Journey into MCSE-Land

Going solo on certification is tough. Here's how one group achieved MCSE success as a team.

The end of an adventure is usually an appropriate time to recount the happenings of the journey. It is a time to think back to the triumphs, challenges, pains and joys of what has transpired. This was our journey into MCSE-land.

It all began in September 2000 when we in the Digital Consulting and Software Services (DCSS) decided to obtain our MCSE titles. As a consulting company, one measure of our capabilities is in the number of skilled MCSEs we have on staff. I had just finished my Windows 2000 MCSE and convinced Jim, a technical manager at the company, to have a handful of others do the same. Jim sent out an e-mail to our colleagues and ten people agreed to take the same journey. Some of them already had the MCSE on NT 4.0, while others were new to certification.

As DCSS is a Microsoft CTEC, we had access to the entire Microsoft official curriculum and a well-equipped training room. DCSS funded the procurement of the books and the food while the students were responsible for the classroom setup. The material for each test - seven tests in all - was to be covered over approximately two Saturdays. Over an eight-month period, we met as a group 13 times.

Based on past MCSE certification tracks that I had conducted for NT 3.51 and NT 4.0, I observed that 30 to 40 percent of the people in any class actually completed all the requirements for the certification. The rest usually dropped out for many reasons-family, time, other interests etc. Starting out with 10 people for seven exams over an eight-month period, I certainly didn't want to be left with only five people halfway through the track!

Over lunch one day with Cindie, an IT manager at a DCSS client, I mentioned my idea to conduct the training session. She said seven people in her group were highly technical, some providing Level 3 support or were technical leads in projects, so I asked if they might be interested in joining our MCSE study group. She liked the idea, but didn't have money budgeted for this purpose. I agreed to let them join if she could pay for their course materials. I conference-called the "Magnificent Seven" (what Cindie's group later called themselves) and explained the MCSE certification process. They all jumped at the opportunity.

The Magnificent Seven's first obstacle was getting approval to buy books. Cindie's upper management was not keen on the idea. After all, why would an outside consulting company want to offer them "free" training? The Magnificent Seven was willing to pay out of their own pockets at this point, which showed that they were highly motivated. I knew then that if they participated, most of them would get through the certification process successfully. Upper management relented and agreed to pay for materials.

I also told my client and friend, Art, what I was doing and asked if he wanted to join the study group. Art had his MCSE on NT 3.51 and NT 4.0, so his knowledge and experience would be an asset to the rest of the class. Art had moved on to a managerial role, but he still wanted to prove that he was technical. He needed two more tests to get his Windows 2000 MCSE, so he joined.

Inhabitants of MCSE-Land
Left to right, seated: Eric Slagle, Chandra Raghu, Art Cherubini; standing: Steve Linna, Jamie Alatalo, Sri Seshadri (the author), Clara Dannhaus, Gregg Smith.

Saturday #1: Ten DCSS consultants, the Magnificent Seven, and Art convened in the training room at DCSS. This was to be their "Saturday home" for the next eight months. Most of the people met for the first time here and I could tell that quite a few were nervous about what to expect. Three were NT 4.0 MCSEs and three were MCPs. Some had heard about the certification benefits, and fewer still were getting their first introduction to the certification process. The range of Microsoft experiences varied from two to 10-plus years.

I presented a brief outline describing how I'd conduct this study session. Rather than the standard lecture-lab format, I took a different approach. We would divide the book into two equal halves and tackle each test at every other Saturday meeting. Everyone had to read all the chapters prior to class, then each person was assigned a specific chapter to present to the class within an allotted time. I would assist that person in the questions, but each person owned the chapter. Success of the group depended heavily on each person's presentation of their chapter. After meeting for two Saturdays, participants had two weeks to take the corresponding test. My job was simply to provide breakfast and lunch to the group. As an incentive, I offered $100 to the first person who finished the entire set of core tests and a required elective.

I outlined the time commitment required, letting them know that probably wouldn't have much of a life outside of this study group for the next eight months. As I outlined the certification process, Art and the other MCSEs, Jeff and Paresh, outlined general test-taking strategies and other nuances that you only gain with experience. I'm sure quite a few participants were scared but no one admitted it openly to the group. At the first break, two people dropped out of the class because of the time commitment.

I really didn't know how well this presentation format would work and was apprehensive. I knew that this approach would improve their public speaking abilities. I also knew that if each person prepared well enough to present a chapter, that person would be able to answer almost any question on the test.

