SQL MCM: Now, the bad stuff.

The MCM isn’t perfect. The instructors and David Ikeda (the lead for this rotation) are trying hard to make the experience great, but there’s some areas for improvement. I’ve been holding back from discussing them until I’d seen all of the instructors; I didn’t want to post a complaint and have people connect that complaint with a specific instructor based on the date of the blog post. The things I’m about to voice happened with one or more of the presenters. The attendees are given a feedback survey for each presentation, and I voiced these same issues on each presentation where they occurred.

Before I start, I want to point out that people paid a lot of money for this training:

  • Sticker price per attendee: $18,500
  • Attendees in this rotation: 11
  • Total sticker price for 11 attendees before discounts: $203,500
  • Hours of training (at 9 per day): 135
  • Total class cost: $1,500 per hour (not including travel, hotels, food, lost revenue for the 3 weeks, etc)

That number can vary – some attendees got discounts, sometimes classes will have more (or less) attendees, but I’m just putting a number out there. Because of the cost, I had very, very, very high expectations for the quality. Some of these complaints may sound like I’m nit-picking, but when the class is paying $25 per minute….

Most of the presentations and demos were AWESOME. Some weren’t. Some of them were so bad that if I was at a community event like the PASS Summit, I would have walked out and switched sessions. In a room of just 11 attendees, I wasn’t comfortable packing up my laptop and leaving the room – it would have sent the wrong message to the rest of the attendees who might have been getting value out of the presentation. When we talked afterwards, though, it was very clear that the other attendees weren’t getting value either. I would say that roughly half of the days were of the quality I expected, about a quarter were alright, and a quarter were bad enough to make me ask for a refund.

Some presentations were way below MCM-level – Too many slides were way, way below MCM-level – like a slide that explains the difference between Windows authentication and mixed mode authentication. (I don’t want to give more specific examples in public as the content is under NDA, and I don’t want to embarrass specific presenters.)  I understand that the audience has a mixed background, I wouldn’t hire a junior person that didn’t know that. Other presentations covered things that were outdated even before I started in IT over a dozen years ago.  If I didn’t know better, I’d think one of the instructors was getting paid by the slide.

Some presentations were way outside of SQL MCM territory – one presentation started with the question, “How many of you are comfortable programming C# with anonymous methods?” Forget the fact that nobody in the room (not even the developers) raised their hand – my bigger complaint was that this wasn’t mentioned in the prerequisite reading list. How were we supposed to be prepared to tackle a subject that was so wildly outside of our subject matter area? There were a lot of glazed-over looks in those sessions.

Some of the Microsoft instructors weren’t prepared – for example, one presenter said out loud, “I don’t know what that bullet point means.” I had to explain a point for him on his own slide deck. Dude, it’s your slide deck – you have no excuse not knowing what your own slides mean. If you’re giving somebody else’s deck to MCM-level geeks, you’re going to be in trouble, because we ask some really difficult questions. If you’re not prepared to do a 400-level deep dive, just give us the deck as testable material and let us have your time to do group study. Another presenter was running on four hours of sleep and couldn’t remember a question long enough to answer it – more than once, he got just two sentences into the answer and asked, “What was your question again?” I didn’t want to distinguish which presenters were guilty of which sins in this list, but this particular sin is so egregious that I don’t want anyone thinking Adam, Greg, Kim, or Paul were guilty of this.

Some presentations felt like marketing pitches – marketing slides are appropriate if the audience is entirely Microsoft employees, because Microsoft has to evangelize their products internally. They have to train Microsoft consultants to “sell” a particular feature. However, when the audience includes external people who paid tens of thousands of dollars to attend, absolutely no marketing slides are appropriate. I don’t disagree that the subject matter areas were indeed important to SQL Server geeks, but sometimes the material didn’t deliver on MCM-geek-level training – more like salesperson training.

Some of the presentations were no more than the prerequisite reading. After some of the presentations, we looked at each other and asked how they were any different from the SQL MCM pre-reading list. Ordinarily I’d be really excited to receive such high-quality training, but since I’d pored over the pre-reading lists, I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t something more. I can’t emphasize enough that if you really, really go through the pre-reading list, you will learn a hell of a lot, and it’s completely free. The challenge is setting aside the time to really go through it, whereas the class forces you to sit in a room and hear it out loud. On the flip side, some of the presentations should be completely discarded and turned into prerequisite reading, because like I said earlier, they were seriously junior-level.

