Microsoft Certified Masters: What Problem Were They Trying To Solve?


06 Sep Microsoft Certified Masters: What Problem Were They Trying To Solve?

mcmI awoke last Saturday morning to see some emails describing a change to the Microsoft Certified Master’s program. I didn’t pay them much mind because I knew the program was changing slightly. They had already played the game of alphabet soup recently by calling us MCSM instead of MCM so I assumed this email was trying to communicate something similar with regards to specific exams.

Here’s the first paragraph of the email I received:

We are contacting you to let you know we are making a change to the Microsoft Certified Master, Microsoft Certified Solutions Master, and Microsoft Certified Architect certifications. As technology changes so do Microsoft certifications and as such, we are continuing to evolve the Microsoft certification program. Microsoft will no longer offer Masters and Architect level training rotations and will be retiring the Masters level certification exams as of October 1, 2013. The IT industry is changing rapidly and we will continue to evaluate the certification and training needs of the industry to determine if there’s a different certification needed for the pinnacle of our program.

Looking back it would seem the message was pretty clear, but I missed it completely. It was only after seeing a flood of emails that the full implications became clear. It’s closing time.

The email went on to tell me that I was still full of awesome, and would continue to be awesome for the remainder of all time:

As a Microsoft Certified Master, Microsoft Certified Solutions Master, or Microsoft Certified Architect, you have earned one of the highest certifications available through the Microsoft Certification program. Although individuals will no longer be able to earn these certifications, you will continue to hold the credential and you will not be required to recertify your credential in the future. You will continue to have access to the logos through the MCP site, and your certifications will continue to show in the appropriate section of your transcript, according to Microsoft technology retirement dates. If you are a Charter Member, you will continue to hold the Charter Member designation on your transcript.

So, there you have it. No need to worry about upgrade exams. I get access to all the cool logos. My official transcript will continue to say MCM, and in this case MCSM Charter Member as well.

I’ve seen a lot written about the shutting down of the Master’s programs since the email arrived early Saturday morning. Yes, it was shitty for Microsoft to send an email late on a Friday night before a long holiday weekend. Yes, the only official explanation given seems to be full of misleading information. Yes, we all feel as if we were dumped via a text message.

Here’s the question that no one is asking: What problem was the MCM program trying to solve?

Internal Microsoft Employee training

I asked this question to Joe Sack (blog | @josephsack) earlier this week. Joe worked at Microsoft and helped get the MCM program as we know it today started. Joe explained to me that the early beginnings were a way for Microsoft to identify internal employees that were highly qualified. This helped Microsoft as they needed to deploy people to help their customers. This makes complete sense to me as something any software company would want. When your biggest customers need help, and fast, you want to make certain you have experts on staff to provide a reliable level of support.

External Training

Over time the program expanded to include external people as well. This was done in an effort to combat the perception in the industry that there were many more experts for other platforms (hello, Oracle!). The decision was made to split the program in two, MCM and MCA, and to go forth and recruit external folks to earn the certifications. This is also the time when I first started talking to Joe about earning my MCM, around some point in 2008.

So the original goal, internal training, had now been morphed slightly into something a little bit bigger. Unfortunately what they had built was not going to scale to the levels that anyone wanted.

Joe helped the program transition to Microsoft Learning (MSL) in an effort to get it to scale. He left Microsoft and I never got my chance to take part in the three week boot camp on campus. It took me four more years before I got around to earning my MCM, but I did it last year at the PASS Summit.

So, Why Was It Cancelled?

The only hint of an explanation as to why the program was suddenly cancelled last week had two parts. First there was mention of the barriers to entry. The exam itself was not something that just anyone could take. It cost a considerable sum of money and you had to go to designated testing centers. That meant many folks had to spend an extra amount of money taking long trips to get to a testing center.

The other item mentioned was the low percentage of certified professionals that had achieved the MCM to date, about 0.08% in total. My guess is those two items are related to some degree. After all, if there are barriers to entry then you are likely to see lower overall numbers, right?

So, What Problem Was Microsoft Learning Trying To Solve?

I’m not certain that the goals for MSL were the same as the original goals of the program. It would seem things got shifted along the way. Right now it seems to me as if MSL was trying to create a niche product that was going to be earned by tens of thousands. That would be like McDonald’s perfecting the recipe for a veggie lettuce wrap and expecting it to sell like Big Macs.

The MCM isn’t a Big Mac. It’s not meant for everyone.

