Tough Training -- Boot Camp-style

Going to a boot camp is one way to get Windows 2000-certified. But is that the best way? An MCP Magazine editor does the computer equivalent of Parris Island and reports from the front lines.

Boot camps are like no other type of IT training. Stuffing knowledge that often takes six months or longer to acquire into a two-week box takes more than a shoehorn. The pace is frenetic, and free time is an alien concept. All your energies must be focused on the one goal: earning your certification. If that focus wavers for a moment, you’re finished.

Some people think boot camps are a great idea, others think they’re just another shortcut to getting certification without actually learning anything that’ll help you in a day-to-day IT job. At MCP Magazine, we’ve heard both sides of the story, so we decided to find out for ourselves if MCSE boot camps are worth the sizable investment in both time and money. Are they too intense? Do you gain anything of value? Are they nothing more than accelerated certification mills that take your cash, prep you for seven tests, then leave you to figure out how to do this stuff in real life?

I was chosen from among the MCP staff because I obtained an MCSE under NT 4.0 and worked in a large IT department for about six months. My technical background is less than stellar. Would my training and experience be enough to get me through?

Intense School, which is a regular advertiser in MCP Magazine, extended me an offer to attend a boot camp at one of its three schools nationwide. Intense waived the $8,490 fee for the school. It’s important to note that Intense waived the $8,490 fee for the school but had no input into this article.

“I’m a Career Changer”
Before beginning camp, I did a little test. I called one day and posed as a schoolteacher wanting to switch careers and get my MCSE. I said I’d used computers a lot, but had no other background.

“Any networking experience?” the voice on the other end asked me. I told her no.

She responded that the MCSE boot camp wouldn’t be for me. “Our boot camp is for the IT professional who’s working in the industry. It wouldn’t be the greatest route for you. You could do an A+ or Network+ certification instead. You want to start out a little slower than this. You need at least a year or year-and-a-half of hands-on experience to do this type of training.”

Score one for Intense School. It wasn’t going to let an unqualified applicant into a boot camp, as some schools will. And her suggestion of going for A+ or Network+ first was quite sensible.

Then I asked her what an MCSE means in terms of getting a job in IT.

Going Camping? Survival Tips

You should know TCP/IP, DNS and networking before attending a Win2K boot camp. The concepts are simply too difficult for non-Einsteins to pick up in the allotted time. If you are an Einstein, however, feel free to skip this part.

If you have a laptop, bring it. Intense had its own test-prep materials, as do some other camps. I could’ve done all my work in the classroom, but having the laptop allowed me to load the software and do some of my studying in my room. The change of pace was quite welcome. There was no Internet access in our class, so my Toshiba was also invaluable for checking e-mail.

Read over the exam-prep books before you get to camp. Every boot camp provides students with a set of books at least several weeks (I’d hope, a month or more) before camp starts. In my class, only a few students had done more than crack a book or two. Reading over the material beforehand, especially if you’re unfamiliar with Win2K, will reduce that “I have no idea what the instructor’s talking about!” feeling and will give you the opportunity to ask focused questions on fuzzy topics. Also, you probably won’t have time to do much more than skim the books once at camp.

While at camp, take advantage of the little amount of free time you have. A couple of nights, I couldn’t study any more, so I watched a movie from the hotel’s extensive list. The mini-break did much good for my state of mind. Don’t forget “The Shining”: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

“It depends on what areas you live in,” she said, adding that if you interview for a network job and don’t have an MCSE, “You’re not going to get hired.” This, of course, is patently false and demonstrates the type of misleading information many companies use to try to recruit students. Certifications can certainly help, but are almost never the sole determining factor in hiring.

This type of over-promising is also evident on the Intense School Web site. There’s an audio clip of an instructor or other company employee who says one of the school’s students was making $33,000 per year, but within six months of getting certified at Intense, he got a job making $93,000. That may be true, but it’s certainly an extreme example, and it’s the kind of story that’s helped drive the certification frenzy.

The Roster of Candidates
Shortly thereafter, I received a call from my future instructor. (He didn’t know I was with the magazine at that time, and I didn’t tell him.) He wanted to know a little about my background and my experience with Windows NT and 2000. He then recommended some areas for me to bone up on before camp, specifically DNS issues and how they relate to Win2K, as well as Active Directory. He also recommended that I practice with Win2K prior to getting there, so I could get the most out of my camp time. That was something I hadn’t expected, and that personal attention was much appreciated.

