Before we start with the main part of the interview, tell us all a little about yourself. I for one am intrigued why you have capitalised the last letter of your first name!
I started development in 1972 writing FORTRAN using punch cards. Then I did assembly language programming on a drum based computer courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps. The only thing I have done longer than software development is my second love: Magic and Mentalism. I have been performing since I was 10 years old. About 35 years ago I introduced myself to a spectator at one of my shows and he said, ‘My name is Bob’. My fateful response was, ‘My name is boB too, but I spell it backwards’. He approached me about two years later and said, ‘You are the guy who spells his name backwards’. I have spelled my name boB ever since.
How did you start in SQL Server?
When I left the Marine Corps I started working as a C++ programmer for a government contractor. We submitted an RFP for the U.S. Navy, recommending C++ applications with SQL Server 4.2.1 (DEC Alpha version). While we did not win that particular job, I used that experience when I became a Line of Business developer for a consulting company. We converted Citrix / FoxPro to C++ and SQL Server 4.2.1a.
I have used and taught about SQL Server ever since that day (almost 20 years now). It was at this consulting company that I started my lifelong certification journey (NT 3.1/4.0 MCSE, and MCSD WOSSA).
What was the path that brought you into working for Microsoft?
When I left the consulting company I moved to Anacortes, WA to be a development manager for a long-term healthcare software company. Shortly after I was promoted to the VP of Software Engineering, I became involved in the Certification Exam development process (SQL Server 2000 DBA and Dev exams).
About three months after Microsoft and Accenture Consulting created a new company (Avanade) I was approached due to my history with consulting. After completing a product release (about 6 months) I chose to leave and join Avanade, where I was the Director of Database Consulting for the West Region.
My last engagement with Avanade was at Microsoft, running the project to update all the Microsoft Licensing systems for the release of Visual Studio 2003. Due to the high amount of travel, I choose to join Microsoft in their ISV Developer Support Program (part of Premier Services). Several years later I moved to Premier Field Engineering where I spent a large amount of time working with the Oracle Compete team. When the opportunity arose to take on the MCM PM role, I jumped at it.
I mentioned the term “MCM” in my opening statement which of course stands for Microsoft Certified Master. For the sake of those who may not know what that is, how would you describe the certification?
In today’s competitive market, data management requirements are more complex and diverse than ever before. Transactional and business intelligence data must be managed efficiently while providing enhanced security, availability, reliability, manageability, integration, performance, and data integrity. The investment in Microsoft SQL Server provides a more secure, reliable and scalable platform for storing mission critical information, and delivering the right information to users, while reducing the time and cost of managing data. With a Microsoft Certified Solutions Master (MCSM: Data Platform) on staff, an organization can make the most of its data.
There are obviously a lot of prerequisites before you can attempt the MCM certification. Could you outline the process that someone would need to go through in order to qualify for both the 2008 and 2012 programs?
First and foremost – hands on experience in a wide variety of environments. Also, both administrator and developer support types of experience are mandatory; along with the traditional subjects of security, performance tuning and so on. Examining the high level objectives will give you a good idea of what to expect.
There are suggested reading lists –
as well as a series of TechNet videos –
The biggest thing however that trips most people up is the Lab Practical Exam. This demands that you have used the features and can demonstrate that in a pressure packed hands on lab exam. Book knowledge may get you through the Knowledge Exam, but you must use the product in order to be able to pass the lab exam. Any many qualified individuals have to take the lab exam multiple times.
Additionally, for the MCSM: Data Platform, should you be starting from the beginning you must obtain your MCSE: Data Platform. If you are currently pursuing the MCM SQL Server 2008, you must have both your MCITPs (DBA and Dev).
Some people may not be aware that the MCM program for 2012 has changed quite considerably. In fact it’s not even called the MCM anymore, but the Microsoft Certified Solutions Master (MCSM). Is there anything that you can tell me about the program? I know we spoke briefly at PASS about there being a Microsoft led training course.
Certainly, the program change occurred to be aligned with the rest of the Microsoft Learning Certification stack. We are no longer going to have product versioned MCMs but rather a broader Data Platform Solutions Master. This will incorporate the current product versions, but will require re-certifying every three years. So rather than having MCM 2008, 2012, 2015 etc. we now have MCSM: Data Platform. Should you choose not to recertify, your transcript will reflect a data when your certification would become inactive.
The goal is to re-introduce MCSM training rotations in May of this year, which will include one week onsite in Redmond followed by 10-12 weeks of Virtual Instructor Led Training. We will have learning partners that will also offer MCSM preparatory training.
Is there going to be an upgrade lab from 2008 to 2012 as there was for 2005 to 2008?
The exam development process is going (slowly) as due to funding cuts it is a single-threaded process. The current MCM SQL Server 2008 holders will be grandfathered into the MCSM certification. They will then have a period of time to recertify, the same as if they were starting from scratch. So, that’s a long way of saying an Upgrade exam is not at the front of the development queue right now.
I’m uber keen to take the next step and want to become an MCM. What’s the best single piece of advice you can give me and others in my situation?
