Tell 'em what I took, man!

Reflections of a repatriated ex-patriot

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Wow, talk about a hell of a long time since a last post! I'll skip past the petty excuses, and just delve right into the nexus of the issue. The issue is that ever since coming back from Japan, I haven't been able to think of a compelling role for this blog. Of course, what with two jobs and studying for an MCSE, I could of course make the all-too-often used, but palpably true, excuse of being too busy.

I have, though, finally thought up a point to this blog, which will, out of my impatient human nature, demotivate me just as much as motivate me to write about it. My plan, now that so much suspense has been built up for it, will simply be to chronicle my studies up to and possibly, beyond becoming a network administrator. Or if not this lofty goal, I hope it will at least find me some kind of position in the IT industry.

First, the background . . .

I have been studying for certification exams since January of this year, and so far have received:

  • The CompTIA Network+ Certificate
  • A Microsoft Certified Professional Certificate (which seems kind of a dubious title, seeing as it in no way has made me feel like a professional of any sort) for Windows XP Professional, also known as the certification of a passing score in the 70-270 exam.
  • A Certificate of passing the 70-290 exam which covers implementing, managing and maintaining a Windows Server 2003 enviroment.
  • Currently, I'm working on the 70-291 exam: Implementing, Managing, and Maitaining a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Network Infrastructure.

I have studied for, and have been able to pass the first three listed test using the curriculum provided by TechSkills here in Houston.

For any of those who might be thinking about developing a career in IT, through said institution I hereby submit my review:

Techskills is the type of institution that can be beneficial or a complete waste of money solely depending, (like life in general) on the ability of the student to motivate himself to study.

The curriculum, if given it's just scrutiny, is relatively sound. Generally you are shown a series of web-linked lectures related to a particular topic or objective of the test. These may include things like: installations, transferrng settings, troubleshooting, file sharing, backups and restores, DHCP, DNS, VPN, network topolgy, routing, terminal services, updates, performance monitoring, disk management, recovery tools, IIS, user profiles, group, user, contact, computer accounts, device management, security, etc. this list is by no means exhaustive. Anything you are willing to learn about is made available to you.

This is, in addition, to an on-line tech library which makes available hundereds of related e-texts, which I understand you will be able to use, even after the period of your education has expired.

In addition to this, you are provided the corresponding industry-standard text for each exam. The most useful of which I find to be the included software. You get technical encylopedia and extensive practice tests included in the CD that comes with the book, although these I find to be tangential in that they cover a lot more than the related objectives require. What's really useful is the evaluation copy of the operating system covered on the test. You get 180 days to modify, monitor, maintain and mangle (should the fancy take you), an enterprise edition of Server 2003 (which I'm using to write this entry, as a matter of fact). A pretty good value, if you consider the retail edition of the same OS costs upwards of $500. And luckily for me, I've got four more tests to go, which means, an additional (not including the time remaining on this edition) 720 days in which I can use Sever 2003 to mess around with before I have to decide whether or not to buy a real copy.

Another benefit, and I believe this to be crucial for anyone just starting out, like myself, is the physical lab available on-site which uses Norton's Ghost software that captures images of an O.S. to be distributed out to networked computers.

Say for example you want to see the permutations of networking ServerNT with a Linux Red Hat computer and Windows ME. All you have to do is find the corresponding file in the Ghost Server, boot the client using the Ghost boot disk, relay the image to the client and you can create that network without having to go through the painful process of physically installing each OS.

Some technologies, however, might be employed by the more savvy at a much lower cost than that offered at Techskills. For example, you could buy the test prep book on your own, install the evaluation CD, then install Virtual Server offered as a free download by Microsoft or some other 3rd party virtual networking software. You can then install OS instances of up to 64 other computers with the one caveat, that it will eat up your processor, so you'd better have something fast if you plan to employ a lot of images. I've even heard that Microsoft is now making Virtual PC free of charge to keep pace with other virtualization virtuosos.

Form my point of view, the real lab is the environment most conducive to learning because it gives you an idea what it will be like troubleshooting both hardware and software issues, the likes of which you are sure to come a cross in a real networked infrastructure. It's important for me, at this point, to feel the connectors on the 10BaseT ethernet cables (or RJ-45s if you want to sound techy) and follow them along to the switch or hub. The physical aspect forms a better basis for visualising the infrastrucre and topography of the endless scenario questions you are sure to encounter in each of the exams. Also, it provides an added dimension to troubleshooting, and error elimination useful for test and real world issues.

The crux of the success of the Techskills company lies in their ability to guarantee passing scores on the exams by providing weekly tests that resemble, uncannily at times, the actual questions you will find on the vendor exam. I've gathered so far, that the exam application TestPrep is an in-house application developed from previously released versions of the test. I assume that this is different from some web-sites that offer complete brain-dumps, or entire pools of every question that might show up on the exam.

It's my assumption, that as these have become more and more popular much to the dismay of Bill Gates and professionals in the industry who got where they are "the hard way," a lot of the tests are being revamped to include less multiple-choice questions, and more hands-on skills, such as actually creating the right kind of share permissions, or going through the motions to set up a performance baseline based on question-specified requirements.

Even so, the practice tests allow you to demonstrate your knowledge of the specified test objectives and give you a greater since of confidence if you are able to navigate the questions successfully.

I don't want to give the impression that the school is all flowers and chocolate, however, so I'll end this post with a few gripes:

  • Be prepared to pay for some of your test vouchers. Each exam you take requires a voucher that you have to buy. The kind of course you decide to take determines how many vouchers will be paid for by the school. In my case, I went with the deluxe package which basically provided me courseware and materials for 15 months for the grand total of $8,000. Although this was never explicitly stated before I signed up, that fifteen-month period only included three vouchers. That's right count 'em, three. So from here on out, I have to pay for my own vouchers to take the tests.

  • Don't be fooled by the Test Past Assurance gimmick. They say that if you fail an exam, they'll pay for you to retake the exam five times with no questions asked. The course is set up so that you are not even allowed to schedule a vendor exam until you have scored at least 900 or more on each of the school final exams. This is a difficult feat, and some courses have more finals that you have to complete than others. I only know of a few people who have been allowed to schedule an exam after failing it once until the mentors are fervently convinced that the student has the capacity to pass it.

  • Don't expect a lot of help from the mentors. You'll find them extremely busy with orientations and sales pitches or just screwing around on the internet. Aside from some rare exceptions, they usually don't give you but a few minutes of their time to help you with a configuration issue. To give you an example, I once handed in a lab to be graded by a mentor, only to have him jeer at me, sloppily sign the front page, and toss it back to me. They will, however, get on you if you have gone too long without taking a weekly exam.

Even so, you come back to the realization that your success in an IT career, just as any other career, generally depends on you, and your motivation to learn, master, and apply the material in a real setting. My gamble is, that if I get enough certifications, I can get an entry level position and then have the opportunity to learn from the seasoned professionals who have been doing it long before me. And there is always the alluring hope of tuition reimbursement. Just whether these possiblities are realized remains to be seen.