I’ve grown up reading Tom Clancy and probably most of you have at least seen Red October, so this book caught my eye when browsing used books for a recent trip. It’s a fairly human look at what’s involved in sailing on a Trident missile submarine…
In my recent blog post on “Retiring of the MCM Certifications”, there is a link to a Microsoft Connect item that Jen Stirrup started (https://connect.microsoft.com/SQLServer/feedback/details/799431/please-dont-get-rid-of-the-mcm-and-mca-programs) to keep the MCM/MCSM/MCA program alive. A few hours after my post, Tim Sneath from Microsoft responded to the Connect item. I want to respond to a few parts of his response. So that you don’t have to go search for it in the midst of all of the responses in the Connect item, I’m going to quote his posting here:
Posted by Tim Sneath on 8/31/2013 at 1:32 PM
Thank you for the passion and feedback. We’re reading your comments and take them seriously, and as the person ultimately responsible for the decision to retire the Masters program in its current form, I wanted to provide a little additional context.
Firstly, you should know that while I’ve been accused of many things in my career, I’m not a “bean counter”. I come from the community myself; I co-authored a book on SQL Server development, I have been certified myself for nearly twenty years, I’ve architected and implemented several large Microsoft technology deployments, my major was in computer science. I’m a developer first, a manager second.
Deciding to retire exams for the Masters program was a painful decision – one we did not make lightly or without many months of deliberation. You are the vanguard of the community. You have the most advanced skills and have demonstrated it through a grueling and intensive program. The certification is a clear marker of experience, knowledge and practical skills. In short, having the Masters credential is a huge accomplishment and nobody can take that away from the community. And of course, we’re not removing the credential itself, even though it’s true that we’re closing the program to new entrants at this time.
The truth is, for as successful as the program is for those who are in it, it reaches only a tiny proportion of the overall community. Only a few hundred people have attained the certification in the last few years, far fewer than we would have hoped. We wanted to create a certification that many would aspire to and that would be the ultimate peak of the Microsoft Certified program, but with only ~0.08% of all MCSE-certified individuals being in the program across all programs, it just hasn’t gained the traction we hoped for.
Sure, it loses us money (and not a small amount), but that’s not the point. We simply think we could do much more for the broader community at this level – that we could create something for many more to aspire to. We want it to be an elite community, certainly. But some of the non-technical barriers to entry run the risk of making it elitist for non-technical reasons. Having a program that costs candidates nearly $20,000 creates a non-technical barrier to entry. Having a program that is English-only and only offered in the USA creates a non-technical barrier to entry. Across all products, the Masters program certifies just a couple of hundred people each year, and yet the costs of running this program make it impossible to scale out any further. And many of the certifications currently offered are outdated – for example, SQL Server 2008 – yet we just can’t afford to fully update them.
That’s why we’re taking a pause from offering this program, and looking to see if there’s a better way to create a pinnacle, WITHOUT losing the technical rigor. We have some plans already, but it’s a little too early to share them at this stage. Over the next couple of months, we’d like to talk to many of you to help us evaluate our certifications and build something that will endure and be sustainable for many years to come.
We hate having to do this – causing upset amongst our most treasured community is far from ideal. But sometimes in order to build, you have to create space for new foundations. I personally have the highest respect for this community. I joined the learning team because I wanted to grow the impact and credibility of our certification programs. I know this decision hurts. Perhaps you think it is wrong-headed, but I wanted to at least explain some of the rationale. It comes from the desire to further invest in the IT Pro community, rather than the converse. It comes from the desire to align our programs with market demand, and to scale them in such a way that the market demand itself grows. It comes from the desire to be able to offer more benefits, not fewer. And over time I hope we’ll be able to demonstrate the positive sides of the changes we are going through as we plan a bright future for our certifications.
Thank you for listening… we appreciate you more than you know.
