IT Career JumpStart

May 20, 2009  7:07 PM

IT Certs on a Song…or a Shoestring

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

My favorite recipe for preparing for an IT certification goes something like this:

1. Purchase one (or at most two) big fat study guides on your exam topic (I often call these books “doorstops” for a very good reason). Usual cost: $50 a pop, cheaper if you can buy used via Amazon, HalfPrice, and so forth.

2. Purchase an Exam Cram on the same exam topic. Usual cost $20-30.

3. Purchase a good set of practice tests from a reputable well-known vendor such as Boson, Transcender, and so forth. Costs vary by topic from $70 to $150, sometimes more.

4. Beg, borrow, steal, or build a test lab to practice your skills to prepare for the exam. You can spend anywhere from $0 to $1,000 on such gear, but generally costs will be in line with the cost/value of the cert involved.

5. Sign up for the exam of choice, preferably with some kind of discount (search for “discount voucher” or “discount exam voucher” online using the exam ID or some other unique string to identify the cert involved). These days, most cert exams go for $125 and up.

6. Study like heck, practice like the dickens, and squeeze ever iota of info out of your practice tests. Then, take the exam and pass on the first try (if you’re lucky; if possible always look for a Second Shot style deal where the cost of the exam includes a free retake if you don’t pass on the first try).

On the other hand, if you want to see some more good information on exam prep, check out my old tried-and-true 25 Exam Prep Tips at, or Eric Geier’s great little article “IT Certifications on a Shoestring Budget.” Either way, you can’t go wrong.

May 14, 2009  5:05 PM

Win 7 Beta Exam Item (Almost) Escapes My Notice

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Thanks to Emmett Dulaney at, I read this morning that MS has exam 71-680: Configuring Windows 7 in beta from May 5 until May 18 (this coming Monday). Though the period is almost over and seats are probably no longer available–if you’re hot to trot, it’s still not too late to try–I find all kins of interesting implications in this ongoing but low-key event. Here’s what I think this indicates about the next Windows version and release:

  • As the recently-released RC version also indicates, Windows 7 is now feature complete. Though items may get removed from what shows up in late October (if the rumors are true about the planned release date, that’s actually October 23), nothing new will be added.
  • MS feels pretty confident that this platform is going to attract lots of interest and participation. This is the earliest I can ever recall seeing a basic OS exam go into beta. Even given a late October release, this is six months in advance. I’m tempted to speculate that Win7 may ship even earlier than the rumors currently date the release, just because this is so darn early. For an interesting description of this exam, see Lukas Beeler’s blog on this subject.
  • Some focus on new technologies includes Branch Cache, DirectAccess, VPN support, UFD-based installation, user state migration tool and Windows EasyTransfer, plus OS imaging, deployment strategies, and virtual Hard Disks (VHDs). MS is trying to make sure those responsible for Windows 7 users and platforms really know how to make the most of its capabilities.

I take heart from this phenomenon, and also from my own recent extensive experiences with this OS. After the Vista debacle, it really does look like Microsoft is once again trying to deliver a decent, usable OS. Let’s hope they succeed in meeting these relatively modest aims! I’m also guessing this exam will become available within 30 days of whenever Windows 7 goes live, so it’s probably not too early to start prepping and learning right now.

May 11, 2009  5:21 PM

MS Certification Profusion Leads to Confusion?

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

In the latest round of articles posted at one of my favorite IT Certification Websites,, guest author and full-time trainer Brian Nelson raises some interesting issues about the latest crop of MS credentials, especially the many different flavors of MCTS and MCITP certifications that Microsoft now makes available (with many more to come, too, as soon as Windows 7 goes commercial). Nelson’s basic points might be summarized as follows:

  • Microsoft’s decisions to create an MCTS-MCITP-MCM-MS Architect ladder creates too many rungs, with too many possibilities at the lower rungs.
  • Hiring managers seem confused about the relative weight and merit of these credentials based on a survey of “mentions by name” at
  • Microsoft has been forced to up the ante on its exams, question coverage, levels of difficulty, currency, and validity since the original MCSE came out, but too many people earn MS credentials without really mastering the associated subject matter. This comes largely thanks to multiple-choice exams, which are too easily documented online and reduced to rote memorization to ensure a passing grade.