Class in the Columbus, Ohio hotel started each morning at 8:30. The first day the instructor introduced himself and laid out his company’s philosophy.

“What we do is train. As you prepare for your test, you’ll be learning.” He then passed along the same pie-in-the-sky post-certification salary stories found on the Web site. “I’ve heard of people with a $30,000 salary—they come here and get their MCSE and triple it. I’ve seen it happen.” Again, it may have happened (once), but it’s far from the norm. Intense School does a disservice to its students with these kinds of claims.

The students next gave their backgrounds and reasons for attending. A number of them mentioned that being certified, or having employees who are, is important to their business. Several consultants said they’ve missed out on jobs because they or their employees aren’t certified, even though they’re often more qualified than somebody with the title. One attendee said he wanted certification because his company was laying people off and he wanted to be more employable if he were next.

Most had strong computer backgrounds: There were network administrators, consultants, and remote- and end-user support techs. Most had very limited Win2K experience; only a few had worked with Win2K anything more than superficially. I didn’t divulge my assignment or job; I just said I was an NT 4.0 MCSE, worked with a publishing company and wanted to learn more about Win2K (which also happens to be true). Interestingly, few attendees said they were there to learn the ins and outs of the new OS; the goal of most was to “get my MCSE.”

In all, it appeared that everyone present had the requisite background to tackle the boot camps. That turned out to be an incorrect assumption.

The Cramming Begins
The first two days involved learning about Win2K Pro and Server and getting my first significant exposure to AD. Class time ran at least 11 to 12 hours each day. Following that was cramming time, going over the Intense School practice exams, and getting ready for the first two tests: 70-210, Win2K Pro, and 70-215, Win2K Server. I mostly worked on the practice tests in my room on my laptop; I couldn’t stand to be in the classroom, with my butt glued to that chair, one more second than necessary. The only non-Win2K time we had was during breaks for lunch and dinner.

Lining a table along a classroom wall were boot-camp survival essentials—snacks and drinks of every stripe, including candy bars, popcorn, beef jerky (one of the most popular items), Ho Hos and 10 flavors of soda. Somewhat ominously, there were also bottles of Pepto-Bismol and TUMS antacid pills.

After two days of class, it was apparent my instructor was first-rate; he knew Win2K backward, forward and sideways. His explanations were clear, and he was able to answer any question thrown at him. He was also more than a paper MCT. His knowledge of computers and networking in general was deep and came from long experience.

During the first two days, he stressed the ways Win2K differs from NT; it’d be important to know for the tests, he said. The topics, naturally in this environment, were covered very quickly. Basic networking took two-and-a-half hours, and we whipped through group policy and installs in what seemed like the blink of an eye. My sense was that students wanted to ask more questions, but were somewhat afraid to, knowing there was so much material to cover and so little time. The instructor didn’t discourage questions at all, but his answers were oftentimes more brief than some would like.

After two days of class, the first day of testing arrived. We took two tests; 70-210 at 11 a.m. and 70-215 at 7 p.m. The Pro test was difficult, but would prove, by far, to be the easiest of the lot. Passing was 540; I got a 640. By my count, only one person didn’t pass 70-210 on the first try. One student got a perfect 1,000; he said it was just like the NT Workstation test. I took that test, and I’d have to disagree with him; I thought Win2K was much harder.

I was so busy prepping for Win2K Pro that I didn’t start cramming for Server until after lunch. After five hours of doing practice tests (reading the books wasn’t encouraged as a test-prep tool, with good reason), I took the Server test. The passing score was 660. And 660 is what I scored. Whew! I was sure I’d failed about halfway through. Several more people bombed on the Server test, which was harder by an order of magnitude than the NT 4.0 Server test.

For those who passed the first two, there was a small window of time to celebrate. For those who didn’t make it through one or both, it was back to the books.

Those with NT experience generally passed the first two, as there are a number of similarities between the two OSes. That was all about to end, though. We were about to sail into uncharted waters for most us—the Bermuda Triangle known as Active Directory.

