Microsoft Learning kills MCM and MCA accreditations

The InterWeb lit up with protests from Microsoft Certified Masters and Microsoft Certified Architects when they discovered that Microsoft Learning had sent a sneaky message to inform the world that these programs were being terminated from October. Is this simply a case of good management judgement or has Microsoft scored another tremendous own-goal?

All is not well in the ecosystem that surrounds Microsoft server products. At least, not from the perspective of those outside the Redmond campus who look at decisions emitting from the puzzle palace and wonder why…

Take what happened last Friday, just as the U.S. was settling into the Labor Day weekend that traditionally marks the end of summer. Not a day when you’d expect a major announcement from Microsoft Learning, unless of course they wanted to communicate some bad news. It seems that slipping out unpalatable information at times when people are distracted by other things is the recommended approach, at least for the devotees of the “West Wing” and other soaps.

The memo from Microsoft Learning said:

“… 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.”

To most people this doesn’t seem like a big deal. The industry is changing. Microsoft Learning appears to be on the ball and are making appropriate changes to some of their programs, and the Microsoft Certified Master (MCM) and Microsoft Certified Architect (MCA) accreditations will no longer be offered after October 1. They’ve done their homework, these programs are deemed to be no longer necessary in the context of today’s technology, time to move on.

But hold on. We still need Architects to help create appropriate well-founded solutions for complex IT challenges and we still need people who know technology at an in-depth bits n’ bytes level to solve the inevitable problems that occur during implementations. Those needs extend across much of Microsoft’s server application portfolio, including Exchange, SharePoint, and SQL and are not going away anytime soon. Although many companies are looking to cloud-based solutions for their future IT requirements, the most complex and most interesting implementations are unlikely to be solved by cloud technology in the short term because that that platform is still reasonably immature when compared to on-premises. Sure, cloud does a great job for Office 365 and an increasing amount of applications can be served by Azure and the like, but that’s nothing in comparison to the range, depth, and extent of applications used across the world. We shall continue to need skilled technologists and architects, if only to bridge the gap between the on-premises and cloud worlds.

Taken in that light, Microsoft’s decision seems strange. MCSE remains as an accreditation and is now the highest level of certification that someone can achieve. Given the huge numbers that participate in the program, MCSE is very much a lowest-denomination certification in the minds of many. The number of MCSE certifications achieved through “bootcamp exam prep” have not helped its reputation as any accreditation gained with force-fed training is less credible than experience-based knowledge.

I mean no insult any MCSE here because many excellent technologists hold this accreditation. However, the value of MCM and MCA is that they allowed technologists to expand and prove their capabilities against much more stringent yardsticks to assure customers that the MCMs and MCAs were well-equipped to take on the most difficult problems.

Compared to MCSE, MCM requires huge commitment from product groups and attendees to go through weeks on on-site training and exams. MCA requires a different type of commitment, but the qualification process is exacting and, for some people, possibly the most in-depth professional examination they will ever face. Many Microsoft employees take these accreditations to prove their competence. I have had the chance to be a member of two MCA accreditation boards and both were tremendous, demanding, tiring, and uplifting experiences.

As happens so often in large companies, despite the protestations of Microsoft’s Tim Sneath posted in response to MVP Jen Stirrup’s “Please don't get rid of the MCM and MCA programs” plea (update 7 September: the post has been hidden because of the nature of some of the comments ), I imagine that the decision was based very much on cost and did not factor in the impact on some of Microsoft’s most gifted technical supporters. After all, there is no “people impact” button to press in Excel.

With a cold management eye, you’d have to say that the MCM and MCA programs never achieved the necessary scale to deliver the impact that they might have had. Measurements of program success might have included driving extra business, the number of people accredited against plan, greater customer satisfaction, or attaining industry acceptance for the accreditations. We do not know how Microsoft measured MCM or MCA. What we do know is that neither program seems to have met its goals.

I have great respect for those who have become qualified MCMs and MCAs, but at the end of the day the numbers probably said “these programs cost too much and deliver too little benefit – we need a new approach.”  To be fair to Tim Sneath, this is a point that he makes well. MCM costs too much. Any program that requires candidates to spend at least three weeks away from home and comes with a hefty fee to drive the overall cost for accreditation north of $30K needs to be revisited.

Given that MCM started as the Exchange Ranger program in 2001 (and subsequently expanded to cover AD, Lync, SharePoint, and SQL) and MCA was launched at TechEd in June 2005, the programs have been around a while and it is fair to assume that they would have achieved the intended scale and impact by now. Put against the huge scale of MCSE numbers, they have not and therein lies the problem. To quote Tim Sneath, only 0.08% of MCSE qualified individuals upgrade their qualifications through MCM. I am sure that this is disappointing to Microsoft, but wonder if the correct measurement is being used here. After all, a huge pyramid of MCSE certified people exists (over 400,000 perhaps?), and the right approach is surely to focus on the top 5% of that community to attract the best of the best towards something like MCM?

In any case, MCM and MCA are toast, at least in their current iterations. For MCM, the hope exists that Microsoft will come up with a new program that doesn’t have such a high financial barrier for entry and retains as much as possible of the goodness that exists in today’s implementation; we shall see.

I can understand why the decision to phase out the MCM and MCA accreditations was taken. What I cannot understand is the way the decision was communicated. Slipping the communication into email late on Friday evening seems to say “we hope this sneaks by you” rather than “here’s something important that you need to know”. It smacks of arrogance and a lack of sensitivity, which is regrettable. Some of the candor expressed in Tim Sneath’s post might have been valuable if it had been incorporated into the memo from Microsoft Learning.

