The MCM Saga

There was a comment posted on my Connect item for Open Sourcing the MCM. It said:

“I have been able to contact the MS Learning team and they have given me some information about the content. My restatement of that, is that the ownership of the content is a bit complex. Some content is owned by other groups at Microsoft and is being repurposed for delivery in other workshops. In some cases the content is canibalized into a substantially different form. In some cases content was paid for and licensed content for a specific use, and it can’t just be reissued. At any rate, Microsoft doesn’t want to waste the money spent on it, and efforts are being made to use it in some manner. But you won’t see a consistent publishing pattern.”

That’s reasonable, and I’m sure it’s true. I know multiple people worked on the project, and perhaps there is IP from some people that they don’t want released. I understand that, though I don’t like it.

I made my case for this, and while plenty of MCMs disagreed, I was looking at this as a way to improve the community’s knowledge in building applications. Having specific scenarios to work through could help administrators and developers understand what types of real world problems they may face, or even introduce in their designs.

It’s easy to say there’s all this information out there, but it’s incredibly unorganized. I’ve started to try and organize my content, build shorter, smaller posts that lead through a solution. I’m trying to help people (and myself) grow knowledge in a targeted way. Too much of the stuff out there doesn’t do that.

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


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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Close, but no MCM Cigar

I failed.

There’s no other way to say it, but I’m not really disappointed or discouraged. I’m actually fairly upbeat about it. I went into the Microsoft Certified Master test thinking that I’d fail because it aims to be a high end certification. I felt like I had a huge knowledge gap going through the study resources on the SQLskills MCM page.

I plugged away, and learned a lot. I listened to content on long car trips and airplane rides. I read white papers at night and while waiting for kids at various events. I practiced working through some of the code examples, and came up with new ideas along the way. And I got a lot of notes, so many notes that I didn’t even review half of them as the test got closer.

And I was surprised. As I wrote about my test experience, I think I was well prepared, and I knew more than I thought. Every question made me think and made me deduce some solution, but very few of them had me throwing up my hands and feeling like a complete idiot.

My score was close to passing. It wasn’t the single digits I joked about on Twitter, nor was it the low 200-300 score I was thinking I might end up with. The passing score is 700, though it isn’t clear if that’s out of 1000 or 800 or 743. We don’t know how the exam is scored, and I’m not sure if that’s good or bad, but that’s a separate blog.

In my case, I got a 620 with bar graphs that listed my relative strength in a few areas. I scored highest in Scalability and Availability, with my graphs about 8/10 of the way across. In Recoverability and Managability I had about 7/10 of the total distance. That’s not surprising since I think those administrative areas are my strongest skills.

In security I was about 6/10, which is a little surprising. I thought I knew SQL Server security very well, but I’ve always been a “practical” security guy, and not necessarily conforming to what the MCM might see as the best way to implement security. Definitely need to work on this area a little more. In Performance, I was about halfway, which is probably true. Without spending a lot of time on this in a practical sense in recent years, I’m relying on my memory in studying and not using field-skills.

Developer Support, which I assume means XML, Spatial, CLR, and other similar code oriented areas I was the lowest, about a 4/10. That’s not surprising since I don’t write a lot of code and really haven’t spent much time in those areas. They feel to be a little outside of the core of what I really enjoy in SQL Server, and I’m sure I didn’t focus here all that well. I know I listened to the SQL CLR prep four or five times and was still slightly confused as to what was covered.

There were no areas that were incredibly weak, but a few that need improvement, and I know that I have a few things in the manageability to work on after the test. I won’t go into specific areas, but suffice it to say that one particular topic had 3 or 4 questions and I struggled with them talking about a certain implementation of the technology that I hadn’t spent much time on.

Moving On

What do I do from here? I was thinking this was a one-shot deal for me and I’d get an assessment of where I stood. I definitely got that, and the results seem to mirror what I would have thought were my strengths and weaknesses. My higher-than-expected score has me wondering a little about which of these is true:

· I know more than I thought

· The exam doesn’t test real world skills as much as I thought

It’s hard to know which is true. I don’t do a lot of real world work, but I read a lot, and I talk with many people about what real world problems and solutions they use. So I have a wide set of knowledge, but not necessarily deep in places. The exam can only test me on the areas it tests me, and with a limited time, there is only so much it can test.

I have the chance to take the exam again as there are still vouchers available and I think I will. I’d like to try again to pass it since I have a little competitiveness left in me and I thought I was close after taking the exam. If I can improve in a few areas, I’d think I would do better, though I expect different questions and would need to review all the material again.

The lab? That’s a whole ‘nother story. The lack of practice in some areas might have me fumbling around more than I could afford in a limited time frame. I have less confidence I would pass that, though more than I would have had a few months ago. That’s if I could sit still for 6 hours and focus on SQL Server that long.

The MCM is Worldwide

Well, not everywhere, but as long as Prometric sites meet some security requirements, they can offer the MCM tests. I got a note from Joe Sack after someone asked me the question about when the MCM would be offered outside the US. From what he sent me, it’s in these countries:

  • Australia
  • Canada
  • Germany
  • India
  • Japan
  • Malaysia
  • Philippines
  • South Africa
  • UK

And the US, where I took my exam.

