Everything I Can Tell About My MCM Exam Experience

I was recently extremely honored to find out that I earned the Microsoft Certified Master (MCM) certification for SQL Server 2008. For me, this is a major milestone in a long, difficult, and costly journey. I have received several questions about it already, and while I can't answer everything, I am happy share as much of my experience as possible.

Why do I want to be a Microsoft Certified Master?

MCM Logo If you're considering pursuing the MCM, you really need to sit down and ask yourself why you want to do it beforehand. If you believe that becoming an MCM will lead to being showered with job offers or a massive pay increase at work, I would urge you to reconsider. I'm not saying these things can't or won't happen, after all the MCM is a valuable certification that very few people hold. My advice is merely to not _expect_ it to happen. I've always been one to set my goals high and my expectations low, as I would much rather be pleasantly surprised if good things happen instead of being crushed if they don't.

Earning the MCM certification was a personal goal of mine. For a long time I've wanted to become the best DBA I can possibly be, and in my mind becoming an MCM is an excellent way to prove to myself that I'm on the right path.

How do I become an MCM?

The first step is to earn both of the prerequisite certifications: MCITP: Database Administrator 2008 and MCITP: Database Developer 2008. For the administrator certification you must pass 70-432 and 70-450. Passing 70-433 and 70-451 will earn you the developer cert. These are just the certification prerequisites – you should also have the experience prerequisites which you can see on the Microsoft Learning website.

Once all of the prerequisites have been completed, you'll be eligible to sit for the MCM Exams. Yes, there are two of them. They are the MCM Knowledge Exam (88-970) and MCM Lab Exam (88-971). You need to pass both to become a Microsoft Certified Master of SQL Server, and you're not eligible to try your hand at the lab until you've passed the knowledge exam.

How should I prepare for the MCM Knowledge Exam?

Everyone has their own combination of study methods that work best for them, but here's what I did. In terms of certification exams, I've always tried to study as little as possible. Anyone can cram for a test, remember things long enough to pass, and then forget it all shortly thereafter. I've said for a while now that if you really want to see how much you know, don't study at all and go take the test. Or if you feel compelled to study, only review specific topics you feel you need to brush up on. I recommend these methods for the MCTS/MCITP (SQL Server 2008) and MCSA/MCSE (SQL Server 2012) without hesitation.

All that being said, the MCM is a different beast entirely. Not only is it much more difficult, but more expensive as well. Most of the prerequisite exams are in the $125-$150 range, while the MCM Knowledge Exam is $500 and the lab exam is $2000.

For the MCM Knowledge Exam I think you should definitely do some reviewing, but once you feel like you're ready, you should try taking it. Sure it's difficult, but not impossible. I'll be the first to admit that it's not cheap, but there's no better way to find out what's on the test than to take it. If you don't pass, you'll have a much better idea of what to prepare for the second time around.

What is the MCM Knowledge Exam like?

I'd love to tell you about the excellent questions you'll find on this test, but I'm not about to violate the integrity of the exam or the NDA I agreed to. What I can do though is tell you about my experiences taking the test.

I took the knowledge exam at the Prometric Testing Center in downtown Chicago back in December of 2011, which I believe is (or was at the time) the only location in Illinois offering the test. Administratively, probably the only difference between the knowledge exam and any of the other exams I've taken there was the security: there was more of it. Before starting the test I had to prove my pockets were empty by pulling them inside out – this seems to be the standard for all tests I've taken. In addition to that, this time I was also wanded with a metal detector and my fingerprints were captured via computer.

The test itself was multiple-choice like all the prerequisite exams, but it was longer and the questions were more difficult. It did an excellent job of making me think, and was very much in line with what I was expecting.

How should I prepare for the MCM Lab Exam?

Again, different methods work for different people, but in this case I believe that regardless of your skill level, you should be preparing heavily for the lab exam.

The first thing I did to prepare started long before the MCM was in my sights, and that was reading blogs and whitepapers. SQLskills.com has an excellent list of recommended readings, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that I had already read a number of them in the process of satisfying my curiosity. (I re-read them all again in preparation for the lab).

After that, I watched all of the MCM Readiness Videos. They're a tremendous resource, covering a lot of topics and demonstrating many of their basic facets. That being said, watching the videos alone will not prepare you for the exam. They even warn you of this at the beginning of each video.

Then came practice, practice, practice. The lab exam isn't just knowing about features, it's about being able to implement them. I made sure I was familiar with the T-SQL syntax and (when applicable) the graphical methods for implementing all of the features covered in the videos and reading. I went through this several times to make sure I was good and comfortable.

But that's still not enough, because being familiar with implementing features in isolation pretty much guarantees an ideal environment for doing so. Is your production environment ideal? I know none that I've worked in have been. In fact, I've found plenty of surprises that have popped up – perhaps things done by my predecessor that have long-been forgotten. The MCM lab models situations you're likely to encounter in the real world.

The MCM lab is open book. You are free to use the copy of Books Online (BOL) provided in the testing environment to answer any questions you might have. This can be a huge help when used properly, but it's important to realize that the more time you spend looking through BOL, the less time you have to solve problems. Getting familiar with the installed version of BOL ahead of time may prove valuable when taking the test.

