Can’t get away for weeks at an ATEC? Tired of trying to motivate yourself to study? We visited four “MCSE boot camps” to find out if they’re a good use of your training dollars.

The Few. The Proud. Could You Survive MCSE Boot Camp?

Can’t get away for weeks at an ATEC? Tired of trying to motivate yourself to study? We visited four “MCSE boot camps” to find out if they’re a good use of your training dollars.

Hold on a minute! We know what you’re thinking. “MCP Magazine covers boot camps? What next: Top 10 brain dump sites on the Internet?” But that very reaction to these so-called “accelerated learning schools” fueled our desire to find out just what MCSE boot camps are all about.

We decided to take a close look at several of these schools, then talk with boot camp graduates to see whether this is a good way to spend your (or your company’s) education budget. To that end, we visited four boot camps and gathered comments about four more schools via a survey of past students.

In this article:

7 Rules for Selecting a Boot Camp

Advice from Boot Camp Students

Other Companies to Consider

Reviewed:

Ma’am, Yes, Ma’am!

First, let’s qualify what we’re talking about, since vendors use the term “boot camp” in various ways (in fact, some vendors avoid it completely, believing that it carries negative connotations). MCSE camps are becoming a booming business, with some big players like Wave Technologies starting to jostle the original mom-and-pop organizations like ACREW and Mountain View Systems.

A boot camp, by our definition for this article, offers a concentrated, accelerated learning process of one to two weeks, away from the work environment. All the boot camps we looked at are geared at helping you earn a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer title; some, in fact, guarantee it (see “7 Rules for Selecting a Boot Camp”). Some have expanded into the smaller MCSD market, MCSE+Internet training, and even other certifications, like those from Cisco.

Up That Rope!

Boot camps aren’t for everyone, or even for most of us. If you’re looking at a quickie way to get your MCSE sans Windows NT 4.0 experience, forget it. You’ll never make it through. Or if you do, you’ll embarrass yourself once you get out in the field.

But if you’ve got a solid background in networking, have spent at least some time with NT, and just can’t find time to study for that elusive certification title, a boot camp setting might be right for you. In fact, many of the students we encountered during our boot camp visits fit that exact profile.

A boot camp might also be a good choice for an experienced network administrator making a transition to NT from Novell, Unix, or another OS. “For the [MCSE] certification, you need to know how to use NT in many different environments,” said one boot camp student who works with NT daily on the job. “I don’t do that at work.”

Even if you go in with an extensive knowledge base, don’t expect fun and games. Even the most experienced sys admins we encountered were sweating bullets to get through. “Military boot camp was easier than this,” a student at Mountain View Systems told us. This is one tough way to spend a vacation.

The primary argument against MCSE boot camps is generally that you can’t possibly learn six exams’ worth of knowledge—and retain any meaningful portion of it—in such a short period of time. Boot camps argue the opposite—that by immersing yourself in the technology, you learn much more than you would at a standard instructor-led class. “Actually, I think you retain more,” a student at ACREW told us. “One of the key things about the camp environment is the reinforcement [among students] after class.”

According to boot camp vendors, the concentrated exposure to knowledge while away from daily distractions combines well with peer interaction, camaraderie, and intense focus. All of that lets you learn as much (or more) as you might in a comparable six weeks’ worth of classes in a standard Authorized Technical Education Center (ATEC) or other classroom setting.

Good boot camps also screen their applicants, claiming to enroll only students with some meaningful experience in networking and IT. “The key to success in a boot camp is a good foundation in networking,” according to James Carrion, owner of and trainer at Mountain View Systems. A good screening process works in the school’s best interest. If a school gets greedy and starts accepting everyone, its MCSE pass rate drops. The school also risks complaints from other students that newbies held back the class.

If you decide this route’s for you, be careful about who’s calling themselves a boot camp. They range in style, purpose, and approach. Susan Thayer Yates, who owns Colorado-based ACREW, one of the pioneers in the MCSE accelerated learning business, maintains that to qualify as a boot camp, the experience must be intense, isolated, and “painful.”

At Ease

Do boot camps produce “paper” MCSEs? No doubt, some do. But so do regular technical courses. And so does self-study—if your definition of a paper MCSE is someone with the knowledge but not the experience. But be careful who you’re tarring with that “boot camp MCSE” brush. We met network managers, systems integrators, and high-level support personnel at the boot camps we visited who had years of experience with various operating systems, often including several years of working with NT. Nevertheless, they hadn’t found the time to get an MCSE through self-study or classes, and were trying this method. After two weeks of concentrated training, most of them returned to their companies with a brand-new MCSE title in hand.