The first thing that I want to say about Tim’s response is that it would have been better – much better – to have included this in the email that was sent out announcing the decision to terminate the advanced certification programs. You will find several others have responded with the same sentiments. While this does not excuse this type of notice being sent out to all of the current advanced certification holders by email, or in the dead of night, at the start of a 3-day holiday weekend (that action just reeks of trying to avoid a backlash from the community), it does a much better job of explaining the “why”. Even if some of the “why’s” being given are suspect…
So, on to my responses:
Lack of traction
Tim states that these programs haven’t gained the traction hoped for, and cites a 0.08% of all MCSE certified persons has having the advanced certification. So, why is this?
The MCSE process is so easy, that people that shouldn’t have this qualification have it. This is a brain-dump certification. So many people have acquired this certification in this manner that it is a worthless paper certification. Its value to all has been diluted by so many obtaining it by cheating the system. As I mentioned in my previous blog post, and in my opinion, having the MCSE means only that the person with that certification has been exposed to the technology covered in the MCSE. It does not convey competence, or even experience, with it. So, Tim, start here. Make the MCSE tougher. By having a higher quality prerequisite to the advanced certifications, you will have fewer persons with it. So the percentage of MCSE to MCM will be much higher.
Because the MCSE is so easy, people that want to achieve the advanced certifications have a lot of work to do to be prepared for being a master. Most professionals at work only have to contend with the issues present at their employment – a MCM has to have a broad range of expertise across the product. This will require a lot more effort to learn and prepare for the MCM than what you will get on the job. Considering that most will be doing this preparation and learning on their own time, it will not be a short course. Many people that responded to the Connect item, or have blogged about their preparations for the MCM, are talking about preparation in terms of years. Yes, that is plural. And it’s no joke – this is not a short-term commitment. Excellence takes a while. If you pause and think about it for a minute, this is what we want for the advanced certifications – people that have been there, for quite a while, with an in-depth knowledge of the systems.
Just how many of the MCSEs, with that brain-dump that they did to obtain that certification, have the drive or passion to further themselves? How many want to go to the master level? Most will stop right there at the MCSE level. Why? Because they don’t have the drive or ambition to devote the required amount of time to learn the required skills to be at the master level. Because working with SQL Server (or any other platform) is a j-o-b. Not their passion. Becoming a MCM is too hard, and they can’t cheat their way into it – otherwise they would. So they don’t even try.
Another thing to consider for the lack of traction – Tim also states that many of the advanced certifications are out of date, and cites the specific example of SQL Server 2008. Yes, the current master level for SQL Server is only for SQL Server 2008. With a previously announced deadline (http://blogs.technet.com/b/themasterblog/archive/2012/09/11/mcm-microsoft-sql-server-2008-knowledge-exam-retirement-date-announced.aspx) of January 1st, 2014 for the SQL Server 2008 knowledge exam, how many people are waiting for the new SQL Server 2012 exams to become available before entering the program? I personally know of several, and I can’t blame them.
Considering the large number of paper MCSEs, and the low percentage of MCMs, I’d say that the MCM program is working as it should be – it is only for those that can prove their stuff, and getting rid of the fluff. The MCM program is fine – it’s the rest of the certifications where the problem is really at.
However, I have a suggestion for how to change things here. Be patient, I’ll reveal it shortly.
Lack of knowledge of the existence of the advanced certifications
The advanced certifications are not emphasized anywhere. When I present, I mention that I am a SQL Server MCM – and frequently I have to pause and explain just what that is. The industry doesn’t know. Not the SQL people hired to do the work. Not the managers. Not the businesses. Not the HR staff. Not the job recruiting companies. Almost nobody has heard about this program, or knows what this program is and what it means. And the onus for this comes back to Microsoft. If the industries don’t know about it, it is solely because there hasn’t been enough from Microsoft to educate them. There is no emphasis of the advanced certifications in other programs. There is no marketing of the advanced certifications or their programs. In short, there is nothing coming from Microsoft saying that one ought to pursue advanced qualifications.