The way I see it there are three target markets for the MCM.

  1. Internal Microsoft employees
  2. External professionals looking to earn the highest level of certification
  3. Employers that want to have an MCM on staff or a project

We already discussed that this makes sense for internal Microsoft employees. I’m shocked that the entire program has been scrapped, as it makes no sense that Microsoft would no longer be interested in the internal training of their employees in an effort to provide the best support for their customers.

For external professionals that want to be recognized as a leading expert in their field the MCM makes perfect sense. I wanted to have the top level certification for my field. It was a natural progression since I had already obtained the lower level certifications. I was planning on earning the MCA once I had upgraded my MCM.

For employers (such as mine, Confio Software) they wanted someone on staff that was recognized as one of top SQL Server experts. They supported my efforts for years while I prepared for the exams. Will they support my efforts for any future certification exams? I have no idea.

I don’t know what discussions went on at Microsoft when they came to conclusion that they should scrap the whole advance certification program.  Clearly the market (employees, professionals and Microsoft customers) still have a need to recognize those with advanced knowledge.  There’s still a gap in the market.  I and others still want to see a solution to this need. I’m here to tell anyone that cares that I’m willing to step in and help if asked.

Know When To Fold ‘Em

I honestly feel that the real reason the program was cancelled is because MSL had set of expectations with regards to the number of people that wanted to earn these certifications. As those numbers did not match reality, as upgrade exams took longer to develop, and as newer versions of products became available while certification exams remained on the shelf it became clear that something had to give.

I can certainly respect someone who decides to kill a project rather than let it continue on a slow death march. Perhaps this is what happened here. Perhaps the reasons we got, which (right now) appear to be a poor attempt at excuses, are exactly that. A wise man taught me many years ago to “assume good intentions”. If I assume that good intentions were done here, then where does that take us next?

Perhaps MSL cut the cord here because they knew more about where Microsoft is heading with regards to technology. I’d like to think that MSL has a roadmap for the certification program as a whole, and that this day was going to come at some point.

Sometimes the best thing you can do is to cut your losses and move forward.

So what do you do if you are faced with this problem? Well, this is what good leaders would do for this or similar problems. First, they do their best to understand the original goals of the program. Then they seek to understand why the original project didn’t meet those goals. Armed with that information they can then start to find ways to either fill in the gaps themselves, or find someone else to fill in the gaps for them.

That’s what was done when the MCM program was handed over to MSL. That’s what needs to happen here, too.

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  • Ayman El-Ghazali

    I try to abstain from commenting on blogs over the weekend but I needed a place to rant. My wife would not understand my ranting so I’m giving it a shot here :)

    So basically, I’m in your boat a few years ago. Reading the MCM books, watching the videos, attending training, I have my own lab and blogged about it for others to create one like it, and I’ve saved money to go to training for the MCM Program. I’m just not ready for the exam yet. I need until October 2014 to be ready for the lab, I’m thinking I could do the written exam 6 months before. Alas, October 2013 (less than one month) is the cut off date. I didn’t see any big announcement. I have an MCSE, so I’m part of the MCP program I didn’t get an email through there. I’m an MCT, I get heads up on courses, certifications, etc but didn’t get an email through there. It kind of sucks.

    Not sure if my complaints on here can carry over to the program or even make a difference but I wish they would only cancel the training program. Or better yet, cancel that and the lab exam. Just have the written exam which would be easy to keep the cost down for. They could even rename the cert so it’s not at the same level as the MCM; maybe something like MCSE Level 2 or MCSS (Microsoft Certified Solutions Scholar) or something else. I want to differentiate myself from others in the field. I want to be challenged. I want to show that I’ve spent time, money, and effort to get my skills up to the level of the best professionals. How can I do that now? The MSCE exams were easier than the MCSA exams. I mean it is so darn frustrating not to have some sort of compromise instead of scrapping everything. There are brain dumps out there and people that pass based on that; I’ve interviewed plenty of people like that. I don’t want to be in that bucket. When I was in high school, I took the International Baccalaureate (IB) program because I wanted to get into a good school and differentiate myself from all other high school graduates through a unique and tough academic program.

    Ah, I feel a little better getting all that out. I’ll still read the books and still watch the MCM videos and hope that Microsoft comes up with something over the MCSE certification. I can tell you are bummed out as well and I’m sure getting into the Architect program would be awesome.