All of this leads him to conclude that current MS credentials are somewhat debased, and that they’re not worth anywhere near what they used to be in the marketplace, thanks to the implications of the preceding summary points.

FWIW, I tend to agree with this analysis, but don’t think the situation is quite as dire as he paints it to be. In recent conversations with MS Learning I’ve also learned that they’re introducing more simulation- and hands-on based forms of testing, which work much better to assess real skills and knowledge than do multiple choice exam questions. That said, Microsoft’s emphasis on job roles and related credentials works very well for those who understand IT, job roles, and the technologies to which they pertain, and not so well for those who don’t–which probably does include hiring managers at a great many small and medium sized businesses where IT is primarily a necessary evil, rather than an important means to realizing business goals.

What do you think? Are MS certs as worthy as they used to be? Does this mean they’re becoming worthless? As with so many other grey areas in life, I think the truth is somewhere inbetween “moderate worth” and “worthless,” but certainly not all the way down at the bitter end of that spectrum.

May 9, 2009  2:37 PM

Good news/bad news on unemployment

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Yesterday’s unemployment figures from the BLS and the most recent unemployment claims numbers tell a “good news/bad news” story about the job market. Actually it’s really more of a “bad news/good news” tale, because the bad news is that unemployment has hit a 26-year high of 8.9 percent (the last time we visited this spot on the charts was in 1983), while the good news is only that job loss claims have dropped from numbers in the 600,000-plus range to 539,000 for April. Because analysts had been expecting numbers as high as 620,000 for April, this is an interesting and possibly significant downward swing. Apparently, the US Government played a role in this dip: the hriing of temps to work for the US Census for 2010 was a factor in this downturn. For all the details check out the latest “Employment Situation Summary” from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

As usual Table B-1: Employment on nonfarm payrolls by industry sector and selected industry detail sheds a little more light on recent trends in IT. The information category shows jobs down in April by a modest 17,000, with only a minimal loss of 800 jobs in the “Other information services” sub-category under that heading. Professional and business services also show relatively modest job losses in the areas most likely connected with IT, including a modest uptick of 1,600 jobs in the “Management and technical consulting services” sub-category.

It’s tempting to find cause for optimism in even the slightest reversal of free-fall in employment and economic numbers. But as Scott Simon said on NPR this morning (I’m paraphrasing): “We can’t really say things are improving, just that they’re not getting worse as quickly as they were before.” If we can take some cheer from a situation that’s stopped deteriorating as quickly as it has been, I think I’ll wait to break out the champagne and canapes for when the numbers actually start to appear on the positive side of the ledger in more than one or two small sub-categories. But even then, I find myself wondering if we’re not finally on the way back up?

May 6, 2009  1:52 PM

Bite Into These Free Windows 7 “Learning Snacks”

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

As I cruised through the MS Learning site this mornign, I noticed a promo teaser for Windows 7 training. Clicking on their “You be the expert” link, I found myself on a page that included a heading that reads “Free Learning Snacks around key Windows 7 capabilities.” Essentially, these are animated learning modules built around Microsoft Silverlight, through a program somewhat humorously entitled “Silverlight Snack Player.”  This includes nice animations of concepts and processes with a professional voiceover that goes PowerPoint one more by linking on screen image/animation changes directly to the timing and coverage of the voice-over material. Pretty neat stuff, and only seldom do these materials descend into pure marketing drivel. Most of these modules run between five and six minutes in length, so none is terribly time-consuming.

The following topics are currently available for your snacking pleasure:

Windows 7 New Features
Windows 7 for IT Pros: Troubleshooting Platform in Windows 7
Windows 7 for IT Pros: Using the DISM tool for Servicing Windows 7 Images
Windows 7 for IT Pros: Implementing UAC in Windows 7
Windows 7: Desktop Experience in Windows 7
Windows 7: Introducing BitLocker and AppLocker in Windows 7
Windows 7: Setting up a Home Network

For those interested in digging into a bit of interesting Windows 7 information, one or more of these things might be just the thing to help you sate your appetite. You should find them at least mildly diverting, and perhaps even useful.

