The economics of becoming a Microsoft Certified Master (MCM Exchange)

David Bjurman-Birr, who looks after the Microsoft Certified Master (MCM) program for Exchange (the program is run by Microsoft Learning with considerable backing from the Exchange development group), recently posted a document that’s intended to help aspiring MCM candidates to make a case about the benefits that candidates will get by going through the three-week intensive training program that the Exchange group runs in Redmond. The issue is the cost of the program. At $18,500 it’s not something that an individual can easily incur for themselves so it’s usually necessary to seek the support of a candidate’s company by asking their management to pay for the program plus the associated costs.

David’s document estimates the costs as follows:

Airfare: $ 500

Transportation: (round trip taxi from airport) $ 80

Corporate apartment (w/roommates): (21 nights at $50) $ 1,050

Meals: (21 days at $50) $ 1,050

Rotation Fee (includes exams): $ 18,500

Total: $ 21,180

You can decide whether these costs are in line with what you’d expect. Clearly the airfare will differ depending on where you travel from and the lodging costs will vary depending on whether you decide to stay in a local hovel or the best hotel that Redmond, WA can offer. You can drive meal costs down by eating at McDonalds and other fine restaurants or perhaps by keeping aside some of the snacks and other food that’s usually available on Microsoft’s campus, or even by cooking for yourself. But one way or another, you’re not going to be able to do anything about the $18,500 that Microsoft charges for the training.

There’s no denying that the fee is high. Based on personal experience, a high-end training course delivered in the US runs to around $900/day if it’s delivered by tutors such as MVPs. The fifteen days of the three-week rotation therefore work out at $13,500 – but only if you assume that training is Monday through Friday as is normally done. The MCM rotation requires candidates to work extraordinary hours, including weekends (for more details, read the report on a recent rotation by MVP Jeff Guillet), so you can argue that the charge is for 21 days, or $18,900… so the $18,500 is really a discounted bargain. 

Microsoft would further argue that the training is absolutely unique in that it’s delivered by members of the development group and is therefore unattainable elsewhere. There’s truth in this in that the knowledge of those who build Exchange is unlikely to be accessible in such quantity and quality in other forums. You get a flavor in conferences such as TechEd and Exchange Connections where Microsoft engineers turn up to talk about the product. However, these sessions don’t last three weeks, don't facilitate in-depth question and answer sessions that probe the inner workings of the product, and might be tempered by the requirements of marketing. An MCM rotation is much more in-depth for longer. In short, it’s like drinking from an Exchange-centric firehouse for three weeks.

Is MCM training for everyone? Absolutely not. First, it’s tough and wearing on the participants and you won’t get through the exams that Microsoft uses to test candidates unless you have a solid and wide-ranging knowledge of Exchange (2007 and 2010), the underlying Windows platform (2008 R2 in reality plus experience of the prior O/S), networking, and the Internet protocols that Exchange depends on such as SMTP.

Second, you won’t be able to use the knowledge that you gain from MCM training unless you work in a role where that knowledge can be applied. Normally this means that you’re running Exchange for a very large company or you work as a consultant and have the opportunity to help many different customers in different types of deployments. On the other hand, if you’re running Exchange for a 500-user shop, you’ll never be able able to gain a return on the investment made in MCM training.

Third, if your future deployment plans are based on Exchange Online (Office 365), there’s no point in taking MCM training because this is an intensely on-premises immersion into all the deep and dark corners of Exchange that are thankfully hidden from Office 365 customers who don’t care at all about the details of topics such as Database Availability Group design, deployment, and operation. It will be interesting to see how the MCM program evolves to take account of Office 365 in the future.

Last, we come back to the cost. It’s not just the items listed above either. If you work as a consultant there’s a little thing called billable hours that is a major focus in your work life because your success or failure within your company is largely determined by how many billable hours that you can charge. Taking off for a three-week training rotation in Redmond removes at least 120 hours from your annual billing target. In fact, the figure is probably more like 140 hours if you account for hours spent preparing for the rotation and possibly retaking the final exam. The average billing rate for a senior messaging consultant is likely to be in the $150-$200/hour range depending on their location, so this is another $21,000 to $28,000 to take into account.

For a funding manager the problem is now how to justify a cost of between $43,000 to $50,000 to train a single employee in a technology. The thoughts that are probably going through the manager’s head includes:

  • Can I charge more for an MCM-accredited individual? Possibly – an extra $50/hour can only be earned back after 860 billable hours or 21.5 fully chargeable weeks, but that’s assuming that customers see the extra value that an MCM can bring to a project.
  • Will I have to pay more to the employee? An MCM is a tremendous accreditation to achieve and it’s a small group of people who have made the grade over the years. Achieving MCM might turn an employee’s thoughts to an increase in compensation to bring them up to what their peers earn. Adding an extra $10,000 or $15,000 to a salary is an extra $13,500 to $20,250 in fully loaded cost (using a 35% weighting – some companies will be lower, others are higher, especially in Europe). That could require an additional 405 billable hours to retrieve if we can charge $50/hour more for the MCM’s time. Between the cost of the training plus increased compensation, a manager’s looking at approximately 30 fully chargeable weeks before they see a return on the investment.
  • Will the employee stay? There’s no point in paying for training unless the new MCM stays around to earn the billable hours required to offset the investment. Maybe the employee will look elsewhere once they are equipped with their new accreditation. If so, the company’s in the hole for the investment. You can try to guard against an early exit by making an agreement with an employee so that they commit to working with the company for a period following MCM qualification. However, these agreements are often unenforceable and easily ignored.
  • Can I use the money better? The number under consideration is high for a three-week training in just one technology, even one as noble as Exchange. A company might be better off spending the money on something like putting another employee through an MBA. Although it’s true that an MBA course will be much more expensive in some business schools, there are others where the investment is similar and other useful business-centric courses are offered such as a Masters in Information Technology that could be of more long-term benefit to the company.

I can see value from the perspectives of both a potential MCM and their management. It’s a really tough call, one that I had to make many times in the past when juggling a training budget that never seemed to be big enough to satisfy all of the good proposals made by employees. Managers often have constraints that employees never know about or understand just like technologists often (or usually) operate in an acronym-laden world that managers find impenetrable.

I like the MCM program and have written about it in the past. Although I doubt that I will ever go through the program myself (too old, too set in my ways, too grumpy to get through three weeks of geek nirvana), I consider it to be definitely worth considering. MCM is also a good benchmark if you are looking for the right accreditations for someone to hire in a permanent position or as a consultant for an Exchange project. But do remember that the best training program in the world only prepares people to deal with the subject matter covered in the course. It won’t help an MCM deal with organizational politics, the demands of other technologies on the business, or sorting out all of the other detail that professionals such as project managers handle. MCM gets someone to the zenith of knowledge about Exchange at the point when they did their rotation. In short, it enables someone to know much more than they did before – and that can’t be a bad thing, can it?

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