SQL MCM Day 3: Thieves and Clerics

I played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons growing up, and part of the game involves building your character.  You picked a class like thief, cleric, fighter, and so on, and your choice determined the strengths and weaknesses of your character.  Your character’s Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Charisma, and Intelligence scores were affected by your class.  Players roll three six-sided dice to determine their scores, and their class gives them a bonus – or a penalty – for each score.  For example, a thief character might automatically lose 3 points of Strength (no matter what they rolled), but get a 3 point bonus in Dexterity.  Roll three sixes for your Dexterity, and presto – you’re nearly unstoppable in that one particular category.

Well, there's always Access.
Well, there's always Access.

Sitting in MCM training yesterday, surrounded by people with different backgrounds (developers, development DBAs, production DBAs, project leads, support engineers), the whole thing suddenly felt like a D&D game.  Instead of Strength, Dexterity, and Intelligence, our abilities were more like:

  • On-disk structure knowledge
  • Index tuning knowledge
  • C#/VB knowledge
  • Stored procedure knowledge
  • XML parsing knowledge
  • Backup & recovery knowledge

And so on.  I might have went in with a 14 for on-disk structure knowledge, but a 4 for C#/VB knowledge.  Nobody in class has a perfect 18 all the way across the board – heck, none of us even have 14 across the board.  But this raises two interesting questions; for each subject area, what’s the starting level for MCM training, and what’s the required score at the end?  In, say, the XML area, do you need to walk in with a 10, have the training start at 9 and take you to 14, and passing requires a 13?  If only we could lay it all out on a simple chart, but skills aren’t so easy to measure.

Look at it another way – no one person teaches the entire SQL MCM curriculum, but one person is expected to learn the entire curriculum at Master level.

The attendees’ attitudes are all over the place.  Some folks are completely comfortable with the odds being stacked against ’em.  One person noted that their chances of passing the first round are roughly 1 in 8 – they have to pass three written tests and a lab, four tests at 50/50 odds each.  (Turns out the odds are running a little worse than that – in the last rotation, only one person passed all the tests the first time.)  Other attendees are getting surprised by this news, because they’d only heard about the pass ratios without knowing about the retakes.  They thought the 60-70% pass rates meant that 60-70% of the attendees came home with the certification, but that’s not how it’s going down.  There’s going to be a lot of disappointed people.

If an attendee fails a test, they still keep going – they just have to retake the failed test later.  Retakes, even the final 6-hour lab, are done remotely.  Several MCMs and Rangers have told us to expect to fail our first test, and to just pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off.  I hear ’em, but a few of us are so confident in our knowledge of the first week’s material that we’ve vowed to throw ourselves off the roof of Building 40 if we don’t pass the first exam.  We’re only half joking – if we can’t pass this particular week’s test, we’re completely screwed, because this is our specialty.  We feel like we came in at 16s, and Paul & Kim have brought us to 18s.  Next week, though, all bets are off.

And for the record, my favorite character was a half-elf thief.

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24 Comments. Leave new

  • Blogging about it puts even more pressure on you to pass, so I feel for you. Good luck on the exams!

    • Thanks! We were talking about that very subject last night. Being online means everybody knowing your business, and that’s got pros and cons. You can’t have it both ways – you can’t be online with a blog presence, yet keep stuff like the MCM on the down-low. People are going to know whether you pass or fail.

      Once you get comfortable with the public visibility of blogging, the pressure diminishes. I really want to pass, but it’s not because I’d be ashamed to come back here to the laptop and bang out the blog entry about failing. I’m a real person, and everybody who reads this is a real person. We all have our ups and downs, our successes and our failures, and I can’t imagine one of my readers saying, “You know, I used to like this guy, but when he failed the MCM test because he sucks at XML, I lost all respect for him.” In my mind (and maybe I’m wrong), it’s almost a win-win. If I pass, people will be excited for me, and if I fail, people will understand and know that I’m just like everybody else.

      If a blogger wanted to deflect pressure after failing, they could say something like, “Well, I can see why people fail this test – the questions are bullshit, they’re all slanted, and the instructors aren’t covering the same material that’s on the test.” I could think of a million excuses, and that actually makes me glad that I’m the first guy going through and blogging every experience along the way. I’m *not* the kind of guy who will give an excuse if I fail, because if I fail, it’s on me. I did bash the 70-433 and 70-451 exams for similar reasons, but only because I passed. If I failed, I wouldn’t have made those criticisms, because that’s not fair. That’s me passing the buck.

