Open Source the MCM

It’s over. There’s no more MCM program or certification from Microsoft. The last MCM test was given last year and no upgrades are planned for SQL Server 2012 or SQL Server 2014. That’s a little sad, though there are quite a few of our SQL Server professionals that can still proudly wear the MCM title for the rest of their careers.

The MCM tests were designed differently than all the other MCP type tests, requiring more thought and deduction, as well as practical skills. The lab in particular was daunting to many of the MCMs, most of whom would tell you about the difficulties in getting through the scenarios in the limited time alloted. All of the people I’ve talked to found the challenge refreshing and also informative, enabling them to learn a few things about their knowledge, even from the problems they didn’t complete.

Since that chapter in Microsoft Learning is complete, and the tasks likely out of date, I’d ask that Microsoft Learning release the questions and scenarios to the world as an open source project. Unlike the other certifications and exams, these questions aren’t going to be re-used anytime soon and the knowledge could help many people learn to build better solutions.

This would be a great move, allowing many DBAs to challenge themselves with the questions and scenarios in practice labs. The types of scenarios could be used in interviews for new employees, either as they are written or modified for a particular environment. Professionals using the SQL Server platform would get an idea of not only the broad level of knowledge that MCMs have, but they’d also have a way to test themselves and direct their own learning to become better rounded SQL Server developers and administrators.

I doubt it would happen, but I’d think Microsoft could help the community, generate some goodwill, and help improve the overall quality of people working on their platform.

Update: I have opened a Connect item for this. Please vote


The Future of Knowledge Measurement

This is part 3 of a 3 part series of thoughts on certification and Microsoft technologies.

We’ll never be able to completely and accurately measure a person’s skills in technology. At least not in any cost- and time-effective way. Ultimately we want to come up with some way to weed through candidates and ensure they have a minimum aptitude for technology and some level of skill in the areas that are important to us. We want a way, with some level of confidence, to say that a person who has xx certification knows yy skills.

In the Microsoft world we can be sure that our platforms and technologies will change at least every 2-3 years, with major or minor revisions to all parts of the product we use. We might see minor tool changes, but fundamental feature enhancements or vice versa.  However even when there are major changes, the revisions to the effective way we accomplish tasks doesn’t change much. It evolves, and I think that a core set of skills can be measured, and more importantly, scored.

How we do that, I’m not sure. As Brent Ozar said, however, the experiment must go on. We, as an industry and group, should be finding ways to assess our community, and drive forward our profession. I’d like to think that we could build an open source framework that allows for the presentation of a situation, and the evaluation of a result. It could be a framework like tsqlt, which allows us to write tests that can be evaluated by a scoring system. By taking a script of some sort, and comparing it to a “question”, some automated measurement would be able to determine if the question was answered (or partially answered).

Our community could easily build a bank of hundreds, if not thousands, of questions. Want to evaluate someone? Download 50 questions, drop someone in a room for an hour and see how much they get done. They might not finish, which would be a good test in and of itself. Run their answers through a scoring engine and get a report back. With tags, we could easily separate questions into a variety of packs that employers could use to test certain areas. Testing core skills, without too much worry about version specific items would allow questions to live for years. Heck, with the age of some SQL Server instances out here, I bet some companies still need SQL Server 2000 based tests.

Ultimately I don’t think Microsoft will properly build and maintain a framework to evaluate candidates. They have too much incentive to cheat. They can fool lots of employers with easy to pass, paper diplomas and turn a profit with lots of easy certifications that sound good, but don’t really test skills. The future of measurement in technology will be like it is in many other fields, with independent bodies that provide a minimal level of educational skill for most individuals. It will consist of granular tests that measure skills, in real situations, not question and answer trivia. Some people will slip through, some will cheat, but it will work well enough when it falls out of the hands of vendors.

Until that time, all you can do is prove your own skills, in person, through your publications, or with lots of good, valuable answers given to others.

Steve Jones

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What does certification achieve?

This is part 2 of a 3 part series of thoughts on certification and Microsoft technologies.

The idea of certifying someone as having a skill is almost as old as the idea of teaching someone a skill. I’m sure as soon as a person had the idea of teaching someone for compensation, others wanted some assurance that the person had learned the skill. That was probably the first time that a test was developed, graded, and scores passed out.

We all know that a certificate or a test score doesn’t imply any level of competence at a skill. If I had to weld two pieces of metal together as a test, successfully completeing this wouldn’t imply that I could weld any two other pieces of the same metal together (size, scale, etc. matter). It wouldn’t even imply that I’d do as good a job welding the 99th and 100th pieces together in a week as I’d done during the test. The same would hold true in almost any endeavor, but we still have tests, grades, certifications, diplomas, and awards in many different fields.