Advice from Other Boot Camp Students
“Don’t attempt to do any work-related things while going through the training. Advise your company not to try holding training sessions on site. This prevents distracting interruptions. Leave your [pagers] and cell phones at home.”
Matt Butler, MCSE, who attended training at Aris

“Be prepared for long hard hours of study. Understand the concepts of NT.”
Dan Hale, MCSE, who attended MCSE Academy

“Advanced preparation or [extensive] experience is required for this as well as other boot camp-type training that I’ve attended previously.”
Bo Engstrom, CNE, who attended MCSE Academy

“The appeal is quick and, compared to ATECs, it’s cheap training. I wouldn’t recommend [boot] camp training. Having since taken a SQL [course] through an ATEC, I find ATEC training superior. Boot camps are almost a scam. You get what you pay for. You don’t realize how much they’re not teaching you compared to how they market it. Knowing what I know now, I would have gladly paid $3,000 more and invested the six weeks of time at an ATEC.”
An anonymous student who attended Microhard’s Camp MCSE

“You must work with the information that is provided. I took the course but haven’t worked on PCs since. If you don’t interact with the equipment, you don’t re-enforce the training. Do not try to take the two-week boot camp unless you have a solid working knowledge of NT.”
Tom Zwolinski, who attended Microhard’s Camp MCSE

“Get as much hands-on time as possible. The more experience you have prior to going in, the better your chances of success.”
Richard Cressy, MCSE, MCP+I, CDP, CCP, who attended Mountain View Systems’ MCSE Boot Camp

“Don’t use MCSE training as a substitute for real on-the-job experience, but expect this camp to strengthen your existing knowledge base if you’re a qualified candidate for an MCSE. There’s no free lunch, but if you deserve it and are ready for the challenge, the experience will be both challenging and rewarding.”
Shayne Cole, MCSE, MCP+I, who attended Wave Technologies’ Camp Wave

“Make sure you’re prepared for the course. It’s not meant to be a vacation. The course I attended was 14 days long, with an average of 12- to 14-hour days in the classroom. Plan on studying in the evening also. You definitely need to have the required experience. If you arrive with less than the required experience, you’ll be slowing not only yourself down, but also your classmates. A good notebook computer is nice to have so you can run the practice exams in the evening in your room…. For many people, this is the only way to get the chance to study in an appropriate environment. The focused training, the support of the instructor (James would actually come to your room after 12 hours in the classroom to assist with problem areas), and the input and assistance from other students was invaluable.”
Coley Foster, MCSE, MCP+I, who attended Mountain View Systems’ MCSE Boot Camp

10 Tough Hours with ACREW

It’s too bad you’ll spend all your time at ACREW with your nose stuck in study guides or staring bleary-eyed at DNS routing diagrams, because the setting is gorgeous. On the way in, I had to jam on the brakes to avoid hitting a deer. A friendly golden retriever named Eleanor Rigby greeted me at the door.

“They do everything possible to avoid any distractions,” a student told me. That depends on how you define a distraction, I guess. The school, housed in a converted bed and breakfast in the Colorado mountains that used to be a stage coach inn and a brothel, includes plenty of amenities. Along with the T-1 Internet line into the classroom, you’ll find a sauna, hot tub (into which, yes, students are known to take study guides at night), and gourmet meals provided by an on-site chef fondly referred to by students as “Butchy.” He provides amenities like fresh cinnamon rolls during the morning break and warm cookies late at night. Visits from a masseuse are extra charge.

The course covers the three Windows NT 4.0 exams first, then IIS, TCP/IP, and, finally, Networking Essentials. Microsoft Press study guides are used, and for each of the six exams covered, students are issued copies of Transcender’s test prep materials.

The day I visit, the 11th of a 16-day course, the class of 11 men and one woman are moving rapidly through the Microsoft Press TCP/IP self-study guide. The instructor, Todd King, an MCSE and MCT, follows the guide almost page by page through the morning, throwing in a few side remarks to the class. “I highly recommend that you practice with it,” he says during a discussion of DNS. That practice will occur tonight after dinner (the classroom/lab is open 24 hours a day). King comments at another point in discussing IP, “Know it forward for the test; know it backward for real life.”

