One year ago this week, 20 students diligently studied network engineering at a midwest college. As part of a Microsoft-sanctioned class, complete with academic credit, these students from all walks of life immersed themselves in everything from networking architectures to Windows NT profiles to subnetting TCP/IP networks.

Following 10 months of intense training and six exams, 18 of the 20 were left standing. After 12 hours of lab work a week, endless independent study, and an $8,000 tab, the big question is: Did these students receive their money’s worth?

That class graduated in August 1999. Now, six months later, we’ve touched base with a few of the grads to learn how their new skills and training are paying off in the real world. Here’s what “Mike” has to say about his experience, which he credits for opening doors and increasing his salary, among other benefits.
This article is first in a series examining the real-world differences an MCSE certification can make. How does it work? We talk to IT pros six months after they’ve earned their cert, and we ask them the questions you want answered. “Are you earning more money, was it worth it, and would you do it (complete an MCSE training) again?” Have a Cisco, Novell, Red Hat, or other certification you’d like to tell us about? Don’t be a stranger; send your comments here.
Has MCSE training helped you advance in your career?
It allowed me to get into doors that normally would be closed. The position I am in now would not have been offered if it weren’t for my MCSE.

What benefits have you realized from being an MCSE?
My responsibilities haven’t really increased in my new position, but they have changed dramatically. I went from being responsible for many small single-server networks including desktops with approximately five clients each, to being responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of several large application servers in a corporation with an annual budget of over 100 million dollars per year.

The biggest difference is that I am one of five network analysts, and we are responsible for the health of the network; not the workstations attached. My salary increased by about 30%, my benefits increased, and I now have insurance for my whole family. I went from having 10 vacation days a year to 24 days, and I also get 10 sick days and three emergency days a year.

Have you found your skills are in demand with employers?
I have found my skills in demand, but I also had prior experience in a Novell environment. Most of the larger companies I have seen work with multiple OS environments. Whether it is Novell and Microsoft NT or Microsoft NT and UNIX or some other combination, it pays to be familiar with other systems. Networks don’t revolve around one OS.

In my current position, I am the only person with Windows NT experience or training. Before I was hired, all Windows NT installations were contracted out. I have also seen that there are many people out there who say they can do system installs, but after seeing some of the mistakes made on these systems, it appears they can’t.

If you could do it (a year of specialized study) again, would you?
Yes. The advantages of taking a long-term course are that you get to spend more time in each subject area, plus you develop contacts and friendships that can be maintained and that help assist in your job. To be able to call someone or have someone call you when there is a problem that is hard to solve is a great help. The problem gets solved quickly, and everyone involved now knows the solution.

What advice do you have for others considering and completing certification?
I recommend attendinga location that offers long-term training. It was discussed in my last interview and I feel it is true; the training received at a week-long class only minimally prepares you for the test. Not for a job. That is not to say the short-term classes are bad. They do have their place, and they are perfect for someone with experience who is looking to get certified or for someone looking for a quick overview but not certification.

In my previous position, I was the service manager for a small networking company. I would conduct interviews with people who had attended these short-term courses. Some of the candidates could barely turn a computer on, much less take one apart to repair it.

Even after a nine-month course, you don’t have all the training you need. IT professionals should be realistic about their actual abilities. Don’t believe the advertising that you can make X thousands of dollars per year just because you complete your certification. It takes time and experience to become good at almost anything.

When you do attend the course, keep up and take the exams after each module. It still amazes me the number of people who spend thousands of dollars to attend, but never get around to testing.

If it is available, and you can afford it, do co-op work through the school. That way, you not only have the training, but you also have some practical experience.

My last word of advice is to be honest with yourself and the interviewer about your abilities. When hired, it makes for a much more pleasant working environment, and expectations actually meet reality.
Next week, we’ll talk with one of Mike’s classmates who’s currently providing consulting expertise to an Internet startup.
If you’d like to share your opinion, please post a comment below or send the editor an e-mail.