Microsoft’s Retirement of the Certified Master Program

I've long held little respect for technical certifications. Part of that respect has always stemmed from how too many technical certifications tend to revolve around cramming, boot-camps, brain-dumps and a number of other techniques and tricks that tend to devalue technical certifications in general. Another part, for me, stems from how insanely hard it can be to try and gauge true technical aptitude and experience when the medium for doing so ends up being inane multiple-choice questions written in an effort to confuse and deceive instead of gauging understanding of the concepts at hand.

Image Source: cheezburger.com

The MCM was Different

But the Microsoft Certified Masters (MCM) was different. It was rigorous, required true hands-on understanding and knowledge, and every single MCM that I've interacted with is, in my experience, a hands-down, 'certified' Master of SQL Server. Stated simply, the MCM certification was something that completely earned my respect. So much so, that there’ve been a few times I’ve actually thought about actively pursuing it. 

Which is why it initially came as such a surprise to see Microsoft abruptly end it in such poor fashion during a holiday weekend here in the United States (and during the weekend for pretty much the rest of the World). The SQL Server community has, unsurprisingly, had a lot to say about this announcement, as well as how to put it all into perspective.


Throwing the Baby out with the Bathwater

To me though, the most stunning part of this whole debacle is how it must look to outsiders. Because in this case, Microsoft Learning has made a decision to retire (or kill) a certification process that cost roughly $20,000 per participant, and which only yielded a very tiny number of certified Masters. Consequently, you’d assume that many within the SQL Server community would have rejoiced at the prospect of cheaper and more accessible certification. Instead, the SQL Server community has mostly reacted with shock and outrage.

For those of us within the community, I think it's pretty easy to see why. First, we all value technical skill, acumen, and expertise above everything—and, hands-down, the MCM certification represented a viable means of certifying true mastery; obtain this certification and there was no doubt that you had 'arrived' in the minds of your peers and industry. Secondly, because of what this certification represented, members of the SQL Server community can't help but be shocked that Microsoft would simply destroy something that we held so 'sacred'—seemingly without any feedback or input from the community. (We're also all stricken by the horror of what it could have meant to invest $20,000 and obscene amounts of effort only to have Microsoft decide there was something 'better.')

Consequently, while there WERE significant problems with the MCM/MCA certifications ($20,000 and some of the requirements for travel to Redmond, etc., were prohibitive for far too many people outside (and within) the United States—and it’s pretty clear that Microsoft wanted a higher number of certified Masters), that's all been lost in the shuffle because this latest gaffe by Microsoft feels like it was 'out of touch' or something put into play by 'clueless bean counters.' Which sounds harsh—and is overly simplistic. But, by the same token, it's something that I think can and will happen when you remember that Microsoft’s organizational structure is commonly parodied as being fiercely competitive—internally, and when stack-rank and other internal abominations seems so hell-bent on trying to drive employees to try and squeeze revenue out of every single activity. 


Org Chart Source/Credit: Manu Cornet, www.bonkersworld.net

Or, stated differently, I think that one of the reasons that this recent announcement really seed to 'come out of left field' is because it wasn't really aimed so much at improving the current certification problems and finding a better way to get more, driven, people into the certification process by lowering prices and reducing some of the physical limitations. Instead, it feels like it was driven by other agendas—agendas not in harmony with helping create, and certify, true masters of SQL Server (and other products). Which, in turn, is why this whole, abrupt, set of changes feels like throwing the baby out with the bath water. Yes, the bath water had gotten cold and needed to be changed—but the output of the MCM certification process is something the industry truly respected. Now, unfortunately, it's looking like Microsoft is truly throwing the baby out with the bathwater as it looks like future certifications will require less technical know-how, understanding, and proficiency—effectively, making them irrelevant. 

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Michael K. Campbell

Michael K. Campbell is a contributing editor for SQL Server Pro and Dev Pro and is an ASPInsider. Michael is the president of OverAchiever Productions, a consultancy dedicated to technical evangelism...
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