“This may be one of the most intense things you can expose [yourself] to,” one student tells me during a break. He has “three to four solid years” using both NetWare and NT on a 100-person LAN, but admits to struggling after passing two of the first three exams. He explains that his use of NT has been “sheltered”—that he hasn’t come close to using all of the features that he’s learning about here. He’s chosen a boot camp because “I like the options that an MCSE provides me,” but “It’s extremely difficult to study when you’re working full-time.”

Another of the more experienced students says, “The self-study thing just didn’t work in the environment I was in... There’s nothing to do here but study, and that’s good for me.” He adds, “There’s only so much you can pick up [using self-study]. I learn a lot better in a hands-on environment… I was really concerned coming here. I’ve heard that the tests are really hard.” He has five years of experience in networking and works as a PC analyst in a company of LANs and WANs (about 3,000 seats) that is gradually moving from Novell to Microsoft. “This is really good for people who already have significant experience with the product. You don’t come here from ground zero. It doesn’t work that way.” Although he considers himself in the top third of the class based on experience, “the pace is fast.” He’s passed all three exams given so far.

Instructor King, who is also an Internet consultant in the area, offers an excellent afternoon of IIS instruction during which his experience in the field shows. Rather than following the text closely, as he did during the morning class, he expands the lecture with lots of straight-from-the-field talk about security, install challenges, and other IIS tips. The afternoon is also very hands-on, as King takes the students through setting and changing Web site permissions, rerouting a site or taking a portion offline, changing access, and more. The pace is fast, with each student working at his or her own system.

Although King roams the room and tries to keep everyone on track, he acknowledges later, “I have to leave some of the slower students behind to maintain the pace.” Inevitably, he admits, boot camps must leave out some material in order to stay on schedule. He tries to be a conscientious instructor, he says, and finds ACREW supports him in that—“We try to avoid spoon-feeding the questions.”

By the day of my visit, students have taken the three NT exams at the testing center on site, with varying success rates. Those with some networking experience (the majority of the class), have passed all three. Some of the less experienced students are struggling to keep up, and two students haven’t passed a single exam yet.

While ACREW owner Susan Thayer Yates says she screens students thoroughly, I found a wide range of expertise in the class. One student, the least experienced, had a Macintosh at home and was making a career change after retiring from the military. He hadn’t passed an exam yet, nor did he expect to. “I knew it would be like this before I got here,” he says. “I’d be a lot happier if I got the MCSE, but I’m going to come out of here with a bucketful of knowledge.”

Another less-experienced student says that although she’s enjoyed the experience and doesn’t regret it or the money she’s spent, “I wouldn’t recommend it for someone in my position.” As a support person at a small firm in which she’s responsible for network administration (of a LANtastic network), she acknowledges being somewhat over her head. She also hasn’t passed an exam yet. “If I had to do it over, knowing what I do now, I wouldn’t do it,” she says.

Both students stress, however, that ACREW warned them before they signed up that the pace would be intense and not intended for beginners. (“They tried to discourage me,” one says—he says he insisted on attending anyway.) Neither was promised an MCSE; Yates says that she doesn’t guarantee the title to any student, and ACREW’s advertising reflects that. ACREW allows students to return and audit the class once during the following six months if they don’t pass all of their exams.

The wide range of expertise actually seems to pay off in the evenings after dinner, when the students gather in groups in the lounge areas or classroom to study. There, the experienced students lead the less-experienced through explanations, rehashes of the day’s lecture, and whiteboard diagrams. “That’s where you reinforce what you’ve learned,” one of the most advanced students tells me.

With 10 years of experience in network administration, four of them doing level three support for Windows NT, he says he’s still learning plenty. “Even with lots of experience with NT, you’re narrowed by the implementation your company uses,” he says. “I’ve been dealing with TCP/IP for years, but there’s so much I didn’t know.” He’s attended ATEC classes, but finds that it’s easier for his company to spare him for 10 solid days rather than for intermittent weeks of classes.

This student maintains that rather than learning less at this accelerated pace, he’s learning more, for several reasons. First, “you live and breathe the products” during the two weeks, rather than returning to work and home and becoming distracted. Second, the interaction with others is crucial, since he’s found that students learn from each other almost as much as they learn during class. “It’s 10 steps above an ATEC,” he concludes.

