The Zen of Certification and the Microsoft Certified Master Program

The Revenant MCP

This week I became Microsoft certified this time by passing the SQL Server 2008 Database Development Exam (70-433) which bestows on me the privilege of calling myself a Microsoft Technology Specialist (MCTS).  I’m assuming this is the new and improved version of the Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) certification that I remember from the last time I paid attention to these things.

Microsoft Certified XBOX 360 Acheivement

It has been almost a decade since I have devoted more than a passing interest in Redmond’s annoyingly mercurial certification programs. I fondly remember the feelings of validation, accomplishment, and relief upon completing the final exam of the MS Certified Solution Developer (MCSD) track one spring afternoon in 1999. I rode that high for several months before the e-mail arrived from Microsoft giving me the “good news” that I hadn’t finished a race, I had only reached the front of the treadmill.

Dear {Insert Name Here},
We think all of you who busted your hump to get your certification are swimmingly awesome! So awesome, in fact, that we are doing you a huge favor. We are going to make your certification even more marketable to employers by upgrading the program. Well, not exactly YOUR certification, but the one you would have if we hadn’t just put an expiration date on all the tests on your transcript.
Isn’t that just marvy?

The realization that certification was a journey and not a destination was a bit of a buzz-kill for me, to say the least. I started to ruminate on my motivations for becoming certified in the first place and ultimately concluded that it was primarily an effort to credential myself for career advancement.

Is it worth it to continually renew these certifications every time MS incremented the annum on their software?

What is an expired certification worth anyway?


As the tests that comprised my MCSD were gradually retired, and I assume my certification status along with it, I began to wonder about how to document my situation on my résumé.  Sure, it was expired, but it doesn’t it mean anything that I ran this gauntlet, even if I did it in last year’s chariot?

Sure you summited Everest, but what have you done lately?

It seemed only fair to continue to mention the cert on my résumé because, after all, I had earned it. I considered adding a qualifier (expired), but that felt like a stain that screamed “I don’t keep up with technology!”

But that wasn’t true. I was keeping up.  I just couldn’t justify the cost and effort to continually re-take the exams. So I didn’t, until now.

So why now?

The whole reason I am even thinking about MS Certifications again is that my employer realized that they were perilously close losing their MS Partner status and the associated software discounts.

They desperately needed to affiliate themselves with some certified SQL experts to meet the requirements of the program, so I volunteered to give up a few evenings making sure I knew in how to properly  punch myself in the junk using the new features in SQL 2008.

The extra effort to brush up apparently paid off because I scored a respectable 925 (of 1000) on the exam despite the fairly extensive and complex content of the exam that often ventured beyond the features of the platform relevant to developers.

Advice for those taking the 70-433 exam

Microsoft SQL Server 2008 Database Development Training KitThe primary resource I used to prepare for this exam was the MCTS Self-Paced Training Kit (Exam 70-433) from Microsoft Press.

I found the book did a pretty poor job at explaining some of the material and went in to way more detail on some topics than was necessary to prepare for the test. I consulted to various blogs and MSDN articles when I found the explanations from the book too convoluted  or terse to follow (i.e. frequently).

For example, the section introducing Common Table Expression uses an unnecessarily complex query involving multiple joins that made the example too noisy and harder to mentally parse out the syntax of CTEs.

The true value of the book was the framework it provided for studying for the exam than the narrative in the lessons., but the included practice exam, which was way harder than the real one, and the included 15% discount code for the exam registration fee were nice extras.

Some general tips to prepare for this exam:

  • Focus on the new stuff: New features/changes in 2005/2008 are disproportionately represented on the exam.
  • Hands on Practice is critical: Implement at least one example of each concept against a database you are familiar with, not just AdventureWorks.
  • Take the practice exam early: Even if you do horribly, it gives you a list links to MSDN articles for the topics you need the most work on. I wish I had seen it earlier.
  • The practice exam is MUCH harder than the real one: I never broke 65% on the practice exam, but still got 92.5% on the real one.

OCD (Obsessive Completionist Disorder) Takes Root

A few days after passing the exam, I get another of those congratulatory e-mails from Microsoft with a link to the special MCP site where I can see all the perks associated with certification.

That’s all fine until I notice the “Certification Planner” link that informs me that I am one measly test away from the “Microsoft Certified IT Professional” level.MCTS is for schmucks who can’t commit.

