This MCTs Path to Certification

As I peruse the collection of articles that I have written over the past ten years that are, for whatever reason, not posted on The World According to Mitch I am amazed to see the differences from where I was to where I am.  I hope that some of these articles will help others to see that nobody starts at the top.  Taking the time to decide where you want to go is a good first step to devising the path you will take to get there, and then planning out the journey. -M

<October, 2006>I am not sure when I first started respecting the certifications that some people bragged of, but I do know that the first time I was ever serious about getting certified was in 2001. I was IT Manager for a security firm in Montreal, and I had built my first Active Directory domain around Windows 2000 Server. Thinking back on it I remember how many mistakes I made because I was just following instructions, and did not really have any real knowledge of servers and server environments.

When I decided to get certified I sat with the sales people from the technical centre and figured ‘how hard could it be?’ I would be polishing knowledge I already had, and figured I would take six courses, pass seven exams, and three months later I would be an MCSE.

I took my first five day Microsoft Official Curriculum course in November of 2001 which I consider the single most significant date in my career in IT. My eyes were opened to a whole new world which I thought I knew but really knew nothing about. It would be a long journey from that class until I passed my first exam. Don’t get me wrong, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing and it took nearly no time at all for me to fail my first one, but passing would take until March of 2003. There were some real setbacks (the technical centre who pre-sold me six courses went bankrupt after only one course) but the truth is that once I failed the first two exams I lost my confidence.

After four months of quasi-studying and two failed exams I got very down on myself, and frankly got down on the certification process. ‘I don’t need to be certified… I am good at what I do, and frankly can fake a lot of the rest.’ Thoughts like that were a defense mechanism against that dreaded next exam, which I would not take for another year.

In the meantime I was not a little unhappy with the company where I worked, and started perusing the want ads in the computer field and was astonished by what I found. Everyone was looking for three years experience and certifications. The few available positions that did not advertise these minimum qualifications were often paying near minimum wage, and the ones that did not I eventually lost – to people with certifications. I began to think I would be stuck where I was forever.

Three events transpired to change the course of my life. The first was a CTEC named 3-Soft made a deal with the defunct school I had been at which included honouring some of the courses that students had lost out on. The sales girl at 3-Soft (a woman named Genevieve) scheduled three of the courses for me, and I was back on track. She also suggested I order the Microsoft Press box set of the Self-Paced Training for MCSE 2000. The second event was a letter that an intern had sent to my boss, calling me arrogant in thinking I could become certified without much effort. The letter which my boss shared with me so infuriated me that I was going to prove to her that I could become certified. The third was a ski trip to Montana which I recount in my essay ‘Skiing as a Parallel to Professional Choices.’

I went to work. I studied and I crammed and I reviewed. I took practice exams and (to my shame) I reviewed a brain dump (it would be two more years until I heard the term and realized just how bad they are) and I decided I was ready. I scheduled my exam and in March of 2003 I became a Microsoft Certified Professional.

I was proud, I left my job and found one that paid better (where I was miserable for 10 months) and for a year I rested on my laurels. I know how much work went into that first exam, and frankly now that I had a cert and a logo I did not feel I needed any more. I had something to separate me from the rest.

It was fourteen months before I sat for my next exam and that was really only because I had a free exam voucher that was expiring. I was unemployed and consulting, I was recently married (earlier that same month) and when my bride saw the voucher’s expiry date she told me not to waste it. I did not have any time to study, and was frankly astonished that I passed; but since I did not get any new cert or logo for it, I really saw it as nothing but another exam.

It shocked everyone that my marriage fell apart as quickly as it did, and during the months following my separation I threw myself into work; unfortunately I could not keep myself busy with the two clients and sub-contract work that I had, and one day I looked on my shelf at the Self-Paced Training kit and the MOCs that had been gathering dust. I decided to pull them out and keep them with me. Also it turned out that a new friend I had met through the newly formed user group was on the same cert path that I was on, and we were only one exam apart. We started studying together, and when he passed an exam I wanted to pass it as soon after as I could. It did not hurt that there was a ‘Second Chance Free’ offer but after taking two years to pass two exams, I passed my third on Tuesday and fourth on Friday and just like that I was an MCSA.

It mattered little that I was MCSA on Windows 2000 when the vogue was 2003, my career started to really take off. My peers started to look at me differently, and I started to feel better about myself. After all, if I could pass these four exams, maybe I was as good as people thought! My clients started to listen when I spoke, and my peers came to me for advice.

A few months later I passed my SBS exam and then a few months after that I passed my first Server 2003 exam – and then an upgrade exam; I remember my first teacher describing just how hard upgrade exams were and I believed it – I had failed this one twice before a year earlier.

A few weeks ago I passed my tenth exam without much fanfare, and believe me it feels good to look at my transcript and see more passes than failures. That same day I earned my credentials as a Microsoft Certified Trainer – one of the most exciting days since I started down the long path to certification. It is not over though, and never will be. Certification is an ongoing journey for me, not a path to a goal. I will not say that I do not still approach each and every exam with a healthy dose of fear and trepidation, but it is not the same as it once was. Like with everything else you get into a groove; I have over the years developed my study patterns and habits, and I try to not stray from them no matter how hard or easy I expect an exam to be. With one exception it never matters how easy and exam may be, as I go through the questions I am always convinced I am going to fail. I still consider the seconds between clicking ‘End Exam’ and the Results page the longest and most grueling seconds (on some exams it may feel like minutes!), and live in constant fear of walking out to the secretary’s silent snickering when she hands me a failing exam report. It is for these reasons that I make sure that when preparing for an exam I take every measure possible to pass it.

For those people who are scared of failing their first exam (and from the newsgroups and what I hear from people in my study group) I say dive in because there is a great feeling of relief, satisfaction, and elation to passing and exam but frankly there is more to learn from failing one. If you have never taken an exam before you get a feeling for the process, how it is, and see actual exam questions that you can go back and study what you feel you were weak on. Unlike with my first exams you get a score report which lets you know how strong or weak you were on each concept tested, which you can use to prepare for your next go-around. Take the time to examine it and hit the books. Take your time to read and re-read the sections that you are not fluent on, and then go back to the exam centre a few days or weeks later and get it right. Believe me, when you walk out of that first pass and know you are the world’s newest Microsoft Certified Professional (or MCSA or MCSE or MCDST ) you will be walking on air, and all of those fears will be well and truly behind you.


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