Pros

If you’re the type who wants to be pampered while you’re being tortured, try this camp. It’s isolated (no televisions in the rooms, for example), concentrated, and away from just about everything. ACREW uses several instructors, so check specific references on who will be teaching your course.

Cons

ACREW says it screens students carefully to exclude beginners, but the class I visited had a far wider range of experience than you might expect. Although none of the more experienced students complained about the beginners, they could hold back the class. You pay a bit more for the extras—great location and food, pampering, and Transcender products to take home, for example. Since the majority of students are sent by their companies, price may not be the bottom line for all.

Linda Briggs

7 Rules for Selecting a Boot Camp
1. Don’t fudge to get in. A good boot camp screens students carefully. That’s because you can’t (or shouldn’t) pass six MCSE exams in two weeks without a strong networking background—if not some specific Windows NT 4.0 experience. If you do manage to muddle and memorize through to an MCSE, you’ll be washed out in the field. It’s a waste of your money, and of the other students’ time when you bog the class down with beginner questions.

2. Compare costs. In addition to the instruction itself, see if the camp includes the expense of your flight (most don’t), transportation from the airport to the site and back, your room and meals, study and exam prep materials, and the exams. Verify what you can take with you when you leave, since you may not pass all six exams at the camp. Note that retakes of exams are seldom included. By the way, you may be able to use a Microsoft Skills 2000 loan to pay for your course if it’s given by an ATEC.

3. Get referrals. For what you spend on a boot camp, you could make a down payment on a house or buy a slightly used Miata. Don’t rely solely on comments posted on the Web site. What company displays negative customer comments? Remember that price is not the bottom line. All of the boot camps we’ve included here agreed to supply names of former student to survey. They should do the same for you. Take the time to contact a few students and see what experience they had going in, what they learned, who their instructor was, and whether they’d do it again.

4. Check out who your trainer will be. The instructor (or instructors) is so key to a successful boot camp experience that we suggest you check not just the school’s referrals, but the individual instructor’s. Many boot camps are still small operations—we recommend that if you find a highly referred instructor, ask for her or him by name. Have the school agree that if that instructor isn’t there when you show up, and the replacement isn’t up to snuff, you can get a refund. The ideal instructor is both an MCSE and a Microsoft Certified Trainer, has recent experience in the field and a solid knowledge of technologies in addition to Microsoft’s, and is highly recommended by former students.

5. Ask about the equipment before signing up. You should get your very own networked Windows NT machine in class so that you can follow along and try things out during the lecture or after class. Make sure the lab is open after hours, so you can study on your hours, not the instructor’s. A nice plus is Internet access at the site, both for research and studying purposes, and for practicing for the IIS exam.

6. Don’t worry about location. Some boot camps tout their lovely settings, but except for the cost of the plane fare, it doesn’t really matter. You’ll be studying all the time anyway. We went to lunch with a class in Colorado on Thursday in which students hadn’t been outside the hotel since Monday.

7. Check for guarantees. Not a guarantee that you’ll become an MCSE—we’re a bit suspicious of that one. (Does that mean obtuse students are spoon-fed the exam answers?) Rather, check whether you can get a portion of your money back at some point. If the school proves far too difficult, what’s your recourse? What if the instructor is bad? If you fall ill? At Mountain View Systems, for example, you can audit the class at no charge anytime during a year if you fail any exam (although that might be difficult if you’ve traveled from a remote location). Other schools make similar offers.

Linda Briggs

Challenge Yourself at Mountain View Systems

Unlike some of its competitors, Mountain View Systems embraces the term “boot camp.” Owner and principal instructor James Carrion explains that the phrase is meant to sum up the intensity and camaraderie of his two-week MCSE course. “I like the term because it’s a crash course—it changes who you are,” he says.

Carrion runs his courses out of a Marriott hotel in Fort Collins, Colorado, two hours north of Denver International Airport. The company has been in business since January. (Carrion has also opened a center in Atlanta.) The course price includes a room at the hotel and most meals—which may include pizza or sandwiches sent in to the classroom to avoid interruptions.

Despite the bucolic setting of northern Colorado, this is no vacation. “They’re taking six weeks of ATEC classes in two weeks,” Carrion says of his students, with all content included except the labs.

