In-Depth

Weigh Your Training Options

You want a career in IT, but how do you get the skills? It's time to look at your IT training options.

You may have come across ads on television, the radio, or even this magazine touting the rewards of being involved in the computer industry. You have some experience, like the work and you have an aptitude for the profession. Now it's time to get serious. What's next? One path is to make sure your IT skills meet the demands of potential employers.

In this article, I look at options—self-study, official training centers, academic training, and online learning—that can cost you a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars. These options can be assembled in combinations that fit your pocketbook.

Certified Technical Education Center
There are four training options. The first is a Microsoft Certified Technical Education Center. Microsoft sets these guidelines for CTECs:

  • A CTEC must employ at least two Microsoft Certified Trainers.
  • A CTEC must use Microsoft approved training materials (called Microsoft Official Curriculum) and maintain facilities that meet certain minimum standards (that is, hardware and software for training purposes).
  • A CTEC must offer such things as money back guarantees and instructor evaluations.

Microsoft monitors CTECs to make sure they maintain these standards (these are some of the basic requirements, but there are others). Still, it doesn't mean you'll receive the same training at every site. Before you sign up for $5,000 worth of classes, ask about the qualifications of the instructor. Have they taught this course before? After October 2001, MCTs will be required to have a premium certification (MCSE, MCSD, etc.), but they won't be required to take the course that they teach. A rule of thumb is that CTEC courses cost about US$200 per day. Depending on which courses and exams you take, you can expect to spend about $5,600 to obtain a premium MCSE certification. Then add about $100 for each exam (you must pay again if you fail the exam).

The classes, in almost all cases, are held over a 5-day period. If you take the full compliment of courses, you will be in class about 28 days. If you're already employed, it's one way to get through the material quickly. Most CTECs will provide all the equipment and books and many will allow you to use their machines outside of classroom hours.

One major advantage that a CTEC offers over self-study is a chance to communicate with peers in a live, work-like setting. You'll be in class with fellow IT workers where you can exchange "war stories" and compare experiences in the certification quest.

Authorized Academic Training Providers
Another training option, Microsoft Authorized Academic Training Providers, are often associated with an educational institution such as a community college or a university. AATPs located in the U.S. must be accredited through some of the approved accrediting bodies (outside the U.S., there may be other requirements). While a CTEC can offer training to a company, AATPs can only offer training to students enrolled in that school. AATP courses are scheduled over a longer period of time. While a CTEC can offer classes for eight hours a day for five weekdays, AATPs can not teach more than 12 hours a week inclusive of lab time.

Fees at AATPs vary by school. One of my favorites, Bellevue Community College, offers a fast-track MCSE program for $5,995 including books and fees. The course runs longer than what you'd expect at a CTEC: four hours a day, five days a week for about six months. The extended training period allows the student more time to absorb the material. At a CTEC, a five-day class will cram an awful lot of material in a short period of time.

Self-Study (books and guides from publishers)
If you think that you can learn the information on your own, the cheapest way to study is with self-study books. Microsoft Press, Sybex, MacMillan Technical Publications, Osborne McGraw Hill are just a few of the publishers (you can find many more by searching the keyword "MCSE" on any book site like Amazon.com or FatBrain.com). Microsoft also sell copies of its MOCs, which is the same as you'd get in a classroom setting.

Neither the MOCs nor third-party books can be counted upon to provide you with thorough training. You should buy more than one-and from different publishers-to cover all the exam objectives.

Many companies also provide sample tests to get you comfortable with the testing process. These samples don't cover the exact questions on the tests, but they are phrased in a similar fashion to simulate them.

Online and computer-based training
Online training for MCSEs seems like a natural fit in the IT world. Online training comes in many flavors. Some sites do nothing more than provide you with material to read off the screen, while others come very close to holding your hand through the whole process. Some sites also provide extended support and mentoring after you've finished the online course. Online training can be effective for those who can't travel or take time off from work to get training. However, online training isn't for everyone and it's difficult to determine if it would suit you (the jury is still out on how effective online training can be). Just like a CTEC or AATP course, you still have to take the time to study the material.

If you embark on this path, find out what each online training vendor offers for the price. A good site will provide you with hardcopy books, as well as electronic media. A good course will give you access to the instructor and a way to interact with other students while online. Some companies will also periodically send students e-mailed questions and words of encouragement.

Setting up a dedicated network in your home can be expensive and time consuming. Many sites have simulations to mimic the actions of a real network.

Options: How to determine what you need
Now that you know the options, how do you figure out what works for you. Ask yourself: What's my learning style?

Look over your past experience. How have you best studied? Do you enjoy interacting with fellow students or do you prefer to curl up with a book?

How much time do you have or can afford to spend? The thought of going through a fast five-day CTEC course may be appealing, but if your boss won't give you the time off, a more leisurely six-month schedule of night classes may work out better.

You'll find some CTECs (like TechTrain, which is the company I work for) that offer a combination of instructor led classes, Internet instruction, self-study books, boot camps, personal advisors and placement assistance all for about $8,000.

I found that a combination approach worked for me. I bought a number of books and read them while looking at the areas that Microsoft said it would test. (You can find the test objectives for all current exams at http://www.microsoft.com/trainingandservices/).

I attended a couple of CTEC courses to be able to use the equipment in a lab setting and to interact with others who were also on the quest. I also found that I need to hear an instructor say out loud the words I've been reading for the material to really sink in. Given more time and the opportunity, I think I would have enjoyed the more leisurely pace of the AATP environment.

Making the Right Choice
If you elect to use self-study, your choice is simple and your gauge for success is passing an exam based on the self-study materials you use.

If you choose a CTEC or AATP, remember that the ability to teach is not something that can be accurately until you're actually in the classroom. If you can meet the CTEC instructor, you may be able to judge whether your personalities will compliment one another. If you can talk the CTEC into letting you sit through at least part of a class, you'll have one of the best indicators whether this class is for you.

Also remember that, at the present time, the instructor is only required to have received a MCP designation for the course they teach. They are not required to be a Microsoft Certified Trainer. (This changes October 30 with the new MCT requirements.)

If you're considering an on line instruction program, find out if there are any guarantees and how long you will be allowed to participate. Some studies have indicated a 40- to 50-percent drop out rate for Internet-only classes. Simulating a real class environment by providing a way to interact with other online classmates and instructors might be enough to keep your interest.

Choosing a training provider is like making any major purchase. Care must be given to assure the stability and legitimacy of the offer.

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