No More (New) MCMs

There have already been several posts on this topic, but I feel compelled to add my thoughts to the mix.

MCM Logo For years I told myself only half-jokingly that by the time I became a Microsoft Certified Master, MCMs would either be a dime-a-dozen, or nobody would care. This past weekend Microsoft fulfilled this prophecy and announced they are retiring their most advanced certification programs: Microsoft Certified Master (MCM), Microsoft Certified Solutions Master (MCSM) which was supposedly replacing it, and [Microsoft Certified Architect (MCA)][1]. People already holding these certifications will be allowed to retain their credentials, but the exams will no longer be offered after October 1, 2013. At this time, there is no replacement for these certifications.

While extremely disappointed, I am now at peace with the fact that the decision has been made and nothing is going to change it. After taking a few days to think about it all, here are a few of my thoughts, in no particular order.

Why retire these programs?

According to the announcement: "The IT industry is changing rapidly and we will continue to evaluate the certification and training needs of the industry to determine if there’s a different certification needed for the pinnacle of our program."

That's obviously the PR-approved statement. The most believable actual reasons that have been offered center around a) the program losing too much money, and b) too few people earning these certifications. Tim Sneath, Senior Director of Microsoft Learning, touched on both of these points in his reply to a Microsoft Connect item that was opened in response. There is much speculation as to why these programs were retired, but in all honesty we'll probably never know.

The one comment of Tim's that I found most eye-opening was that only 0.08% of all MCSE-certified individuals have these top-level certifications. He said "it just hasn't gained the traction we hoped for." I have to wonder what amount of traction they were hoping for. 5 percent? 10 Percent? More? I didn't realize a certain number of people had to attain the certification in order to make it valid. If a pre-determined quota of people don't get top marks on a final exam, does that mean no student can? This vaguely reminds me of the "everyone is special" mentality. As soon as everyone is special, nobody is. If everyone had a master-level certification, there would be no point to it.

Why tell us in the middle of the night?

I've always considered the tactic of doing something in the middle of the night in an attempt to avoid backlash to be particularly shameful. That being said, here in Chicago we are experts at it. In my lifetime we've had a mayor take the oath of office in the parking lot of an abandoned restaurant at 4:00 AM. Not to be outdone, the next mayor took it upon himself to destroy an airport under cover of night.

I received the announcement email from Microsoft at 12:04 AM on Saturday. I realize that 12:04 AM here in Chicago is the middle of the day on the other side of the World, but an unscientific poll I conducted tells me that the majority of people affected by this are based in the US, and it was the middle of the night here. The middle of the night on a three-day weekend, no less. Was this to be upfront and transparent? Of course not – it was to give the maximum amount of time for tempers to calm down before everyone headed back to work on Tuesday.

C'mon Microsoft – you owe us a little better than that. If you know there will be strong reactions to a decision, why insult us all by announcing it at midnight? Do you really think some of your most proficient users are stupid enough to forget about something over a holiday weekend?

One month of notice, really?

The last day anyone can take the advanced certification exams is now October 1, 2013. That's a whole month of notice. That's just mean. I understand a cutoff is necessary and no matter what it is people are going to be upset, but there are better ways to do it, especially when it was made clear long ago that these exams were going away at the end of 2013. In fact as I type this the MCM page on the MS Learning site still says "You will have until January 1, 2014 to take or retake your knowledge and lab exams for your MCM Directory, SQL, Exchange, and Lync certifications…" Did moving the date up 3 months really make that big of a difference?

Even the TechNet retirement got an entire year of notice. I blogged about that one too, and I'm sure that affected way more people than this announcement does, but at least no TechNet subscribers can argue that they weren't given reasonable warning.

In this case I feel like the rug was pulled out from under a whole lot of people. I spent hundreds of hours preparing for the exams and taking (and re-taking!) them, and I know I'm not alone. To find out in the middle of preparing that you now have one month to pass the test or else never become an MCM – that's brutal. Especially because as I said in a previous post, I'm pretty sure most people don't pass it on their first try.

MCITP/MCSE is now the top certification?