Carrion, an MCSE, MCT, and CNE who worked in the industry before becoming an instructor, got high marks from every student I talked to at the course I visited. During class, he displays an impressive depth and breadth of knowledge about networking and Windows NT, as well as non-Microsoft technologies and operating systems. Carrion’s knowledge and teaching style is a key reason you might consider this camp. “He has the ability to really make complex subjects understandable,” one student remarks. Another, a former teacher, gives Carrion an “A” as well, saying that he employs teaching techniques to encompass all kinds of learners.

Like most boot camps, Mountain View Systems claims to screen students carefully to avoid beginners. Carrion says his target attendee is “The IS professional who doesn’t have time to attend regular classes.” The problem student, on the other hand, is someone who is so eager to earn an MCSE that he or she lies about experience to gain admittance. “A solid background in networking is absolutely required” to succeed, Carrion reiterates, but says that he’s never turned anyone away. “I just tell them, ‘You’re wasting your money.’”

In the class I visit, most of the students are from NCR Corp. in Ohio, a large corporate client of Mountain View Systems, and most have an extensive background in networked operating systems, ranging from Unix, Novell, and Banyan, to some Windows NT. Some students have 15 or more years of experience in IT; no one I spoke to had fewer than four.

I talk to one student with a long history in networking, but no NT experience at all. “This [course] will give me enough to get assigned to NT projects” at his company, he says, although “I wouldn’t want to lead a project.” Along with other students, he confirms that Mountain View’s screening process was thorough. To prepare for the class, he said, Carrion also suggested that “I do a few [NT] installs.”

I’m visiting Mountain View’s camp on its fourth day, as the class of 11 men and one woman is preparing for its first exam—Windows NT Workstation. Class runs from 8:30 to 5:30 every day, weekends included, with group study sessions most evenings. The classroom/lab is available around the clock. Many students bring a laptop in addition to the individual classroom machines, and study in their rooms during the hours they’re not in class. “I went to sleep [last night] at 2:30, mentally taking the [NT Workstation] test,” one student tells me.

Passing this first exam, Carrion says, is crucial to the students’ psychological well-being through the rest of the course. “I’ve spent the first three days putting the fear of God in them,” he says, along with plenty of NT knowledge.

On this day, the class spends the first two hours answering questions about NT Workstation as a group, using exam prep software from CICPreptechnologies, then discussing the answers. (Students are licensed to use the exam prep software during the course, but must agree to remove it from their laptops afterward.) Carrion jumps in frequently to point out inaccuracies in the questions and answers or to expound on a point: “That’s the best answer but not the correct [real-world] answer,” or, “They’re getting questions right out of the [product] documentation, but it’s wrong,” or “Any time a Microsoft product is a choice, that’s the correct answer [to an exam question].”

Although Carrion says his agenda is knowledge-based rather than exam-based, the course content is certainly exam-driven. During the NT Workstation review, he breezes past a server question. “For this test, you don’t need to know anything about gateways. That’s on tomorrow’s test.” The class uses the Microsoft Press MCSE Core Requirement Training Kit, which Carrion refers to on occasion, but doesn’t follow completely.

At 10, Carrion tells students to put away their notes and study materials and leave the class so that he can turn it into a testing center. (He has a contract with VUE, one of the testing firms that Microsoft works with, to offer exams at his hotel site.) After a short break, students return, sign in, present the requisite two types of ID, and take their first exam.

An hour-plus later, they begin to emerge and congregate in the hotel hallway. The camaraderie that Carrion emphasized is evident. “How’d you do?” they ask each emerging test-taker, and hearty congratulations and handshakes are extended all around. In the end, every student but one has passed this first test. “One down, five to go,” says one student with a grin.

Carrion shows me the test transcript of the student who failed. The score, he thinks, is too low for him to hope that a little more study will bring this student through. Now what? Carrion shakes his head. “Even if they leave with no credentials, they’ll walk away with the knowledge.” (When I check back with him later, he confirms that 10 of 11 students (one student is auditing the course) have earned their MCSEs.)

After the exam, the class celebrates with an off-site lunch at a local restaurant. Student after student tells me they’ve chosen the boot camp method because they lack the time to study on the job. This despite the fact that NCR supplies MCSE study materials and test preparation tools to them at no charge. “We’re all so busy as employees, we’ve got no time to study,” one student tells me. “I was really skeptical [of boot camps] in the beginning,” another says. “Yeah, ‘paper MCSEs.’ But that hasn’t been my experience at all.” However, she adds, “This isn’t training. It really works only when you’ve got the [appropriate] background already.”