Greg Low remarked in his posting in the Connect item two things that could be done to improve upon this, and I completely agree with both of these. Allow me to quote those here:
A first step in making the program more relevant would have been to make use of it within other Microsoft programs. For example, Microsoft Certified Trainers could have been required to have at least taken the knowledge exam. When I suggested that, it was met with howls of “but we’d lose most of the trainers”. While that’s partly true, what does that tell you about the existing trainers?
I think that this is an excellent suggestion. I’m surprised that one can be a MCT without a higher certification level than what is currently required of them. We need trainers that know their stuff. If they can’t pass the knowledge exam, they shouldn’t be training others. I sure wouldn’t want them training me, or anyone else that I know.
Greg also suggests:
Instead of abandoning it, why not take quality seriously and see it applied throughout related programs. The MCT program is one but another would be the Gold Partner program. Is it really acceptable to have Gold Partners working (and promoted by Microsoft) on the largest projects, without a single MCM/MCSM on staff? Why not require real demonstrated ability in the Gold Partner program?
Again, this is something that I agree with, and not only for the reasons that Greg lists. In addition, it will drive up exposure of the advanced certification programs. As the Microsoft Gold Partners start getting their employees certified as MCM, they will start promoting this to the businesses that they deal with. They will get business from companies that want, even demand, that MCMs be on staff to support them. This will in turn drive up exposure throughout the business. Managers will know about this program. Workers will become knowledgeable about this program. When these businesses start looking for applicants, they will start requiring a MCM. Recruiters will become aware of what a MCM is (I have yet to meet a single recruiter that knows about the MCM program for any platform!).
With this background, I present my suggestions to improve things with the advanced certifications:
- As I have outlined above, my opinion of the MCSE certification is that it is worthless, and only suitable as an indicator of exposure to a product. Therefore, the comparing of the MCSE to MCM is also invalid. However, revamping the MCSE would become confusing (is that certification earned before or after the new requirements?).
Instead, what I propose is to create a new certification, to be positioned between the MCSM and the MCM. Keep the MCSE as it is. I suggest calling this new certification level the “Microsoft Certified Journeyman” (MCJ). If we look at the definition of Journeyman, I think that it applies here perfectly. When we further look into the history of a Journeyman (from Wikipedia), we have “A journeyman is someone who has completed an apprenticeship and is fully educated in a trade or craft, but not yet a master.” In the USA, in the building trades, it usually has a time-in-field requirement. I think that a minimum amount of time as a MCSE should be included in the MCJ. Perhaps this time-in-field requirement should be coupled with the existing MCM Knowledge exam to be requirements for the MCJ.
The comparison should then be between the MCJ and the MCM.
A few people have talked about the MCJ before – see the “Stepping Stone Cert” articles at http://jasonbrimhall.info/tag/stepping-stone/ for more details and other links. (Note that some of the specifics mentioned in these articles were with the intent of this certification not being sponsored by Microsoft.)
To keep a synergy going with the certifications, perhaps rename MCSE or MCITP to be “Microsoft Certified Apprentice”. (The problem with this is that there already is a MCA – and it’s an advanced certification.) This will help focus things on the Apprentice to Journeyman to Master progression. Just don’t rename the MCSE to the MCJ – as the certifications stand now, the MCJ needs to be between the MCSE and MCM!
- Initiate a new policy for the MCT certification – as of July 1st, 2014, they must be a MCJ to retain/earn their MCT certifications. That gives them 9 months. If they are a good trainer, this should be just a scheduling issue for them to take the exam. If they don’t have the knowledge, well, then in my opinion they shouldn’t be a trainer.
- Initiate a new policy for Microsoft Gold Partners – as of January 1st, 2015, they must have at least one MCM on staff to be a Microsoft Gold Partner. This gives the companies 15 months to get someone certified before they lose their Gold Partner standing.