    Thanks for the heads up, hopefully enough people will complain and they’ll do something about it.

    • ThomasLaRock

      I’m hopeful they will do something, I can’t imagine they have no desire to offer advanced certifications.

      • Ayman El-Ghazali

        I emailed my complaint and suggestions. I also explained it to my wife and she’s upset now too, LOL! Maybe this coming week I’ll even blog about it to get it all out of my system.

  • submod

    I’m on the other side of the fence. It was cost prohibitive and unknown in the real world. No one in their right mind would spend that kind of capital on a certification that the vast majority of companies have never heard of. I can’t fathom the true expense to this. Three weeks off at my bill rate… I’m starting to laugh again. The idea is great but the implementation sucked. This may anger some but I believe those who originally set this as their goal did so as an ego satiater. Thomas LaRock, Brent Ozar, Kendra Little… etc, don’t need any level of certification to rubber stamp their skills. I’m in no way demeaning these individuals, just the opposite, these people have given so freely of their time they’ve made thousands of people better DBAs and I’m one of them. Thanks.

    • ThomasLaRock

      Yes, cost was certainly a barrier for many. Not just the cost for the exams, but travel to a testing center, time away from work to prepare for the exams, etc.

      • Ayman El-Ghazali

        They did add other methods for certification (aka the Hybrid program, one week in Redmond and then 10 weeks of sessions from the comfort of your home). I agree with submod that there are many people that don’t need that type of certification to prove themselves but others (like myself) want a challenge. We want to set ourselves apart in this competitive market. We also want to gauge our true skills against a customized exam, one that does not have brain dumps all over the place. I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing many people with MCITP certifications and they couldn’t answer simple questions about Indexes! Not about ego, it’s about assessing one’s self and being able to step of the ladder of mastery in the technology I’m passionate about. I know your comment about ego boosting was in no way a broad generalization about everyone, I just wanted to show you how some “up and coming” SQL Server professionals as myself see these certifications.

        • Allen McGuire

          “From the comfort of my home…” = my home has my wife, a dog and twin 7-year olds. It’s quite unrealistic for many of us with busy day jobs, side jobs and families to also set aside spare time to study for this sort of thing. That’s why I went the boot camp route for my MCITP – it was the only feasible way for me. I’m kinda getting tired of the generalizations surrounding the “brain dumps” too. My boot camp class was filled with very talented individuals and quite honestly the only people we have to answer to is our employers. I would be interested to see what question you are speaking of.

          • Ayman El-Ghazali

            Allen I totally understand, my home = wife, 4 boys (6 years old and under) and full-time job as yourself. It’s not realistic for everyone, and I was still seriously considering it as an option because of how desperate I am to get some amazing higher level training and certification. Probably worked out for the best because I’d have my kids bugging me all the time and starting up various versions of Wrestle mania in the living room :)

            Not everyone that is certified takes brain dumps, there are respectable people that work hard and take certification for many reasons. I’ve interviewed people with certification and asked questions like “Can you tell me the difference between a Clustered and Non-Clustered Index.” Either no answer or something crazy comes from it. I’ve interviewed people with no certification that give me amazing answers for the same question. It’s all relative. I personally value certification, which is why I started flooding this page with comments in the first place and why I pursued and earned MCITP for SQL 2008 and MCSE for 2012 (failed the DW exam and took it again to pass). I think it helps show that the person is willing to invest time and money in their field and to me if all things are equal between candidates, certification is the dividing factor in a hiring decision.

            Looks like I’ve written more in the comments than Thomas has written in the post :)

          • Allen McGuire

            In the case of not knowing the difference between the types of indexes, that’s pretty bad. I would like to know the training facility they went to and hold them just as accountable as the student that they gave the certification to. My testing facility was real nice and orderly and the professor was a great guy. He would stay as late as the last person in the class to ensure they knew the material.

            That said, part of the test will always be a brain dump to some extent. There are features I just don’t use in SQL Server that often – log shipping, resource governor, partitioning, facets, policies, etc. I use 3rd party tools for backups and tend to use my mouse more than spit out raw tSQL for some operations, so while I’ve been doing this for 14 years, I found certain topics challenging due to how I work.

            Back to the MCM, what’s ironic is that I was just talking with my wife about the program the Thursday night prior to it getting canned – we were on our way camping and I must have talked about it for a good 20 minutes. I’m confident I could make it through the program and my work really encourages self-study on the job so I could probably do it under that umbrella. Hopefully they figure it out because while my certification distinguishes me in my neck of the woods (Wisconsin), it doesn’t really distinguish me in the SQL Server community.

