My Thoughts on the MCM/MCSM/MCA Certification Debacle

I bet big on the Microsoft Masters certification. I put my job and reputation on the line to pursue a certification that was described as the pinnacle of Microsoft’s learning efforts. I convinced my employer that it was worthwhile to spend $20,000 to distinguish itself from other SharePoint consultancies. I signed agreements with my employer to foot the bill for retakes if I failed ($2,500), on a program that was so rigorous that normally less than half passed the first time around. I stuck my neck out FAR for the Masters program. So it certainly came as a shock (and a punch in the gut) when I got this email Saturday morning announcing the cancellation of the program:

A Giant WTF?

This is the email I received early Saturday morning of the labor day weekend:

Cancellation Email

We are contacting you to let you know we are making a change to the Microsoft Certified Master, Microsoft Certified Solutions Master, and Microsoft Certified Architect certifications. As technology changes so do Microsoft certifications and as such, we are continuing to evolve the Microsoft certification program. Microsoft will no longer offer Masters and Architect level training rotations and will be retiring the Masters level certification exams as of October 1, 2013. The IT industry is changing rapidly and we will continue to evaluate the certification and training needs of the industry to determine if there’s a different certification needed for the pinnacle of our program.

As a Microsoft Certified Master, Microsoft Certified Solutions Master, or Microsoft Certified Architect, you have earned one of the highest certifications available through the Microsoft Certification program. Although individuals will no longer be able to earn these certifications, you will continue to hold the credential and you will not be required to recertify your credential in the future. You will continue to have access to the logos through the MCP site, and your certifications will continue to show in the appropriate section of your transcript, according to Microsoft technology retirement dates. If you are a Charter Member, you will continue to hold the Charter Member designation on your transcript.

Also as a Microsoft Certified Master, Microsoft Certified Solutions Master, or Microsoft Certified Architect, you are a member of an exclusive, highly technical community and you’ve told us this community is one of the biggest benefits of your certification. We encourage you to stay connected with your peers through the main community distribution lists. Although we won’t be adding more people to this community, you continue to be a valued member of it. Over time, Microsoft plans to transition the distribution lists to the community, and, with your consent, will include your information so that it can continue to be a valuable resource for your ongoing technical discussions.

Within the coming weeks, you will receive invitations to an updated community site. This community site will require you to sign in with a Microsoft Account and will replace the need for a Microsoft Partner account as is required today. From this site, you will be able to manage service requests for the Masters and Architects communities – such as ordering welcome kits and managing your contact information for the distribution lists and directory – and accessing training rotation and other community content (if applicable).

If you have not ordered your Welcome Kit, the last day to do so is October 31, 2013. To order your Welcome Kit, please contact the Advanced Cert team at We thank you for your commitment to Microsoft technologies.

Some will speculate that the program was losing money. Some will say that this is just a natural shift in response to Office365 and the cloud.

I guess it’s my turn to speculate. What’s happened to this program is something I’ve seen from Microsoft untold times during my career with its technologies – they make or acquire something extremely powerful, then gut it and strip it of its worthwhile pieces because they don’t want to support or maintain it anymore. Just a few examples:

  • Visio. When Microsoft bought them, they had a library of thousands of network equipment shapes from all the popular manufacturers, and a slew of automated drawing templates. Visio is now mostly a shell of its former self IMO.
  • Groove. A powerful, multi-faceted product, that became SharePoint Workspace and then SkyDrive Pro.
  • Content Management Server. This product had a powerful arc until it was absorbed into SharePoint. The WCM capabilities now pale in comparison to products like SiteCore.
  • Zune.

Exam proctoring, head counts, maintaining labs, upgrading curriculum. Microsoft just doesn’t want to have anything to do with it. They just want to push it on to another vendor or partner and be done with the maintenance of the program. I suppose that is their prerogative, however when you’ve built a pinnacle program such as this one, and had partners and individuals invest so heavily into it, a certain responsibility exists to your customers to ensure that their investments were not wasted.

It’s also a symptom of Microsoft’s inability to maintain products, names, and brands through the constant reorganzations it goes through. The renaming and watering down of the MCM program to the MCSM (and it’s recently-made-optional training) is but one example.

