Get busy with NT certifications

Whether you're pulling onto the certification highway or you've already made a stop along the way, it's time for the passing gear. Which route's your best bet? This week's Paperchase Digest takes a look.

How do you react when it happens?

Driving down a nice little twist of blacktop, you take in the pleasant morning and brilliant sunshine after a few gray wintry days. Then, inevitably, some jackass in an F-150 fills your rearview mirror with an industrial-strength Ford grill. What do you do? Yesterday I did the “right” thing and ignored it, driving my usual 39 or so in a 35. That wasn’t good enough for this joker, who kept cheating left, faking pass attempts into oncoming suburban traffic.

Of course, I became incensed. But, my wish for long life overcame my desire to teach road manners, so I ignored the freak. I signaled, began to make a turn, and the guy let loose. Veering into the oncoming lane, he floored the V-18 or whatever they put in those F-150s and honked the whole time it took him to pass, which was a while, as 16-tons don’t accelerate very quickly.

That’s great, Eckel. Nice story. But what does it have to do with this NT certification I’m supposed to be getting busy with?

Well, it makes for a nifty analogy. See, our F-150 guy represents the frustration some 800,000-plus NT MCPs are feeling due to the impending retirement of their certifications. They want to make progress, but they can’t, and it’s quite possible some are tempted to behave unreasonably as a result.

Don’t make that mistake. Instead, relax. I’ve traveled that highway, and I can help you plan your route.

If you’re already on the certification highway
I’ve received much e-mail from IT professionals, and I visit several newsgroups regularly. Many in the industry say they’re going to throw the baby out with the bath water. Forget the Microsoft certification in which they’ve already invested so much. They’re done. No more marching to that drummer. “Hello, Cisco? When’s your next class start?”

For some administrators, entering Cisco’s training program may be an excellent idea. The IP routing and networking skills learned can be invaluable. But don’t get into another certification path just because you’re incensed with a vendor. Make the change because you want to develop new expertise and build your resume.

Many readers shared their legitimate concerns, though, about how they should proceed with their current NT track.

If you have one or two years of hands-on experience with Windows NT 4, and your organization is going to continue with that platform for at least another year-and-a-half or so, finish it up. Your subsequent understanding of domains, trusts, permissions, and administrative tasks will be quite beneficial. Just be sure to consider Windows 2000 classes for your electives.
"NT 4 MCSEs-to-be: Choose your electives well " provides more advice for those working to finish their Windows NT 4 tracks.
Be sure to get started soon, too. The clock is ticking. The Windows NT 4.0 exams, including the accelerated Windows 2000 test you’ll want to use for migrating to Win2K certification, retire Dec. 31, 2001.

If you’re just starting out
Many readers say they want to get on the Windows bandwagon. How should they start? Self-training, Web-based training, instruction at an Authorized Academic Training Partner (AATP), classes at an accredited MCSP Partner? What?

The answer depends on what works best for you. Are you sufficiently disciplined to study on your own, or will you be tempted to watch TV instead? If you work well by yourself, try one of the many self-paced training kits or Web-based training.
If you’re just starting your IT certification journey, it’s crucial that you network a minimum of two PCs at home. They mustn’t be PIII-800s with 128 MB of RAM. Just get two machines strong enough to run the operating systems you want to study. Then load up the OS and experiment, experiment, experiment. You’ll find they also come in handy for completing many self-paced training courses.
If you need structure, try a class at a local IT educational shop. But before you go, read and study a leading computer publisher’s text covering the course you plan to take. I wouldn’t recommend that a candidate enroll in an AATP class that doesn’t have some provision for migrating to Windows 2000, preferably in the form of formal Windows 2000 electives training.

Another popular question: Which certification exams should you begin with?

If you’re working with an organization that’s committed to using the NT 4 platform for at least another year, go ahead and try your hand at the Networking Essentials, Windows NT 4.0 Server, and Windows 98 exams. You’ll develop networking skills and server and client OS expertise studying for the tests, and you can try leveraging your new MCP status for a raise once you complete just the Server exam. Plus, you’ll build an excellent foundation from which to start Windows 2000 training.

What if you’re not working with an organization that will be staying with NT 4—or you’re looking to change companies or start a new career? What then?

You may not like my answer. But as you’re likely to run into Windows NT Server 4.0 and Windows 98 for years to come, I recommend sitting for the same three exams I mentioned above (NetEss, Server, and Win98), then continuing with the Windows 2000 track. While it’ll take you much longer to earn an MCSE, knowledge of the NT 4 platform will prove crucial. In fact, it’ll probably be difficult to achieve success without it.

But get started soon. And, remember: the opportunities have never been better. A recent study showed a quarter-of-a-million IT jobs are unfilled, and I believe the demands for qualified IT personnel are only going to grow.

The “E” word
Help yourself while you’re studying, too. Find a help desk or support staff to join, even if it means working a few nights a week. One of the most common complaints among seasoned administrators is the dearth of certified candidates who have in-the-trenches experience.

Avoid that pitfall by building your own work history. Once you feel comfortable with the skills you’ve developed working support, volunteer your IT services as a consultant to nonprofit organizations. The experience you gain there, combined with your certification, will make you a much more attractive candidate.
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