Microsoft Learning kills MCM and MCA accreditations

Microsoft Learning kills MCM and MCA accreditations

All is not well in the ecosystem that surrounds Microsoft server products. At least, not from the perspective of those outside the Redmond campus who look at decisions emitting from the puzzle palace and wonder why…

Take what happened last Friday, just as the U.S. was settling into the Labor Day weekend that traditionally marks the end of summer. Not a day when you’d expect a major announcement from Microsoft Learning, unless of course they wanted to communicate some bad news. It seems that slipping out unpalatable information at times when people are distracted by other things is the recommended approach, at least for the devotees of the “West Wing” and other soaps.

The memo from Microsoft Learning said:

“… we are making a change to the Microsoft Certified Master, Microsoft Certified Solutions Master, and Microsoft Certified Architect certifications. As technology changes so do Microsoft certifications and as such, we are continuing to evolve the Microsoft certification program. Microsoft will no longer offer Masters and Architect level training rotations and will be retiring the Masters level certification exams as of October 1, 2013. The IT industry is changing rapidly and we will continue to evaluate the certification and training needs of the industry to determine if there's a different certification needed for the pinnacle of our program.”

To most people this doesn’t seem like a big deal. The industry is changing. Microsoft Learning appears to be on the ball and are making appropriate changes to some of their programs, and the Microsoft Certified Master (MCM) and Microsoft Certified Architect (MCA) accreditations will no longer be offered after October 1. They’ve done their homework, these programs are deemed to be no longer necessary in the context of today’s technology, time to move on.

But hold on. We still need Architects to help create appropriate well-founded solutions for complex IT challenges and we still need people who know technology at an in-depth bits n’ bytes level to solve the inevitable problems that occur during implementations. Those needs extend across much of Microsoft’s server application portfolio, including Exchange, SharePoint, and SQL and are not going away anytime soon. Although many companies are looking to cloud-based solutions for their future IT requirements, the most complex and most interesting implementations are unlikely to be solved by cloud technology in the short term because that that platform is still reasonably immature when compared to on-premises. Sure, cloud does a great job for Office 365 and an increasing amount of applications can be served by Azure and the like, but that’s nothing in comparison to the range, depth, and extent of applications used across the world. We shall continue to need skilled technologists and architects, if only to bridge the gap between the on-premises and cloud worlds.

Taken in that light, Microsoft’s decision seems strange. MCSE remains as an accreditation and is now the highest level of certification that someone can achieve. Given the huge numbers that participate in the program, MCSE is very much a lowest-denomination certification in the minds of many. The number of MCSE certifications achieved through “bootcamp exam prep” have not helped its reputation as any accreditation gained with force-fed training is less credible than experience-based knowledge.

I mean no insult any MCSE here because many excellent technologists hold this accreditation. However, the value of MCM and MCA is that they allowed technologists to expand and prove their capabilities against much more stringent yardsticks to assure customers that the MCMs and MCAs were well-equipped to take on the most difficult problems.

Compared to MCSE, MCM requires huge commitment from product groups and attendees to go through weeks on on-site training and exams. MCA requires a different type of commitment, but the qualification process is exacting and, for some people, possibly the most in-depth professional examination they will ever face. Many Microsoft employees take these accreditations to prove their competence. I have had the chance to be a member of two MCA accreditation boards and both were tremendous, demanding, tiring, and uplifting experiences.

As happens so often in large companies, despite the protestations of Microsoft’s Tim Sneath posted in response to MVP Jen Stirrup’s “Please don't get rid of the MCM and MCA programs” plea (update 7 September: the post has been hidden because of the nature of some of the comments ), I imagine that the decision was based very much on cost and did not factor in the impact on some of Microsoft’s most gifted technical supporters. After all, there is no “people impact” button to press in Excel.

With a cold management eye, you’d have to say that the MCM and MCA programs never achieved the necessary scale to deliver the impact that they might have had. Measurements of program success might have included driving extra business, the number of people accredited against plan, greater customer satisfaction, or attaining industry acceptance for the accreditations. We do not know how Microsoft measured MCM or MCA. What we do know is that neither program seems to have met its goals.

I have great respect for those who have become qualified MCMs and MCAs, but at the end of the day the numbers probably said “these programs cost too much and deliver too little benefit – we need a new approach.”  To be fair to Tim Sneath, this is a point that he makes well. MCM costs too much. Any program that requires candidates to spend at least three weeks away from home and comes with a hefty fee to drive the overall cost for accreditation north of $30K needs to be revisited.

Given that MCM started as the Exchange Ranger program in 2001 (and subsequently expanded to cover AD, Lync, SharePoint, and SQL) and MCA was launched at TechEd in June 2005, the programs have been around a while and it is fair to assume that they would have achieved the intended scale and impact by now. Put against the huge scale of MCSE numbers, they have not and therein lies the problem. To quote Tim Sneath, only 0.08% of MCSE qualified individuals upgrade their qualifications through MCM. I am sure that this is disappointing to Microsoft, but wonder if the correct measurement is being used here. After all, a huge pyramid of MCSE certified people exists (over 400,000 perhaps?), and the right approach is surely to focus on the top 5% of that community to attract the best of the best towards something like MCM?

In any case, MCM and MCA are toast, at least in their current iterations. For MCM, the hope exists that Microsoft will come up with a new program that doesn’t have such a high financial barrier for entry and retains as much as possible of the goodness that exists in today’s implementation; we shall see.

I can understand why the decision to phase out the MCM and MCA accreditations was taken. What I cannot understand is the way the decision was communicated. Slipping the communication into email late on Friday evening seems to say “we hope this sneaks by you” rather than “here’s something important that you need to know”. It smacks of arrogance and a lack of sensitivity, which is regrettable. Some of the candor expressed in Tim Sneath’s post might have been valuable if it had been incorporated into the memo from Microsoft Learning.

What’s more perturbing than any individual decision is the apparent lack of joined-up thinking that surrounds how Microsoft interacts with technologists who support its technology in the field. The ideal situation would be to present a coherent integrated plan for the ecosystem that incorporates new technology, training, accreditation, and so on but that’s not happening. Like the TechNet subscription fiasco (the petition asking to keep an affordable alternative to MSDN has attracted nearly 11,000 supporters, but I doubt Microsoft will listen), the MCM/MCA situation is a self-inflicted wound that simply makes people want to tell Microsoft to go to hell. (Thought to self: isn’t this what the Open Source community has been saying?)

All large corporations make decisions that appear to be harsh and unpalatable at the time. The best corporations communicate those decisions in a fair and reasonable manner after doing the necessary preparation to offset any damage. I don’t think Microsoft Learning did a good job here.

Follow Tony @12Knocksinna

Update 2 September: If you want to hear some reaction from MCAs and MCMs affected by the move, download and listen to episode #27 of the UC Architects webcast. It's really quite fun - and will give you a flavor of the "live UC Architects" session that we are running at Exchange Connections in Las Vegas next month. The live UC Architects session is scheduled for 2:30pm on Wednesday, October 2. Should be a compelling broadcast!

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