Without a master-level certification, the new terminal degree for SQL Server is the MCITP for SQL Server 2008 and MCSE for SQL Server 2012. I don't want to diminish the value of these certifications, as many people work hard to earn them legitimately, however there are always individuals that ruin things for everyone. When you can buy a book, read it for a week or two, and then pass the test without ever touching a SQL Server, the certification can be perceived to have less value. I've interviewed several people who held SQL Server MCITPs and could not answer simple questions such as "what is a trigger?" or "please list two recovery models." And a certification that allows this is now the absolute best-of-the-best that can be awarded for SQL Server knowledge? That's a problem. People falling under that category are a big reason why so many in the industry don't believe in certifications at all.

It kind of reminds me of how my Scoutmaster used to talk about the now-discontinued Boy Scout merit badge for sheep farming. Apparently you could earn it without ever having set foot on a farm or laying eyes on a sheep. What made the MCM special was the lab exam requirement, where you had to prove your skills by completing objectives in different scenarios. No amount of written test questions will ever replace having to demonstrate you know how to recover a badly broken database while the clock is ticking. I have to imagine the same could be said for farming sheep.

Fading into obscurity

The MCM is a certification that many employers don't even know about: so few people have it that it's not always on the radar. Just a few weeks ago I was talking with a recruiter who congratulated me on becoming a Microsoft Certified Master – they made it sound like they understood what the certification entailed. They then followed that up by asking if I'm comfortable performing backups, restores, and working with T-SQL, because "we have a position you might be qualified for even though you don't have the 10 years of experience our client has requested."

I fear that even fewer will know about the MCM certification now that it's no longer offered and there's no comparable replacement. Explaining it to people will be even harder once it's removed from the Microsoft Learning website. I'm always happy to help others understand what the MCM is, but I worry that its value will only go down as fewer employers recognize the idea of hiring an MCM as a possibility.

Giving thanks

If there is a silver lining to be had here, I suppose it is that there's a chance of a pinnacle-level certification program being created again sometime in the future. Tim Sneath eluded to this in his post I linked to above, so I certainly hope it becomes a reality at some point.

Finally, I'm very proud to be part of a wonderful community of DBAs who all do a tremendous job of supporting each other, both in our careers and also in other aspects of our lives. I would like to thank a few individuals who have been particularly helpful in my MCM journey:

Chuck Rummel (@crummel4) – without whom I might not even be a DBA today. Chuck interviewed me for my first job out of college, and while I spent my first few years as a developer, he made sure I landed a spot on his team as soon as one was available.

Brent Ozar (@brento) – not only has Brent's blog been immensely helpful, but Brent was the speaker at the first PASS chapter meeting I ever attended. I reached out to him shortly thereafter and with his encouragement I joined twitter, started speaking and blogging, and the rest is history. Brent's blog series about his MCM experience first made me realize that I wanted to earn that certification as well.

Ted Krueger (@onpnt) – Ted has always had my back. When I think back to my first-ever presentation at SQL Saturday Iowa City in 2010, Ted cared enough to sit through my talk and give me lots of encouragement afterwards. I shudder to think about how terrible that session went, but after talking to Ted, I felt way better and had lots of tips for how to improve things going forward.

Kimberly Tripp (@KimberlyLTripp) and Paul Randal (@PaulRandal) – Kimberly and Paul's blogs are not only tremendous resources for those wanting to learn SQL Server internals, but they are basically required reading for those studying for the MCM. Their company, SQLskills, puts on phenomenal training that I was fortunate enough to be able to attend back in 2010. Additionally they have put up with countless questions from me over the past few years.

Final thoughts

Taking away the ability to earn the MCM/MCSM/MCA doesn't mean there will no longer be plenty of professionals who are highly skilled in Microsoft technologies – there will be new ones every day. However there will no longer be an easy way to separate the "good" from the "elite". By cutting off these certification programs, Microsoft effectively stopped accepting applications for their "A-Team" – that group of people you can count on when you're in deep trouble and desperately in need of help.

Hopefully MS quickly recognizes the need to identify these individuals and will resurrect the program in some way or create a new equivalent. Until then, those looking for such people will just have to follow the advice of one of my favorite childhood TV shows:

"If you have a problem – If no one else can help – and if you can find them – maybe you can hire an MCM (or MCA)"