- Microsoft needs to keep the MCM program current.
- Microsoft needs to promote the MCM and MCA in all ways possible, and specifically in how they can really ramp up service to a customer when the customer utilizes a person with advanced certifications. Heck… I frequently see job postings looking for a MCDBA (for those that don’t know, this is a certification for SQL Server 2000). There is a serious problem here with all involved in knowing what the certification process actually is.
Tim’s posting on the Connect article still leaves several unanswered questions. Foremost amongst these is the apparent discrepancy in the timing. He states that this decision was made over the course of many months of deliberation. Yet during just the past month, there have been events that convey the opposite:
- Microsoft has accepted applications for inclusion into the advanced certification rotation schedule (see the remark from Heath Groves in the Connect item).
- The expansion of Prometric testing centers after de-coupling of training and exams (http://blogs.technet.com/b/themasterblog/archive/2013/08/12/you-asked-and-we-listened-increased-number-of-prometric-test-centers-for-mcm-mcsm-exams.aspx).
Tim also talks about the high cost for the participants ($20,000 USD). With the de-coupling of the testing and training, this cost is now much lower. The SQL Server platform has been decoupled for a while now, and since it has been decoupled, there has been an upsurge in people obtaining the MCM – myself included. The above link implies that the de-coupling occurred for the other platforms very recently. Since the training has been decoupled, this is no longer available only in the USA (the exams can be remotely proctored, and the SQL Server platform has had this as an option for quite some time now). The only part of it that is “English-only” is the exams – surely these can’t be that difficult to translate?
After debunking virtually everything that Tim has stated, what is left? Either, as several have opined in the Connect article, Microsoft wants everything as a *aaS service, and the advanced certifications were enabling on-premise activities, or cost. While I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if it’s the former, I strongly suspect it is the latter. Tim did make several references to the expense of the program (emphasis mine):
Sure, it loses us money (and not a small amount)
And many of the certifications currently offered are outdated – for example, SQL Server 2008 – yet we just can’t afford to fully update them.
To me, this just reeks of a cost-cutting measure. I think that Microsoft Learning has a line item in their budget called “Advanced Certifications”, and it’s large. Perhaps they should revamp their budget by product, and each product includes the advanced certifications. I hope that I’m wrong, but I don’t think so.
In this case, the expression “penny-wise, pound-foolish” applies. I would venture that folks with advanced certifications are driving many operations that net Microsoft a lot of money in licensing fees. I predict that dropping the advanced certification program will “lose” Microsoft more money than what the cost of administering the advanced certifications program is.
Is it time to stop being a DBA?
Unfortunately, this decision has already caused some people known to me to abruptly decide upon a change in their career. My fear is that there are more to follow. To those that are considering doing so, I request: Please give Microsoft some time to come to their senses and straighten this situation out. Please don’t make any sudden, rash decisions. Please wait until at least January 1st, 2014 before making a major decision such as this.
I’m glad that the media has been picking up this story. So far, I have seen articles from The Register , ZDNet, Windows IT Pro, The Channel, IT World and another from The Register. I’m hoping that more media outlets will pick this up, and as they do so and have articles about this, I will update this post to include them. My hope is that the major networks in television and print all pick this up and run with it.
There are a lot of people in the various products that are posting their reactions. Instead of trying to find and post each person here, this Google search has been quite useful to me in finding others thoughts: https://www.google.com/search?q=MCM+advanced+certification+retire
(I’m sorry if you prefer the Microsoft search engine, but right now I’m just not going to support it, or even mention it by name.)
Microsoft isn’t revoking the advanced certifications, so those that have earned it carry their title for life. And I would still have my license plate. (A special thanks to Robert Davis for the MCM4LIFE graphics!)
Keeping in touch
If you are going to comment on this action by Microsoft, please use the twitter hashtags #BringBackMCM and/or #SQLMCM.