      The biggest pressure for me passing comes internally. I would absolutely love to be known as the guy who passed every MCM test with blazing high scores on his very first pass. Nobody outside of Microsoft would know that, because Microsoft doesn’t release the scores, and frankly I don’t even know who would know it inside of MS. But I’m hypercompetitive about stuff like that, and that’s what drives me to study. I don’t think it’ll actually happen – if I had to bet, I’d say there’s less than a 1% chance of that – but there’s a chance, and as long as there’s a chance, I’m going to bust my hump to try.

  • Building 40? Suggest you seek lower building closer to Lake Bill. 🙂

  • I always enjoyed playing as a Mage (Wizard) or a combination class of Fighter Mage. Good luck on the tests.

  • Malathi Mahadevan
    March 18, 2010 9:17 am

    Brent, really appreciate your openness in sharing all this with us…i have two questions when you find time.
    1 If 60-70 percent pass rate is not accurate then what is the real pass rate? Or is 60-70 percent the pass rate with retries?
    2 You make a great point when you say ‘no one person teaches the entire SQL MCM curriculum, but one person is expected to learn the entire curriculum at Master level.’ Something does not add up here for me..perhaps this is for discussion at a later point but am not sure most people want to be masters in one specific area and this comes across more like ‘jack of all trades..’ or should I say ‘master of all trades..:)?

    Thank you again for your confidence in your readers as well as yourself.

    • Sure!

      1. The 60-70% pass rate is with retries. The first-try rate is much lower.

      2. It’s master of all trades, definitely not jack of all trades. If you’re a jack of all trades, you can’t keep up with the training, let alone pass the tests. If you want to specialize in one specific area of SQL, that’s great – you can make a great living doing that. But that’s not the Microsoft Certified Master.

      • Malathi Mahadevan
        March 18, 2010 3:00 pm

        Thank you, I guess i didn’t phrase the second question very well. I was wondering how one gets to absorb in detail every area of sql from all the ‘gurus’ who have spent so many years learning one area, and even if you pull that off would that mean mastery in the real sense of the word. Just thinking out loud, no answers needed, thanks again for taking time to answer amidst your busy schedule.

  • Christian Hasker
    March 18, 2010 12:58 pm

    The team here is following your exploits with interest. We are rooting for you big time! You know come pass or fail, we’ll still find a way to make fun of you.

  • Kazow! Did this posting every launch me back to the early 80’s. Several days each week, huddled around a table in the library basement after school, a group of us played endless hours of D&D.

    Great feedback on MCM, thanks!

  • The comment about having to learn all the stuff to master level is accurate, as is the one about no one person can teach all areas. That’s not because the instructurs don’t know all the stuff being taught to master level, we do. It’s because we don’t know all the stuff being taught in way more depth.

    Using Brent’s D&D analogy, for the stuff Kimberly and I teach, we take people to 18 level, and that’s what expected, but to do that, we know the stuff to about 24-25 level, *waaaay* deeper than we’d expect anyone to know. We have to know our areas to such a deep level such that no question can fox us and we can comfortably figure out what parts to teach to bring the candidates to level 18.

    Being 18 across the board is what makes a master – being 18 across the board and 24-25 in 1/3+ of the curriculum is what’s required from the instructors, so that MS knows the MCM candidates won’t feel short-changed learning from people with just the same level of knowledge as them.

    Not bragging, just explaining. We don’t teach *anywhere near* every detail of the areas we know – there’s simply no time. I could teach a week long course just on internals or corruption recovery or analyzing the transaction log, each of which I cover in a 3 hour module each, same for the other areas taught by the other instructors.

    The idea behind the MCM is to provide deeper training that you can obtain anywhere else, across a broad spectrum of SQL Server areas.

    Hope this helps answer these concerns.


    • There’s a really good joke in here somewhere about Paul and Kim being the dungeonmasters, but my brain isn’t wired up enough tonight to make it work.

      I gotta add – Paul’s right about the instructors knowing their topics to insanely deep levels. Several times in class, we’ve branched off to obscure topics inside Paul and Kim’s specialties, and there’s never been anything they haven’t been able to answer. As deep as you wanna take any of the training questions, you can go for it, and you’ll get the answers you want.

  • Malathi Mahadevan
    March 20, 2010 8:48 am

    Thank you, that really helped.

  • Brent, I am VERY jealous. Odd as it sounds, it really sounds like fun to me. Still thinking about tackling it someday… 🙂

  • I love the snake-eyes comment “Well, there’s always access” …

  • You can’t get to the roof of building 40. Building 22 just down the hill, however, has a nice patio on the 5th floor that will work exceptionally well!!


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