What’s more perturbing than any individual decision is the apparent lack of joined-up thinking that surrounds how Microsoft interacts with technologists who support its technology in the field. The ideal situation would be to present a coherent integrated plan for the ecosystem that incorporates new technology, training, accreditation, and so on but that’s not happening. Like the TechNet subscription fiasco (the petition asking to keep an affordable alternative to MSDN has attracted nearly 11,000 supporters, but I doubt Microsoft will listen), the MCM/MCA situation is a self-inflicted wound that simply makes people want to tell Microsoft to go to hell. (Thought to self: isn’t this what the Open Source community has been saying?)

All large corporations make decisions that appear to be harsh and unpalatable at the time. The best corporations communicate those decisions in a fair and reasonable manner after doing the necessary preparation to offset any damage. I don’t think Microsoft Learning did a good job here.

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Update 2 September: If you want to hear some reaction from MCAs and MCMs affected by the move, download and listen to episode #27 of the UC Architects webcast. It's really quite fun - and will give you a flavor of the "live UC Architects" session that we are running at Exchange Connections in Las Vegas next month. The live UC Architects session is scheduled for 2:30pm on Wednesday, October 2. Should be a compelling broadcast!

Discuss this Blog Entry 4

on Sep 1, 2013

Something to note: classes are no longer available for MCM, and the training requirement for MCSM was removed is of July 1, 2013.

on Sep 3, 2013

Tony,

First a correction: The Exchange (Titanium) Ranger Program actually began in 2002.

When I heard that MSL was discontinuing the program I have to say that I was happy about that. I was happy and decided that to show my support I would re-join the Ranger DG after a very vocal departure last year brought about by slipping standards, and I have since rejoined.

Why am I happy about this? I have worked, over the last several years (and in the last few months), with the new “Rangers” (yes, most called themselves that) and I have not had a single good experience. From poorly-written statements of work that completely excluded storage and AD from an Exchange design, to bad recommendations on Exchange itself and lack of knowledge of the dependencies for Exchange (especially networking, AD and DNS), I have found the ones I worked with to be lacking technically and in soft skills.

That said, I haven’t worked with all of them and I have no doubt that some are excellent and deserve to be recognized as a higher level of Exchange expert than others. So there’s my hat tip to you folks that I know are out there. I understand that there are folks that have a lot invested in this program personally and professionally, as I have. I continue to fight this fight for the ones that deserve better.

The monetization of the program was the fatal error. The barrier to entry was already high with the four week, then three week program timeframe and the associated travel, lodging and meal expenses. Adding another layer of prohibitive barriers, while at the same time having a restructured (read PG-orphaned) program resulted in it collapsing under its own weight. How many Rangers/Architects are there for 2003? 2007? 2010? 2013?

I qualified nearly 50 Rangers that were, almost all, very high quality in the three years I ran the program (the first two at 25% of my time with a budget of $500 and hardware contributions from Partners and time from MCS’ EC3 team under Bill Skilton and Greg Dodge ). MS Learning has never been able to achieve those numbers nor that quality level with many more heads and much higher budgets. I’ve never been one to be shy about saying “I told you so” and I won’t be shy about it here. I told Per Farny when he moved the program under Microsoft Learning that they would try to monetize it, make it politically correct, over-do the legal bullet-proofing and, in short, destroy it.

And they have. There is a reason Larry LeSueur and I chose to create a “Qualification” rather than work through the $1 billion dollar/year MS Learning boondoggle to create a “Certification”.

And there is a reason we succeeded despite some very prominent, very vocal opposition (cinder blocks, shins and a bridge come to mind…ahem). :-)

The program should be taken out of Microsoft Learning and run in a “cost-recovery” model. Monetization should remain with the product and not extend to the training. The interaction with the product groups should be around 40-50% of the program (called round tables). The politicization of the Architect cert by adding the “Review Board” should be eliminated and the program should be returned to its original objectives (I have a copy if anyone needs them). It should also return to being a Qualification rather than a Certification.

Microsoft certifications are too badly damaged in the industry to be able to be repaired without significant investment and a house cleaning in MS Learning.

This is yet another of the bad decisions under the current leadership along the same lines as the transformation of MCS into for-profit consulting. Microsoft has an obligation to its customers to provide mechanisms to give their customers the best support and design services available. They have retreated from that with MCS (around the year 2000) and now they are determined to wipe out the last of the program that extended that capability to Partners.

I am glad this has happened because it is the only way the Qualification can be reborn and returned to its rightful path. Otherwise it will just be put out of its misery once and for all, leaving the path open for external entities to take up the slack and create a new “Ranger”-like Qualification.

--billw

on Sep 3, 2013

@Billw,

First of all I should recognize the personal contribution that you made to the establishment of the Exchange Ranger program. You and I might not have agreed about every detail of how the program operated, but that is no reason not to recognize personal commitment and achievement,

Second, my original interaction with Microsoft about the program that became Ranger and subsequently MCM goes back to 2001, which accounts for the date. The date on the memo is 9 September 2001 and it arises from a visit paid by a Microsoft executive to the Compaq Exchange 2000 academy.

Third, I agree with you on many points. I think there is a need for high-end training on Exchange and that this is a bad decision. Some contemplation of what is possible and viable in today's environment is required to come up with an accreditation that meets the needs of today. I fear that MSL will not do this, for many varied and bad reasons.

on Sep 3, 2013

@TRedmond: Ah, yes, the dawn of the "SI Initiative", the parent program of Ranger, was around 2001, wasn't it? My apologies for the erroneous correction.

I agree with your assessment of MSL's probable actions. Perhaps opportunity exists there.

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