After lunch, students head back to face an all-afternoon lecture on NT Server, followed by a group study session all evening. Friday morning, they’ll review NT Server exam prep questions in the morning, then take their second exam. Then it’s on to TCP/IP for three days, and so forth. There’s no weekend to speak of—Saturday and Sunday will be consumed by TCP/IP class and study. The one break is an afternoon off on Monday, after passage of the third exam. Then it’s on to NT Server (Enterprise) (one day), Internet Information Server (one day), and Networking Essentials (one day).

Carrion has structured the 13-and-a-half day course carefully, he says, to build on previous knowledge. That’s why the class spends the first three intense days on NT Workstation, then just a day on NT Server. The course ends with the Networking Essentials exam so that CNE students, for whom Microsoft waives that exam, can leave early.

Pros

Carrion is an informed, conscientious instructor who knows his stuff and genuinely cares about his students. If you’re like past attendees, you’ll exchange e-mail with him long after your boot camp experience is (mercifully) behind you.

Cons

The “MCSE guaranteed” message on Mountain View’s Web site is questionable. The implication is, we’ll get you through one way or another. What it really means is that you can retake the course for up to a year if you fail any exam. A focus on the high quality of the instruction would be better.

Linda Briggs

MCSE Boot Camps Price Location(s) Length of course Includes Screening Process Comments

ACREW

MCSE Boot Camps
800-770-2254,
303-670-3855
www.acrewllc.com

$8,495; $6,995 for local students Evergreen, Colorado 16 days Instruction (NT suite, TCP/IP, IIS, NetEss); room and board; shuttle to/from airport; 6 exam vouchers; MS Press study guides; Transcender exam prep materials. Beginners discouraged. Student must sign questionnaire listing network experience. Pampers you while it tortures you. If you don’t pass, you can return and audit course any time during next 6 months. See review.
ARIS/Oxford
MCSE BootStrap Training
+44 (0) 1865-315200
www.aris.com/uk/
ARIS/U.S. offers custom boot camp training. www.aris.com
£3,950 Oxford, England 11 days Instruction (NT suite, TCP/IP, Exchange 5.0); Microsoft Official Curriculum; room and board. Custom programs vary in what they include. You must pass NetEss, study course 803, Administering NT, and pass NT 4 Admin self-assessment test and return results before attending. Says one student: “If you’re…totally dedicated to getting your MCSE, then this training is perfect…. If you’re easily distracted, then you’ll have problems. Plan on 16-20 hours a day of studying.”
Contract Training
MCSE Academy
510-595-4139
www.mcseacademy.com
Tuition $4,995, 14 nights of hotel $1,599, 6 exams $599. Total: $7,193 San Francisco; Denver 14 days Instruction (NT suite, TCP/IP, IIS, NetEss); Microsoft Official Curriculum; hotel; 6 exam vouchers; use of exam simulation materials during course*. According to the marketing material, all that’s needed is familiarity with 95 and/or NT, networking and network protocols and a “willingness to invest two demanding weeks of training.” However, students said they were interviewed prior to registration for qualifications. Says one student: “I’m pleased to learn that MCSE Academy now also has new facilities in Denver and provides Cisco training, which I contemplate attending in the near future.”
Microhard Technologies, Inc.
Camp MCSE
800-266-7648
www.microhard.com
$5,995; $4,995 for local students Orlando; Chicago;
Oak Brook, Illinois; Schaumburg, Illinois;
St. Louis; Dallas; Toronto, Ontario
10 days (over the course of 2 weeks) Instruction (NT suite, NetEss, TCP/IP, IIS 3.0); hotel; airfare; airport shuttle; instructor notes; textbooks; MCSEQuest exam prep materials. “Prerequisites:
Computer and networking background including experience with DOS and Windows 95.” The company doesn’t interview students prior to attendance, according to those we contacted.
You’re expected to take exams after attending, not during. Student feedback was mixed regarding classroom equipment, quality of instructors, and the training experience.
Mountain View Systems
MCSE “Boot Camp”
888-525-6273
www.mntview.com
$6,995; $6,295 for local students Fort Collins, Colorado; Atlanta, Georgia 13.5 days Instruction (NT suite, TCP/IP, IIS, NetEss); hotel and most meals; shuttle to/from airport; 6 exam vouchers; CICPrep practice question*. Telephone conversation with instructor. Beginners are told, “You’re wasting your money.” One-man show with excellent instructor. If you don’t pass, you can return and audit course any time during next 12 months. Students were mixed regarding the quality of classroom equipment. See review.
Network Training
MCSE Bootcamp
408-464-2211
$3,995 Capitola, California (near Santa Cruz) 10 days (over the course of 2 weeks) Instruction (NT suite, NetEss, TCP/IP, IIS 4.0). Training customized to student expertise. Personalized attention with none of the frills. So small and new, it doesn’t have a Web site yet. See review.
Wave Technologies
International, Inc.

