Everything you need to know about Microsoft certs (and then some)

Certification guru Patrick Regan explains the new Microsoft certs and reveals which Cisco, project management and security certs are worthwhile.

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Patrick_Regan: Of course, I would recommend the Exam Cram books, but then again I've written some of them. I also know that Que is about ready to release a whole new set of books for the newer exams. I would also try to acquire RouterSim, which allows you to build a network consisting of multiple subnets, switches and routers. If you programmed all of the routers and switches properly, you should be able to ping from one side to the other. The Sybec book for the CCNA is good also.

Rocky: I felt that after graduating with my BS in Computing Technology and my knowledge that a job would be waiting for me somewhere. I know computers well. How long should it take to obtain a certification? Will the standard Microsoft certs and Cisco certs offer a good base for understanding where the Internet and corporate internets meet?

Patrick_Regan: I would expect to put in about six months for a Microsoft certification and three months for the Cisco cert. Of course, this will greatly vary from person to person. One thing that I have learned is if you take courses, take the exams shortly after the completion of the course. I have seen many students spend tons of money, go though the classes but never get certified. Then they forget what they learned in class so they have to start all over again.

Moderator-Keith: PRE-SUBMITTED QUESTION: What's the best way to come up to speed on OCS and other unified communications technologies?

Patrick_Regan: OCS is short for Office Communication Server, which replaced Live Communication Server (LCS). I think the best way is to find a good book, but I tend to be a visual learner. I find that most people are hands-on users. They like to dive right into it. Since this tends to be a more specialized service, finding a training center that offers how to install and configure OCS is an excellent way. Other people who have a good working knowledge of Microsoft products and technology may try to find a good book or research the online documents and other Websites. When you are ready to build, you will need at least one server to get it off the ground. It always seems different when you are reading about something then when you actually implement it. Of course, before you jump right in, you need to learn what it can do and how to design it so that you determine if you want to build it on one server or multiple servers.

Karra: I am graduate student. I do not have a lot of industry experience, but I have a masters in telecommunications and a bachelors in electronics. I am a certified Network Associate from Cisco. What do you think would be the right kind of job for my experience? (I am interested in working in Layer 2 and Layer 3.)

Patrick_Regan: You have a lot education and you can do something with that. You may look at project management. If you can strengthen that and combine it with your technical background and communications major, that is very powerful. Of course, when you learn about project management, you will find that there are unique challenges with IT projects because you often deal with unknowns, which are hard to plan for. Unless you are really strong in the Microsoft environment, you would look for a job to support switches and routers. What will make or break you is how well you interview and how well you show them that you really know your stuff. Expect an entry level job but within a year or so, you will be able to move right up or move on to a better job.

Rocky: Can you talk a little about the new Cisco cert, CCENT?

Patrick_Regan: Sorry, I am not up on that one.

Moderator-Julie: In a previous chat with author Wendell Odom, the new Cisco certifications were discussed in detail.

Jthatcher: Are Microsoft and Cisco certifications now targeting IT Job Roles more than their products or technologies? Will this mean they intend to target new customers beyond the traditional certification customer audience? What people, companies, or audiences do they target?

Patrick_Regan: Oh for sure. When you go for the Microsoft certification, they are touting more of the new technology and less emphasis on some of the basics. For example with the new Windows Server 2008 certification, they will be focusing on the new features of terminal services, Sharepoint and IIS 7.0 on the application platform but less emphasis on basics such as NTFS. Cisco is not as bad since they are trying to get the most from their products. While these certifications are job role focused, they are also product focused. When you take a Microsoft exam, you are expected to answer the Microsoft way in order for your answer to be considered correct. And the same can be said about Cisco.

Moderator-Keith: PRE-SUBMITTED QUESTION: What if I need to learn a few technologies for work (like everything there is to know about Exchange), but my job doesn't require me to actually get a certification. Cost isn't an issue (I can get reimbursed). Is it better to just take the spot training for technology classes that I need -- or should I go ahead and get certified?

Patrick_Regan: If your job requires you to work with Microsoft technology, you should always strive for certification. Of course, you need to keep your company happy, so you need to learn the skills that you need to learn to do your job. But if you strive to go for the Microsoft certification, it will only enhance those other skills. While some people may take classes to prepare for Microsoft Exchange, it is essential that you understand disk management, NTFS security, Active Directory and DNS, all of which are focused on in other exams/courses. The MCSE ensures that you have the basics of networking. Therefore, even if you don't actually take these other exams, it will only help you if you learn those skills. And if you plan out your exam preparation and exams, the MCSE certification will only make you more marketable within your own company or elsewhere.

Rocky: What is the progression with the MCSE exams? Is the MCP the first cert you take?

Patrick_Regan: When you take many of the exams toward the MCSE, you will get a MCP certification. Therefore, like I said in one of my recent blog posts, you will get some benefit right from the start from the MCP, including access to solutions that are not available to the general public. 

Karra: What are the various certifications needed to be an expert in Layer 3?

Patrick_Regan: The Cisco CCNA, is a good one to cover both Layer 2 and Layer 3. Then if you want to go more into the other routing problems, then go for the professional certification for routing from Cisco.

Brownmcse: What about Security+?

