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MCSE Help : Everything you wanted to know about becoming an MCSE, but were afraid to ask!
Richard Adams presents a brief guide to becoming a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer.

So, you’ve decided to go for the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer accreditation. The following article will guide you through the set up of the exam, a variety of training methods and also offers advice on the best revision aids available.

The examination

To obtain the MCSE qualification you need to be able to prove that you are proficient in both the Windows NT operating system and at least some of the elements of the Microsoft BackOffice suite of server applications and utilities.

When NT first became recognised as a viable alternative to Novell’s NetWare, Microsoft realised that companies would need a common denominator by which to measure an NT specialist’s skills. Novell had the CNE (Certified Novell Engineer) which was extremely popular with both employers and employees. Microsoft duly decided to create its own qualification.

A qualified MCSE must continue to update their skills by taking further examinations in new software releases, as older versions become obsolete. In practice, Microsoft does not retire an examination for a considerable time after they have stopped selling it. For example, the Windows 3.11 for Workgroups examination is still an accredited examination; Microsoft has only recently retired the Dos 6.2 and Windows 3.1 examination. Refer to http://www.microsoft.com/train_cert/ - for a complete list of current required and elective examinations.

Successful candidates must pass six examinations set by Microsoft. Some of the examination subjects are compulsory and some can be chosen from a range. It is entirely computer-based and you are presented with a series of questions with four or five accompanying answers. Your job is to choose either the single correct answer or (more awkwardly) all correct answers. You will be asked roughly 60-65 questions that are downloaded randomly from a pool of around 2,000 potential questions. The pass mark is usually around 75% depending upon the exam and it is a straightforward pass or fail; there is no grading, although you do get a results sheet which gives you the exact percentage you attained. If you fail you may re-sit after three days. Examinations take place in designated testing centres run by Sylvan Prometric. They have approximately 40 centres up and down the country and their central booking number is 0800 592873. Examinations cost 65 + VAT and can be booked as soon as you feel you are ready to take the plunge.

If you are already an NT guru with several years of experience with the chosen product to be examined in, I recommend you go to Microsoft’s web site (listed above) and download a copy of the exam syllabus. This will give you a comprehensive listing of all the topics covered in that examination. From this list you can decide whether to brush up on the weaker spots with a book and a PC to practice with, or whether you need a more in-depth approach.

For those starting with less knowledge and/or experience it would be advisable to undergo a more formal training regime. There are many good products on the market to choose from, but they all fall into two main categories – trainer-led and self-taught.

Which training method is right for me?

Training courses have some distinct advantages and disadvantages over the self-taught model. Firstly, you are paying for the services of a knowledgeable trainer that can deal with you face-to-face, respond to your individual needs and help solve any problems you may come up against.

When choosing your training centre make sure your trainer is fully experienced in his/her field, has passed the examination that you are aiming to take and has also been assessed for their teaching skills. Talk to the sales people at the training centre about your needs. Not all sales people are trying to rip you off; if you do smell rip-off, simply put the phone down and call another centre. They advise people every day about which courses to take and should be able to help you meet your needs. Be sure to pay the centre a visit before you part with your cash. One final point – don’t be afraid to haggle. Some centres give better rates to freelancers who are paying for themselves and all centres will give you a discount for booking multiple courses.

If your company has provided you with a miserly training allowance or you have to pay for your training yourself, you may want to consider self-taught methods. The two main advantages of using self-taught methods are cost, which can be considerably cheaper than with trainer-led methods, and being able to fit the training time around your current workload and social life. Self-taught methods often allow you to take the course at your own pace and complete the entire course in as long or short a time as suits your needs. There are a variety of self-taught methods available, from the traditional book learning method through to videos, computer based training (CBT), CD-ROMs which use multimedia and even to online training where you can attend ‘virtual lessons’ via the Internet and gain support from a remote tutor.

Any decent bookstore will offer a whole host of books on becoming an MCSE. There are many publishers in this market, including Microsoft with its own ‘Study Kit’ range (Microsoft Press); these are good but expensive. Many of the books have CD-ROMs with mock examinations and demonstrations that make learning easier and more interesting.

Another good source of MCSE literature is 29th Street Press, which offers a comprehensive list of MCSE Rapid Review Study Guides. Covering all aspects of the examination, the study guides allow you to work at your own pace with frequent review checklists, and trouble shooting summaries to monitor your progress. A CD is included with each book and includes hundreds of mock exam questions for the particular core subject and quick links to the book’s test to explain answers. See http://www.ntbooks.com for more information.

Self-taught and especially book learning methods require a rigorous, self-disciplined approach to your training. If (like me) you’re not a great self-starter, try instead picking from the new online courses such as Microsoft’s Online University (MOLI) which you can find with a few well chosen words in a search on the web.

Once you are comfortable with your knowledge level, get hold of some self-testing software. Quite a lot of freebies are available via the ’net, but for quality products I strongly recommend the products by Transcender – http://www.transcender.com. Take these tests and then gauge the results. Note down all the questions that you got wrong (or got right by accident) and use your notes as a revision list. Go back to your books and study those topics until you are confident and then go back and take the tests again. Repeat this process until you are consistently scoring 95% or more, then you know you are ready for the real thing.

Is it worth it?

It takes a great deal of commitment to pass six examinations and become a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer. But look on the bright side – that’s the very reason why MCSEs are so sought after. If it was easy to become an MCSE then everybody would be one! Attaining MCSE status is an excellent way of making your CV stand head and shoulders above the competition. For contractors it is arguably even more essential to be able to prove their technical competence to a prospective client. MCSE status can open the door for new recruits and can also prove an excellent and effective boost to those who wish to make a big step forward in their career.

Richard Adams is an Executive Technical Director for Additional Resources, an IT training company