After taking the first two tests, it was easy to see why our instructor emphasized using the Intense School practice tests instead of the Exam Cram books as our main preparation tool. The tests have full explanations of correct, as well as incorrect, answers. They map the test objectives closely, and I’m sure I would have failed both exams without those practice tests.

The practice tests themselves needed a lot of work, though. In fact, the very first question on the first test, about minimum hardware requirements for Win2K Pro, was wrong. The tests were filled to overflowing with grammatical and spelling errors, which was especially annoying for a magazine editor; more than that, some questions were extremely confusing, omitting important words or even portions of sentences. At the end of a question on the Server exam, for instance, I was asked to “Choose all that apply.” Then you were asked to “Choose two” answers. Which one was it? On one of the Win2K Pro tests, I was asked to choose two answers from a group; but scoring the question immediately showed that three correct answers were expected.

The information presented on the practice tests was, on the whole, excellent, but the presentation was terrible. Intense School is aware of this deficiency and says it’s taking steps to resolve it.

The training was, for the most part, hands-off rather than hands-on. We went through some basic procedures (for example, adding a snap-in to the MMC, setting up a basic DNS zone, implementing a certificate service and so on), but there simply wasn’t time to do any thorough training on the technology. Labs, too, were non-existent, due to the same constraints.

They Start Falling
The next two days were spent learning AD. No one present, as far as I could tell, had more than a nodding acquaintance with the engine that makes Win2K go. The days were extremely long. I marveled at our instructor’s ability to keep going and stay coherent. It’s more than the rest of us could do.

An interesting phenomenon occurred at about 4 p.m. on our lecture days. Eyelids would get heavy, heads would start bobbing forward, and a general malaise descended on the class. It was as if our craniums had absorbed all the information they could and no more could be taken in. Our instructor could sense that and would release us for a five- to seven-minute break. In reality, we never took less than 15 minutes. Most of the class would congregate out in front of the hotel and smoke, talk, or smoke and talk. At those moments, dragging ourselves back in to that room took serious willpower.

After two days of AD training came the next two tests: 70-217, Implementing and Administering a Directory Services Infrastructure, and 70-219, Designing a Directory Services Infrastructure. Again, they came on the same day. About a half-hour into the 70-217 test, one guy, who’d struggled through the first two tests and hadn’t passed either, got up from his chair, turned his test in and left the boot camp for good. He was probably the least equipped coming in, although he did work in IT. I’d talked with him several times, and a number of us tried to encourage him to keep going. After bombing the second test, he was contemplating leaving; the third one convinced him.

I passed 70-217 with a score of 720; 651 was needed. I was getting by, although not by much. That was OK, though. On these brutal tests, a pass was a pass, and I’d take it every day and twice on Sunday. My unofficial count had seven people out of 15 failing this test. AD was starting to take its toll.

Shortly after the first test, the class gathered for a cram session with the instructor to prep for the AD design test, which everyone feared—and with good reason. At the beginning of the session, a second student decided he’d had enough and left. This student was older and nearing retirement age. He’d taken NT 4.0 tests, although he wasn’t an MCSE, and worked mainly in user support and hardware. He passed the Win2K Pro test easily, failed the next two, and decided that was enough. Two down after three tests.

Their decision to give up and leave points out a significant problem with boot camps: time compression. There’s so much material to cover that it must, by necessity, be done quickly. However, it doesn’t leave a lot of time for questions. That leaves a number of choices, all of which are unappetizing: Keep the breakneck pace going and keep some attendees confused about important concepts; slow down and make sure there’s full comprehension and miss covering other topics that may appear on a test; or cover the material, answer the questions, and stay longer in class. The problem is that it leaves less time to work on the critical practice tests, unless you’re prepared to go almost without sleep.

In a boot camp, fatigue can become your enemy. If you don’t understand something, you can put in extra time one-on-one with the instructor (ours was only too happy to do this), take extra practice tests, or spend extra time going through the books. Those efforts can dramatically increase the risk of physical and/or mental burnout. Being sleep-deprived doesn’t lend itself to doing well on the test. But neither does being poorly prepared.

Also, if you fail a test, you have to start preparing for the makeup. At the same time, you have all the new material to assimilate for the next test, which takes an enormous amount of time. Failing more than one or two tests probably means you won’t get your MCSE during the boot camp. Even failing one test puts your certification in jeopardy.

