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Understanding The Microsoft Certified Master Program

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Microsoft’s Certified Master Program is not your average cert track. Rather, it is intended to identify and support the ‘cream of the crop’ of IT professionals. Ed Tittel explores the program and offers insights into what is involved in pursuing this elite credential.
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If you’ve spent much time around any of the many technical communities built up and around Microsoft platforms and technologies—such as Visual Studio, the various Windows Server and desktop versions, Exchange Server, SQL Server, and so forth—you’ve probably also run into those esteemed and knowledgeable members of such communities known as Microsoft MVPs. In this case, MVP stands for “Most Valuable Professional” rather than the more usual meaning (Most Valuable Player), though it’s clear that Microsoft MVPs are real, serious players within the various specialized worlds that they inhabit.

The MVP program is described on the company’s website in a series of pages it devotes to Most Valuable Professional information. On those pages, you’ll find the following observations. “MVPs freely share their knowledge, real-world experience, and impartial objective feedback to help people enhance the way they use technology. Of the more than 100 million users who participate in technology communities, around 4,000 are recognized as Microsoft MVPs.”

By now, I hope you’re wondering why I started a discussion of the Microsoft Certified Master (MCM) program with a tangential discussion of the company’s MVPs. As it happens, this discussion is by no means tangential, appearances notwithstanding, because several of the MCM program managers with whom I’ve discussed this certification program have all identified “their” MVPS—that is, the MVPs who’ve earned that distinction within the subject area for one of the specific MCM credentials—as key and important target candidates for the MCM certification. To understand the MCM credential and the kind of person it seeks to single out, then it’s important to understand that it aims at the very best and brightest in certain subject areas. Who better to match this description than the elite MVP population? Please keep this in mind as you read the rest of this article, and ask yourself, “Do I have what it takes to be an MVP? Can I rank among the best and brightest in my technical area?”

MCM: The Generalities

“MVP-caliber professional” is a pretty epigram for an ideal MCM candidate, as I’ve already tried to explain. Microsoft describes the program as aimed at experienced IT professionals who seek “to deepen and broaden their technical expertise on Microsoft server products.” Their goal is to mold such professionals into individuals who can “stand out to employers and customers.”

Training experienced professionals is a different proposition than training entry- or mid-level career people, who will often be the first to tell you not only that they still have a lot to learn, but who are generally enthusiastic and interested in as much more learning as they can get. At the higher ends of the technical spectrum, things get more challenging: such students are much more prone to challenge their instructors, question their materials, and put the whole process through the wringer on their way to meeting educational objectives—and if they don’t agree with those objectives, they’ll tell you about that too, and probably try to convince you to change them.

That’s why Microsoft routinely puts its MCM candidates through three weeks of grueling classroom training, featuring the very best of its instructors and product experts, with three computer based tests (one for each week’s worth of material), plus a half-day hands-on lab-based exam that is designed to test the very depths and breadths of knowledge that the program seeks to inculcate.

Table 1 lists the five different MCM certifications, where is tied to some Windows Server based technology or product platform.

Table 1: The Five MCM Certifications

Platform

Certification Name

Notes

Exchange Server 2010

MCM: MS Exchange Server 2010

standard curriculum and exams

Lync Server 2010

MCM: MS Lync Server 2010

standard curriculum and exams

SharePoint Server 2010

MCM: MS SharePoint Server 2010

standard curriculum and exams

SQL Server 2008

MCM: MS SQL Server 2008

Classroom training is optional

Windows Server 2008 R2

MCM: Windows Server 2008 R2 Directory

standard curriculum and exams

At present, the only MCM program that permits candidates to skip the three weeks’ worth of classroom training and challenge the exams directly is the one for SQL Server 2008. It’s been around the longest, has developed the biggest cadre of MCMs, and is operating from a belief that MVPs will be more likely to challenge in and earn the MCM if they (or their employers) don’t need to pony up $18,000 for classroom training along the way. That said, the exams by themselves do cost $2,500, so the program is still not cheap, even when the classroom portion is omitted.

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