Microsoft's Certified Architect Program

Learn about this high-level certification from an expert who's served on the certification beta program's review board.

ITPro Today

June 15, 2005

17 Min Read
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Microsoft announced the Microsoft Certified Architect (MCA) Program at TechEd in Orlando in June 2005. The MCA Program is an accreditation program that requires candidates to formally present a solution they have worked on to a review board. Candidates fall into two categories: infrastructure architects, whose solutions are typically a Windows Server 2003, Exchange Server 2003, or identity management/directory services project; and solution architects, who present projects that require substantial development effort. The MCA review process is an intense one for both review board members and MCA candidates. The process is formal and measured and requires great attention from the board. The MCA program has emerged from its beta phase, in which the review board process was tested and the initial group of architects were selected. Microsoft refers to the program's current phase as the program pilot, the aim of which is to expand the program worldwide and make sure that the process can adequately serve the number of candidates necessary to meet the program’s goals. The first public invitation to candidates to apply to join the MCA program will likely occur in early 2006. I've worked with Microsoft to refine the program, and I've served as a review board member. I'd like to share the MCA Program's goals and describe how the board process operates. You can find further information on Microsoft's Web site at

MCA Goals Microsoft positions certified architects as trusted advisors with a proven ability to help customers successfully deploy technology. Architects sit at the top of the Microsoft certification pyramid (whereas the pyramid's base is composed of broad certifications such as the MCSE and MCSD). You can think of the MCA as resting on the base that the broader certifications have established. Microsoft has made clear that the MCA is not designed for enterprise architects, whom the company defines as being the next level above infrastructure and solution architects. Microsoft has also made clear that the MCA is not for academic architects or professionals without a substantial track record of project involvement. The MCA is not currently linked to other industry efforts to establish a profession for IT architects, although the possibility exists that this situation might change as other industry bodies such as the Open Group ( develop their own architect certification programs. Microsoft’s long-term intention is to certify approximately 3000 architects between now and 2010, to be divided between Microsoft employees (10 percent of the total certifications) and professionals working in other companies (90 percent of the total certifications). Microsoft believes it can build and operate a worldwide process capable of handling 500 candidates per year. When Microsoft invites applicants to join the MCA program, it will do so on a slot-controlled basis. That is, Microsoft will invite applications every 6 months. Applicants can register their interest through a Web site, and a group of certified architects will filter the applications to select candidates to fill the available slots for the period. Over time, Microsoft predicts that careful filtering of applications and a substantial amount of mentoring will result in more than 90 percent of candidates achieving certification. Such was not the case during the beta program, probably because the mentoring and filtering processes didn't always operate well. For example, the April 2005 infrastructure board passed only three out of seven candidates. Unsuccessful candidates can make a second appearance before a board, typically after they receive more mentoring (from their original mentor or a new mentor) to address the concerns that their first board appearance identified. Microsoft hasn't specified what will happen if a candidate fails his or her second board appearance. However, it's fair to say that this determination can wait until Microsoft has more experience operating the MCA program. During the MCA beta, Microsoft certified 39 architects (20 solution architects and 19 infrastructure architects), twenty of whom are Microsoft employees. Naturally enough, as Microsoft’s largest services partner, HP has seven (three infrastructure, four solution) of the nineteen non-Microsoft architects. Before the end of 2005, Microsoft hopes to be able to certify another 90 or so architects. Microsoft has incorporated the notion of recertification into the MCA program, possibly after 36 months. However, as MCA is still building towards critical mass, Microsoft hasn’t yet worked out how the recertification process will operate. There is no doubt that the requirements that the MCA sets represent a huge stretch in career achievement and competency over a certification such as the MCSE or MCSD; many current holders of the latter certifications might therefore worry that they can never achieve an elite accreditation such as the MCA. Microsoft’s answer to this concern is likely to be the establishment of an associate architect program to act as a stepping-stone between more basic certifications and the MCA. In addition to enabling IT professionals to move their career forward by setting off on the path to the MCA, an associate architect program will provide a distinction between experienced MCSEs and “paper" MCSEs, or those professionals who are beginning their career and have recently achieved certification. Microsoft hasn't yet released details about how it will help candidates bridge the gap from MCSE to MCA, but you can expect to hear more on this topic in 2006 as the MCA program matures.