The second test, 70-219, was like no test I’ve ever taken. You’re presented with case studies and have to extrapolate from the information given what kind of AD set-up a company should implement. The Transcender practice exams provided by the school for this test were laughably inadequate. They presented scenarios just like the actual tests, but the real test questions were so much harder than Transcender’s that I didn’t use them at all for any other design tests.

AD Design was the hardest test I’d ever taken—and that includes the Law School Admission Test from a decade ago. But it wouldn’t even be the hardest test I took during the boot camp; that was coming up next. Passing score for the test was 613; I managed a 638. Another near miss, but I wouldn’t have been any happier with a 1,000. I was four-for-four—so far, so good.

One week into camp, another student left. He did well on the first couple of tests and struggled on the next two. He was convinced he wouldn’t pass another test and wanted to work with Win2K more in a real-world environment before tackling any more exams. We were halfway through the camp, and 20 percent of the students were gone.

A Taste of Failure
My first crash and burn test was 70-222, Migrating from Windows NT 4.0 to Windows 2000. Passing was 687 for my version of the test, and I managed a 538. Not even close. The irony is that I felt more prepared for that test than any other I’d taken. Many in the class failed this one as well, so I didn’t feel so bad. I decided to study for a few more hours and re-take the test the same night. I had no desire to try it again, but I couldn’t afford to get behind on the tests. There just wasn’t enough time to study for a makeup exam and prepare for the next new test.

The makeup test, which I took about five hours later, was similar in some ways to the original. I saw many of the same questions, but many different ones as well. The familiarity helped, though. I passed it the second time—by a grand total of five points. But, as everyone felt at this point, passing was the only goal. I was back on track.

On the second Tuesday of camp, my instructor became Charlie Brown’s teacher. Remember her? I was sitting in class learning about DNS Forwarders, recursive queries and who knows what else. After nine straight days of filling up my brain with new information 15 to 18 hours per day, I couldn’t process any more. The instructor was talking, but I only heard the “wah-wah-WAH-wah” noises Charlie Brown’s teacher makes. I was unable to make sense of the sounds; he might as well have been discussing DHCP exclusion ranges in ancient Babylonian. When I looked around, I saw that other students had the same glazed, exhausted looks. I felt like I couldn’t assimilate another word; but, somehow, meaning had to come before the tests did.

The last dropout from the class came just a couple of days shy of the end. He left without warning in the middle of the night; in fact, he’d been studying with another student just a few hours before checking out. It was reported later that day that he had to leave for a job-related emergency. That seemed plausible, yet it was tough to shake the feeling that there may have been more to it than that. He’d also struggled lately and failed some tests. That reduced the class to 11, out of 15 original students.

Thursday and Friday were the last two days of exams. It was a good thing, too. Most everyone was ready to run screaming out of the hotel in which we’d been holed up like fugitives for the past two weeks. I passed 70-216 with little margin of error: Passing was 620, I made a 660. That left one test: 70-221, Designing a Windows 2000 Network Infrastructure. I’d heard it was the hardest test of all.

However, due to poor planning on my part, I had just one hour to take the three-and-a-half hour exam. Given that little difficulty, I didn’t do badly and only missed passing by a few questions. That gave me confidence that with some more study (and more time to take the test), I’ll get through it.

So, during my time at the Intense School boot camp, I passed six out of seven Win2K tests. If I’d spent more time on the last one, I believe I would have obtained my credential during the camp.

Value of a Boot Camp
Now the big question: Was it worth the two weeks of torture? For me, the answer is yes. I nearly achieved my MCSE, and I learned a great deal about Win2K, AD, and the other new Windows technologies.

Has the experience qualified me to work as an administrator on a Win2K network? Absolutely not. Although I have a much better theoretical knowledge of Win2K, I feel that once I get my MCSE, I’ll be a paper Win2K MCSE. The hands-on experience still isn’t there. If I’d had a year or so Win2K administration under my belt before going to the camp, I believe I’d be ready. I would feel confident, though, being a junior administrator and applying the theory I’ve learned to the day-to-day operations side of things.