  • Passport -> LiveID -> Microsoft Account
  • Live Sync -> Live Mesh -> SkyDrive -> something else?
  • FrontPage Team Services -> SharePoint Portal Server -> Microsoft Office SharePoint Server -> SharePoint Server -> Office365

Other organizations have found a way to maintain their pinnacle certifications, see Cisco’s CCIE or the PMI institute’s PMP certification. Certainly the format, delivery method, and structure has changed over the years, but never the brand. As another MCM colleague has pointed out, Cisco has not changed the brand of the cert in 20 years.

What Microsoft and the Community is Losing

I’m sure there are many who wonder what the big deal was about the MCM/A anyway. I’ve heard folks over the years question whether it was just a pay-to-play club, and anyone who forked over the cash could get the elitist cert. To those people, I have to say that the MCM was the hardest, most challenging, and most rewarding endeavor of my professional career, not a slam dunk by any means (very low first time pass rates), and a risky venture to undertake.

The MCM program was the most unique and special technical training or certification program I’ve ever gone through. The SharePoint MCM program, unlike any other in the industry, sought out and found the best and brightest people in respective niches to create and deliver the training. Whether it was Todd Baginski on the topic of BDC/BCS, or Todd Carter on advanced debugging, workflows, and custom search connectors, or Spencer Harbar on User Profile Synchronization and Kerberos, or Neil Hodgkinson on the intracacies of SharePoint search, or Sean Livingston on SharePoint upgrade internals, or Joseph Sack on SQL HA/DR deep dives (apologies to the many other experts I’ve left out). These were the cream of the crop in the industry. Nobody else had the depth of knowledge as these experts, nor the hours in the trenches with customers and executives, solving problems for them or evangelizing the product stacks. These were not just MCTs reading from scripts or slide decks at some Prometric testing center, nor exam writers whose sole motivation was to get paid for cranking out the types of terrible questions you find on the lower-level certs. These were leaders of the community, who had a vested interest in making the curriculum and exams the best they could be.

Even putting aside the level of expertise you got from the program (which was a veritable gold mine of information), the infrastructure was like nothing I’d ever experienced in the MSL certification world. A blade server, capable of running up to 10+ VMs, enabled me to test and try advanced scenarios like two way trusts with multiple domains, ADFS federation scenarios, Kerberos, full failover and failback of SharePoint server farms, and version-to-version upgrades. For most SharePoint consultants, the only time you could have a similar setup is to guinea pig this on your own customer’s hardware or production environments.

Given the manner of this announcement and the sheer disregard shown to the MCMs this weekend, it’s hard to imagine that we will ever again see the collective of great minds assembled in the same fashion, working alongside Microsoft Learning, for the benefit of the community.

Microsoft Learning and Me – The Final Breakup

With this slap in the face, my decade long relationship with Microsoft Learning has come to an abrupt end. I’ve taken 20 MSL exams (8 for the MCSE, 2 towards MCDBA, 8 for SharePoint 2007 and 2010, and my MCM knowledge and lab exams). I’ve funneled my developers to MSL and Prometric testing centers for countless other exams. I’ve paid for a brief stint as an MCT. I’ve had goals to achieve all the .NET development certifications, and the MCA for SharePoint. I was registered for the upcoming December MCSM upgrade rotation for SharePoint. I’ve created growth plans for all the developers and architects I manage to get certified via MSL exams.

All of that is over now.

The risk associated with investing in any MSL endeavor is too great to justify anymore. I have no longer any faith that Microsoft is committed to maintaining their brands or certifications. Could you imagine any other higher education institute shit-canning an earned degree in a similar fashion? Technical degrees from non-accredited institutions always have some degree of risk to them, sure. But I put my faith in Microsoft that a $20,000 certification would be backed solidly by them, similar to others across the industry.

While I’ll always leave the door open for Microsoft to come up with something even better than before, the damage is already done. No customer should ever be treated in this manner. Somebody approved the message, and the manner of its delivery, and showed a complete failure in leadership. Until an apology is issued, and the mistakes addressed, I’ll be taking my training and certification dollars elsewhere, and I hope others follow suit.

I’m incredibly sad for the broader Microsoft community as whole. I don’t think many realize the impact this will have over the long term.

For anything as valuable as the Masters program to exist again, I believe it will have to be a community driven effort, completely divorced from Microsoft Learning. A dues-paying organization similar to PMI, with a board and an accreditation process would be a great next step. This is something the MCM community is entirely capable of, and something I would be glad to be a part of.