train_cert for MicrosoftTraining and CertificationTechTeach International * 703-276-8940 (inhouse)Public classes: Call Alexander Hamilton Institute at 908-852-3699.Email: [email protected]Web: http://www.mmco.comFriesen, Kaye and Associates * 613-829-3412Transcender * 615-726-8779Email: [email protected]Web: http://www.transcender.comBeachFrontQuizzerNet-Com Image * 713-992-3131 or 888-286-2345Email: [email protected] or [email protected]Price: $58 for each unit $233 for a six-pack (includes four corecourses and two electives of your choice)

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

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

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

Microsoft isn't the only company evaluating and applying teaching methods.Friesen, Kaye and Associates runs the Instructional Techniques workshops thatmost certified Microsoft trainers attend. This group has calculated thestudent's retention rate of the material. If an instructor presents theinformation orally, the retention rate is 35% after three hours. If theinstructor presents the information visually, the retention rate is 72% afterthree 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 threehours. After three days, the oral retention rate is 10%, the visual retentionrate is 20%, and the oral and visual retention rate is 65%.

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

Third-Party Training Materials
Several companies offer self-study packages, including every course you needto be an MCSE. Two types of third-party training materials are videotapes andCD-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 personalinteraction. With a videotape, an instructor can appear on screen to simulatethe classroom experience. Many companies find that CD-ROM-based training looksgreat at first, but people get bored and walk away.

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

Other training companies provide CD-ROM-based training because 650MB ofstorage holds a lot of material. Unfortunately, cramming lots of material on aCD is exactly what many training companies do. You don't build a training courseby simply filling a CD-ROM and handing it to the student. Sorting through datais hard even if you know what you're looking for, and students usually don'tknow 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-pacedroute can sign up for classes through MOLI and benefit from the availableinstructor. Large companies can consider bringing MOLI in house. For instance, acompany can provide a dedicated training lab where students can study duringworking hours or on their own time. Instructors running the lab can be availablefor assistance and encouragement. But students must take the responsibility forcompleting the course.

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

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

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

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

I found the questions on the practice NT Server test harder than those onthe real exam. The practice questions are more detailed than the test. Not thatknowing 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 Workstationquestions 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 iscorrect. The program supplies the correct answer, but not an explanation. Sothis software is more useful as a preparation for the test than as a learningtool.

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

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

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