Check with Prometric in your area to see if there’s a site near you.

MCM – The Knowledge Exam

I recently took the knowledge exam, and I loved it. I thought it was a great exam. I have taken ten or twelve Microsoft exams and this was the first time that I crossed the two hour mark in an exam. Actually, with my time to review the questions and the comment period, I was in the testing room for the full three and a half hours.

The exam is covered by an NDA, as all exams, but I think this exam has the potential to really mean something in the real world as people learn more about what knowledge and skills it requires, and the people that pass the exam show off their knowledge in a variety of ways. I can’t go into much detail, but I do want to tell you a little about the experience.

Note: I cleared this post with the MCM people to be sure I didn’t disclose any information

The Exam Experience

I took my exam at a standard Prometric testing center, with people in the room with me working on other Microsoft tests, A+ certifications, Cisco exams, etc. The only difference I noticed in registering was that there were only two test centers in Colorado offering the test. I ended up at a center that was 3 or 4 miles away from the center where I have taken other tests in years past. That surprised me for the knowledge exam as it didn’t seem different in format than other exams.

As in the past, I had to empty my pockets, putting my wallet, phone, money, etc. in a locker. I did take two dry erase sheets of paper, two markers, and my ID into the room. I had a testing cube in a room with a dozen others, and as a nice touch, there were some soundproof headphones to wear, allowing me to block out other sound. It was a little annoying to wear over 3 hours, but they were nice to prevent interruptions as people came into and left the room.

The testing engine was the standard Prometric module, a Windows 3.1-era looking set of windows that presented questions with multiple choice answers, allowed you to mark a question for review, move forward and backward through the  test bank, and had an exhibit button at the bottom when there was a relevant image to view for the question. Some questions have a single answer, some have multiple answers and there are radio buttons or checkboxes available to mark on the screen.

As I take an exam, I work through all questions, but if I have doubts, I will mark the review button and perhaps not even answer the question, coming back to it at the end of the first run through the exam.

With this exam I marked every question for review, even if I thought I knew the answer.

I read every question a couple times, making a few notes here and there, trying to make sure that I understood what was being asked and what SQL Server could do, and then only then read the answers. As I read the answer, I tried to compare that particular item with the question requirements and make a decision about whether it could be true.  Once I was through all four I sometimes had one answer, and sometimes had more than one. Then the process of trying to compare the answers with each other took place, with me ending up marking one of them.

After a few questions, I decided to keep some metrics. I can’t give you raw numbers, but I tallied the questions that I was very confident about. When I got through the exam, only skipping a few questions, I found that I felt confident in more questions than I expected, but that worked out to be about 25% of the total. So I wasn’t sure, or was sure I wasn’t sure, of 75% of the answers.

At this point, there was a difference in other exams. The proctor had told me I could sign out and back into the exam if I needed water or the restroom. That surprised me because in the past I haven’t been allowed to leave the room during a test. However I was fairly exhausted after spending two hours going through the questions. I signed out, walked to the rest room, had a drink from the water fountain, and stood in the hall for a few minutes, trying to empty my mind. I walked back in, showed my empty pockets, and then went back to the test.

The second time through, moving a little faster, I ended up changing about 8% of my answers, and as I re-read questions, I felt fairly confident in about 40% of my answers. There were 5% of the questions that  I just didn’t know, but overall I had more confidence at the end of the exam that I’d done well than at the beginning.

I finished the exam, took the comment period to leave some notes for the exam authors, and then collected my “proof of testing” and left. Since this is a beta exam still I didn’t get a score and will find out how I did in the next 30 days.

Does it test you?

As I mentioned, I loved this exam. I think it was well written, and I’d like to see more exams written like this. Unlike in the past, where it has felt that exams focused on new features or depended on you memorizing a few things, this exam required you to deduce the answer, using your knowledge. There is no page in Books Online that will provide the answer to these questions. You have to really think about SQL Server and decide how it is used to develop a solution.

There were about 4% of the questions that I felt were memory questions. In other words, if you had memorized some fact, you knew the answer. If you hadn’t, you didn’t. But the vast majority of questions required you to read a problem, issue, or requirement and then deduce which of the possible solutions would fit. Often I could reduce the possibilities to two, but it was hard to decide which one I thought was the better fit.

The scenarios and requirements felt real to me. These are the types of issues you find in the real world, and while simpler in scope, they reflected the type of work you have to do as a SQL Server DBA on the storage engine. The answers were actual possibilities that you would choose to do, or look at and explain to someone else why they wouldn’t do that. It felt like this exam was written more from the practical SQL Server side than from the “make sure everyone knows how to use MDW” or “make sure we ask about Service Broker” type of questions I’ve seen on previous exams.

There were a few typos and grammar items, which I left feedback on, and there were a few places where I felt the semantics of a question were confusing, but overall I felt this exam tested my knowledge. I’m not sure if I passed, but I wasn’t overwhelmed or underwhelmed by the exam. I got tested, and I’m glad I took it.

