Achievement Unlocked!Last week I found out that I had passed the SQL Server 2008 MCM lab exam, the final hurdle to earning my MCM certification. I actually started the process over two years ago, back in 2010. What I wrote back then still very much applies for today as well, except for one thing.

The lab exam.

The lab exam is much, much different than any written exam that Microsoft has ever composed. I can’t tell you how you should prepare for the lab. I’m not even going to try to tell you what the lab was like, or what you should do, or even think that I would know enough about you to presume to know what study methods work best for you.

What I can do for you is to share what worked for me. There is a chance my methods may work for you, too. I don’t know if they will or if they won’t but I’m happy to share with you my experience. Here are the steps I took in order to pass the SQL Server MCM exams.

1. Gathered All The SQL MCM Reading Materials

When the SQL MCM program first started I had a PDF with a bunch of links to reading materials. Over time that sheet became outdated a bit so Microsoft made this page available. Section 7.7 on that page is essentially the same list of reading materials that is in the PDF. I read through these papers and blog posts as time permitted. Much of the material was familiar to me but not to the depth I felt I would need to be an MCM so I decided to do something in addition to just reading.

2. Watched The SQL MCM Readiness Videos

When the SQL MCM program changed from being the three week boot camp to the current format Microsoft had some videos put together to help folks like me prepare. I watched those videos in order to reinforce a lot of the reading material. After watching a few of the videos I started to add up the amount of time it would take me to watch them all. It was a lot longer than I wanted to spend, especially considering I didn’t have the luxury of dedicated one hour blocks of time to focus. So I wanted/needed to make certain that I used my time very efficiently and decided to take further action.

3. I Wrote Everything Down

As I watched the videos I decided to write everything down in a notebook for that topic. This way I got the most use of my time. It would take me a bit longer to get through a video, but it forced me to have a series of stops and starts which was a HUGE benefit because my whole life is a series of interruptions anyway. I don’t live in a boot camp. I don’t have the luxury of diving into the material for hours on end. I get ten to fifteen minutes at most before someone or something else needs my attention. So the idea of having something that forced me to stop every now and then worked VERY well for my MCM preparation.

I wrote everything down in two notebooks, filling them both, with nothing but MCM material. I focused on answering the question “when?” for each topic. It wasn’t enough to know something well, I felt that I needed to know it to the point that I could explain when/where/why it would be applicable. That is what gets you to the MCM level: knowing when a particular topic is applicable, and when it is not. Here’s a sample of some of the questions I would ask myself:

When would I want to use mirroring?

When would I want to use replication?

When would I want to use SQL Audit?

When would I want to use compression?

Over and over again it would go, always following this format:

When would I [want/need] to use [feature]?

But even the reading, watching, and writing were not going to be enough. Fortunately I knew what else I needed to do.

4. If You Want To Learn Something, Teach It To Others

I learned at a very early age in life that if you want to learn something then what you need to do is try to teach it to someone else. That’s where my friends Tim Chapman (blog | @chapmandew) and Jason Strate (blog | @stratesql) came to play such a pivotal role in my MCM prep. We made a list of the MCM topics and tried our best to teach them to each other. It took a long time for us to get this done, about a year.

One thing that helped us along the way was that we developed a series of presentations in order to help us teach topics to each other. The “Choose Your Own Adventure” concept was born out of our MCM prep. We would put together scenarios and figure out the best ways to troubleshoot. Then we would present these scenarios at user groups and SQL Saturdays and get feedback from the audience. This feedback helped the three of us understand where our skills were sharp and where we needed to improve.

We would then practice everything over and over again. Reading, watching, writing, and teaching were still not enough. I needed to put my hands on the tools in order to give me the training necessary to be at an MCM level. I simply cannot stress that part enough. Putting my hands on the tools, building things, having them break, and then fixing them was what I needed to do in order to be at the MCM level.

Eventually we all got to the point where we were ready for the lab. We each took the lab, and passed, while at the 2012 PASS Summit.

While I know I did a lot of this work on my own over the past few years I also know that what helped me the most in my MCM prep was having my own private study group. That and the ability for us to deliver presentations that were essentially hands-on troubleshooting labs allowed for the three of us to raise our abilities to the MCM level.

That’s what worked for me.

It may work for you, too.