How it began
Sometimes people ask me how I fulfill my Microsoft studies. Within this article I will attempt to explain how it works for me and probably could work for you as well.

When I start explaining that certification is very important most people start yelling that experience is even better. I can only partly agree with that, in my opinion at least both skills are required. You start building experience when the technology is adopted in the company you’re working in. Of course you can fulfill a proof of concept on some virtual machines at your SOHO, but the difficulties and psychological pressure are always higher when real users are involved.

Besides that, real users do things you’re not expecting them to do and in most organizations framework all sorts of components are installed which can influence the behavior of a system. So the first time you come across the new technology is when it’s adopted by your company, which means that you’ll have to wait for the release of at least the first service pack. In those cases the technology is at least 6 month old, but one or two years will be more common.

The experience-only persons will, technologically seen, always run behind the facts. But to be honest; only doing exams does not make you a Subject Matter Expert, SME, as well. Especially since the appearance of brain-dump products which make passing an exam rather easy. But even though a brain-dump can contain hundreds of questions, it doesn’t mean that the obtained knowledge can be used in practice.

Several of the people I meet state that ‘due to their experience’ it is unnecessary to fulfill an exam. My answer is always the same; ‘I have to study hard for it, but if you’re so good, simply take the exam’. None of them disappointed me by paying me a visit explaining that they just passed, so there goes another myth.

In my opinion the best direction to be able to pass an exam is read a book and get as much hands-on as possible, even if this can only be fulfilled in your SOHO. The things which went wrong in my own SOHO taught me a lot. Personally, I seldom start using a product during its beta phase. Most beta versions are time bombed and I’m just too lazy removing the product and reinstall the next beta. In particular when it is a beta of an Operating System, this can take quite some time and the result is not always as expected. Again, this is just my personal opinion, each deployment is experience and you will learn of it. On the other hand; I do like reading beta whitepapers and try to make an understanding of what I can expect in the near future. And more than once; I do not always understand the actual benefit of some of the new features, but the information is parked in my head were it can settle down so that I can thing it over for a while.

Getting started
I always start by reading a book. Be sure that the book is marked as a Self-Paced Study book. Self-Paced Study books usually contain Labs to help you getting some hands-on and CD/DVDs with the product you’re dealing with. In average I fulfill 40% of the Labs shown in the book.

When your company has a subscription for TechNet, you can download and try the product as soon as it’s on the market. This will give you a head start prior that course material is available.

You’re not ready after reading the book and doing some Labs. You will definitely fail the exam after just reading the book. Within most Self-Paced Books referrals to white-papers are shown, be sure to read those. I understand that you have to read at least another 500 pages (when you’re lucky), but the incentive is to obtain knowledge, not to simply pass an exam.

When you’re fulfilling a track for MCSE or MCPD, you’ll have to take some exams prior obtaining the desired title. While doing these exams you actually create the Curve of Gates shown here:
Curve of Gates
Although I called it the Curve of Gates, it could also be called the Curve of VMware, the Curve of Citrix or any other product, but since I’m used doing Microsoft most of the time I’ve called it the Curve of Gates. Furthermore, the name attracts the reader’s attention in a positive way.

Both your knowledge and seniority will grow during the period you read and prepare for examination. In the shown graph the preparation for four exams is shown, which in practice could take a time span of one year.

The solid curved line is the knowledge you obtain during your study. As you can see you’ll have to prepare and peak for each exam and try to obtain more knowledge than possibly required. After each exam you knowledge of the product will decrease, yes, you will forget details you’ve just learned. But when you start in time with the next exam your knowledge and seniority will increase again.

The dashed line called U is the upper limit and is the knowledge required to be able to take an exam. The dotted E line is the level of people which lean on experience only. As you can see, it is not always sufficient to have experience only to pass an exam. The L line shows the people who worked with a product one and are not willing to invest any time in examination or additional hands-on experience. These are the colleagues with a strong opinion based on knowledge they have heard from others.

I hope you’ll understand that my learning method is not bullet-proof, but as stated before it works for me, perhaps it works for you as well. And yes I did not passed each exam and once, I had to take some more than once as well. The strong bend downwards in the curve is when we retire, have a nice learning!