Some of them were unclear on what was required in the presentations. I didn't want to prescribe a format-I wanted each of them to develop a format and I knew it would iron out eventually. Chapters were assigned for the next class meeting on Saturday. Before the next class, two more dropped out. The group shrank to 12.

Success of the group depended on the efforts of individuals. And, so it began.

Saturday #2: It was time for Windows 2000 Professional from the Microsoft Official Curriculum, Course 2152. Those who were assigned a chapter were nervous. Some may have spent a lot of time on their chapter, while others may have just glossed over the readings on the other chapters. Not good! While one person was presenting a chapter, others were quietly reviewing, oblivious to the speaker. Not good! Some hadn't prepared. Some presentations ran much longer than their allotted time. I sat in the back of the room occasionally urging them to hurry. Was I wrong in using this format? At the lunch break, I asked for input on the format. Everyone generally felt that pressures at work made it difficult to spend a lot of time preparing a presentation, but in time, this format would work out.

We survived Day 2 and completed the first-half of the book. Gregg had a cart full of devices for this presentation of the plug-n-play and configuring devices chapter. He gave each person a different device: joystick, USB printer, dual-monitor video card, modem, and external disk. You name it; Gregg had it. Gregg's presentation was probably the most memorable of the whole study session.

Gregg was also probably the strongest technical person of the group. He's what one of my friends called a "Fuzzy," defined as such: Picture a Unix programmer with fuzzy hair who drinks Jolt cola and smokes all day while hacking code. That's a Fuzzy. While Gregg doesn't smoke, he sure is a Fuzzy. He was extremely knowledgeable and we knew we could turn to him for answers to the highly technical questions. The study group had at least five or six other Fuzzies.

Saturday #3: It was time to go through the second half of the book and, later, in the day, some of the participants scheduled their 70-210, Windows 2000 Professional exams (everyone was on their own to register for their exams, but everyone tried to do this before upcoming meetings). At this meeting, nametags slowly became unnecessary. Presentations improved. People started to get comfortable with the format. Nonetheless, they still struggled through the chapters. Everyone wanted to talk about the upcoming test, which they had to take within two weeks. People were nervous and no one wanted to fail. I tried to encourage them, telling them that it wasn't important how many times they failed. What mattered was that they got their MCSE in the end. I don't think many heard that. Some of the MCSEs wanted to take the Accelerated test and, hence, were going to skip 70-210.

The Magnificent Seven wanted to take the test on the same day of the class, but scheduling conflicts prevented that. The first group-Eric, Thomas, and Gregg-took the test and passed. The whole gang was pleased. Congratulatory e-mails are passed around that week. Art was next. He passed, but everyone expected that. Clara, Gerry, Jamie, and Steve scheduled their exams. "Look for the green bar at the end. Don't worry about the score," everyone said through e-mail. They all passed. So far, eight for eight. Chandra was next and he felt the pressure. He was a developer (we called his kind "bug makers") amid systems people (which he called "rebooters" because we solved most problems by rebooting systems) in the class. He scheduled his test and passed.

That left three, who weren't quite ready to take the test, but we had a condition of participation: No member could lag behind the rest of the class by more than one test. It was tough to stay abreast and it would be harder to hang on! It takes determination, guts, lots of hard work and, of course, peer pressure. (Alas, the last three did not finish the full session, due to pressures external to the class.)

The 70-215, Windows 2000 Server exam involved more self-review of the material in the same MOC. We also assigned reading material from TechNet and other white papers. Most of the participants considered themselves Server people, so this test was not considered overly difficult.

Thomas took 70-215 first and passed. Next was Gregg, who passed-what else? Both agreed that 70-215 was reasonably hard, which made everyone else nervous. But everyone else took it and passed, including Chandra-so, bug makers can do rebooter tasks. Way to go, team! Nine for nine on 70-215.

At this point, everyone is egging Jim to take 70-210. He passes and everyone celebrates. No one wants to be the first to fail a test.

Cindie is proud of her group, providing much encouragement and support for her people. She provides a report to management of the success of the Magnificent Seven.

The study session is going well and the group is coming together. Everyone is encouraging one another. When someone lags behind, e-mails and phone calls follow. They act like a small, close-knit family. Jamie and Clara are the cheerleaders and motivators. No one has more energy than Jamie, who is now known as Fuzzette (Fuzzy's girlfriend).

Some in the Magnificent Seven meet in the evenings after work and sometimes over lunch to review material and have group study sessions. Cindie motivates them by providing home-cooked food. If people are not ready with their presentations or are lagging behind in their tests, they get an "encouraging" e-mail from me. I could tell when they weren't studying; if I didn't get frequent e-mails from Clara or Jamie, it meant they weren't studying as much as they needed to. A gentle "are you avoiding me?" e-mail was enough to coax them.