Patrick_Regan: I recommend the Security+ to be coupled with the CCNA or Microsoft certs. It is a nice supplement and is the one that has the second most recognition from COMPTIA after the A+. Eventually, you would like to go for the CCISP, but you need a couple years of documented experience before you can do that.

Rocky: What about getting both the MCSE and the CCNA? We were told by one instructor that the areas where the two meet might be important enough to focus on.

Patrick_Regan: They are important enough and they give you focus on both hardware (Cisco) and software (Microsoft). This allows you to support a small to medium size company, which would have a person who wears multiple hats.

Moderator-Julie: We have about 10 minutes remaining. If you have any questions for Patrick, send them in now. He'll get to as many as he can.

Rocky: How did you go about learning enough to write over 10 books? I really want to learn everything I can.

Patrick_Regan: Really, when I wrote my first book, I treated it as a research project. I knew a lot about computer and networking but still had holes in what I felt I needed to know. So when I planned my first book, I wanted to learn about those areas. I researched them and learned what I could and tried to get some hands-on experience. You need to be open and eager to learn

DavidM: Hi, Patrick, I am a network routing engineer (mostly Cisco) but as Windows provides more and more networking and security features and I see more and more Windows Networking on job specs, I would like to supplement my Cisco certs with Windows. Which Windows cert is most focused on networking and security? And are there any special Websites or books focused on Windows networking and security?

Patrick_Regan: You can go for the new 2008 certs, either enterprise (which is equivalent to the MCSE), or server. The server would be a good fit because it is only four exams and it doesn't have you focus on the workstation, you focus on network services that make the entire network work.

Moderator-Keith: PRE-SUBMITTED QUESTION: What's up with beta exams? Do they count toward credential?

Patrick_Regan: Beta exams do count toward certification if you pass. The advantage is that you often don't have to pass if you can acquire the code that allows you to take the exam for free and gives you an opportunity to get certified before anyone else. The disadvantage is that you will not get the test results immediately after taking an exam. Since they are grading how well the questions are written, they use beta testers to validate the test questions. After they get enough testers, they will throw out some questions that are judged as bad questions and then re-grade the exams. They will then release the exam results. If you pass, you get credit for that exam and any certifications related to that exam. By the way, the MCP Flash newsletter that is available to MCPs will let you know when some beta exams are available.

Meb: Is there a single place where one can find a listing of all of these certifications and what technologies/products they cover? Say a directory of some kind?

Patrick_Regan: Look at CramSession. I find it very helpful.

Servergal: Are there any Linux certs that are worthwhile?

Patrick_Regan: The Red Hat Engineer cert is always a good one and would be equivalent to the MCSE for Microsoft. There are a couple other ones but Red Hat still has the biggest share of the market.

Karra: Do you recommend CCVP over the CCNP?

Patrick_Regan: I am not up on the CCVP, but any professional certification is worth having from Cisco. CCNP focuses on switches and routers.

Apeterson: Doesn't the CISSP require five years now of security experience?

Patrick_Regan: Yes, something like that. That is why I recommend taking the Security+ until you get that experience.

lyr9144: This may be a tad off topic -- but thoughts on the value of project management certs? I've read (recently here on NW and elsewhere) they are in vogue, and that the demand is waning for hardware- and software-oriented certifications.

Patrick_Regan: The PMI is the one to go for. It is the granddaddy of them all and the only one that I know that is worth having. However, it also requires a certain amount of documented experience.

Rocky: I noticed the breadth of topics of the books you authored. Once you know the technology is it hard to keep all the info both separate and cohesive at the same time?

Patrick_Regan: It is a challenge and sometimes I look back and need to take a double-look at what I have written. I am constantly rewriting. It is often like a doing jigsaw puzzle, putting the pieces together.

Rocky: I noticed you haven't mentioned video training, yet. What's your opinion?

Patrick_Regan: Video training is good as long as you get someone who knows what they are doing from a visual standpoint.

Karra: Are there any certifications for network management?

Patrick_Regan: None that stick out. Cisco has a simple technology one aimed at management, but nothing else that I know.

BartKnight: What are the trickiest Microsoft lab portions of any certification and what's the secret to doing those portions well?

Patrick_Regan: People see the Microsoft lab portion as an opportunity to show that you actually know how to use and configure the software component being tested. As long as you have worked with the technology, you will most likely breeze through the lab portion questions. However, if you have not dealt with software component, you can find this a huge time sync which may prevent you from answering later questions in the exam if you run out of time. One of the biggest tips to give for these types of questions is to follow exactly what they are asking for, do no less, do no more, since the end result is being graded and if the end result does not match the correct answer, you get it wrong.

TomKat24: What's up with Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist? Is that a cert that is worth the bother?

Patrick_Regan: The Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (MCTS) is the replacement for the Microsoft Product Specialist. While you go for the more advanced certification such as the Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP), the MCTS will give you some benefits, including access to search the Microsoft Product Support Knowledge Base that is not available to the general public. And it gets you automatically subscribed to MCP Flash. This monthly newsletter announces program updates; training, exam, and credential availability and retirements; special offers for MCPs; and some job-hunting "bells-and-whistles". Also some of the MCTS certs such as Exchange, SQL, SharePoint and CRM can make you stand out from others.

RandyBear: Of all the certifications you've earned in your own career, what was the hardest and why?

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