The Lab

I haven’t scheduled the lab exam, and only recently learned that if I’m one of the first xx to get through the Knowledge Exam, there are a few vouchers for the lab available. If I passed, I will probably take the lab, but if not, I don’t think I will for now. The $2000 is a steep price, but it’s also not necessarily worth the cost at this point in my career. If I were to go back to consulting, then I would make the investment, but for now I won’t use the certification and I don’t want to spend that much money for the bragging rights.

I also don’t have the time to study for the lab. With a 6 hour window for someone to test my knowledge of SQL Server, I think I’d really need to spend a lot more time on preparation and practice with the SQL tools. As interesting as that sounds, all of the writing and presentations I’m working on, as well as daily work on SQLServerCentral keep me plenty busy.


I mostly watched the MCM videos on TechNet that were produced by SQLskills. I have to say that I think those videos have a great introduction in every one that explains the exam. The videos cover the breadth of the material you need to know, meaning all the possible topics, but not to the depth you need. I was glad that I had read a number of white papers, blogs, and articles on the topics since that helped me understand the questions. I was also regretting not reading a few more of them.

I also was glad that I’ve had years of experience working with SQL Server and learning about it. I am not sure you could get a week long boot camp and get through this exam. The domain of knowledge is just too wide to cram in. And the fact that you have to think through and deduce answers means you have to really understand the information. I think this exam builds upon years of experience, though not necessarily decades. If you’ve had 4+ years of work with SQL Server, and worked on a variety of problems and technologies within SQL Server, you just need to make sure you are comfortable knowing where each technology can be used, and how to implement it to solve a problem.

The Takeaway

As with building a presentation, this exam forced me to learn more. The pressure I put on myself to make an honest effort to study forced me to dive more deeply in topics that I know something about, knew the theory, but not the details. I had to learn a lot more about Resource Governor, Service Broker, Extended Events, SQL CLR, and more in a way that I hadn’t bothered in the past.

I also think that most of this knowledge, whether I passed the exam or not, is valuable information that I can use to work on SQL Server systems. Hearing the lectures from Paul Randal, Kimberly Tripp and the rest of the SQLskills team made me more interested in attending one of their Immersion events. I felt that the examples and analogies they used in the videos, while simplified, were not overly contrived. They were based on the situations that someone would find in their daily work, or at least, could find in their daily work. Hopefully most of you don’t experience disaster recovery events on a regular basis, but understanding how some of the internals work, how some of the technology is implemented, can help you better plan for those rare events that likely will occur at some point.

This exam is built for someone with experience, years of experience managing, configuring, and tuning the database engine in SQL Server. It’s worth pursuing if you want an accomplishment you can be proud of, but the preparation and training you can get for this exam will be worth your time since it will be useful on a regular basis for the rest of your career.

Test Complete – MCM

I took the MCM test today, and finished it. I needed the time allotted and it was, well, an experience.

I’m glad it’s done as I have a number of other things to work on. I’ll get results in a few weeks and in the meantime, I’ll get permission to see what I can write about the experience.

Test Day

Heading out to get coffee in a few minutes. And then on to the testing center for my MCM Knowledge Exam.

I’ve reviewed a number of things in the past week and have been studying regularly, but not overly hard for two months. I’ve learned a lot, and tickled a number of memories, but I have no idea how well I’ll do. I don’t expect to pass, but I do expect to get an idea of where I stand in terms of SQL Server knowledge.

T Minus Three Days to the MCM Test

I take the MCM test on Friday. I’ve been watching videos and reading white papers and blogs for the last few weeks and I know that I don’t necessarily know enough. To some extent I have an advantage since I test well on multiple choice tests and I have a broad set of knowledge for SQL Server.

rockholesBut I don’t know enough. The more I study, the more it becomes painfully clear how much more there is to SQL Server that I don’t understand. Each day I learn something new, but I also learn that there are things I wasn’t aware of

Often, I find that things I just learned are things that friends already know. The thing that gives me some hope is that they will learn something and tell me, not realizing I already know about it.

We all have these uneven holes of knowledge, and just because we do, or don’t, know about feature X, doesn’t mean that we don’t know a lot about feature Y. We have un-evenly learned SQL Server since there isn’t a set path on which to learn.

So I’m nervous, just because it’s a measure of my skill, not because it matters to my career. It will give me a benchmark, and a place from which I can make a plan for how much more I want to learn about SQL Server, and in which areas to work.

Backups after a DR Restore – MCM

If you have a disaster, and you need to restore to some point in time prior to the last log backup you have, what’s the first thing you should do at this point in time?

Make a full backup, of course.

Actually anytime you complete a restore sequence, you want to do a full backup immediately before you turn users loose to do work. Why is that?

Think about what happens if you complete the restore and then have another issue? You would have to go through the entire restore sequence again from before the first disaster. If that were a full backup, a differential, and a dozen log backups, would you want to explain that delay to your boss again?

Would you even want to go through it?

I wouldn’t, and it’s easy to prevent. Once you get done with your restore, start a full backup right away. You might never need it, but then again, you probably said that about the full backup you just restored.