Camp Wave
800-423-9065
www.wavetech.com
$6,990 Locations around the U.S. 10 days (over the course of two weeks) Instruction (NT suite, NetEss, TCP/IP, IIS 4.0); Wave-produced study manuals, videos, product simulations, product and exam simulations; access to Wave’s Online University. Questionnaire that attempts to filter people into appropriate training program. Says one student: “I passed all my tests the first time and in a span of 11 days…The staff at Camp Wave will do everything they can to prepare you.” Company offers interesting guarantee to employers: “If your employee leaves your company within one year of the first day of [training], send a replacement to the same classes for just the cost of materials.” See review.
Notes:
* Must return after course is over.
NT suite includes Windows NT Workstation 4.0, NT Server 4.0, and NT Server 4.0 in the Enterprise training.

Staying Above Water at Camp Wave

When I entered the classroom, I felt I should drop to the floor and give the instructor 50 push-ups. After all, I was five minutes late on the third day of Camp Wave, and the students were eager to continue with the day’s lessons. I sensed that they considered me a pariah and a major disruption to their goals, even though instructor and MCSE Rob Maloney tried to smooth over my apparent intrusion by introducing and welcoming me as a guest. I took a seat in the back of the classroom.

Wave Technologies bills its exam preparation classes as boot camps. Within an intense and grueling short time, instructors intend to mold you into someone who can easily tackle the tasks for which you were trained. The boot camp parallels end there; instruction takes place in a typical technical training center, with computers, cables, and courseware strewn on desktops. Unlike ACREW and Mountain View, Wave breaks for weekends, for a total class time of 10 days.

Weeks before attending class, students receive a training kit that contains the Wave courseware, CDs, tests, and videos for preparing for the two-week course. Thirteen students originally signed up for this boot camp, but only 11 got past day two. According to Wave, two students—Unix experts looking to get up to speed on NT—were inadequately experienced with NT to pass the exams. (Wave recommended that they take courses for NT newbies instead; both of them are getting training through Wave’s Corporate Club Wave program.)

Ideally, the goal of Camp Wave was to turn the remaining 11 students, all of whom were at least sufficiently skilled in implementing and supporting NT, into MCSEs through immersion. Six students elected to take the course within the two weeks; five opted to slide in a one-week break from the intense study before proceeding with the second portion of the boot camp, and some from this batch also chose to take their elective exams offsite.

The course itself is tightly structured. Using courseware written by Wave instructors and developers, students are given a brief but focused overview of the software and exam objectives. This is followed by many hours of detailed coverage of the product, paired with drills and study sessions. The curriculum is well-crafted, with topic discussions broken up by drills done on Wave-authored self-assessment software. On the day following the topic coverage, students take the applicable exam at the testing center onsite. The next study session begins immediately after all students have completed their turn at the testing center.

During the study session I attended, Maloney would ask a question and students would bark out responses. Breaks are also offered a few times a day, but rarely did any student venture out of class, possibly for fear of wasting valuable study time.

At one break I mustered the courage to talk to one worn-looking participant, Michael Koontz, an IS systems technician at Wacker Siltronic Corp. in Portland, Oregon.

“It hasn’t had time to sink in, the fact that we’re MCPs,” he said with a protracted sigh, “probably because we’re already deep into study for the next exam.” Koontz told me that all 11 students had passed their first exam for Windows NT Server 4.0 (70-067), which they took the morning of the second day of camp.

Koontz believes that his company “was happy to lose us for two weeks, if it meant that the company would get two MCSEs on staff” in the process (a colleague from his company was also at Camp Wave). The boot camp approach, he felt, was paying off quickly: “The pace is intense, but it’s better than doing self-study, which is what we were trying to do in our spare time.”

