I don’t usually spend much time thinking about certifications; they can be useful as a quick, first-order test to see whether people have some minimum level of knowledge and skill, but they aren’t necessarily the best indicator of a person’s understanding of something such as Microsoft Exchange Server. Microsoft clearly recognizes that the old MCSE credential and its replacement, the Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP) credential, don’t always show the full depth of someone’s knowledge about a particular product, which is why Microsoft introduced its latest foray into the certification world, the Microsoft Certified Master (MCM) credential.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column about the development of Microsoft’s certification programs leading up to the MCM credential (see “Microsoft's Messaging Certification Roadmap: Ranger to MCA”). The first MCMs to be offered are for Exchange 2007, SQL Server 2008, and Active Directory in Windows Server 2008. The primary differences between MCM and the old-school certifications it replaces are depth and rigor.

I start with depth because the MCM program assumes you already have solid working knowledge of a product before you set foot in the MCM classroom. For example, the MCM: Exchange Server 2007 program requires that applicants be certified as MCSEs in Windows 2003 (or have passed the 70-640 Windows 2008 exam) and have passed the three Exchange 2007 certification exams—just to get in the door! The curriculum was clearly designed with the idea that attendees would already have read over, and know, what’s in the product Help files, as well as how to deploy and manage Exchange in the real world. I’ve been studying to qualify as an MCM instructor for the unified messaging (UM) portion of the Exchange course, and I can say that the material for the course goes quite a bit beyond what’s in the product documentation “out of the box.”

Depth doesn’t just apply to lecture material. Lecture-only classes tend to get boring—no matter how interesting the underlying subject matter—when you stretch them out for three weeks. That’s why hands-on work is a key focus of the MCM curriculum. Interestingly, the guidance given for the labs is at a very high level. The typical Microsoft hands-on lab requires you to follow a carefully defined set of steps; the MCM labs start with a high-level objective such as “set up the basic UM objects for Contoso’s Exchange organization.” Students must either know or be able to figure out how to do those things.

The second interesting aspect of the MCM program is rigor. In a traditional MCSE-style credential, you pass some written tests that judge areas of your knowledge. The quality of the test is largely up to the team of subject-matter experts who write the exam questions. And because the test must be available in a wide variety of testing centers, the test experience can’t really simulate the experience of working on an actual set of Exchange servers. The MCM tests don’t have this restriction; they include extensive hands-on testing on live Exchange environments. However, this means that they’re only offered in Redmond for the time being. There are both written and hands-on tests required as part of the MCM process, which raises the level of difficulty quite a bit compared to older credentials.

The first Microsoft Certified Master for Exchange class starts October 6, 2008, in Redmond. If you’re interested in attending, you should know that Microsoft is offering 50 percent off the normal price for this first session. See the “Microsoft Certified Master: Exchange Server 2007” page on Microsoft’s website for more details on prerequisites or to sign up.