MCM Prep Week: Interview with Joe Sack

As one of the bloggers behind The Master Blog, Joe Sack is a public face for the SQL MCM program.  Joe also blogs at MSDN, and he manages the SQL MCM prerequisite reading list.  The MCM program isn’t even his “day job” – he’s also a Senior Premier Field Engineer, which means he sees a lot of high-end SQL Server challenges.  I emailed Joe to ask him a few questions about the program.

Brent: I hear Microsoft really encourages employees to move around and grow in the company.  Out of all the opportunities available to you inside Microsoft, why did you choose to work on the Microsoft Certified Master program?

Joe Sack
Joe Sack

Joe: Microsoft does indeed provide plenty of opportunities to move around; however my situation is a little different because I am based in Minnesota. Since Minnesota is decidedly my home and most jobs are in Washington – I have to look for creative ways to participate in projects from afar.

How did I get involved with SQL MCM? I attended the very first SQL MCM program in 2006 (back when it used to be called the “SQL Ranger” program) – and later on I participated in the team that launched the SQL Server 2008 MCM program.  When the previous SQL MCM Program Manager Ken Tanner got a new job last year, there was an opportunity for me to help out.  I couldn’t displace my “day job” though (I’m still a full time onsite support engineer), so we decided it would be best to have a job-share situation with another original SQL MCM, David Ikeda (from Microsoft Consulting Services).  We work really well together – and we tag team seamlessly.  David will be covering the upcoming March training rotation, and I’ll be covering the May training rotation.

Although it’s quite a bit of extra work on top of my day job – I appreciate the chance to meet new people and feel connected to a community. Between 2002 and 2008 my side project time was always invested in book projects – but moving forward I’m more interested in extroverted activities like this.

Brent: Who’s a good MCM candidate?  If someone’s out there reading this right now (don’t laugh, it’s possible – my mom tells her friends about my blog) and they’re thinking, “I could never be an MCM,” who should consider throwing their hat in the ring?

Joe: Aside from the requested prerequisites (years of experience, MCITP certifications) – I look for signs of a preoccupation with SQL Server.  I could use the word “passionate” – but that word annoys me slightly.  I think someone who reads SQL Server Magazine in the bathtub, or read SQL Server MVP Deep Dives on a cruise ship has a good chance of succeeding in the program.  You’ve got to really be interested in SQL Server in order to survive this intensive process.

Experience is also paramount.  What do you do? What have you done?  I don’t pay attention to job titles at all.  Ideally an incoming SQL MCM candidate has both something to learn and something to teach. I also want to be clear that you don’t need to be a famous speaker, published author, MVP, etc in order to become an MCM.  If you are quietly doing amazing things with SQL Server – I want to see you in the program.

Brent: You must have met a lot of people doing a lot of amazing things as part of the MCM application process, then.  What kinds of SQL Server achievements raise your eyebrows these days?

Joe: I like to hear about when people design or deploy “multi-jointed” solutions (a term I just made up – but meaning that I like to see creative or interesting applications of various SQL Server features used to solve a specific business need or problem).

I’m also impressed by concrete project examples establishing your ability to get results.  For example – let’s say you have an application that is processing 2,500 transactions per second, and you were asked to double that.  Did you do it?  And if so, how did you do it?

If your solutions are simple and elegant, that’s great too.  Tell us about it when you apply for the program.

Brent: For those out there who think they don’t have quite enough experience yet, but they’re aiming for it in 2011, what would you suggest they focus on?  Are there certain areas of experience that seem to pay off well for future MCMs?

Joe: If someone were aiming for 2011, I’d recommend they start going through the pre-reading list and try to get as much hands on experience as possible on the subjects they read about.  As a SQL Server professional, this is good advice whether or not you ultimately pursue MCM.  Today we have SQL MCMs across a variety of job roles – but I would say that those who have direct experience on both the DBA and SQL Dev side seem to do very well in the program.  SQL MCM is pretty flexible in how you gained your experience – across job roles.