          • Ayman El-Ghazali

            Maybe I didn’t explain my “brain dump” concept. I’m not talking about the type of questions. I’m talking about those “brain dump” sites that give the questions plus answers for the exams. Many people use that to pass and it’s called cheating obviously :)
            The exams need to have some form of just studying and answering the questions (I think that’s the brain dump you’re referring to). Also, there is no requirement for MCITP, MCSA, or MCSE to attend any training courses (I never did). Those people that have the cert and couldn’t answer the question probably just got one of those cheating brain dumps off the internet, passed the exam, and thought that they could just breeze through the interview. That’s the kind of crap I hate because it makes folks like us that work hard and study hard of lower value because some cheating morons have the same certs. That’s why the MCM was so attractive for me.

            I’m still going to read the books and watch the videos and wait out to see what comes next. I live in the DC area, which is highly competitive so the MCSE cert does add some good weight. But we have big employers here with tons of talented people (Microsoft, EMC, to name a few) so it’s harder to edge out others. Not that competition is the essence of the drive for the MCM, but you and I are fathers and we always want to make sure we can have strong job security and enough to put food on the table. Assuming of course the food isn’t being thrown across the table!! Good luck to you.

          • Allen McGuire

            Thanks – likewise and thanks for the clarification. You are correct, I was talking more about the boot camps where you sponge up information and spew it back out, forgetting it shortly thereafter. I would agree we need to differentiate ourselves on paper so we can get our foot in the door (an interview). For those of us that know what we’re doing, the technical portion of the interview is the easy part. For me it’s “everything else” that comes with a position that determines whether or not I want to work there: how many DBA’s on staff, schedule flexibility, compensation package obviously, etc.

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  • nat

    Hi All,
    I’ve read a few blogs and comments on this issue and as non MCM I have a few mixed emotions. Like submod said thanks to the SQL community for making my life so much easier this last decade than when I first started out. I’ve had a professional crush on Brent O for a while (i’m female :) But after a while the community kinda started to feel like celebrities and I had to unfollow most just like I did other celebrities. It was almost like you had to admire their work but didn’t want to know them on a personal level the way social media allows you to do so. In that regard, the MCM seems like such a closed community. Yeah you have the cost barrier and etc… but really you had to think most people who have them are consultants and what if you didn’t want to be a consultant, what if you want to work in an industry as a DBA and not know everything about SQL Server, well then the MCM is not for you right. Well then it made it feel like if you were not shooting for that goal somehow you were falling short professionally. Maybe that was my own insecurity. I had a pipe dream of getting my MCM, first I had to get the MCSE, which was proving hard for me. Having a full time job and a family, I would indeed carve out time to do self study and training and reading various blogs. I would take a test here and there, but by the time I would get through a few tests the new tests were coming out. And just a side note for those thinking I may have been moving too slow, a lot of guys will say they too have jobs/families, but as a female, its harder to take a backseat to letting your husband do more of the home/kid chores that allow men to be able to take more time at home sitting at the computer. You can disagree but at most families I know ‘mom’ comes out before ‘dad’ when the kids need something. So maybe microsoft is going to revamp, so they aren’t constantly changing… which leads me to my biggest disappointment. I’m a DBA/SQL Developer. I have always worked in that dual role. I’m not a programmer and I never wanted to be, although I ‘can’ program if not efficient. Over the last 5 years, I’ve noticed microsoft going into two directions – super easy (for consumers) and super hard (developer based tools), it felt to me the middle ground of the DBA/SQL Developer was going away. I’ve had to force myself to work in more of a development type environment. This is kinda scary, because with so many changes, I’m wondering if the old school DBA is going to be history shortly?

    • ThomasLaRock

      Thanks for another wonderful comment nat.

      I believe you are right, that the MCM was mostly something prized by consultants and vendor-partners of Microsoft. It was not something that most folks would think about obtaining, or even have the time to obtain. And I know what you mean about falling behind in the certifications, I always seem to be behind.

      I do believe that the old school DBA days are numbered. The days of racking servers and configuring disk drives are just about over. Things are always changing, always evolving. I tell people they need to start thinking of themselves as a Data Professional now, it seems to get them to start thinking about the entire world that is available.

      Otherwise you run the risk of being left behind.

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