Some presentations were bulletfests. Some slides simply recapped what was in Books Online. Paul Randal did a fantastic job of avoiding this – when he had to show a bullet list of typical syntax or options, he would say, “You can read this list as well as I can,” and he’d take a quick drink of water while we read it. He would then move on. Other instructors would read bullet by bullet. I can handle an hour of that, maybe two, but not a day or more. Even worse, some slides had 10-15 bullet points, and the presenter would jump straight to one bullet point and say, “This is what’s important.” We had to take copious notes on slides like that, but it makes later studying much more difficult. Why were all these bullet points lying around? Was there something we missed? Presenters need to cover everything in the deck, and if something’s not important enough to cover, rip it out.

Some demos weren’t prepared ahead of time – some demos were done as point-and-click GUI tours without a plan, roughly akin to watching Books Online live. As an attendee, that’s really frustrating because those demos don’t come with scripts and they’re impossible to reproduce later. When we’re under the gun studying to reproduce things in the lab, we don’t have a video of what the instructor did in the GUI, and we’re forced to open Books Online.

Some demo scripts didn’t work – the instructors upload their scripts to the group SharePoint site for attendees to rerun later during studies. Some of these demos didn’t work, and attendees only figured this out when they regrouped the next morning and shared notes, each thinking it was their own problem. Come to find out it was the instructor’s code…

Many presentations overlapped with previous ones – all too often we had to tell the instructors, “Yes, we covered that a couple of presentations ago.” The presenters need to download the rest of the decks, read them, and dedupe their slide decks for overlaps. Every $25 minute is precious.

Running on Empty
Running on Empty

We went offtopic way too often – sometimes the instructor would dive off into a pet subject completely unrelated to the topic at hand. They would go into Connect to show a bug they’d submitted, or tell us how they wish SQL Server would work, or how it worked back in Sybase. Normally, I’d love to go off on a tangent with these instructors, because they were universally brilliant. Problem is, we’re on a schedule, and all too often the instructors ran late. The attendees’ time to eat, study, and sleep suffered.  I’m just not surprised at all that the first-time pass rate is so dismally low.

Some presenters couldn’t manage time – we either had to stay late to let them finish, or they hurriedly raced through the last presentations in order to get done. Some presentations were skipped entirely. Neither of these is fair to the attendees. (No, Kim, I’m not talking about Locking & Blocking, hahaha – you were right to skip that one, because it’s prerequisite-level material.)

Now we’re in a really ugly situation – Friday is the last day of class, and before we even begin, the instructors are over 150 slides behind schedule. We’re not going to be taught everything on the original agenda, and yet we’re going to be tested on it anyway. We’re going to do a crappy job of covering too much material in not enough time, and then to add insult to injury, we have from 5:30PM Friday until 8AM Saturday to study the quickly-covered material, plus be ready for the final 6-hour lab.

I can understand why a lot of smart people fail the final lab.

And I’m pretty sure I’m gonna fail it too.

I’m not happy about that. I’m not making excuses – if I fail, it’s 100% my fault – but one of the attendees said it really well: “I wish I could have skipped the 2-3 days of less-useful classes, used those to self-study for the lab instead, and I’d be much more likely to pass.” There’s been a lot of grumbling lately from the attendees who feel let down. I’ve put together a couple of pages of detailed feedback for David, Joe Sack, and the instructors, but I’m waiting to put a few days of distance between me and the MCM classes before I email ’em. I want to make sure I’ve got them worded in a positive way, because right now they’re kinda bitter.

I’m still glad I went through it, though. I can’t even begin to gauge the knowledge I’ve gained. I’ve made so many notes of things I want to do when I touch back down on Earth, and I’ve made some great friendships with some of the brightest technical minds I’ve ever met – and that goes for both the instructors and the attendees. Yes, I just got done complaining about the presentations, but notice that I didn’t say the instructors weren’t amazing. These people have awesome, awesome minds, and they have an unbelievable amount of skills. I’ve got a half-written post circling in my head about how the biggest value of the MCM isn’t the exact step-by-step technical instructions – it’s the business-relevant knowledge of the instructors, and how they pass it on to you selflessly in a way you can reuse. At no time did I ever feel like a presenter was holding anything back from us.

