The news that Microsoft Learning (MSL) had cancelled the Microsoft Certified Master (MCM) and Microsoft Certified Architect (MCA) accreditations (and had done so in a pretty shabby manner) sent shock waves throughout the technical community, if only because of the “what’s next” question. Some felt, for instance, that the Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) program was at risk. Even though Microsoft attempted to can the MVP program in 1999, I think it unlikely that they’ll do the same again. But we shall see.
I cannot comment on the effectiveness of the MCA and MCM programs for products such as SharePoint, SQL or Active Directory. My experience is dominated by people who work with Exchange (and increasingly Lync). In thinking about the outfall from MSL’s decision, I am sorry for:
- The people who spent hours preparing for and then going through the accreditation process. The three-week training required for MCM is particularly stressful and demanding and the tests probably the hardest that a technologist will attempt in their career.
- The companies who sponsored employees to become MCM or MCA accredited. Because of its $18,500 up-front fee and the time required to prepare for and attend training, MCM is a significant investment for any company. Some put the figure at between $65K and $80K in total (depending on your home country) when expenses and lost consulting revenue are factored into the equation. Those who paid out of their own pocket (because they run their own company) are especially burnt by the decision.
- The companies who invested because having MCMs and MCAs on staff created a differentiation in the market – or demonstrated to Microsoft that they were a suitable partner. Some Microsoft engineering groups were obviously taken by surprise when MSL made the announcement because planning was ongoing with partners as to how best to leverage MCMs (as is obvious from the screen shot below from the iammec.com site)
- The trainers who delivered MCM training. I have been exposed to some details of the Exchange MCM training and therefore realize just a little of the effort, dedication and commitment that people put into preparing the training material. Some non-Microsoft folks like Brian Reid (transport) and Paul Robichaux (UM) seem to have been educating MCM candidates for years! (literally).
- The Microsoft employees who have contributed to the creation and development of the MCM and MCA programs over the years. The MSL decision is not theirs.
On the other hand, I absolutely feel no pity for:
- MSL. Announcing a decision via email late on a Friday evening on a holiday weekend without any heads-up was simply unacceptable and boneheaded. The attempt by MSL Senior Director Tim Sneath to justify the decision and calm people down wasn’t particularly successful, even if he admitted that “We hate having to do this - causing upset amongst our most treasured community is far from ideal.” The reports that I have heard from interactions between those affected and MSL indicate that MSL was surprised by the reaction and has no strategy in place to put new high-level certifications in place soon. This feeling is borne out by the report of the call between MSL and MCMs/MCAs on September 9. From that report, it seems like my analogy of the announcement being made like something out of the "West Wing" soap opera hit home.
MSL says that the programs don’t scale. That’s true if you use a simple number count. MSL seem to like large numbers because that’s certainly how they view MCSE – the more people they can certify with MCSE the merrier and hang the quality! The same comment could be made about some of the Microsoft technical exams, which often seem to test for weird and wonderful things that have no relation to the challenges of real-life deployments. The point about MCM and MCA is that these are accreditations that don’t scale in the normal sense. If an MCA or MCM is of the right quality, they will have an impact and influence over projects that an average technologist simply cannot have. Not because that technologist isn’t smart or doesn’t read TechNet, but more because they have not had the same quality of training or done the same amount of research – or – most importantly – are not connected into the same kind of behind-the-scenes community to which MCAs and MCMs belong.
MSL also acknowledges that these programs cost Microsoft money and say that the cost is a barrier to entry. Given the training provided for MCM and the difficulty of setting and administrating the testing process, I can understand how they would cost half of MSL's annual budget. Quality costs and if Microsoft wants quality people to interact with their most important customers, they have to pay for it. I fear that MSL forgets why these programs exist – they were put in place to increase the quality of the technologists working with Microsoft products and to drive down the rapidly escalating costs of products like Exchange 2000. Well-trained technologists make fewer mistakes and use more best practice. You end up with happier customers and reduced support costs, even if those factors don’t influence the MSL bottom line.
It's true that a demanding certification like MCM will appear intimidating to those who might consider it. I certainly thought that the original "Exchange Ranger" program posed difficulties in the way that it treated participants. But that's in the past and it's not altogether a bad thing to create and run a program that is challenging in terms of the amount of pratical and theoritical knowledge of technology that it requires successful candidates to have. It would be sad if quality standards slip in an effort to make certifications more attractive.
It’s fair to question whether such high-level training and certification programs continue to be valuable in a world where cloud systems exert more influence and on-premises software has a three-month release cadence. Getting back to how MCAs and MCMs influence projects, they are not going to be involved in Office 365 migration projects for the small-to-medium businesses. These people are expensive and are well paid for what they do. So they work on the high-end super-complex projects, probably involving some aspect of hybrid connectivity at this point but maybe not. I therefore consider that the Microsoft technical community still needs the best of the best and that these people have to be recognized in a manner that is significantly different and more demanding than MCSE.
The challenge for MSL is to come up with a new approach that reduces the cost barrier, expands training delivery around the world without losing quality, and still delivers well-qualified best of the best technologists. MSL’s problem is that they have totally stuffed their credibility in the eyes of the technical community by taking a decision to cancel certifications seemingly without any idea of the impact on people, companies, and partners. If you’d been treated in such an arrogant and thoughtless manner by someone, would you ever trust them again?
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