Koontz elected to split up his two weeks and planned to take the two elective exams on his own once he did some follow-up studying. When I contacted him about four weeks after my visit, he was a newly minted MCSE.

According to the company, eight students passed all three NT 4.0 exams the first week, and six students achieved their MCSE titles within the two-week period. Early returns on the program’s success have Wave announcing more boot camps across the country in select cities.

Pros

Here’s what you get for your money: Courseware, exam assessment software, videos, mentoring services for a year, and a money-back guarantee if you don’t become an MCSE. A nice bonus: Many training centers also have Sylvan testing centers, so you can opt to take exams soon after you’re done cramming, when the material is freshest in your mind.

Cons

You know the instructor that did an excellent job covering all the core stuff at your first week at Camp Wave? Well, he or she may not be back the following week. One student found the differences in the new instructor’s approach and pacing disruptive to his concentration.

Michael Domingo

Other Companies To Consider
Although we didn’t profile these companies, they also offer accelerated training programs.

LearnQuick.com
Austin, Texas
512-388-7339
www.learnquick.com
Accelerated MCSE in a Week, Accelerated MCSD in a Week
Offers 5-day training in Austin, Texas; Houston, Texas; San Jose, California; New York City.
Training and exam vouchers $3,000.

Sento (formerly Astron)
American Fork, Utah
800-868-8448
www.sento.com
ProTrack: MCSE Certification Preparation.
Offers 5-day training in multiple U.S. cities.
Training $3,495.

Services Solutions, Inc.
800-341-2446
www.servicessolutionsinc.com
MCSE “Boot Camp.”
Offers training in Denver, Colorado Springs, and Philadelphia.
Training, hotel, meals, airport shuttle, six exam vouchers, and Microsoft Official Curriculum materials for $8,595.

The Personal Touch with Network Training

Gary Rollinson, who does Microsoft, Cisco, and NetWare contract training for several firms and a university in Silicon Valley, is the owner of this solo operation, and I visited the premier class for his program. He wasn’t sure he was going to hold the class until a week before the scheduled start date. Two students attended, one from Riverside, California, and another from Phoenix, Arizona. By default, the instructor focused on personal training.

Network Training’s class took place at a local Computerland store. It seemed as though a space was cleared near the front of the classroom—software, hardware, and books were stacked haphazardly in bookcases along the walls, and several unused chairs were pushed to one corner. The class might have held 10 students, tops, but it was just the instructor, two students, and several networked computers set up in front of a white board. We wouldn’t remain strangers for long in this intimate setting.

I arrived on the ninth day of the course and, surprisingly, both students looked invigorated. The topic of the day: Microsoft Internet Information Server 4.0 for exam 70-087. In this 10-day boot camp, Rollinson provides the bare essentials: self-authored courseware and a classroom with networked computers that contain all the software needed to thoroughly cover the six MCSE exams (uninstalled, of course; software installation is performed by the students as part of the training). Students have to arrange and pay for their own travel and hotel. Network Training doesn’t offer exam scheduling or pay for exams.

Rollinson contends that the Microsoft Official Curriculum, which he teaches from in his regular training classes, is too convoluted and time-consuming for those who already have years of experience. Drawing from his expertise as an instructor and system integrator, he devised his own set of courseware, focused on providing training at a quickened pace and with coverage of key exam objectives.

“I like the way Gary organized the objectives,” explained Guy Miller, an instructor at the California State University, San Bernardino, adding that it isn’t as bloated as the Microsoft Official Curriculum materials. “And because the class is just me and [one other student], I can ask Gary to go back and cover something in detail.” Admittedly, achieving the title wasn’t this prospective MCSE’s primary goal. “I manage a group [of network administrators],” he said, and he’s taking the course to make sure he’s “as knowledgeable” as the primary technologists on his team, so he can be of more assistance in the decision-making process.

When I followed up with this student a few weeks later, he had just scheduled his first exam. He estimates that it will take him about four to five months to achieve the title. “I’m also doing coursework for my Masters,” he said, but believes Rollinson’s instruction and material will go a long way in keeping him focused on his MCSE objectives.

Pros

If you’re a network administrator with a solid background in NT and you’re looking for an inexpensive, no-frills boot camp, this is it. Also, the small class size practically guarantees that you’ll receive personal attention and instruction at your pace.

Cons

You’ll have to stay motivated and schedule all your exams after you’ve finished the two-week course and returned home.

Michael Domingo

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