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.