Program Costs During the MCA beta phase, Microsoft didn't charge candidates to register and go through the certification process. When the MCA program is fully operational, Microsoft plans to charge candidates $250 to register and an additional fee when candidates are accepted into the program. The company hasn't finalized the fee yet but provides a guideline in the high four to low five figures, so $10,000 is a reasonable estimate. Most candidates are likely to seek sponsorship from their employers to cover these costs. Microsoft doesn't plan to make a profit from the MCA program and justifies the large acceptance fee by pointing to the 40 hours of mentoring that accepted candidates will receive, plus the expense of operating review boards. To date, all of the review boards have operated in the United States, mostly in Redmond, but Microsoft plans to establish boards around the world to help candidates avoid traveling to the US. In addition, examinations might take place in a candidate's native language rather than in English, which is the case today. However, to permit worldwide operation in languages other than English, Microsoft must first build a pool of architects to staff the review boards, and this process will take time.

Mentoring and Preparation The role of the mentor is very important in the MCA process because mentors are responsible for guiding candidates through the process, which includes creating the presentation that the candidate makes to the board. Ideally, the presentation reviews an interesting project that posed some significant technical and non-technical challenges that the candidate had to overcome. The candidate must deliver the presentation in 30 minutes, so conciseness is the order of the day. Mentors also help candidates build the documentation to submit to the board for review before the candidate makes his or her appearance. The documentation includes formal architectural design documents for the solution that the candidate presents. It's important that these documents clearly show the kind of work that the candidate is capable of, including challenges met and overcome along the way. Ideally, both the presentation and the documentation should illustrate the candidate’s strengths, and one crucial service the mentor provides is criticizing and analyzing this material to ensure that no substantial weakness exists before the candidate submits the material to the board. A good mentor is clearly important for a candidate’s success, and because all mentors are certified architects, they understand how the board process works and about potential problems. After candidates become certified, Microsoft expects them to be available to mentor future candidates. Mentors receive a stipend to cover the work they do to prepare candidates for the board.

The Review Board The board is composed of four voting members, a moderator, and a recorder. The moderator keeps the board schedule moving and runs the voting process in a fair and equitable manner so that the decisions reached by the board are in line with the standard set by previous boards. The recorder takes notes of the questions asked by the board and records the formal votes and feedback that the board provides to both successful and unsuccessful candidates. Microsoft requires board members to undergo training with the assistance of a psychometrician before they can evaluate candidates. The formal nature of the program and the strict adherence to process provides assurance that candidates will be treated equally and that quality will be maintained. Today, board members are a mixture of certified architects, potential candidates, and senior technologists drawn from Microsoft and its partner companies and customers. Microsoft’s intention is that future boards will be staffed predominantly by certified architects, with remaining board members being CIOs, CTOs, or enterprise architects. No more than two Microsoft employees will sit on a board, and to maintain continuity and ensure that a consistent standard is maintained, each board will include at least one member with experience on a previous board.