May 4, 2009  3:27 PM

Erik Eckel Opines on “10 Best IT Certifications”

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

In digging through some Microsoft PR materials recently, I came across mention of a Top 10 IT certification list that Erik Eckel put together for TechRepublic, later reprinted by big-time training company Global Knowledge. Though it’s dated December 12, 2008 it still provides some interesting information for consideration, and some fodder for ongoing debate. I’m not quite sure that I fully understand his selection criteria which he describes as follows “While this list may not include the 10 best accreditations for you, it does catalog 10 IT certifications that possess significant value for a wide range of technology professionals.”

Here’s his list as ranked at TechRepublic in straight numerical order:

  1. MCITP (Microsoft Certified IT Professional), with specific mention of database developer, database administrator, enterprise messaging administrator, and server asministrator
  2. MCTS (Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist), with specific mention of SQL Server business intelligence, database creation, or SQL server administration
  3. CompTIA Security+, with an observation that “security continues to be a critical topic”
  4. MCPD (Microsoft Certified Professional Developer) with specific mention of the Windows Developer 3.5, ASP.NET Developer 3.5, and Enterprise Applications Developer 3.5 tracks
  5. CCNA (Cisco Certified Network Associate), with an emphasis on increasing dependence on remote access technologies, even at smaller companies
  6. Comptia A+, iwth an emphasis on “proven support expertise” in the areas of desktop installation, problem diagnosis, preventive maintenance, and computer/network troubleshooting.
  7. PMP (Project Management Professional) with an emphasis on “job skills and knowledge required to plan, execute, budget, and lead a technology project”
  8. MCSE/MCSA (Microsoft Certified System Engineer/Administrator) represent Microsoft’s previous take on basic admin (MCTS) and professional (MCITP) certs, and enjoy amazing certficiation population numbers–as Eckel observes “…these certifications tend to indicate holders that have been working within the technology field for a long time.”
  9. CISSP (Certified Information Systems Security Professional) receives mention for “…building a respected, vendor-neutral security certification,” that’s also accredited by ANSI.
  10. CompTIA Linux+ get a nod because “…the open source alternative is an important platform…”

Given these choices, it’s no wonder that Microsoft is promoting this list: they’ve garnered 4 out of 10 (really 5 out of 11) choices therein. CompTIA might also take cheer as well from the inclusion of Network+, Security+, and A+ (of which Network+ and A+ are by far its most popular credentials). And certainly, all the other elements in the list–CCNA, PMP, and CISSP–are all immensely popular and highly sought-after credentials as well.

Though Eckel’s selection criteria and methods aren’t entirely clear, this blog makes me wish that would revive its Top 10 lists, which used to be an interesting marker between one year and the next for IT professionals. At  least their list came from a survey of thousands of active IT participants, an could in some sense be argued as representative of collective interests. Funny how those lists of yore don’t differ too much from Eckel’s list, either.

I wouldn’t have any arguments with this list, in fact, if it used the word “Popular” instead of “Best” to describe its constituents, because there’s almost no argument about any of these on a pure numbers basis. But the definition of best is one that’s fraught with peril, and certainly subject to lots of differing interpretations. While he does give the CCIE passing mention in his CCNA item, I’d be inclined to put it in any Top 10 Best I were to put together,  and I’d be more inclined to pick rather more senior-level credentials rather than entry-levels ones like the CompTIA items, MCTS, and CCNA. But that’s my “best” interpretation showing. What’s yours?

April 29, 2009  4:03 PM

Some Faint Glimmers of Hope?

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Just over a month ago (March 23), I wrote a blog entitled “It’s COLD out there/here.” Therein I reported on my own attempts to find full-time, permanent employment by saying that responses were few and far between — a scant handful from over two dozen direct and online applications — and of such few as did present themselves for consideration, most offers were way below what I would be willing to consider, let alone accept. Seemed like a perfect opportunity to toss around some doom and gloom, so that’s just what I did.