As for the tests themselves, it’s clear that practical experience isn’t a necessity to pass these tests, any more than it was to pass the NT 4.0 tests. It’s true that the exams are significantly harder, especially the design tests. Having experience will help tremendously, but it still isn’t a requirement for passing. Win2K certification won’t eliminate paper MCSEs, although I suspect it’ll cut down on their number significantly. It’s clear that Microsoft has put a lot of thought into the new certification, but until it starts forcing testers to take some kind of lab practicals, the problem of under-qualified, over-certified individuals will continue. The best method, same as ever, is to have both the experience and the certification.

One other word of caution: Not everyone is cut out for the boot camp experience. The environment is high-pressure; if you’re not the type of person who thrives in that type of setting, avoid boot camps at all costs. Prepare slowly for your certification. Our instructor said it was extremely rare to lose four people out of a class, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see 20 percent to 25 percent attrition as normal for a boot camp. At Intense School, as in some other boot camps, you’re allowed to attend the camp as often as necessary until you get your certification, but I know that I wouldn’t want to go through that pressure-cooker again.

As for Intense School, specifically, my overall experience was positive. My instructor was outstanding; the hotel accommodations were comfortable (all creature comforts were attended to, leaving plenty of time for class and study); and it didn’t accept me when I pretended to be an unqualified applicant. It still suffers from some misleading advertising (although it’s hardly alone in over-promising the life-changing effects of a certification) and error-filled, but still very valuable, practice tests.

As for my classmates, fewer than five, by my count, passed all seven tests during the camp; only two or three passed all of them on the first attempt. My instructor said the pass rate for our class was 90 percent, which speaks well of his teaching ability and our learning ability. I’ve been in contact with a number of the students; on the whole, they’ve been very satisfied with their experience and Intense School.

Microsoft, on the other hand, doesn’t look favorably upon boot camps, claiming it’s not the best way to get certified. That may or may not be true, but the reality of my two weeks was that most students reached the goals they set out to achieve.

Company Locations Cost Days Includes Not Included # of Test Vouchers
Evergreen, Colorado 12 days: $7,695; 16 days: $9,995
12 or 16
Hotel, all meals, snacks.
Orlando, Florida; Dallas, Texas; Los Angeles, Calif. $5,495
Continental breakfast at hotel, snacks. Hotel, lunch, dinner.
Albany, New York; Houston, Texas $9,950x
Hotel, breakfast, lunch, snacks. Dinner.
Focus Learning Systems
Tallahassee, Florida 12 day: $6,950; 16 day: $7,950
12 or 16
Hotel, breakfast, lunch, snacks. Dinner.
Global Knowledge
Multiple centers in 10 states $8,995
Snacks. Hotel, meals.
Up to 14
Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto (Canada) $5,665
Lunch, snacks. Breakfast, dinner, hotel.
Intense School
Columbus, Ohio; San Diego, Calif.; Ft. Lauderdale, Florida; New York $8,490
Hotel, breakfast, lunch, half the dinners, snacks. Half the dinners.
Mountain View Systems
Ft. Collins, Colorado 12 day: $8,500; 16 day: $9,500
12 or 16
Hotel, breakfast, lunch, snacks. Dinner.
Learn IT!
San Francisco, Calif.; Phoenix, Arizona $8,500
Breakfast, lunch. Hotel, dinner.
Reef Technologies
West Palm Beach, Florida $8,495
Hotel, breakfast, lunch, snacks. Dinner
Technology Outfitters
Billings, Montana $7,500
Hotel, all meals (through a food allowance), snacks.
The Training Camp
Pennsylvania, Las Vegas, Nevada; London, England $7,495
Hotel, breakfast, lunch, snacks. Dinner.
Wave Technologies International
10 in U.S. $10,495
Snacks Hotel, meals.
Up to 14
* Number of vouchers provided with tuition. After that, the student must pay for any additional test-taking vouchers.

If your aim, like some in my class, is to get certified quickly to minimize time away from business, boot camps are an excellent way to do that. If your goal is to get your MCSE so you can be a career-changer, forget it—you’ll never pass the Win2K tests without at least some tech background. If you’re immersed in technology every day and want to learn more about Win2K, boot camps can give you a solid base upon which to build. Be aware, however, that you won’t get the hands-on experience you may desire. There simply isn’t enough time to work with the OS extensively. If you have solid Win2K experience and want to get certified or broaden your knowledge of weak areas, a boot camp might be perfect.

Just remember one thing before making your decision: They don’t call it a boot camp for nothing.

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