SQL Server has so many features and material to cover that there's no way to ever know it all. My advice is to do all the above, and when you feel ready, jump in and try the lab. If you pass, awesome! If not, just like the knowledge exam, you'll have a much better idea of the type of questions it contains and how you can better prepare for another attempt.

If at first you don't succeed…

Speaking of "another attempt", heh, I'll come right out and say it: I didn't pass the lab exam until my third try. I'm not ashamed either – it's hard! To protect the integrity of the exam, the results you get back offer very little information. There's an overall percentage of the passing score, and then it's broken down across a few categories from there.

I don't know what the score necessary to pass is – they don't tell us, but let's just say that it's 70% for sake of argument. On my first attempt I had 72% of a passing score, so that would equate to 50.4% overall. But again, I really don't know what a passing score is, I'm just pretending it's 70%. All I know was that I was 72% on my way to passing and didn't have much studying to go. I knew I did much better on my second try, but still came up short with 91% of a passing score, or 63.7% overall based on my assumption. The third time was the charm for me.

Microsoft gives out no information on this that I know of, but I would have to imagine that a majority of people don't pass on their first attempt. But I don't think that's a bad thing. The MCM has much more in common with a marathon than a sprint.

What is the MCM Lab Exam like?

I'll describe the lab exam using 3 words: great, fair, and hard. As a fellow MCM told me, "that test is no joke" and I couldn't agree more.

It's great because the questions are very well thought out and do an excellent job of testing your skills. Not just skills for accomplishing objectives, but also things like troubleshooting and finding creative solutions that might not follow established best practices.

It's fair because while it asks great questions, I didn't feel any of them were too outrageous. It was clear to me that I did a good job of preparing when I was not totally clueless about any question it asked. The scenarios are based on things you can reasonably expect to encounter throughout several years of real-world experience. I never got the impression that any of the questions were overtly tricky or written with sinister intent.

It's hard not just because the questions are great, but because it comes with a time limit. If I had a week to do all the tasks in the exam, I would have aced it no problem. But you don't get a week. In fact, you don't even get a standard 8-hour workday. Your time allotment also includes any breaks you might need. Need to use the restroom? That's fine, go as much as you want, however the clock will not stop. After skill, time management is by far the most important aspect of taking the test.

Testing Environment

My third attempt at the lab exam was done remotely from my house. This is an excellent option, because you get to take the test in the comfort of your own home. You can also have a drink or a snack while working, and should you need to take a bio break, you won't incur the extra delay of going through the testing center's security checks before resuming.

My first two attempts taking the lab exam were done at the testing center, but you won't have that option anymore. As of January 1, 2013, the MCM Lab Exam is only offered over remote connections. I think this is a great change that will make life easier for those attempting the test.

It's important to remember that testing centers cater to LOTS of different types of tests and many are not IT-related. I've seen people taking exams for accounting as well as medical certifications. My wife has also taken tests there for certs in her field. From my experience, testing centers are usually setup for exams that involve multiple-choice questions (lots of mouse clicking) or essays (lots of typing.) These tasks can be accomplished reasonably well on the provided 17″ monitor. The MCM Lab doesn't really fit either of those scenarios though, as you are actually carrying out DBA tasks in SQL Server Management Studio. While it's totally possible to get the job done on a smaller monitor, it's no secret that things get easier with a little more screen real estate. At home, you're already familiar with the dimensions of your environment, so there's one less thing to worry about.

Do You Have Any Tips for Taking the Lab Exam?

As I said above, time management is very important. As soon as the test starts, do some quick math and divide the number of minutes you have by the number of questions there are. This will give you a good idea of how many minutes on average you can dedicate to each question. Try to stick to this, as it's very easy to get sucked into spending too much time on individual questions.

Read through everything! At the Boy Scout camp I went to, individual patrols were responsible for cooking all their own meals. Recipe sheets we would get from the commissary always said something like "read through all of these instructions twice before you start cooking" as the first step. Just like cooking at scout camp, read through the entire test before you start working on problems (but only do it once – the clock is ticking!) Make notes about what each question is asking (scratch paper is allowed). Start working on the questions you think you'll be able to correctly solve the fastest. After completing everything you're comfortable with you will have the rest of the time to focus on questions requiring more work or that you aren't so sure about.

How Long Does It Take To Get Results?

Waiting is not fun, especially when you're waiting on the results of tests that you've spent so long preparing for. After completing the lab exam, there used to be a 30 day delay before receiving your results. This upset many people and didn't seem to serve much purpose. Fortunately the MCM Team listened and changed this policy back in March. You can now expect to receive lab exam results much more quickly.

As the blog post says, this does not apply to the knowledge exam, which is scored by Prometric apparently around the 15th of the month. It can take up to 30 days to receive scores for the knowledge exam, but it may be quicker depending on when you take it.

Good Luck!

To anyone out there who is working on the MCM, I hope you found this helpful, and best of luck to you!