I spent half an hour writing this to unwind so I could fall asleep, and I felt guilty this whole time for taking those 30 minutes as a guilty pleasure, but a man’s gotta do something to relax when the pressure’s this intense. Mission accomplished. Bedtime.

The next blog post will tell you whether I passed or failed, but if you want to know faster, you can check out my Twitter page for updates as I go through the exam and await the results. I’ll probably find out Sunday or Monday. Here goes….

Update 4/2: Joe Sack published a response on the Master Blog – “Free press doesn’t always mean lollipops and rainbows.” Both David and Joe have been exceedingly gracious about the entire ordeal, and they’re already working to improve the experience.  I’ve also gotten emails from some of the presenters apologizing for issues as well.

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30 Comments. Leave new

  • Ooppsss…!
    Yep I agree that all things should be well prepared and will be near perfect(99.98%)

  • This is why many of us look up to you and your posts:

    “but I’m waiting to put a few days of distance between me and the MCM classes before I email ‘em. I want to make sure I’ve got them worded in a positive way, because right now they’re kinda bitter.”

    This is definitely taking the high road and seeking to improve things, not just lamenting how bad things are. It also represents a great deal of self control because when we’re feeling nasty, we want to lash out and you aren’t doing that.

    I’m hoping you pass the last exam and the lab, my friend. I know you’ve put in the time and the effort. You always do.

  • I’d think that they’d video the lectures and make that available to candidates for studying. How hard could that be?

    It seems like this is a “part” of someone’s job, and therefore not necessarily their priority. That should change, an to some extent, MS should invest a few weeks of time for each lecture from the group that knows it best. There should be more consistent delivery of presentations and materials for sure at that rate.

    I suspect, however, that your $25k is for the marketing of the MCM as much as anything.

    • Steve – yeah, I talked to David about the video thing for another angle, too – prerequisites. I’d love to see Microsoft run a webcast per month year-round, going through a different prerequisite reading topic. Have one of the MCM trainers cover the topic for 2-3 hours. After you’ve attended all 12, then you should think about applying to the program. That way they also make sure they get some of the prerequisite stuff out of the way for sure.

      You’re right about the “part” of someone’s job – one particular session got cut off two hours early because the MS presenter had to attend a meeting. That’s just not fair to attendees, period. We paid money to be here.

  • Paul Randal
    April 2, 2010 9:46 am

    Looking forward to reading the feedback you send. I know for a fact that none of *my* demos had problems 🙂

  • Great post, and I can’t argue too heavily with any of your points, including a few things where I suspect you’re referring to me. One thing I think you should keep in mind (and perhaps you are) is that there is a fine line, as a SQL Server “master”, between what you -REALLY- need to know and what you need to understand, and the MCM program tries to walk that line. Add to that the fact that it’s a huge product–there is no such thing as a single definition for what mastery really means–and it’s a complex situation.

    Way below MCM level for you may not be way below MCM level for someone else, although covering mixed mode vs integrated auth is a bit iffy. Unless the instructor said something like “just in case you’ve forgotten, read this slide later, but I assume you already know this” and moved right along. Sounds like that didn’t happen?

    I think that the program could be structured slightly differently than it is today, but there is the issue of it being “part” of someone’s job. And the fact that there is really no one for you or anyone else to give that kind of feedback to. Rough situation.

    Looking forward to your feedback, and I have great faith that you’ll pass the test. Best of luck!

    • Adam – yeah, I hear you, but the “way below” stuff really is atrocious. Download the decks from the MCM SharePoint site, read ’em, and I think you might be horrified by some of the “Master” material. They were definitely not used as refresher material. Sitting at the back of the lab, it’s really obvious because I see attendees surfing the web, doing email, etc.

      • As someone who will be participating in future rotations, I appreciate the “heads up”. Realize that depending on who wrote some of the “bad” content, it was written and reviewed by some folks who had an idea of what they thought people needed/wanted. They may or may not have had say. With the new stuff I’m doing, no parameters have been placed upon me and if I fail, it’s on my own merit.

        I do tend to agree with Adam – MCM covers a lot of breadth (as well as depth), so no one is going to be an expert in everything, but mixed mode is a bit ridiculous.

        I may ping you for some other thoughts offline.

        • Allan – sure, I’d love to help if I can! I’m not surprised that the content’s not always relevant – it’s still relatively early in the program’s lifecycle, and the content’s still evolving, like you’ve said. I just wanna make sure it keeps evolving in the right way. I don’t want it turning into the MCMITP, so to speak.