Is IT that different? In one sense it is. The technology field seems to change so often, and the bars for entry (and thus hiring) are so low that it’s difficult to set up standardized tests, often because it’s not cost effective. Medicine and law change constantly, but their tests slowly evolve, and they certainly don’t change at the rate of SQL Server versions and tests. It’s also more cost effective to create new revisions of tests in these other fields when the candidates have made a large investment in their education and regulatory agencies require licenses to practice in these other fields.

However I might argue that technology doesn’t change that much. The idea of backing up a SQL Server database, rebuilding a clustered index, adding a login, querying for duplicates, and more haven’t changed much in the two decades I’ve worked with the product. The actual syntax might be different, but are we hiring people that remember syntax or accomplish tasks?

I think that’s the point of certification. It should be a method that gives others confidence that an individual can accomplish a task, or has some basic skill. I’d argue the current set of tests, questions, and even structure of the MCSE/MCITPro/MCSA whatever doesn’t remotely do that. It doesn’t test skills, tests knowledge at the base level of memorization, and fails to provide a basic bar that we can be sure everyone has met.

Perhaps those aren’t Microsoft’s goals. Perhaps they value their profits higher than the certification that individuals hold skills, perhaps they view these designations as a part of their marketing effort to sell software. Perhaps they have other goals. All I know is that as long as employers ask for these certifications in job postings, as long as employers pay for tests and candidates take them, why should Microsoft change?

If we all believe the emperor has clothes, does it matter if he really wears any?

Steve Jones

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No More MCM

This is part 1 of a 3 part series of thoughts on certification and Microsoft technologies.

I’ve heard that Friday afternoon is the best time to fire someone. People are leaving early, the office is quiet, and you can let people go quickly and get yourself away. It also gives the remaining employees some time to grieve, and hopefully, come back to work Monday without some of the shock they initially experienced. At least, that’s what they say. Personally I think there’s no good day, and productivity always suffers somewhat whenever there’s surprising, upsetting news.

Recently, just before the US Labor Day holiday, late on a Friday, I saw a number of announcements on Twitter that the MCM program had been discontinued. Since I was on holiday, I thought I’d missed something, but apparently not. It was late on a Friday that the an email was sent to all MCMs and MCAs notifying them of the change. It was a brief email, noted here, and didn’t include some of the reasons of that were given as a comment in a Connect item filed to save the program (the comment was from Tim Sneath at 1:32pm). There’s been a variety of coverage and blogs around the Internet as well.

We aren’t being told the whole truth, nor do I expect to be told the whole truth. This is Microsoft’s program, and as such, we follow along and adjust, or choose to ignore it. In this case, I can’t believe that this was anything other than a cost based issue, designed to reduce expenses and raise profits. In all likelihood, someone(s) bonus depended on internal Microsoft Learning metrics being met (probably revenue or profit numbers), which the MCM/MCA program were reducing. In an effort to look better, the program was chopped, without a lot of input, communication, or discussion with the people actually working to better the program. I expect Tim Sneath and others were caught off guard with the decision and told to deal with it. They did so poorly, extremely poorly. In hindsight, I’m sure someone wishes they’d composed a better message and delayed sending it for a couple days.

I attempted the first part of the MCM early on, with a voucher. I didn’t pass, but I learned how hard the exam was, realized it was within my capabilities, but that it would require some serious study. I didn’t proceed further because of other commitments, but I’ve watched more and more people work through the MCM process, usually over months or years as they learn, struggle, research, and drive themselves forward.

Ultimately the achievement isn’t the certification, but the journey. The efforts candidates go through, the knowledge they acquire from study and hard work, and perhaps more importantly, the skills they build to teach themselves new techniques. I wouldn’t hire an MCM because I was sure they necessarily knew everything about my environment. I’d hire them because I would be 100% confident they could find the problem and fix it, no matter whether they used old knowledge or acquired new proficiency on the spot.

That was the real value of someone who completed, or even seriously worked towards, an MCM.

Steve Jones

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Those Who Can, Do

Getting a certification like this is good if it teaches you new skills and you use them.
Getting a certification like this is good if it teaches you new skills and you use them.

There was a time I considered staying in college, getting a masters or PhD and teaching others. I still might follow that path at some point since I enjoy speaking and teaching others how to better work with SQL Server. At some point, however, I became frustrated with the theoretical approaches many teachers had. Like many 20-something-old students I tended to subscribe to the mantra “those that can, do. Those that can’t, teach.”