Use the product. Look at the objectives of the program, and evaluate were your experiences fit. During training on campus, we strive to teach 400+ level materials (100-200 being concepts and introductory, 300 being how it works, 400 and above is deep technical knowledge). The Inside SQL Server series by Microsoft Press does a great job providing many of those details for the Storage Engine and Performance Tuning (along with the developer topics).
The knowledge and lab exams are very different beasts, how would you recommend people approach them?
You are correct; the knowledge exam is a traditional certification exam in that it evaluates the candidate’s knowledge at the application and analysis levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bloom%27s_taxonomy ) whereas the lab exam demand the candidate be able to apply the knowledge at the synthesis and evaluation levels. What this means in practical terms is that the knowledge exam will test the why’s and when’s while the lab exam will test the how’s.
I’ve found the MCM videos to be great, are there plans to create more around SQL Server 2012 and if so when can we expect these to start being available?
Yes, as is everything else, there is a cost associated with the creation of the videos. Right now we are planning on releasing the knowledge exam first, the practice lab environment second, the new lab exam third, and then work on the videos. I know that is not optimal for those trying to prep for the exams, but the production of the exams are an MSL priority.
Are there any particular job roles that make the certification easier, for example would DBA’s have an advantage over a developer? What makes a good candidate for the exam?
We are looking to the complete spectrum of SQL Server professionals (at least the Database Engine portion). So, skills across the entire engine are expected at the MCSM level. Right now the plans for the MCSM: Business Intelligence have been place on hold, pending funding.
As to the best candidate – experience with implementing solutions on the product. Many folks are able to pass the knowledge exam, but are unable to complete the requisite number of scenarios in the time pressure of the lab exam.
Brent Ozar and Thomas La Rock have passed the 2008 MCM, but both did it in very different ways. What was the driving factor in changing the way the program worked and how has that affected the number of participants and their pass rate?
When I originally went through the SQL Server Ranger program, one of the high spots of the program was the on campus training. However, the down side to the program was that students had to commit to being on the Redmond campus for five weeks. As the program progressed that number of weeks commitment became a major roadblock to attendance. For individuals attending the course there was not only the cost of the course, but also the intangible costs such as T&E and lost revenue or billing.
So, the SQL Server MCM program was the pilot for the new scaled method. Training was no longer required, but at least in the beginning it was still available. Eventually, the training requirement was removed completely and in fact was no longer offered. So, Brent had the benefit of the classroom, instructor led training which included many other benefits such as networking and forming a community with the rest of your rotation. Thomas La Rock was one of our MCMs who went the independent, self-study route.
The program changing to the MCSM was driven from the senior leadership in Microsoft Learning and attempts to make the certification stack more relevant over time. Rather than requiring folks to dedicate large amounts of time and money obtaining their MCM every two to three years, we have extended the ‘shelf life’ so to speak, requiring less time and money to keep the certification active. As to the testing methodology, I am changing the way we do business in the next version of the lab exam. While the exam was great in the material it tested, it left a few things to be desired from a testing standpoint. I blogged about this here:
You must have received some great feedback from the program. What’s the most common response you receive and do they differ drastically from those that pass to those that fail?
That is a very interesting question. Almost universally, pass or fail, the candidates say that it was a challenging task, and that the preparation forced them to really hone all of their SQL Server database engine skills. The lab environment has been a challenge when hosted at our testing provider but we are working currently to improve that part of the experience. Most times the quotes go something like this: ‘I knew when I finished I had not passed. But, it was very fair, I just need more study and practice’ or ‘The exam really pushed me, tested very relevant topics, and I am amazed I got enough done in the time provided.’
As the marketing collateral states, the certification is indeed “the pinnacle of professional distinction”. What professional advantages do you think the certification would offer in the real world?
When I was in Premier, going onsite to the largest Enterprise customers, it was the insider pass. I would not have to spend time proving I knew the material. They saw the certification (along with my MCA) as evidence that I could handle the toughest problems. As an independent consultant, it almost always translates in to higher billing rates. And then there is just being a ‘member of the club’ with its attendant benefits such as private discussion lists, access to the Product Group PMs etc.
The fees associated with the exam are beyond many people with families to support, how would you build a business case to an employer to pay for or subsidise the costs?
This is a complex topic, and I will try and do it justice. For an individual consultant I believe the value and benefit are quite clear – prestige and increased billing rate to customers.
For enterprise customers there is a balancing act in play. ‘If I invest the time and money to help one of my employees reach this pinnacle of success, how long will I reap the benefits of having them on staff?’, the employer might ask. Due to the enormous time and money commitment, most employers will want some guarantee of having the individual on staff for a period of time. Many employers have chosen to reward their long time employees with the training and exams required to become an MCM / MCSM.
Thanks for your time boB, all the best for the New Year and I hope your foot feels better soon!
You can find out more about boB Taylor on his blog: http://blogs.msdn.com/b/bobtaylor/
Following this post from a syndicated source and want to read other interviews in the series? The anchor post for this series can be found here.