Then there is the Microsoft Certified Architect program – which is a different discussion altogether.  The SQL MCA cert requires that you be a practicing architect in your current role (and have been a practicing architect for a few years).  SQL MCM is a prerequisite to SQL MCA – and in that case we require other skills related to business acumen.  If you’re interested in learning more about MCA someday – I’ll loop you in with David Ikeda to discuss.

Brent: Congrats on reaching 12 non-Microsoft people in the SQL MCM list!  I always used to say that more people have walked on the moon than achieved the SQL MCM, but now it’s a tie.  I gotta ask, though – what’s the pass rate for non-Microsoft employees?

Joe: Thanks – and I really want these numbers to keep increasing at an accelerated rate.  I want to expand our non-Microsoft MCM numbers, because that’s the point, right? If your business depends on a complex implementation of SQL Server – we want to make sure you have someone you can trust.   Part of the drive behind this certification is to provide another means of validation.  I want people to say “this person is a SQL MCM, so I know I can depend on her”.  As a support professional, I personally appreciate the value of people making good decisions in the early stages of a project and doing things correctly the first time.

As for the pass rate for non-Microsoft people – I pulled some approximate numbers – and as of today we are at a 65% pass rate for non-Microsoft people.  This number continues to get higher as people retake exams.  It is my job during these training rotations to set people up for success (without lowering the bar though).  People are accepted into this program who have the potential to pass – otherwise it just wouldn’t be a good thing.  Some rotations have a low initial pass rate, but after a few months of retakes, the pass rates increase significantly.

Brent: When people don’t pass, what do you think the biggest reasons have been?  Is it a lack of preparation, a lack of focus, a lack of experience, or something else?

Joe: Here are the common patterns I’ve witnessed and also heard about from my predecessors:

Fantastic candidates who don’t “test well”.  Most people haven’t taken a six hour hands-on qualification lab before. The good news? For these folks, retake success rates are high.

Cumulative Stress and keeping too much of an eye on “the prize”. Sometimes the stress of the experience causes unnecessary mistakes on the exams or labs.  People get so wrapped up in succeeding that they don’t focus on what is presently in front of them. If you spend your three weeks obsessed over achieving the certification, or you’re upset about failing the first exam, you’ll be missing out on the full experience and your performance will continue to suffer.

Getting stuck.  One key tip I gave in the last rotation is – if you get stuck – keep moving and re-route! Moving ahead or re-routing your efforts may be the difference between pass and fail.  I think this isn’t just an exam testing skill – but also a good life skill.

Preparation. Our second week of the training is often the most unpleasant for candidates because it really pushes them out of their comfort zones (for example – coverage of CLR, XML, ADO concepts).  The pre-reading list is very important to go through if you can.  It is a long list – but chances are you’ve read many of the items we have listed.  The pre-reading list is your friend.

Brent: People complain that the MCM is too expensive.  When I turn around and compare it to traditional MCSE boot camps that cost $5,000 for a week, the MCM doesn’t seem that expensive at all – especially when I look at the quality of instructors.  At the current discounts, it looks like an absolute bargain – it’s not much more than a one-week boot camp.  (Not really a question, just putting it out there.)

Joe: I appreciate the comment.  Right now the program fee is just enough to keep things running.  I think even if it were free, some people who make their living on billable hours would object to the “opportunity costs” of the three week timeline (and having been an independent consultant in the past – I understand).  I think if you’re in that situation, you may consider what MCM could mean to one’s billable rate after the training.  No guarantees – but I think it could only help you.

Brent: The three weeks of downtime for consultants is indeed significant.  When it comes time for renewal, when new versions of SQL Server come out, what’s the MCM upgrade process like?  How much work does an MCM have to put into upgrading their certification to, say, SQL Server 2008 R2?

Joe: We determine the upgrade path based on the nature of each new version.  For the move from SQL MCM 2005 to SQL MCM 2008, we determined that it was sufficient to give a six hour hands on upgrade lab.  Our next version of MCM will be for the next major version (after SQL Server 2008 R2).