Saturdays #4 and #5: The 70-217, Implementing Active Directory exam was next. I felt that this test would be easier for them than exam 70-216, Implementing Networks. The presentations were improving, but the holidays were approaching and the group was losing some focus. Some people put together the presentation material the night before. Not Clara; she had extensive notes and she usually prepared a Jeopardy-type quiz each week. Some people called in sick, so I had to present their chapters. Others no-showed and I got stuck with their chapters. Not fair, but I didn't mind. After all, as an MCT, I had taught the classes several times. Everyone needs to get the test out of the way before the holidays. It was asking too much. Clara was getting married in January and she was lagging. Most of the group completed the test by mid-January. Art took 70-210, 70-215, and 70-217 and passed them all up to that point.

Saturdays #6 and #7: Hardly anyone was prepared. The holidays meant little emphasis on studies, but 70-216, Implementing Networks, would be the hardest test. Clara has returned from her wedding and is now frantically trying to catch up. She is one test behind the group and hasn't read her material, which is unlike her. Not too many people are as motivated and hard-working as Clara. We breeze through the material in a less-than-adequate manner. I'm worried. Thomas takes the test and said it was quite difficult. So too does Gregg. This worries everyone else. Clara takes the test and fails-what a heartbreaker. We know how devastated she is, but she is determined to pass it and studies hard. She passes it on her next attempt. Everyone is ecstatic, but Clara expresses disappointment, never having failed in anything, she says. Jamie, Steve, Eric and Gerry take the test and pass, others just barely. Everyone agrees that, so far, this test was the most difficult. Art, meanwhile, is preparing for the 70-240, Accelerated exam. His books are filled with dozens of bookmarks. Naturally, he passes the test. After all, Art is a Fuzzy. Chandra, last as usual, passes the exam. Up to that point, the group is nine for nine on all four exams.

Saturdays #7 and #8: Most of the group is tired of the long road so far. Maintaining a full-time job, a personal life and a certification goal has become somewhat of a struggle for them. They decide to study for exam 70-219, Designing a Directory Service, as it would relate to activities many of them were undertaking at work. Some people find scenario-type exams, which 70-219 is, to be a bit scary, so they hit the books hard.

Thomas is the first to take the test and pass, which, at this point, means he also gets the $100 reward! Eric passes it next, which puts pressure on the others. But, they all come through with flying colors. Art passes his test and finishes his MCSE, but not without a personal struggle. That night, he's hospitalized. He recovers, but that was a nervous time for us. Just about the same time, Gerry is also hospitalized for several months, but continues to study with the rest of the group and gets through this test.

Saturdays #10 and #11: The group is split on what exam to take next. Most of them want to tackle exam 70-222, Migration to Windows 2000 test next, because the material overlaps with 70-219. Some in the group, who are also interested in obtaining an MCDBA, want to go after a SQL Server elective. As a group, they decide to study for 70-222, but some of the group splits up, with the understanding that they'll have to study on their own. We struggle with minimal attendance (three to give in the last few sessions), but we make it! Everyone passes 70-222 without great difficulty.

Saturdays #12 and #13: The last hurdle. Who was the first to finish the seven tests for the MCSE? Clara knew IE and wanted to be first. She figured that if she quietly scheduled the exam and took the test, she may be first. But Gregg beat her to it, having already quietly scheduled the SQL Server tests, and passed them. Clara was second by two days. We were all so happy for her. As a group, we decided to tackle the Designing Security test. This was a struggle for Jamie. Despite studying diligently, she missed passing by one question. She was devastated and difficult to console. Clara knew exactly what Jamie was going through, having experienced failure earlier. But, Jamie stuck to it and attempted the test again, this time passing with very high scores. Eric, Steve, and Chandra all passed. That was fantastic-six MCSEs!

But, the story is not quite over. Gerry is still having health problems, but we encourage him to study. He struggles through the Migration book and attempts the test, only to fail by a narrow margin. Gerry was ready to give up, but we wouldn't let him. We reminded him of his commitment to his team and to himself. After much coaxing and cajoling, Gerry takes the test and passes. He has one more test to go. He struggles through the Designing Security book and passes. Gerry achieves his MCSE through physical pain. We were a team and we did things for each other and shared in the joys and pains of the time.

What a journey. It was one of the most memorable ones of which I have been a participant. Each one in the team was a winner. I am proud to call each of them a Fuzzy! Jamie summed it up beautifully by saying, "To come together is a beginning; to stay together is progress; to finish together is success."

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