MCA Criteria All board-based certification or promotion processes have well-documented criteria that board members use to judge candidates. The MCA program uses the following criteria. Leadership. Candidates demonstrate that they develop partnerships with stakeholders across their organization in their projects; that they can mentor others; that they form and develop strong teams; and that they get the job done. Technology Depth. Candidates show that they have a deep understanding of the concepts behind and application of at least two core technologies (e.g., messaging, storage, Windows, networks), plus the ability to quickly assimilate information about new technology. Technology Breadth. Candidates understand architectural best practice and can apply it across a breadth of technologies to orchestrate a solution; they have a grasp of the future development of technology and how it might influence current solutions; they understand the interaction between infrastructure, solution, and enterprise architecture and practice. Strategy. Candidates understand enterprise architectural frameworks such as The Open Group Architecture Framework (TOGAF) and operational frameworks such as IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) and can show how they use these frameworks in their projects; they understand project management and how architects interact with project managers to deliver projects; they understand the economic dimension of projects and how costs influence the available choices for technology. Organizational Dynamics. Candidates demonstrate that they can recognize the key stakeholders in a project and that they can work with those stakeholders to drive a project to success; that they can choose the right battles at the right time; and that they can recognize the political landscape that influences a project within an organization and can influence organizational politics for their own purposes. Tactical/Process. Candidates demonstrate that they can gather and refine project requirements from both a technical and business perspective; that they understand how to effectively prototype and test a solution; that they can create effective project artifacts; and that they are able to refine project goals and the tactics necessary to achieve these goals as the project develops. Communication. Candidates demonstrate that they maintain well-written and accurate project documentation; that they are able to present information on a technical subject in a concise and accurate manner; that they have the ability to influence others; that they have the ability to manage conflicts effectively; and that they can tailor their communication to the needs of their target audience. It's important to make the point that a candidate doesn't have to specialize in Microsoft technologies to seek certification. It is entirely possible for candidates who specialize in non-Microsoft technologies to achieve certification, as long as they can satisfy the board that they meet the seven criteria for certification.

Appearing Before a Review Board The appearance that candidate make before an MCA board takes approximately 2 hours, with another 30 minutes used for board discussion after the candidate leaves the room. The process is divided into six stages: Stage 1. Candidates make a 30-minute presentation to describe their solution. This is the only time that the candidate drives the session, and the board members can't interrupt the presentation unless they need clarification of a specific point, such as an acronym that the candidate fails to explain. This presentation is crucial because it establishes the tone of the remainder of the session. Successful candidates invariably establish a rapport with the board and convey an impression that they have mastered their topic. As in a job interview, it is best if candidates avoid controversy or claims they can't substantiate. It's also best if candidates finish their presentation in the allotted time and don't over hype their contribution to the solution that they describe. Stage 2. The board questions the candidate for 40 minutes. Each board member takes 10 minutes to ask questions to determine whether the candidate meets a specific criterion, such as leadership. Board members may ask questions at any time during this stage and will often attempt to bring candidates into areas of technology with which they might be uncomfortable. The intention in this case is to determine whether the candidate has a broad view of technology and is able to answer questions intelligently and with some confidence. Rude questions or questions that insult the candidate aren't tolerated. Stage 3. The candidate leaves the room and the board members spend 5 minutes discussing the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses and identifying areas that still need to be examined. Stage 4. The candidate returns for a further 40 minutes of questioning. Stage 5. The candidate is invited to make a closing statement lasting as long as 4 minutes. Stage 6. The candidate leaves the room and the board moves into the voting process. Many candidates will find this process exhausting because of the extended period of highly intensive interaction during the presentation and the subsequent questioning by the board. However, many architects experience similar stress when they must justify their work to senior management.

