Microsoft Certification Public Newsgroups

Should you chase the rabbit down the newsgroup hole in pursuit of your certification?

You've just finished reading three certification books, taken two different practice exams, and spent countless hours configuring your test network-but you're still nervous about taking that Microsoft exam. Then a friend tells you that the Microsoft public newsgroups at msnews.microsoft.com are a great certification resource. You wonder: Are they worth your precious time? Let's find out.

Alice in Wonderland
If you've never subscribed to an NNTP (Network News Transfer Protocol, RFC 977) newsgroup, then I highly recommend learning a little something about this unique environment first. Visiting a public newsgroup is a little like visiting a foreign country; it helps to speak the language and know the customs first, or otherwise you can get yourself into a whole lot of trouble.

A newsgroup is nothing more than a discussion forum where you post messages visible to all the subscribers of the forum. A single posted message and all of the responses to that message are hierarchically organized into what is called a thread. You can read and post messages by using a software program called a newsreader, which is a built-in feature of most e-mail clients like Microsoft Outlook (which uses Outlook Express for this purpose).

Most netiquette guides advise you to "lurk" (browse unseen) around a newsgroup first before posting an article so you can ascertain whether the content is relevant, recognize who the major posters are, and to find out what the signal-to-noise ratio (amount of good information vs. bad information) is. If the newsgroup is prone to "flame wars" where posters resort to tit-for-tat exchanges of insults, rants and raves, it may not be worth your time and effort to participate in the group. You especially want to be leery of trolls-not the Harry Potter kind, but individuals who purposely post inflammatory messages and who enjoy the ensuing war of words. I found out first-hand the nastiness of trolling while visiting an unrelated newsgroup a few years back. A certain troll not only insulted me repeatedly but also sent me threatening e-mails that stopped only when I complained to his ISP. You can read up on the fine art of netiquette at www.albion.com/netiquette/index.html. Finally, it's always a good idea to read the newsgroup FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) if there is one.

You should also find out whether or not a newsgroup is moderated-one where an individual (probably a volunteer) known as the "moderator" previews all articles for relevancy and appropriateness before they are posted to the group. This has the effect of filtering out the spam and the trolling. An unmoderated group can be like the Wild West-complete with its own outlaws, lynch mobs and posses. In other words, it is up to the subscribers to self-regulate the content on the site. This is conducive to free speech but at the same time it is prime operating territory for spammers and trolls.

Through the Looking Glass
There are nine Microsoft certification related newsgroups at msnews.microsoft.com:

  • microsoft.public.cert.exam.mcsa
  • microsoft.public.cert.exam.mcsd
  • microsoft.public.cert.exam.mcse
  • microsoft.public.cert.mcdba
  • microsoft.public.cert.mct
  • microsoft.public.certification
  • microsoft.public.certification.networking
  • microsoft.public.certification.visualstudio
  • microsoft.public.certification.winnt-9x
Public newsgroups
Figure 1. Some of the public newsgroups at msnews.microsoft.com. (Click image to view larger version.)

Whereas the purpose for the certification titles newsgroups (MCSA, MCSD, MCSE, etc) is self explanatory, I'm not sure why newsgroups were set up for product specific certifications like Visual Studio (which should fall under the MCSD newsgroup) and networking and winnt-9x (which should fall under the MCSE newsgroup).

None of these groups appear to be moderated and although Microsoft has posted its Rules of Conduct for Microsoft Communities at http://communities.microsoft.com/home/rules.asp, for the most part spammers and trolls have free roam of the land. This is especially noticeable in microsoft.public.cert.exam.mcse, where a group of trolls claiming to hold the MCNGP (Mean Certified News Group Poster) certification have established their own little fiefdom. Woe to the individual who posts to that newsgroup unaware of the evils that lurk there-you will be flamed. I found this newsgroup to have some useful certification related information, such as advice offered by subscribers to a prospective MCSE on what to expect from the very difficult 70-216 Network Infrastructure exam, but between the spammers, trolls and ridiculous number of people looking to swap illegal copies of practice exam software, the sheer amount of irrelevant posts was a little too much to bear. The microsoft.public.certification.networking and microsoft.public.certification.winnt-9x newsgroups are also questionable territory for the same reasons. Fortunately, most of the developer related certification newsgroups are a little more civilized.

Flame war
Figure 2. A flame war in progress on the microsoft.public.cert.exam.mcse newsgroup. (Click image to view larger version.)

What I found of more value for the prospective MCP are the technical newsgroups that are much more self-regulated and relatively free of spam and trolling, including:

  • microsoft.public.win2000.active_directory
  • microsoft.public.win2000.advanced_server
  • microsoft.public.win2000.dns
  • microsoft.public.win2000.general
  • microsoft.public.win2000.new_user
  • microsoft.public.win2000.group_policy
  • microsoft.public.win2000.networking
  • microsoft.public.win2000.security

In the technical newsgroups you'll find very good answers to both simple and complex technical questions. A number of experienced system administrators contribute their in-the-trenches Microsoft product knowledge to these newsgroups and they are an invaluable resource for increasing your Microsoft knowledge base in preparation for an exam. If you find yourself mentally answering some of the posted questions without looking at the expert responses, it is a good indicator that your technical prowess is at the desired level. If you're working hands-on with Microsoft products and are stumped by a technical problem even after searching through TechNet, you can post a question on the relevant newsgroup and receive a response from some subscriber, usually within 24 hours. You should search the newsgroup posts first to see if someone else has already posed the same question. If you are a newbie (new to a newsgroup), you should not be ashamed to post questions no matter how simple they sound as long as you have already made a solid attempt to resolve or search for the answer through other technical sources.

Worth Your Time?
Newsgroups are a great way for you to interact with peers and experts alike and to glean and share knowledge. Some, but not all, of the public newsgroups at msnews.microsoft.com are great resources for helping you to pass a Microsoft exam. Don't waste your time on the heavily spammed and trolled newsgroups like microsoft.public.cert.exam.mcse unless you have the time to sift through all the junk. Hopefully Microsoft will intervene and clean up some of the newsgroups that have already gotten way out of hand. Browse through the technical newsgroups and post your own technical stumpers there. By all means learn proper newsgroup netiquette and lurk a little before submitting your first post. Exploring newsgroups can open up your world to a whole new learning paradigm but, just like Alice's romp through Wonderland, your romp through newsgroups can be both a pleasant and a bittersweet experience.

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