Tales from Boot Camp

Technology training boot camps aren't what they used to be. No longer targeted to the technologically naive, they now shoot for the well-trained IT veteran, with enough prerequisites to almost guarantee your success.

Remember those fast-track training courses that promised to turn housewives into techies? Well, LaTrina Wilson isn't exactly a housewife. But a couple of years ago, she changed careers from engineering to Y2K programmer/trainer after one such four-week class at Complete Business Solutions Inc. (CBSI), an information technology consulting firm in Farmington Hills, Mich.

Did I mention that she already had a bachelor's degree in computer science?

It seems all those two-week certifications come with unprinted disclaimers.

Yes, they'll get you certified, but only if you fulfill certain prerequisites that will guarantee course success.

As a result, these instant techie "boot camps" aren't what they started out to be. None of them are molding nontechs into techs. Instead, all those Microsoft, Cisco, Novell and PC troubleshooting boot camps have become training grounds for the already trained.

At the very least, an "advanced PC troubleshooting course" may offer nontechs (with a prerequisite in hardware installation) the "foundations for other classes," says one boot camp call center agent.

"You would need other things in addition to these classes to get your foot in the door of a technology job," he acknowledges. "You will need certifications, college courses, more tech classes."

Wave Technologies International Inc. in St. Louis, Career Blazers Inc. in New York, Learning Tree International Inc. in Los Angeles and CompuMaster Inc. in Acton, Mass., all require pretty much the same thing: "prior technology experience, foundational courses, maybe even a two-year degree," he says.

So what are these boot camps offering? Windows NT boot camps promise experienced NT workers their certifications. Cisco boot camps offer the same for networkers with prior experience. And Novell - pretty much the same. In that sense, they are living up to their claims like, "Get NT-certified in 10 days."

"For the person with no experience, boot camps are worthless," says David Casteel, an IT systems administrator and graduate of NT School in Clearwater, Fla. "There was this guy who went to one of these nine-month college courses in the Microsoft track, and networking and then he went to NT School to get certified. He failed."

But failure rates are low, mostly because boot camps screen candidates to assure higher success rates, according to David Kaufman, president of NT School. The school generally takes only students with three years of experience in network engineering. Some 95% of NT School students fit this demographic.

However, for that other 5%, NT School has been known to take on lesser qualifications - "someone who understands NetWare and has been working in the field for two years. But we also insist that, before they come here, they study from the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer [MCSE] core requirements study kit," he explains. "That's for people who are marginal."

That's because these two- to four-week boot camps pack in a ton of material. NT School's program covers the entire NT product line - workstations, NT server in the enterprise, TCP/IP, Internet Information Server 4 and networking essentials - all in 14 consecutive days. Students attend class, usually for approximately 10 hours per day, and then study for tests on each subject. They can't go onto the next subject in that course until they pass a test on the previous one.

"It's a two-week course covering six subjects, so you're spending approximately two days on each topic, then cramming for tests and starting the next area of study. It's grueling," says Casteel, who had seven years of experience in technology and four and a half years working on NT before taking his MCSE course at NT School last year.

Since these courses are intensive, it's important to ask yourself what value they will really offer you in new experience. Wilson says she found the Cobol courses at CBSI to be invaluable. Not only did she learn enough to train others, but she also earned her Cobol programming certificate through the Institute of Certification and Computing Professionals. She's since taken some Java and JavaScript courses CBSI recently began offering.

And ask yourself what value these boot camps will add to your résumé. Most hiring managers consider boot camps an adjunct to real-world experience (and hopefully formal schooling), according to Greg Scileppi, executive director of RHI Consulting Inc., a Menlo Park, Calif.-based job placement and temporary staffing firm.

"Experience and formal education make much more impact on hiring decisions," Scileppi says. But if the experience is there, the boot camp certifications certainly do add value, he adds.

And because boot camp training is being used by the already experienced, employers don't see boot camps as filling the IT workforce shortage anytime soon.

"This doesn't really help the situation much because the whole premise of retraining is to take unskilled workers or workers with skill gaps, teach them something new and try to fill openings," says Mike Petosa, chief technology officer at IT job placement firm Pencom Systems Inc. in New York. "With our national unemployment level down below the noise level and a negative growth in the IT worker population, all such training seems to be doing is helping IT professionals that are already happily employed gain the skills to move around, or keep them up-to-date with new technologies."

If you are thinking of taking a certification boot camp, it pays to do your homework the way John Maher did. Not only do prices vary between $4,000 and $8,000 (the average NT certification camp costs around $6,000), but so does quality.

Maher, a systems engineer at a large telecommunications company, should know.

He attended his first Windows NT boot camp in January of 1998. "It was very poor," he says. He ended up taking another one a year later.

Before making a decision, check Web sites for prerequisites. Then ask what type of screening the schools do. And check references before making a decision.

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While most boot camps can't take homemakers and give them an instant career change, there are some that say they can at least give them a start in technology, providing the job isn't too well, technical.

Between 1997 and 1998, for example, CBSI trained 25 nonskilled workers in basic Y2K code-cleaning and paid them $30,000 to $45,000 per year after training. Of course, even these students needed to pass an "aptitude test" before taking the course. Then, after the four-week boot camp, "they couldn't get into a lot of detail, but they could do basic year 2000 changes," says Raj Vattikuti, president and chief operating officer at CBSI.

LaTrina Wilson, one of CBSI's students, adds, "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to do basic Y2K code fixes."

Now, the e-commerce boom is creating a new demand for Web development experts.

So keep an eye out for Java scripting and other such boot camps, says Vattikuti. (After all, Vattikuti needs something to do with all those Y2K programmers now out of work.)"For some jobs, you can take nontechnology people - those creative in the e-commerce world - and they can learn to duplicate and code screens," Vattikuti explains. "They can learn a very simple scripting language like HTML so they don't have to do much programming or business logic."

Could you imagine courses like "Instant Java" or "HTML on the Spot"?

Boot Camp Web Sites

ASAP (www.asap-computer.com)

MCSE certification

Career Blazers (www.careerblazers.com)

Offers employer-based training and certifications, mainly CNE (Certified NetWare Engineer), Novell, PC SpecialistCompuMaster (www.compumaster.net)Troubleshooting PCsGlobal Knowledge Americas(www.globalknowledge.com)A+, Nortel Networks, Cisco, Microsoft, TCP/IP, Web and moreLearning Tree (www.learningtree.com)Windows NT, 2000 certifications, C++, Java, PowerBuilder, software development, client/server classesNT School (www.ntschool.com)MCSE and, soon, basic MicrosoftWave Technologies International (www.wavetech.com)Microsoft Certified System DeveloperRadcliff is a freelance writer in Northern California.

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