  • Since most of the candidates (at least historically) have been Microsoft employees, that might help explain some of the uneven quality of the presentations and demos.

    The real and opportunity cost for a Microsoft employee to attend would be much less than a non-employee, and they would probably be less likely to complain.

    Good luck on the final exam and on the lab!

  • I was a bit put off last week when one of the presenters (term instructor intentionally not used) commented that he was using the same slide deck that he used for his presentation at TechEd.

  • Amazing post – I am sure the community appreciates your honesty.

  • Christopher Bellizzi
    April 2, 2010 1:36 pm

    So let me ask this how many of us >you< can really master everything that is in SQL server? Jeesh C#, Servive broker, SSIS, Extended Events, CDC, replication, mirroring, SAN, SATA
    What is the weight of an unladded swallow? aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhh!
    Hats off to all you brainiacs for ponying up 25K. I would not be offened for being brutally honest.

    • Christopher – well, I mentioned this earlier, but not all the levels are the same. For example, you’re not expected to have 400-level knowledge of SANs, for example – you just need to have a great grasp of it as it affects SQL Server. Not all of the features are explained to crazy internal depths, thankfully.

      • Funny thing about disk – for me, it’s one of the #1 things I encourage all SQL folks to know. The link between hardware, disk I/O, and SQL is not invisible. I’m always surprised that even some experts I’ve encountered over the years have no clue about hardware or Windows for that matter. It’s why there are so many bad disk architectures out there.

  • Paul Randal
    April 2, 2010 4:14 pm

    One thing I should add is that we’re (hopefully) going to be able to work with MS to change out some of the presenters pretty soon to bring the level of presentation skills and material depth/knowledge of the instructors to a consistent level of excellence. There’s just no excuse for demos that don’t work, reading from slides, or inappropriately lightweight/introductory/marketing material. It makes those of us that take this qualification really seriously look bad by association.

    • That would be fantastic. The more MCM training done by you and Kim, the better. You two were absolutely fantastic, and I’d recommend your training to anyone in a heartbeat.

    • I think every course is allocated one demo fiasco…it keeps instructors on their toes and also makes watching a demo like watching someone doing a skateboard trick. You don’t want anything to go wrong, but you want to be watching when it does happen.


    • Paul – that’s why what I’ll be doing in May is going to be very carefully thought out. It’s a shame all it’ll take a blog post like this to change some of it which may not be working.

  • I went through the beta rotation of a different series. Your commentary is right on. I have great respect for about 80% of the people who came in to present. The class was close to mutiny on a couple of presentations though because of exactly the points you mention.

    Overall, it was a tremendous value for tremendous expense. Now if the certificaiton wasn’t so rarified that no one knows what I’m talking about when I say I’m a “Master”.

    Good luck on the practical. I’m sure you’ll do well.

    • Ouch – I’m sorry to hear you guys had a rough time for those same reasons too. Hopefully we’ll work to get that improved for future rotations. I keep pushing my fellow students to fill out their surveys to get their voices heard, but it seems that the Microsoft employees are reticent to fill out their surveys. I’m not sure why that is, but I’ve got some guesses.

      You’re right about the lack of marketing for the MCM cert too, and that’s definitely something I’ll be working on – assuming I pass, ha ha ho ho. I’ll be pushing awareness of it.

      Thanks for the well-wishes – I’ll need that luck!

  • David Thomassen
    April 2, 2010 6:22 pm

    First of all, good luck to all of you with the final lab exam. I attened the AD MCM last year and found 95% of it very useful. (The one Marketing presentation gave my mind a chance to wind down for a while.) Some of our presentations were stronger than others, but the biggest problem for us was English being a second language and the lack of presentation decks to read the night before.

    It is a lot of money, but I belive that it is worth it. For anybody thinking about taking this course, read the preparation material, all of it, even if you think you know the subject.

  • Good luck Brent and thanks again for your brutal honesty and for sharing what it really is like, good and bad. Honestly if you charged $25 to read the blog i would pay it to read it 🙂

  • Hey Brent,

    Thanks so much for this entire series. You’ve done a real service to the community to expose the good and bad in this program to those of us who might never get the chance to go, or, even better, those rarified few who might just get the chance and are questioning the worth of the program.

    From the sounds of things, my guess is, you’re still a net positive on the experience.

    Best of luck. I’m sure you’ll pass.


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