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Degree Seeker Week at SQL University, Lesson 3


Degree Seeker Week at SQL University, Lesson 3

Welcome back eager learners to Degree Seeker Week at SQL University. I’m your guest professor for this course and today I will be presenting Lesson 3, Advanced SQL Server certifications. The advanced certifications consists of the Microsoft Certified Master program and the Microsoft Certified Architect program. We will take a look at what these certifications mean, how to prepare for them, and how to succeed in the programs.

Hopefully you read the previous lessons. If not, I encourage to read them before continuing on.

SQL Master Certification

If you are at the point in your career where you feel you are ready for the master certification, then you are no stranger to taking certification tests. You probably have at least 1 MCTS and 1 MCITP under your belt if not more. Possibly even an MCSE or other non-SQL Server certification. So how hard could the MCM certification be? Right?

The MCM program is like no certification program you've experienced before. First of all, it's not available to just anyone that wants to take it. You have to meet specific pre-requisites and you have to apply for acceptance. Along with your application, you have to submit documentation that demonstrates your technical abilities to manage a SQL Server project and your in-depth understanding of SQL Server.


  • MCITP Database Developer: SQL 2005+
  • MSITP Database Administrator: SQL Server 2005+
  • 5+ years working with SQL Server 7.0+
  • 1+ years working with SQL Server 2005+
  • Thorough understanding of SQL Server design and architecture
  • Thorough understanding of SQL Server core components and dependencies
  • Ability to speak, understand, and write fluent English

    Application Criteria

  • Complete an application
  • Submit your resume
  • Submit a project plan demonstrating your role and abilities in a SQL Server project
  • Submit a document that you wrote that demonstrates your in-depth understanding of SQL Server's architecture
  • Pay $125 nonrefundable application fee

Post-acceptance to the MCM

If you are accepted into the MCM program, the work begins. You are given a homework assignment as soon as you are accepted. There is a pre-reading list for you to complete before the program starts. It's a long list, but it's not obscure. If you are like me, you've been reading a lot of the items on this list since you first became a DBA. There are no books on the list, just whitepapers and blogs. If you want to get a jumpstart on the reading list, I would go and read everything on the blogs of Paul Randal (blog|@paulrandal) and Kimberly Tripp (blog|@KimberlyLTripp). You should be reading these anyway. And if you can get in any of the classes or conferences of anyone from beforehand, do it. It will help immensely as Paul and Kimberly are 2 of the instructors for the MCM program.

I won't bother reposting the entire reading list here as Brent Ozar (blog|@BrentO) was kind enough to post the MCM Pre-reading List on Please be aware that this was based on the pre-reading list for the March 2010 rotation of the MCM and will evolve over time. The list posted here may evolve as well, but it may not be perfectly in sync with the real list.

Attending the MCM

The MCM is three intense weeks of in-depth training. The hours are long, and it is very fast-paced. Although you won't spend that much time in the training class, you should plan on it being 10 to 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. The actual time in class will be 8 to 10 hours a day, and the only Saturday you are actually in class is in week 3. I tell everyone to think of it as the longer time span to account for the minimal amount of time you will need to study. You will need to plan to spend your nights and weekends studying in order to succeed.

To be successful in the program, you need to dedicate the full three weeks to the program. Don't answer cell phone calls or emails, even at night or on the weekend. Don't expect to go sightseeing or visiting with old friends during the program. If you allow yourself to get distracted, you will not be able to perform your best in the program.

Criteria for Success

In order to successfully navigate the program, you must complete a series of exams. At the end of each week, there is a 2 hour online exam covering the topics covered in the previous week's training. At the end of week 3, the 2 hour exam is immediately followed by a 6 hour practical lab exam. You must pass all 4 exams in order to gain your master certification. If you fail any one test, they will tell you what topics you need to study further, and you will be allowed 2 free attempts to retake any failed exam. It is important to not let a failed exam waylay you. You're not alone. Approximately 30% of candidates pass all exams on the first try. So if you fail 1 or more tests, you're in the majority. Persevere and concentrate on the remaining exams. Ultimately, with the retakes, about 80% of the candidates achieve their Master certification.