We won’t be doing any major changes to the program until this next version after SQL Server 2008 R2 is released.  At that time, we’ll figure out the fairest upgrade path (could be one exam and one lab, or just one lab).  No matter what – the MCM will not be required to attend another rotation (unless they want to).   We do require that MCMs keep up to date though.  So our SQL 2005 MCMs must upgrade to SQL 2008 MCM before upgrading to SQL vNext MCM.  We’ll provide the MCMs with access to the current MCM course content and then when the MCM is ready, we remotely proctor the exam over web cam and a Live Meeting Session.

Brent: One of my big frustrations with Microsoft certs is that the mix of test questions feels totally off.  The vast, vast majority of SQL Server implementations don’t use Service Broker or XML, for example, yet the certification exams seem to focus an awful lot of time on those topics.  Do you feel that the MCM training is more (or less) representative of real-world SQL Server use than the other MS certs?

Joe: I do feel that the MCM training is “real world” – but we also have a responsibility to be holistic too.  Much of the content is 400-level, but depending on the subject, not always.  For example, the next rotation will be injecting some discussion of SQL Server 2008 R2 features, but since these features are so new we don’t expect people to be subject matter experts.  Our program has to be both pragmatic in our depth and comprehensive in our coverage.

Brent: Doing a version 1.0 of anything is always a learning experience.  Since launching the MCM, what feedback have you adopted from attendees to change the program?

Joe: Each training rotation evolves. We administer surveys every day (so much that we get feedback on how much we ask for feedback) and we apply our feedback to future rotations. From rotation to rotation we adjust content, drop subjects that aren’t deep enough, add subjects that are timely, and deepen existing topics when possible.  I also heard feedback about how the training days were too long – so in the latest rotation I made sure that we gave more study time and ended class on time for the majority of the instruction days.  After that – we figured out we could have stuffed more content in – so we’ll adjust again in March.  So we do listen to the feedback and will continue to keep making adjustments for every single rotation.

Brent: Interesting about the surveys – how does Microsoft gauge success of the MCM program?  What’s the end goal for Microsoft?

Joe:  The program mission is to provide top tier training and the most advanced certification available for SQL Server for the benefit of building a community of trusted experts who successfully address the most complex customer requirements.   Success for our training program is measured via the feedback that we receive from candidates – but the bigger picture of success means that we have more trusted experts “out there” doing things correctly the first time.  Successful implementation of SQL Server is good for our customers and good for Microsoft.

Brent: One of the benefits touted by the MCM program is being able to call on the MCM community for answers.  How is this different than, say, the MVP program?

Joe: The big difference – our community is smaller and relatively new. The MVP community is large and very established.  MVP grants awards annually and is not a certification.  MCM is a certification and is product version dependent (in the case of SQL MCM) and we provide upgrade paths for it. The SQL MCM community value is still growing – and it will take ongoing care and attention to make sure that we continue to cultivate it.  I hope that our community overlaps with MVP community too – as there are many MVPs that I would love to see become MCMs as well.

Brent: How do MCMs interact with each other?  Please, for the love of God, tell me it’s not an NNTP server.

Joe: We have a set of email distribution lists that MCMs are added to upon certification – and they can (and do) use it communicate with one another.  I “haunt” these DLs and make sure that most questions get answered, and when not, see if there are opportunities to forward to the SQL dev or the SQL CAT team.

We also have monthly education sessions which are a great way to connect with our product team.  Once a month (or sometimes twice) I schedule a Live Meeting session – asking a SQL Program Manager or Developer to talk about something interesting.  The MCMs can ask questions – and it is also an opportunity to give feedback directly to someone who can actually do something about it.

Brent: When I talk to MVPs about the MCM program, it seems like the universal reply is, “Microsoft needs to fix the MCITP program and make a real production DBA certification based on experience.”  The MCM is only seen as something for consultants, not real-world DBAs.  I know it’s not your program, and I know you’re bound by NDAs so tightly that Microsoft will sue you just for thinking about your answer to this question, but do you have any thoughts about it?

