Measuring Expertise: The New SQL Server MCM Program

In my September 2008 commentary “What Do DBAs Need to Know to Do Their Jobs?” I discussed what a DBA needs to know to be a good DBA. But being a good DBA doesn’t necessarily mean being a true SQL Server expert. I’m not even sure we could come up with a complete list of what a true expert would have to know, especially as SQL Server grows and expands over so many different areas. Could someone be a true expert if they know nothing about SQL Server Analysis Services or SQL Server Reporting Services?  What if they’ve never actually set up a SQL Server cluster or implemented merge replication?

Microsoft has attempted to define SQL Server expertise as a certifiable condition, resulting in the awarding of the title Microsoft Certified Master (MCM) in SQL Server. The MCM program was an offshoot of an older program called the SQL Server Ranger program. The best place to read about the relationship between SQL Server Ranger and SQL Server MCM is on the FAQ page for the MCM program.

While you’re viewing that page, which deals with MCM certification in several technologies and not just SQL Server, you might decide to browse a bit and see what exactly is required to become a SQL Server Master. You can see an overview of the program, as well as a list of the prerequisites and testing requirements. One of the tabs on the page lists all the current holders of the MCM certification, and if you look at the list for SQL Server, you’ll probably recognize some of the names and realize that this is a quality program. The people on this list are many of the people that are generally recognized as SQL Server experts, but, of course, the converse isn’t true: Not all generally recognized SQL Server experts are on the list.  

The requirements for obtaining the certification were quite onerous for the first many years of the program. The cost alone was prohibitive for most people because it was initially set at $25,000 for the three-week, intense training program. The price was reduced to $18,500 a few years ago, but it was still quite a substantial fee, especially for a DBA from a small company. And for those small companies (including, of course, single-person companies) the additional costs of giving up three income-generating weeks needed to be considered. Travel, hotel, and food costs were then added on top.

But now, all that has changed. One month ago, Microsoft announced a change in the MCM requirements that you can read about in the Microsoft article “SQL Server Masters Certification Goes Global.” In addition, you can read about the program changes from one of the current MCM certificate holders, Cindy Gross in her blog post “New Opportunities to be a SQL Master.”

The most impactful change is that the three consecutive weeks in the classroom are no longer required. There’s a grueling four-hour knowledge exam and a six-hour, hands-on lab exam, which together cost $2,500. These exams can be scheduled at the time and place of your choice, although the number of locations offering the hands-on lab exam is quite limited. Although the cost is significantly less than the cost of the old class and exams, it still isn’t pocket change, and most people won’t want to shell out that kind of money unless they’re pretty confident they’ll pass the exams. The exams can be retaken after a waiting period, but the fee must be paid again.

So how will you know if you’re prepared? There won’t be practice tests or exam crams, but the MCM website does offer a list of recommended reading with a suggestion that you really need to understand everything presented before considering taking the exams. The MCM website also lists classroom training opportunities that can help prepare you, although these training events aren’t just for the purpose of passing the MCM exams.

There are still many open questions with no definitive answers. “Is achieving the MCM certification really proof of expertise?” “Will the certification have its own intrinsic value?” “Will NOT passing the exam mean you are NOT an expert?”  The first two questions can be answered only over time, as the certification becomes more recognized in the marketplace and the certificate holders prove their value. And actually, I think the last question does have an answer, which I will leave as an exercise to the reader.

And finally, should the people who pass the new exams be denoted differently than MCM certificate holders who actually survived the three-week course? Although there were definite benefits to the classroom experience, the certification was awarded for passing the exams, not for sitting in a classroom. Someone who participated actively for the entire time but didn’t pass the exams isn’t an MCM.

I think we have to wait to see who ends up getting the MCM certification based on the new requirements before we can judge if the new path is “easier” in any way or if the program is weaker without the classroom component. I definitely believe that there are people who have the expertise and experience to be MCM but just can’t afford the money and time to take the three-week course. But will the new exams ensure that only qualified people are allowed into the MCM ranks and not allow people who just aren’t quite ready to be experts?  I’m definitely interested in finding out the answer.

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