I recently had the opportunity to attend Rotation 8 of the Microsoft Certified Master | Exchange 2010 program and am happy to report that I passed all three written exams and the final qualification lab exam on the first attempt. I’m proud to be joining an elite community of only 19 MCMs worldwide prior to my rotation and those of my Rotation 8 colleagues that have passed or will after exam retakes. I had the privilege of learning with some extremely talented individuals in my rotation and am looking forward to working with other MCMs in the near future. I wanted to share some of my experiences in the hopes that it helps encourage others to pursue this elite certification.
My journey technically began in early 2010, when I discussed the possibility of attending MCM training with my firm’s management. Later in 2010, I was informed that my firm would like to send me to this training and I began the application process. Acceptance into the MCM program as a candidate occurs only after you apply and provide a few key documents for review by the program’s team. Specifically, you must hold an MCITP: Enterprise Messaging Administrator certification and provide a current resume or CV, an outline of a recent project describing your specific roles and responsibilities, and a technical architecture document that you’ve written for a recent project. You may be asked to participate in a phone interview to clarify any of your materials, although I was not. Once all required materials have been submitted, you wait to hear back from the program team regarding their decision.
Once accepted, you must choose a three week rotation date (all are on-site in Redmond at Microsoft’s headquarters) and pay the rotation training fee ($18,500 as of the writing of this article). As you approach your rotation date, you are provided with a substantial pre-reading list that includes a large portion of Exchange TechNet content and a number of recommended lab tasks to complete. I strongly recommend that you build a lab environment and work through as many of these recommended lab tasks as you can. They are extremely helpful in getting you familiar with concepts you may not have worked with previously (e.g. domain secure transport, cross-forest availability sharing, etc.) and will give you a head start on some labs that you may need to work through during your rotation.
My rotation began on January 17, 2011 and it included a diverse group of 22 individuals (plus an additional classmate completing some week 1 requirements from a previous rotation) from around the world. Microsoft Premier Field Engineering and Microsoft Consulting Services had very strong representation in the rotation with approximately half of the candidates.
Week 1 starts slow for the first couple of hours as everyone gets situated, receives an introduction to the program, and learns about the logistics for the next three weeks. After that, it’s full-steam ahead for the entire week. Class begins at 8:00am sharp each day and, on average, class ran until about 10:00pm each day during week 1. In addition, a number of lab exercises were assigned throughout the course of each day and, as a result, most candidates remained in the lab well past midnight to complete all of the labs. While you could certainly leave earlier, I wouldn’t recommend it since you would quickly fall behind on your labs if you did so.
Week 1 covers Client Access and Transport and is, in my opinion, the most difficult and intense content that is covered during the program. You learn the deep technical details of AutoDiscover, proxying and redirection, namespace planning, RPC Proxy, secure Exchange publishing, Exchange routing, all phases of transport categorization, transport high availability, secured transport, and much more from two excellent instructors. There is a ton of content to learn but I can honestly say that our instructors did an amazing job of reviewing all of the key details so that I came out with a clear understanding. Discussing RPC Proxy concepts through analogies to elephants and shadow redundancy with paper plates certainly made for a memorable learning experience.
I spent my entire weekend studying for the week 1 written exam, proctored on the second Monday. I split my weekend between studying all classroom content and my copious notes on Saturday and then in the lab reviewing key concepts with my fellow candidates on Sunday. That strategy worked well for me but I know others in my class spent more and less time in the lab. My rotation was very collaborative and working together in the lab was a great learning experience. However, if you study better on your own, you may want to tailor your own schedule accordingly.
In total, I believe we reviewed about 1,000 slides of content and spent over 110 hours in the classroom in week 1.
Week 2 began with our week 1 written exam, bright and early at 8:00am sharp on Monday. The format is similar to most other MCP exams but the content is, as expected, significantly more difficult. No matter how well you feel you understand the content of week 1, do not underestimate the difficultly of this exam. The instructors are trying to gauge if you truly understand the underlying content and, as a result, this exam is extremely difficult. According to many, the week 1 exam is easily the hardest of the three written exams due to both the difficulty and sheer amount of associated content. If you don’t pass on the first try, don’t be discouraged. Brush yourself off, prepare for week 2’s training, and worry about retaking the exam later.