The 6 hour lab exam is the exam that gets most people. I can't provide any details about the exam, but I can say, that you will likely need the entire 6 hours. In my rotation, only 1 person finished the lab early (and not by much). I worked right up until the end of the time period and there were at least 2 things I wanted to do that I didn't get done. Fortunately, the 2 things were trivial, in my opinion, and I passed the exam.

After the lab, most of us stood outside discussing how we had tackled certain problems. Many of the tasks involved could be handled different ways. That's one of the tricky parts to the exam. When you see a task that you can accomplish many different ways, you start to wonder which way is the right way. That's not the right way to think about though. There is no single right way to do all of the tasks. it's not just right or wrong. As part of the exam, you have to document everything you do and justify the decisions you make.If you chose a different way to address a task than the administrators expected, but you effectively justified your reasons and you accomplish the task, you get full credit for it. So don't get stuck trying to figure out which way is correct. Pick the one you are most comfortable with and can justify and go with it.

Tips for the MCM

Brent Ozar and I have both posted about studying for the MCM on our respective blogs. Rather than repost those here, I'll provide links:

SQL Architect Certification

To some, the MCA certification may seem like a natural progression for an MCM. And yet, a very low number of MCM's have attained the MCA level. I am planning to go for this certification in the future, next year perhaps. I know other MCM's that have gone through the MCA process and was not successful at gaining the MCA certification. I know other MCM's that have applied for the MCA program and are waiting for the board to sit for MCA review.

What is the MCA?

The MCA program is intended for professionals who have proven experience designing and delivering IT solutions for enterprise customers, and technical and leadership skills that surpass those of their peers. This is the top most certification available form Microsoft, and the MCA's are at the top of their fields. The pre-requisites are simple for the MCA. The only pre-requisite is that you must have a current MCM certification. Simple, right? Well, if you read the previous sections, you know that the answer is no.

As I said, the single pre-requisite is not easy, but it only gets harder once you have applied for the MCA program. There are no training classes and no exams for this certification. Instead you have submit documentation of a project where you acted as architect and then sit before a review board to defend your choices. The board will ask you questions about decisions you made and you have to be prepared to convince them that you made the right decisions.

MCA Document Submittal

You have to submit a dossier of documentation that includes your work history, an architectural solution case study, and a document demonstrating how your skills and work experience apply to the seven architect competencies.

The seven architect competencies are:

The demonstrated ability to articulate a compelling vision of change and to encourage others into action to achieve that vision.
Technology Depth
Includes a detailed knowledge of the concepts, application, and issues of at least two depth competencies, and the ability to assimilate information about new technologies quickly.
Technology Breadth
An understanding of best practices in architecture and the ability to apply them across a breadth of messaging or database technologies to create a solution.
Relates to an understanding of project and operational frameworks and ability to use these frameworks in projects.
Organization Dynamics
Consist of the ability to recognize and work with key stakeholders to guide a project to a successful conclusion.
Process and Tactics
Encompass the ability to gather and refine project requirements from both a technical and business perspective.
Includes the practice of maintaining well-written and accurate project documentation, the skill required to present information about a technical subject in a concise and measured manner, and the ability to influence others.


As you can see, seeking an advanced certification is not a task to be taken lightly. The requirements to get into the programs are pretty hefty, and they require a considerable commitment to complete the programs successfully. The ability to call yourself one of the truly elite makes it worth the effort. Unlike The Specialist or Professional certification tracks, if you successfully achieve the MCM or MCA certification, you will definitely stick out from the crowd. In the long run, an advanced certification is a valuable asset to have and worth striving to get it.

MCM Additional Resources

My blog posts on the MCM:
Brent Ozar's blog posts on the MCM:
The Master Blog (official program blog):
Program brochure

Candidate testimonials

Meet the instructors

MCM: Microsoft SQL Server 2008 datasheet

Registration information

MCA Additional Resources

MCA Review Board Process:
Architecture blogs:
MCA blog on TechRepublic:
Microsoft Architecture Resource Center:
Foundations of Solution Architecture:
Preparation Videos: