MCM Prep Week: What is a Microsoft Certified Master?

This week I’m focusing on the Microsoft Certified Master program.  I’m making a run at the MCM certification for SQL Server 2008, and from the outside, the whole thing looks pretty overwhelming.

How do Microsoft certifications work?

Microsoft exams are about $125, and people usually self-study for them if they’re knocking out exams one at a time.  When you pass any one exam, you become a Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP).  That one designation by itself doesn’t hold much weight.

Microsoft has designed several groups of exams that roughly line up to job descriptions.  If you take the 70-432 exam (SQL 2008 database implementation) and the 70-450 exam (designing and maintaining a database), then you’ve earned the right to call yourself a Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP) for SQL Server 2008 database administration.  How hard are these exams?  Well, there’s been some debate in the past about whether you really need experience in order to pass the tests.

Training companies offer boot camps; in a single week of long-working days, trainers cram attendees’ brains with everything they need to pass the tests, plus they take the tests that same week.  Attendees don’t need experience working with the certification subject areas – they just need general experience working with SQL Server in some related area, like programmer, network administrator, or junior DBA.  They’re basically taking a week off and writing a $5,000 check to get their MCITP.

The controversy comes in when you start to ask whether a certification from a boot camp really means anything.  I’ve worked with boot-camp DBAs in the past, and within a month of the training, they’ve forgotten most of what they learned.  Is the attendee just writing a check for their certification, or are they getting a training value too?  If they truly wanted training, a crash-course boot-camp covering the entire MCITP subject spectrum is a pretty bad way to do it.

What’s the Microsoft Certified Master program?

It’s a three-week on-site program in Seattle that costs $18,500 (hotel, meals, airfare, vacation time not included).  Microsoft staff and highly-regarded outsiders (Adam Machanic, Greg Low, Kimberly Tripp, Paul Randal, etc.) train attendees on really advanced topics that they probably haven’t worked with in that depth before.  During the event, attendees take a series of tests, and if they pass ’em all, they’re a Microsoft Certified Master.

Wait – isn’t that a boot camp?

The MCM Program - Turning It All The Way Up
The MCM Program - Turning It All The Way Up

No, no, it’s different.  This one goes up to 11.

Okay, you caught me.  From the outside, the MCM program’s mashup of training and tests looks an awful lot like a boot camp, but there’s a few key differences.

The boot camp application process consists of writing a check, whereas the Microsoft Certified Master program has a rather hefty list of prerequisites:

  • You must hold MCITP certifications for both SQL Server 2008 database developer and database administrator
  • One page document detailing a project you’ve contributed to, with details about your role and your contributions
  • One document you’ve authored demonstrating your deep knowledge of SQL Server
  • 5 years of experience installing, configuring, and troubleshooting SQL Server 7.0 or newer, plus at least a year with SQL 2005 or newer
  • Thorough understanding of SQL Server design, architecture, OLTP, HA, DR, tuning, storage, security, etc

The MCM leads review the applications and give you the thumbs up or down, but unlike boot camps, simply getting in the door isn’t a guarantee that you’ll get certified.  Check out the list of SQL 2008 Masters, and count the number of people who don’t show “Microsoft” as their employer.  As of this writing, more people have walked on the moon than non-MS folks have achieved a SQL 2008 MCM.

It’s expensive, and the odds are stacked against you.

So why on Earth – or the moon – is Quest sending you?

My talented and gracious employer, Quest Software, builds a lot of software for – and with – SQL Server. We’ve got stuff to back up SQL Server, to make SQL Server go faster, to develop SQL Server stuff easier, to monitor SQL Server, stuff for SharePoint’s SQL Server databases, and more.  Even our non-database software ties into SQL Server, because many of our products store data in SQL Server repositories.  We’ve got a few thousand employees, many of which are tied to SQL Server in one way or another.  (Our expense reports are done in Oracle, but I’m working on that.)

Since coming to work here, I’ve been totally blown away by the complexity of the SQL Server questions, like:

  • Is there a way to get DMV information back faster?  Some DMVs take too long.  (And I’m not talking about the index ones either.)
  • Can we track what’s fragmenting the virtual address space?
  • <NDA> (Well, I can’t tell you some of ’em!)

The more we know about SQL Server, the better our software gets.  We sell more licenses, we take less support calls, and we do things our competitors can’t.  Consulting companies are sending people to get their MCM for the same reasons – they want an edge in the market that will help ’em close more deals, raise their hourly rates, and support clients better.

Yeah, but why is Quest sending YOU?

I know, right?  It’s bizarre.  We have a company chock full of people who really, really know SQL Server, and somehow I got lucky on this one.  Here’s the answers I came up with:

  • Everybody else was too valuable to be out of the office for 3 weeks
  • They got tired of me blogging about Lady Gaga and the Slap Chop
  • All those edible bouquets I sent my boss Christian finally paid off

Okay, maybe there’s another reason: I blog, write, and present.  Because I put myself out there, Quest gets twice the bang for the buck.  They get marketing value out of sending me because I’ll be blogging about the process and how it ties back to things I can do at Quest. Whether you’re a consultant or an employee, part of the value of the MCM is the value your clients perceive, and how much they’re willing to pay for it.  The more visible you are, the more you can leverage your image to get the company to invest in you.  I know I say this a lot, but if you want to get ahead long-term, you need to be blogging, presenting, and writing.  The blogging part will tie into another entry later this week about the MCM process, too.  Even if you don’t work for a software vendor or a consulting company, you’d be surprised by how excited your company executives get when their employees are featured in publications for their achievements.

Another reason is that I’ve chosen to keep my career on the technical side rather than the management side.  I’ve dabbled enough in management to know that I suck at it, and that I really don’t enjoy working on those skills.  I’d rather dive into something technical and make bits jump thr0ugh hoops.  I think of the Microsoft Certified Master program as a PhD for modern geeks.

In tomorrow’s entry about the MCM, I’m going to vent about one of the prerequisites for applying to the MCM program: the 70-433 and 70-451 exams.

Continue to My Thoughts on the Microsoft DB Dev Exams

Previous Post
Why You Might Want to Buy SQL Server 2008 Now
Next Post
MCM Prep Week: Microsoft Exams 70-433 and 70-451

8 Comments. Leave new

  • Cameron Mergel
    February 8, 2010 7:11 am

    Good luck to you. I am sure that you will do fine.

  • Malathi Mahadevan
    February 8, 2010 9:32 am

    Good luck Brent, you’d do fine. I must confess though that I disagree with the bootcamp/check/certification thing somewhat. I have met DBAs of all kinds – those that have studied their way thru’ certs and yet completely lack pragmatic real world experience,those that do bootcamps simply because they can’t find time to study with work priorities and also given the fact that with so many features of sql server your knowledge many times is limited to what you use and that is not enough for certs. And of course there are many who are never certified and know more than most others who are. I guess there is no simple answer to this. The MCM to me is different not just because of pre requisites but the quality of trainers and the fact that it is directly conducted at MS and for their employees too. Most people feel it is well worth it even if you dont clear the exams. And there are others who feel it is too much effort and $ since again it is version dependant only. Guess you could find some time to write on how you upgrade this certification if you clear it and keep going that way?

  • I think that’s how they sent off the moon landing crews too. “I’m sure you’ll do fine”

    Congrats, and good luck!

  • Good luck Brent!
    If you can make it, there’s a discount of 3500$ for the training in march… 😉

  • You will really enjoy it Brent. Remember to study the pre-reads, sleep plenty and pay attention when Kimberly and Paul are talking!
    Glad to hear you’re getting an MVP Discount. There aren’t enough MVPs trying for this cert in my view. I’d like to see some more go for it for SharePoint. When will you talk Joel and Mike Watson into it?

  • This is something I will be pushing for. Good luck and wish you success.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.