In the past month, some interesting things have started happening:

  1. I’ve been contacted by several recruiters and hiring managers, all from or representing reputable mid-sized to large companies. Nobody’s tried to low-ball me on salaries or rates, either, much to my extreme surprise.
  2. My volume of freelance work is starting to pick up appreciably all of a sudden. In the past 30 days, I’ve kicked off nearly half-a-dozen new projects, and have brought four significant new customers online. The pace of work from existing customers is picking up dramatically, too, and I’ve had several calls recently from editors with whom I’d stopped working for a while to let me know that new work is (or could be) in the pipeline.
  3. There’s enough going on, in fact, that I’ve re-hired one of my former co-workers and associates to act as a full-time project manager to help me keep things flowing and under control. I’ve learned the hard way that without somebody to keep an eye on deadlines, deliverables, and quality, when the pace of work gets really frenetic far too much can go by the wayside, if not left entirely behind in the rush and crush.

Coupled with a recent uptick in global markets, improved consumer confidence levels, and the onset of the influx of government stimulus spending, I’m strongly tempted to observe that things show some signs of improvement. I still think it’s too early to talk about a turnaround or upward trends in employment, markets, and business, but it’s very nice to see some positive indicators popping up in my immediate neighborhood.

I can only hope my friends and colleagues in IT are seeing similar signs in their professional neighborhoods and situations as well. If so, please share those observations by commenting on this blog post; if not, share your impressions and observations to the contrary instead. At this tentative stage of the game, I’m all ears, in full-blown “listening mode” if not outright “hoping for the best mode!” If you have some light to shed on these topics, please beam some my way…

April 27, 2009  4:30 PM

MCPBACK gets you your next MCP exam for $25

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Microsoft MCP exams — which include any and all exams that count toward MCTS, MCITP, and MCPD — usually cost $125 a pop. Right now, if you sign up for any MCP that leads to one of those three credentials, you can get it for a mere $25. But you have to act fast: this offer extends only to the first 4,000 individuals who seek to exercise this offer. The only qualification is that you must have taken your most recent certification exam (if any) prior to January 1, 2007. My last one was in 2001, when I took the Windows 2000 installing and configuring exam, so I immediately jumped on this offer for exam 70-620 “Installing and Configuring Windows Vista.”

Here’s how to exercise this offer for yourself (and as far as I can tell,  the SecondShot promo does NOT apply, but at $25, who cares?):

  1. Log into
  2. If you don’t already have an account, register to create one
  3. Sign up for the MCP exam of your choice
  4. Include the promotion code MCPBACK as you work through the payment process

If you’re within the first 4,000 folks to do this, you’ll be able to take an exam for only $25. Between this and the $35 collection for Installing and Configuring Vista available through the Microsoft “SecondShot” program I’m shooting for an MCTS on Vista in late May, 2009, for a whopping $60. Anybody with the luck and/or hustle to qualify for these programs (act fast!!!) can do likewise.

As the old saying goes: “This is too good a deal to pass up.” I’ve already said, “Act fast!” but I’ll say it again just so you don’t forget. See you in the testing center soon!

April 24, 2009  5:08 PM

Is Now the Time to Buy a CertPack Deal?

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

In handling a series of reader questions recently here on the ITKE, somebody raised the question of whether or not it was worth spending $15,000 to sign up for a combination cert training package that would help him acquire A+, Network+, MCP, and MCSA certification. This is an interesting question for all kinds of reasons that I’d like to explore. But first the answer is: “It depends on who’s paying. If somebody else is footing the bill, it may be worthwhile. If you must pay for this out of your own pocket, or borrow money to cover those costs, perhaps not.”

Now for some cost analysis, and then some explanations:

  • As I explained waaaay back in 2002, an MCSA is going to cost you about $1,100 to acquire based on minimal and actual costs for self-study including the exams themselves ($125 x 4 = $500 ), Exam Crams ($30 x 4 = $120), full-length study guides ($50 x 4 = $200), and practice tests ($70 x 4 = $280). BTW, obtaining the MCSA gets you an MCP when you pass the first exam in the series, so mentioning the MCP is a little misleading: you must be an MCP to become an MCSA in any case.
  • If you shop for exam vouchers carefully, you can find discounts on Network+ costs, with a low of about $215 (see for the latest deals). Add in the Exam Cram ($30), Study Guide ($50), and a practice exam ($70) for a total of $365 for self-study costs.
  • Ditto above for A+, and you can find a low of about $300 for both of the A+ exams. Add two each Exam Crams ($60), Study Guides ($100), and practice exams ($140) for a total of $600 for self-study costs.
  • Total self-study budget: $2,065 vs. package price of $15,000. Need I say any more?