Joe: Let me address the feedback that MCM is not for the “real-world DBA”.  I believe that “real-world” DBAs need to know about high availability, disaster recovery, performance-tuning, storage, security, manageability, and data distribution technologies. The SQL MCM program trains, tests, and validates these areas.  Let’s say you are the Lead DBA for a Fortune 500 company and you support a SQL Server environment that would cost the company millions of dollars if something went wrong.  As that Lead DBA’s employer or manager, anything I could do to bolster that person’s skills would be worth the investment of time and money so that I could sleep at night. I’m not saying that MCM is the only factor – experience is king. But after experience, I pay attention to signs of that person’s drive.  If I saw MCM on your resume, this would be further validation of your capabilities. SQL MCM holds weight because there are no shortcuts to getting it – you’ve got to put your time in.

Brent: That’s an interesting point.  So for the DBAs out there who might be interested in applying, but they’re afraid their boss will say no, how would you help justify the program?  Is there somewhere DBAs can go to get help “selling” their bosses on paying for the MCM and giving them the time?

Joe: If I were selling this to my organization, I would first try to link the mission critical needs of my company with the necessity for ongoing training and cultivation of the company’s technical leaders.  Per my earlier example – how much would it cost the company if there was a major issue in their SQL Server environment?  Now compare that to the cost of certification and training.

I would also recommend laying out a full description of the program (in person – or whatever media is most effective in your organization) so that you can make sure they get an accurate picture of the program.  We have the MCM: Microsoft SQL Server 2008 datasheet – if your manager likes glossy marketing materials.

As for detailing benefits – we also have a few testimonials on The Master Blog which may be helpful (from SQL and other MCM programs):

Testimonial from a SQL MCM (who doesn’t work for Microsoft)

Testimonial #2 from a SQL MCM (who doesn’t work for Microsoft)

ROI from MCM: A look back 6 months later.

MCM Directory ROI from a Student Perspective

And if all else fails, don’t be afraid to send me an email and see if I can help!

I’d like to thank Joe for taking the time to answer my questions and offering to answer yours too.  In tomorrow’s post, I’ll talk about something I really like about the SQL MCM reading list, something I think is changing the way certifications work.

Continue to My Thoughts on the MCM Reading List

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16 Comments. Leave new

  • Since I’m one of those who complains about the cost, let me explain where I’m coming from.

    I’m sure that the cost is perfectly reasonable, if you’re earning dollars, euros or pounds. I’m sitting at the wrong end of an 8-to-1 exchange rate. I did a calculation late last year. Taking the MVP discount rate (if it’s still applicable), plus flights, hotel and expenses and I’m looking at a total that comes to around 4 months total income (and the cost would come out of my own pocket).

    I guess I should complains about the exchange rate more than the MCM cost. 🙂

    • Gail – ooo, interesting question. So I ran the same calculation for my own attendee costs. With the MVP discount, plus my flights and hotels (but not including meals), I’m looking at around 2 months of after-tax income. Toss in the fact that you can’t work for the 3 weeks of MCM training, and throw in 1 week of studying (ha ha ha) beforehand, and you’re looking at roughly 3 months of opportunity cost. Nothing to sneeze at, for sure.

      • No it’s not, and it’s the main reason I haven’t already done MCM. 5-6 months of income is really hard to save up and really hard to justify dropping on something that may (or may not).

        Wait, you earn about twice what I do? That hurts. (Yes, I know it has to do with the parts of the world we live in. It still hurts.)

      • … may (or maynot) have have a positive RoI within a reasonable amount of time.

        (hit submit too early)

  • Wow. You know I usually love your stuff Brent, but you really soft-balled the cost & time question.

    • RBarryYoung – thanks, glad you usually like the stuff at least! About the cost & time question – I struggled with how to ask it, but in my mind, it’s not even a question. Either you see the value in getting trained by people like Adam Machanic, Greg Low, Kimberly Tripp, and Paul Randal, or… you don’t. I couldn’t think of a question I could ask that would help readers understand what that kind of knowledge can do for your hourly rate and your backlog.

      However, take heart: on Friday, I’ll be asking readers how they would improve the MCM given what they know so far. I’m interested to hear how you’d ask the question, and how you would price the MCM relative to traditional boot camps.

      • It’s not just about whether or not you see the value. There’s an immense value, but $18 000 (the full price) is a lot of money no matter how you phrase it.

