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Get your Masters - Sort Of

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This article asks interview questions of a Microsoft Certified Master in SQL Server to get the basics of attaining the certification. I emailed a friend and colleague, Denny Cherry, a SQL Server MCM and Microsoft MVP to get the skinny on the process of getting the MCM certification and his overall experience.

A master’s degree is almost as necessary as a bachelor’s degree these days, and the requirement for advanced degrees has bled into certifications as well. Vendors like Cisco and VMWare have had advanced certifications that include lab portions or defenses (the CCIE and VCDX respectively). Microsoft is getting into the world of multiple-part advanced certifications with the Microsoft Certified Master program, which has a good amount of requirements and carries a rather hefty cost. In this article I will be outlining the MCM program and what it takes to attempt the certification.

What is the Microsoft Certified Master Program anyway?

The Certified Master program covers technologies like Exchange, SharePoint, and SQL Server. There are two portions (plus preparation) for the MCM: the written portion, which is the computer aided portion of the test and looks much like other certification exams; and the lab portion, which requires real problem solving skills to demonstrate that you are indeed qualified to be Master Certified.

How much time and money are required?

The preparation for this advanced certification is rather extensive in that you need to have a considerable amount of hands on experience with the technology you are testing for. This should be no problem if you work with a given product regularly.

You also need to pass some certification exams as part of the preparation process. Once that portion of the preparation is completed, then comes the fun part: getting into the program. You need to apply to the MCM program and be accepted once the prerequisites have been met. At this stage, if you are accepted, you will need to spend two to three weeks at Microsoft’s Redmond campus participating in lab environments and passing additional exams including a qualification lab exam.

For more information on the MCM program and its pre-requisites please visit: http://www.microsoft.com/learning/en/us/certification/master.aspx#tab2

Because of the requirements and my rather crazy schedule as of late, I have not yet attempted the MCM items. I am considering it for the future, but am not sure just yet if this big certification is for me. Since I have not yet gone down the path yet, I have asked a friend and colleague, Denny Cherry, who has taken and passed the Microsoft Certified Master Certification for SQL Server 2008, to tell us more.

    Derek: What made you decide to try the MCM?

    Denny: I am a sick person and like taking Microsoft certification exams (it helps that I know the material pretty well). I took the MCM exams because I thought it would be a challenging exam (which it was), and I wanted a way to really show that I do know my stuff.

    Derek: Has obtaining the MCM changed your career?

    Denny: I'm not sure if it has changed my career yet; my wardrobe has though, as I got a couple of really nice polo shirts from Microsoft that say "Microsoft Certified Master" on them. Honestly, I think that it has given me some more credibility, but unfortunately, I usually have to explain what the MCM certification means before they get it. With only a couple hundred MCMs worldwide on all programs, it'll take a while before the MCM name is as well-known as the MCSE name.

    Derek: What is the lab experience like?

    Denny: The lab is very hard, but I found it to be pretty fun as well. When taking the lab, you will probably know pretty quickly if you know what you need to pass it or not.

    Derek: What is the written portion of the certification like? Is it similar to the usual Microsoft certification testing experience?

    Denny: The written portion is just like any other Microsoft certification exam, except that the questions are much, much harder.

    Derek: Do you have any advice for IT pros looking to attempt the Certified Master program?

    Denny: Know the material very, very well. If you don't have a very strong grasp of the material, you will not pass the exam. This can be seen easily enough by looking at the blog posts of people who haven't passed the exams. The Microsoft MVPs who have taken the written and/or lab and have not passed have been very open and honest about the exam experience and just how hard it is to pass. These are very smart people who have taken and failed these tests. That should tell you something about the exam and lab.

    If you expect to pass the exam by memorizing brain dumps, don't bother. It won't work. Microsoft is taking some very special precautions to ensure that cheating like this won't work on these exams.

    Derek: Do you have any resources that will provide more information about the experience and exams overall?

    Denny: I put together some pretty detailed posts about the exam experience itself over on my blog: one for the knowledge exam, and one for the lab.

I would like to thank Denny Cherry for taking the time to answer my questions about the MCM certification and his experience with it.

The programs for developer-styled exams and IT Pro-styled exams are a bit different, but the difficulty level is the same. I applaud Microsoft for creating an advanced certification path—those who have attempted it. The program certainly seems interesting in that it is far different from the usual study and test certification experience most IT pros have considered before.

In addition to the certification and testing requirements, MCM certifications require hands-on experience with the technology and a significant amount of experience working with the product. Most certification testing cannot determine the hands-on experience portion of a requirement because the computer producing the questions cannot tell if you are a good studier or have worked extensively with the technology. This is not the case with MCM, because you also complete a lab exam to demonstrate what you know about the technology being covered.

What if I’m nervous?

Some nerves coming into play when taking the lab for an MCM is to be expected. I still have a bit of nerves when I get into the testing center and am working only with a computer-based test. It seems to be human nature, but the anxiety tends to subside after a little while. The same seems to be true of public speaking, at least for me, so I would imagine that the lab portion of an MCM would also produce some anxiety.

If you walk into the written and lab sections as prepared as you can be and are confident in yourself and your skills, the only thing you can do is give it your best. If you meet all the requirements and do that, you should be just fine.

Microsoft also offers the Microsoft Certified Architect program for IT professionals looking for advanced certification covering Windows Server and planning its deployment.

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