This “you are on step 3 of 4” type marketing scheme, is a particular weakness of mine. It is the sole reason I am completely addicted to Mafia Wars, despite the fact that it is a completely pointless game with no action or any real strategy to it.

Mafia Wars

27% ??? That Just won't do!

This is exactly why I’ll probably take that other test regardless of the fact that it really provides very little, if any, additional wow factor to my resume.

Somewhere in the Monk area of my brain, I just know it is a terrible thing for me to be 50% of the way to a MCITP certification for SQL, despite the fact that was perfectly happy at 0%.

What’s the harm anyway? My employer will probably pick up the tab for the exam fees and preparation materials and I always learn something new while preparing for these. Right?

Then I stumbled upon this…

The Microsoft Certified Master (MCM) Program

… crap …

The two tests for the MCITP certification along with 10 years of IT experience and 5 years of SQL experience make you eligible to apply to the mother of all  Microsoft certifications (MOAMC).

Interesting, tell me more…

I need to send a resume and get approved to even try for the certification?
That sounds super exclusive, cool!

A mandatory three week training program on-site in Redmond?
That might be a tough sell for my boss, but it would be cool to get a peek inside MS HQ.
Act now and get a $3,550 discount on the registration fee.
Wait a second, how much is that registration fee exactly?

Registration fee: $18,500.

Ready to Become A Master?

This MCM ad is a "save the queen" away from being an Evony ad.

Yeah. I don’t think my boss is gonna go for that, even with the helpful ROI calculation they link to in the FAQ. The boss does ROI calculations too and knows the smell of his own BS, and will probably recognize the scent of someone else’s.

So I am gonna be on my own dime and use all my days off if I want to pursue this? Or perhaps I could spend the same money and get an MBA at a mid-level school, which has a much better chance of increasing my earning potential and won’t expire when SQL 2010 is in vogue. It seems kind of like getting a phD in VCR repair.

The comparison to a college degree doesn’t stop there. Tell me this doesn’t sound eerily similar to a Master’s thesis:

The time it takes varies, depending on the candidate. However, the estimated time for fully qualified architects to prepare their documentation and prepare for the Review Board interview process is typically 80 to 120 hours, over a period of three to six months

Who is getting this MCM Certification?

It does appear that this is a pretty exclusive club based Microsoft’s fluff-laden marketing-speak description of the corpus of MCX recipients.

Worldwide, more than 300 Microsoft Certified Masters (MCMs) and Microsoft Certified Architects (MCAs) specialize in specific technologies, and more than 125 specialize in infrastructure and solutions. Those who hold these industry-leading certifications live and work in many countries and regions, including the United States, Europe, Latin America, and Asia Pacific. All have varied backgrounds, interests, and extensive experience.

In fact, on the very same page it appears to list every holder of this certification, which gives some interesting insight into the target candidates for the program.

Just from an eyeball estimate, it appears that MS employees comprise around 80% of the people who have this level of certification. I’m assuming they get a substantial discount beyond the $3,550 special.

For now, I’m gonna have to put this on the “Fat Chance” wish-list, and settle for the MCAD program or something more economical.

What do you think?

Is this certification the least bit enticing to you?
Have you even heard of the MCM or MCA programs, and if not is it worth the money if you have to explain it to a potential employer?

3 Responses

  1. There are 3 MCMs on my team. SQL, Exchange and AD, of corse I work for a leading tech company and I hope to be sent for the MCM program this year in the companny’s dime.
    It costs you about 25k in fees plus travel expenses but this is money well spent. This will get you way more than the certified status, but you also build connections and receives priviledged information not acessible out of MS for most professionals.
    If you put things in perspective, 25k is the price of a single server and having highly skilled pros will save you way more than that. The company I work for runs over 10.000 servers.
    Real cost of the certification comes with talent retantion, this ends up costing way more than the initial investment.

    If you are into a small or medium business or have to act as a generalist, this is not for you.

  2. Hi,

    Here’s a quick look into what it’s like to attend the MCM – from my perspective 20 months ago. If you are ready, I say, “Go for it!”



  3. Thanks for the tips on 70-433, and for making me chuckle at your comments on MCM – “phD in VCR repair” being the highlight!

    Seriously though, thanks you’ve cheered me up. I’m studying for 70-433, didn’t take the practice exam early, and got a bit down when I did take it and only got 60%.

    I’m halfway through ch.8 now so I might skim the rest, do a bit of revision and take the plunge pretty soon



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