Week 2 covers Mailbox and Database Internals, Storage, Database Availability Groups, and High Availability. Again, the quality of material and instructors was outstanding. While instruction didn’t go as late as week 1 (although we had instruction until about 9:30pm on the Monday of our week 1 exam), the amount of content covered was about the same. Paper plates made a repeat appearance when reviewing Datacenter Activation Coordination concepts and, in general, I thoroughly enjoyed the content. In week 2, you will learn the deep technical details of ESE, Jet, retention and archiving, performance and scalability validation, Mailbox Server role sizing, storage design and sizing, storage validation, and everything you could possibly want to know about DAGs and HA.
I took a similar approach to studying on the weekend (slide and note review plus collaborative studying in the lab) but spent a little more time in the lab than for week 1. Again, it was a great experience to study with my fellow candidates.
In total, we reviewed about 1,000 slides and spent about 60 hours in the classroom for instruction and probably another 30-40 hours studying.
Week 3 began with our week 2 written exam, again at 8:00am sharp on Monday. The format is the same as week 1 although, again, much more difficult than any other Microsoft exam you’ve taken before. Once the exam is over, you can take a quick break and then dive right back into content.
Week 3 covers a number of diverse topics and is designed to tie a number of concepts together. In week 3, you’ll cover Unified Messaging, Operations, Virtualization, RBAC, Migration and Coexistence, Load Balancing, Federation, and Multi-Forest Deployments. A good portion of the week 3 content is consultative in nature, specifically that around migration and coexistence and multi-forest deployments. Many of the instructors for week 3 are Solution Architects at Microsoft, who focus heavily on the consultative side of Exchange.
Due to the course’s timi
ng, you don’t have your third weekend for studying. The week 3 written exam was held on Friday afternoon and, while you are taking the exam, your lab environment is being rebuilt in preparation for the final qualification lab exam, which is proctored on Saturday. As a result, you need to be very careful with budgeting your in-week studying time during week 3. You need to prepare for the week 3 written exam but, simultaneously, you need to be preparing for the qualification lab as well.
The qualification lab is the culmination of your three weeks of training and was a truly humbling experience. While I cannot divulge a lot of information about the exam due to NDA restrictions on MCM candidates, the basic format is that you are given a number of seemingly simple tasks to complete but that have a number of items broken that prevent those tasks from completing normally. Your goal is to fix as many tasks as possible in the 6 hours allotted to you for the lab. The exam is not designed to be completely finished, so don’t be overwhelmed when you start working on it. Given that, don’t spend too much time on any single task. If you find yourself getting stuck, switch to another task and come back later.
Many of the instructors recommended working collaboratively with fellow candidates to prepare for the qualification lab and I couldn’t agree with that more. Each candidate has had a different set of experiences that led him or her to this course and each may have seen or troubleshot different types of issues. Pooling your shared knowledge and helping each other not only increases your chances of passing the qualification lab but also helps strengthen your understanding of topics on which you feel confident.
Once the qualification lab is over, take the time to unwind and celebrate with your class. My class and I arranged an excellent steak dinner at Metropolitan Grill in Seattle and had a great time celebrating the completion of our rotation. We even saw Bill and Melinda Gates at a table right outside of our private room!
You must wait about a week to learn the results of your qualification lab but, when you finally receive that email with your results, it is truly an amazing feeling. It is great to see all of your hard work and dedication translate into something that not many other people in the world have been able to accomplish.
Overall, this program is truly an amazing experience and one that I strongly recommend pursuing if you have interest and are able. However, make no mistake that this is an extremely difficult course and requires a tremendous amount of personal sacrifice. Being away from my wife for three straight weeks and, on top of that, having limited time each night to talk on the phone due to the sheer volume of work and studying in addition to the 3 hour time difference was extremely difficult. I am very grateful to have such a supportive and encouraging wife, family, and friends to help me through the course.
To give yourself the best chance for success, complete each and every lab exercise assigned to you, including the optional ones. While no one will be checking that you’ve completed them, anything that is covered in class is a potential topic for written exams and the qualification lab. While it involves a lot of effort, completing all of the lab exercises will put you in the best position to succeed in the course.
Get to know your fellow candidates. Each rotation is a diverse group of extremely intelligent and talented individuals, each with different experiences. I am honored to have worked with such great people in my rotation and am looking forward to staying in touch for years to come.
For more information about the MCM program, please visit http://www.microsoft.com/learning/en/us/certification/master.aspx. I’m also happy to answer any questions that I can but please understand that I may not be able to disclose some details.