        I don’t know what billing rates are like in the USA, or what kind of increase you could do after MCM, so let me take my situation (since I do know those figures)
        Assuming that, as a result of MCM, I was able to increase my monthly income by 20% (possible but not likely), it would take over 2 years to recoup the cost of a 3 week course, and that’s taking the MVP discounted rate. Financially, that doesn’t really make all that much sense.

        Comparing this to bootcamps is a bad comparison. Those things are expensive for what they are and it’s very possible to study up for the cert exams for a fraction of the cost if you have the discipline to study from the training guides.

        The cost isn’t a concern for people working for companies that will send them (like you), it’s just a case then of negotiating with the company to persuade them. For the independent people who are paying out of their own pocket, it’s a different story.

  • I found this interview very interesting indeed!

    Not sure about 2011 though I’m thinking more 2015 🙂

  • Brent- thanks for giving us the courage to look at yourself in the mirror. Just love the work you do. Gilamonster I would agree with you, Iam tempted to say for $18000.00 for MCM, sounds unethical for individuals. Chances are you want to recoupe this amount in 2 years, given the rate at which MS is churning out new software, a new version of SQL will come out before you have recovered the money.

    • Thanks! I’d say the recovery timeline needs to be more like 5 years. I’m still working with clients on SQL 2000, although most of my tuning work is on 2005 these days.

  • Hmm, perhaps I should start renting out the extra rooms in my house during the MCM. I could even throw in free transportation to and from campus Monday – Friday. 🙂

    I wanted to do the MCM since it was first announced, but I put it off for all the reasons that Gail laid out. I’m local, so I wouldn’t have any hotel or travel costs, but I would have had to take 3 weeks of unpaid time off and paid for it myself. When I finally accepted a full-time position at MSFT, I made attending the MCM (and them paying for it) a requirement for accepting the position.

    I don’t expect anyone to go looking for a new job so that they can do this, but if you’re changing jobs anyway, it may be a good time to have a conversation about attending the program.

  • The thing I find MOST interesting is that I keep seeing the same names that I see on EVERY SQL site that I frequent, probably a good indication of “SQL obsession” 🙂
    I know that Microsoft certifications hold alot of value and that’s why I have obtained so many. I just hope I can find a way to justify the time and cost to my employer who is willing to cover it for those that qualify. My billable rate over 3 weeks would be hard to recoup in the difference over the lifecycle of the current version. I think the value has to be measured in business that is CLOSED rather than a difference in the billing rate. How much MORE business will you get? And can a company really communicate the value to a customer. Certainly the taint of boot camps on lesser certs will make this difficult.
    In any case, I will try… once I finish the reading list and sample videos and do a good evaluation of myself. Seems like consulting offers many more opportunities for MCM experience than day to day operations because of the variety of projects you get.
    Anyway, I am going to try! 🙂

    • Peter – your question about the billable rate difference boils down to how many hours you’re billing. I was already billing the max number of hours I could bill in a week. Getting the MCM didn’t allow me to book more hours – it allowed me to charge more for my time.

      If you’re a consultant who doesn’t already have a full calendar, the MCM isn’t the best way to fill up your calendar. The MCM doesn’t come with any promotions or marketing awareness. Rather than spending the time/money to get the MCM, I’d suggest working on marketing yourself first. People won’t come running in just because you’ve got an MCM.

      Hope that helps!

      • I think another part of the equation lies in value to an employer. My current employer places a very high value on certs, so much that he is willing to pay for training, certs, etc. My boss just got his MCM for Exchange 2010 (yes, a VERY small club, I think he is number 19?) and his stock rose dramatically in the COMPANY. So he can likely negotiate a higher salary or tip the scales on a huge enterprise deployment where a customer is on the fence about using our company… I am only guessing here.
        But as a privateer, I doubt I would have much use for it myself, although I do like the sound of “master” 🙂 My boss really appreciates it :/ when we intone in a Star-Wars-like manner “Master So-and-so”.
        As for self branding, I just started to really get into the forums and I am considering inflicting my own brand of information dissemination on an unsuspecting SQL community 🙂 We will see how that goes…

        Thanks for your response. I will likely do whatever “feels good” despite the ROI … 🙂

        more details to come…


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