Now some explanations, thoughts, and ideas:

  • Why go after the MCSA when you should be thinking MCITP for the latest Windows client and server versions, plus platform technologies, services, and so forth, anyway. Chances are good the MCSA will disappear no later than 2012 anyway. Why spend that kind of cash on a soon-to-be-obsolete credential?
  • Network+ and A+ are strictly entry level technician certs. They might get you into a support tech or help desk “starter job,” but they won’t get you much further than that. If you’re expecting a significant return on your training/cert investments, these are just the first elements in what should be a much longer sequence of increasingly serious (and higher-paying) credentials.
  • If you really want to get a sequence going, you’d want to think about various MCITP credentials, and possibly also Cisco certifications in the CCENT, CCNA, and professional (CCNP, CCDP, CCVP, CCSP) families. Cisco exams cost $125 (two-step CCNA process) or $250 (one-step CCNA and most other non-CCIE exams) each, and you can take 1 (640-802) or 2 (640-822 which also gets you a CCENT, and 640-816) to earn the CCNA. Most of the Cisco professional certs require 4 exams at $250 each to earn, but are highly regarded in the marketplace.

My final take on this situation is that only those with money to burn, or other people’s money to spend, should be considering a “full boat classroom ride to certification.” For everybody else, the economics of self-study are still too compelling to overlook. Still the very best bang for your certification bucks around!

April 20, 2009  2:59 PM

Layoffs Hit Close to Home

Ed Tittel Ed Tittel Profile: Ed Tittel

Given that I live in Round Rock, TX, just 6.37 miles from Dell Computer galactic headquarters at 1 Dell Way 78682, I hope it comes as no surprise that many of my neighbors work for that company. In fact, of the 21 houses in my immediate block, at least 9 of those households number (or numbered until recently) one or more Dell employees among its members.

Because my Dad came to visit for the weekend, and my Mom (who’s now a resident in an assisted care facility) asked for a photo of my wife, my son, myself, and the old man by phone yesterday afternoon, I had to get some outside help to take that photo to meet her request. As I stepped outside into the front yard, I ran into my next door neighbor–let’s call him Tom–and asked for his help in making the shot. He not only obliged, but also told me in passing while we were waiting for the other folks to assemble that he’d been laid off at Dell last Thursday (April 16). To the best of my knowledge, he’s the closest co-resident around here to get the axe at Dell. His job had been to orchestrate factory floor and order logistics to make sure that large orders were properly scheduled, parts ordered for timely delivery, and that builds met both specification and quality requirements before being shipped to their (volume) buyers.

When I asked him what he planned to do, he said: “I’m going to take a couple of weeks off, then I’ll start looking for another job” (fortunately, his wife remains gainfully employed so I guess it’s not an immediate crisis). When I asked him what kind of severance package he got he told me it was “about four months pay, plus two months COBRA and two months of outplacement assistance.” From those remarks, and knowing as many current and former Dell employees as I do, I’m guessing further that he had between 5 and 10 years with the company.

When I asked him how he felt about it, he provided an interesting and illuminating response: “I’d been thinking about leaving for some time anyway, and hadn’t been completely happy there, so I guess this will be for the good in the long run.” To me, this shows a healthy response to a difficult and painful situation: first, he recognizes that he had issues with his previous situation and was already thinking about making changes on his own, and second, he’s looking more forward toward what lies ahead, rather than brooding or worrying about what has already happened and probably can’t be undone.

I also have to applaud his decision to take some time to relax and regain his bearings before jumping right into the job hunt. This will probably give him a chance to regain his equilibrium and muster some enthusiasm for the research, interviews, and personal networking activities that await him. While I certainly wouldn’t wish anybody else into Tom’s shoes, I must commend him for a healthy and well-considered reaction to his situation. I’d recommend a similar approach — and outlook — to anybody else who does find him- or herself in those same shoes, particularly if a severance package or pay in lieu of notice makes taking a break both possible and affordable.

Got your own layoff story to tell? Share it with me through the contact form on my Web page at, and I may just share it with the readers of this blog. And just as my sympathies and best wishes go out to Tom, so also do they go out to all of us IT professionals who have to surmount this bump in the road of gainful employment.

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