The Voting Process After the candidate leaves the room following the second series of questions, the board members take an initial vote. Each of the board members votes either Pass or Fail to establish a general baseline of how the board views the candidate. The moderator then asks each of the board members to rate the candidate according to the seven core criteria. Each board member assigns one of the following four ratings to each criterion: Exceeds, Meets, Nearly meets, or Does not meet. After the moderator tabulates the ratings, he or she solicits additional feedback from the board members for each criterion. Typically, the moderator will ask the board members who differ from the norm to explain why they gave their rating to the candidate. For example, if two board members rate a candidate as “Meets,” one board member votes “Exceeds,” and another votes “Does not meet,” the moderator will be most interested in learning why the difference of opinion exists. However, all board members are free to contribute their opinion, all of which is noted and becomes part of the formal record of the board proceedings. After all the ratings against the criteria are gathered, the board is invited to provide formal feedback to the candidate. The candidate’s strengths are noted, but more time is spent providing specific feedback about how candidates can improve their capabilities. In some respects, this discussion is very similar to the feedback a manager gives to an employee during a performance evaluation. Of course, a review board can judge someone’s expertise only by their performance in front of the board and by the formal documentation that the candidate submits, but the experience of the board members is usually sufficient to come up with reasonable advice that a candidate will find valuable. The final step is the formal board vote. Typically, this vote is an echo of the initial vote taken before the feedback and assessment process; however, in some instances the discussion changes the vote positively or negatively. To pass for certification, a candidate must receive three pass votes from the four voting members. In some situations, a board member might choose not to participate in the initial vote. For example, if a candidate reports directly to a board member in a professional situation or another close connection exists between them, the board member with a connection to the candidate most often will not participate in the initial vote. However, it is a condition of board membership that all board members participate in the final vote, even if a professional connection exists between a board member and a candidate. This situation calls for a great deal of integrity from board members. It's safe to assume, however, that in such a situation, the three other board members can provide the necessary checks and balances that ensure proper decisions are reached.

Communicating Results The board's decision is communicated to the candidate shortly after the decision is made. Some debate exists concerning whether a review board should consider all candidates' results at one time, to create an opportunity to reconsider the decision made for any particular candidates. The disadvantage to this approach is that a board might be tempted to compare candidates who appear in a specific board session against one another, rather than compare them against the program criteria. Microsoft hasn't made a decision whether future boards will implement this approach.

The Value of the MCA I think that the value of being an accredited architect lies both in achieving a level of professional certification that hasn't been available previously and in becoming a member of a peer-driven community of architects drawn from many companies. You can only learn from gifted individuals, and the people who have succeeded in the beta program seem to be top-notch. Aside from the achievement of certification, there’s no denying that being one of a select band of accredited architects can only be helpful to a career, proving value to both current and prospective employers. Another benefit is that Microsoft will connect Microsoft MCAs with MCAs from other companies to establish an information flow at the architect level. The value proposition for companies is different. Some CIOs will immediately see value in engaging experienced architects who have achieved a certain standard, whereas others will wait to see what results are achieved over time. Some managers will balk at the fees and the time required for a candidate to prepare for the board review; others will view the costs as a great investment in professional development that will lead to long-term benefits for their organization. Microsoft expects that some candidates will take from 3 to 9 months to prepare for a board review, and although this preparation will occur alongside other work, it is clearly a good idea for candidates to ensure that they have solid management support before they attempt to join the MCA program. In my experience, many large companies seek validation of designs for new infrastructures or applications from consulting companies because they are unsure that their own staff has the necessary experience or in-depth expertise to carry off projects on their own. I hope we'll see this situation change as more in-house architects are certified.

The Test of Time The MCA process is formal and measured. Some might ask why Microsoft has taken the initiative to create an architect accreditation program and whether the industry will agree that Microsoft is the right body to implement such a program. The fact remains that there is no common understanding across the industry about what an IT architect is, and therefore no formal way existed to certify anyone in this role before Microsoft launched the MCA. Perhaps no other company or industry body has the financial resources to invest in the development and testing of such an intensive process. Perhaps the advent of the MCA will encourage other industry bodies to develop their own accreditation programs for IT architects. After all, there many disciplines within professions such as engineering and medicine, so there is considerable room for different accreditation programs within IT architecture. IT solutions customers will deliver the true test of any architect accreditation programs. Their acceptance of the MCA as a high-standard qualification will clearly be advantageous for architects, especially those who work with Microsoft technologies. It is impossible to say at this point if or when the MCA will achieve acceptance as a proof of the expertise that customers demand from an architect, but it is safe to say that the level of detail and achievement that the MCA demands is a world apart from any other Microsoft accreditation program. Attaining MCA status is a great achievement for any technologist.

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