I was reminded of that by this piece: Those Who Can Do, Those Who Can’t, Get Ceritified. It compares IT workers to the computer systems they manage, and it points out that if all that’s required is to pass a test, that’s something a computer can do very well, perhaps even replacing those that can just answer questions in their daily work.

There’s some truth to that. I always wonder about a person that has 3, 4, or more certifications; do they have actual skills with the product?. Have they actually used the knowledge from those certifications in their work? Is the certification the goal, or is it a way to learn skills and knowledge that can be applied at work? If it’s the former and not the latter, then I’d say your efforts to advance your career through certification are poorly aimed.

However if the certification gives you structure and focus, if it allows you to improve the skills you have, and bolster the weak areas in your knowledge, it can be beneficial to your career. If you are taking that knowledge and using it in your daily work, or even in your spare time, then the certification is merely a stepping stone to something greater.

I don’t think that people who are certified are somehow incompetent at their jobs, but they have to showcase more than just the certification for me to believe they are valuable employees.

Steve Jones

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Almost an MCSA

I took four beta tests earlier this year for SQL Server 2012. I had debated writing another book, and I’ve worked on a few of the cert books in the past, so I thought this would be a good chance to look at the tests. Since I had free invites to the beta program, I also thought, what the heck. The worst that can happen is I fail.

It’s been about two months, and I was waiting for results when someone mentioned that the Prometric site had the results, though they weren’t yet up on the MCP site. I checked, and sure enough I had results for some of my exams. I checked a few days later, and found results for all four of my tests. They were:

All passed, which was cool. I think certification is what you make of it, and I’ve been looking over lots of SQL Server 2012 stuff for almost a year, so to me it says I have some good knowledge of SQL Server 2012. The tests were a good mix of old and new stuff, and not as focused on the new features, which was good.

The MCSA track for SQL Server 2012 needs 461, 462 and 463. I skipped 463 in the beta cycle because I’m not much of a DW person, and I was busy. Fitting in 4 exams across two weeks was hard, and took time away from work that I had to make up at night.

I’m not overly concerned about being certified, but it’s a nice feather to have in your cap. The MCSE for SQL Server 2012 requires the MCSA and 464 and 465, which I have. So one more test and I’d have the MCSE as well.

My goal now is to start studying for 463, after I get a few more presentations built that I need for work. I hope to get to this test in the fall, or perhaps at the end of the year, depending on my schedule. I haven’t done a lot with the DW side of things, so I’ll be working, and likely writing, about a few more DW topics later this year.

The Certification Debate

MCITPro Logo
Is certification worth it? I think it can be.

Today’s editorial was originally published on Aug 7, 2007. It is being re-run as Steve is on holiday.

Is it worth getting certified? What do you get out of it? I’ve noticed a few debates on the site, and many threads asking about the exams, preparation, and even requirements for certification. Since we’re primarily a learning site, publishing new information for you on a daily basis, the whole certified v real world experience question is interesting to me.

I read this interview with the CEO of New Horizons and it kind of annoyed me since the guy has an inherent bias towards certifications. Most of the New Horizon’s classes are “official” classes from Microsoft designed and built to move you along the path to certification, not really to do your job.

And make both Microsoft and the training company money.

I have to admit that I have a bias here since I used to own part of a training company that delivers custom training in Orlando. However our intention in starting the training company was to help those with a need for SQL Server training that would teach them things needed in the real world, not just things needed to pass some test. There’s a difference and I might not feel quite the same way if Microsoft offered an SSIS certification, an HA certification, a replication certification and more. Heck, I write the QODs, granted sometimes badly , but I know there’s enough stuff to test people on in each of those areas.

I think the idea of certification is a good one and it has the potential to really help differentiate those with the ability to perform well in a job and those that won’t do as well. However the testing has to be geared towards that and we need ways to differentiate the skills and abilities. Without some type of internships, residencies, and focus on some specialty, attaining some certification doesn’t really help. And I’m not sure that many of us know what we want to do and are willing to invest 5 years in training in one area.

Most employers now realize that a certification, or at least most certifications, in the IT industry is one small measure of an employee’s skills. It shows a commitment for someone with experience and shows a desire to work, but not necessarily skill, for those new to an area. It’s usually a filter these days, and a low one at that, with no guarantee of employment.

I still argue that certification exams are a good thing IF you have experience. You can use them to bolster your claim of skills and show that you care something about your profession.

That’s if you pass.

Steve Jones

SQL Server 2012 Beta Exams

I signed up for a few of the SQL Server 2012 Beta certification exams, and have been going through them over the last few days. The exams I signed up for are:

I took the first one on Monday, and the second on Wednesday. I have the other two scheduled for Friday and next Wednesday.

I can’t really comment on what was in the exam, but I did see some evolutions of the testing software, which was nice. I like a few of the changes, and they should help people demonstrate a few more skills than the old multiple-guess exams. There are still multiple choice questions, but some new ways to ask someone to show knowledge.

I’m not really worried about being certified, but I do like to see how the certification process works, I might write some stuff to help people (I’ve worked on three cert books in the past) and most importantly, I get a rough idea of what I know on the exams. They’ll ask me a few things I might not have looked at in depth, and I certainly found a few holes in my knowledge over the last few exams.

If you have the chance to take a beta, I’d encourage you. They’re free, and the time they take can be a valuable aid in helping plan your future learning.

Prepping for Certification

Having prepped for, taken, and then failed the MCM exam this year, perhaps I’m not the best person to give you advice for certification preparation. However the MCM is a hard test, I did better than I expected, and I was close. Lots of people haven’t passed it on their first try, including a couple people that work with SQL Server every day to build solutions that must work in the real world. A few of them passed on their second try, though I’m not sure if I’ll take it again anytime soon.

Recently I ran across this preparation post from Susan Ibach on MSDN. I think it’s good advice and if you follow it, you’ll be prepared for the exam. At least you’ll have a good idea on which general areas the exams focus on since there are %s given for each area. I’ve shown part of the SQL Server exam 70-450:


Note that this section, which includes security for the instance, database, schema, and encryption, is 15%. Since the exam is supposed to be around 50-60 questions, this means that you should get about 10 questions on security. You might get 8, you might get 12, but I wouldn’t expect to get 20.

I know most of you would like a step by step list of things to do for the exam. However these exams are going to test a wide variety of skills, and since 50 questions isn’t a lot, the exam can’t specify tightly which questions will be asked.

Sidebar: Personally I’d like to see more specific exams, perhaps as specific as security, replication, SSIS, etc., but lots of people don’t want to certify in all those areas. Plus it changes the profits for MS since they have more exams to administer. We’ll see if this changes in the future.

As a result you need to study a wide variety of materials. For example, for the security section above, you ought to tackle this in 5 sessions. Build yourself a short list of skills to have in each area. I’ll do section one for you. Here is what I’d go read about in BOL and practice in SSMS.

If you can explain each of these things to someone else, and perform the skills, you should be fine. I would recommend you blog or write about these, because that helps you to learn and remember this stuff. If you blog about them, ask a friend to look at your blog and see if you have correctly described things.

Once you think you’re OK with all the sections, not perfect and a guru, but you understand these areas, take the exam. If you want extra practice, get a MeasureUp or other practice test.

There’s no guarantee and you shouldn’t expect one. Go through the material, explain it back to yourself or someone else and you should be able to pass the test.

Braindumps and Certification

I saw a post recently that said that braindumps were the best way to prepare for certifications. It was posted from a certification vendor, so take it with a grain of salt, but I think a lot of people think this.

That somewhat torques me off. I understand that certification can help someone get a better job, and it is good for a career. That’s fine, and I understand that if you are out of a job, or searching for a better job, that the price of the exam seems a little steep, and if you fail, you are out a decent amount of money. An exam costs $125 in the US, and that’s not an insignificant amount of money.


We have enough people that don’t know what they’re doing. We have lots of people that struggle in their jobs, and often then don’t know what to do. Their bosses and co-workers aren’t happy. The struggle and get stressed, and they complain about their jobs. Stability is lower, software quality slides along the floor, and it’s a bad fit.

Not everyone falls into this category, but having taken quite a few exams, I’d say that if you have some knowledge of SQL Server, and you work through a lot of exercises from any certification book, you’ll be fine. It’s hard, but it’s supposed to be. You’re supposed to be competent if you pass the exam.

Finding ways to pass without being competent, or searching for a guarantee, isn’t good for your career. And it’s certainly not good for mine. Every person that passes who doesn’t really understand what they’re doing makes certifications that much more of a joke, and that much less valuable to employers.

Which is the point for most people. They get the certification so that employers will be *more* likely to pay them more.

Do yourself a favor. Study for the exam, learn how to handle the objectives, and then take your chances on the exam.

There are a number of deals for second takes as well, so be on the lookout for those.