What is it like to be a Certified Master?

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I recently had an honor to go through Microsoft Certified Master program for Exchange 2010 and I am glad to have made it through the course successfully!

So for those of you who might be interested in learning what is it like to be in MCM, I am going to try and jot down some of my thoughts.

Starting the Process

First things first. To become an MCM, you have to start somewhere. The MCM program offers exclusive, advanced training to seasoned IT professionals. One needs to have extensive hands-on experience on Exchange Server version 2003, 2007 and 2010 (since this is a blog of an Exchange PFE, it should be no surprise that I am only talking about MCM for Exchange Server). By extensive, I seriously mean extensive. You need to know Exchange well. If you went to Exchange boot camp and passed required MCITP exams, you will have tough time getting accepted in the program. If you get accepted by the program, you will have even tougher time learning the level of content being delivered. This by no means is an official statement (I do not belong to MCM program team), but a true one nonetheless. I don’t want to discourage anyone but want to level set the expectations.

You also need to have required certifications, namely MCITP: Enterprise Messaging Administrator 2010 and either MCSE 2003 or pass exam 70-640.

If you meet the requirements and you feel ready to take a plunge, head over to Certified Master Registration page on Microsoft Learning website. You can find more details of registration process and program fees here.

You need to start your application and submit required paperwork. The paperwork includes your curriculum vitae (resume) and supporting documentation that helps MCM program managers to determine your eligibility. Once you submit the application fee and required paperwork, you will need to wait to hear back from MCM team for their determination of eligibility. If you are accepted in the program, the fun begins.

Pre-Reading

If you are accepted in the program, you are sent details about the program, logistics and other important details. The most important on the technical side is the pre-reading list. When I got the list, I had to give my brain a moment to stabilize. The list is not small. It is broad. It is detailed. It requires time. And you better spend time on this list because everything you read from this list (some you may have read already, but I would not recommend skipping just because you have read it before), will come handy when you are in the training. When you are sitting in the class, trying to absorb everything instructor is dishing out to you, you will not have time to think back and wonder what the basics that instruction is building upon was. You better know the basics well, you better read the pre-read material beforehand.

First Day

All the excitement leads to being on Microsoft’s Redmond campus. On first day of MCM training, you will be in a classroom full of amazing talent. The introductions roll (you may have already heard some names in introductory emails and if lucky, may know some of them already), and as people introduce themselves, you start realizing, you  may be quickly dwarfed by their experience with the product. Some may have been working on it since its inception. Some may have started later. None, any less knowledgeable than you, none any less brilliant. You can easily be looking at combined 230 years experience if not more. And if you are the type who doesn’t easily get humbled, let me tell you, you will get humbled very quickly. I was.

After introductions, you will be given schedule for three weeks (remember we are talking Exchange MCM here) and some familiarity with your surroundings. After formalities, instructors have the floor.

The Journey of three weeks

Classes start at 8am sharp and getting there late is not entertained. You may be singing a song if you are late or the answer may be C. You won’t know what you will miss by being 5 minutes late but you WILL miss something important. One day I was late by 45 seconds and I felt bad that I was. I never wanted to be late again.

The instructions start to roll blinding pace. The material is deep, the amount of content huge, the time in contrast, three weeks will start looking way less time than you will need. Partly because your brain will not have time to stop and absorb the material until very late in the day (I should call it a night already) and for only few hours. The brain will be overloaded with amount of knowledge it has to absorb and the amount of time it has (or doesn’t have) to process it.

Listen to your instructors, listen to program managers, trust their advise. One of the advise you will hear on first day is to form a study group. While it may seem obvious, I can’t stress enough how much loss you will incur by not being serious about working in teams. Forming a group (doesn’t matter how small or big) will help you collectively process information and put it in perspective. At times I had information to interpret and two different interpretations from two different people still seemed to have made sense. Only one of the interpretation was correct! And without working with a group, you will certainly end up making wrong assumptions.

Another important advise, use your breaks. Breaks are frequent but short. Don’t sit there and look at material instructor just covered. Don’t try to get that few steps ahead of others in the lab. This is not a race. It’s a marathon. You will need all the energy. Every last bit of it. You will need to sustain it. Get up, walk around, relax a bit, get water and use bathroom breaks. Your body and brain will thank you.

Each day of each will is long. 12 hours if not more. After the instructions, you have time to review the material covered, do the labs mentioned and talk among the study group to discuss details, clarify confusions. The time you won’t have is to go out for a drink (well, you may but I would advise against it). I won’t advise against relaxation, you will have to find what works for you and find a bit of time for relaxation but you won’t have much of that. Music works for me, you will have to find what works for you. Forget to relax and you will be hurting the next day. You will be hurting the week and the weekend. Not a good feeling to have when you have so much knowledge to absorb.

The first exam

Monday after the first week is exam number one. First thing in morning. At 8 am sharp. The written exam is not your standard MCP/MCITP Prometric exam. While the format is similar, the content is not! This is where most of candidates get their surprise. They don’t know what to expect from the first test. They won’t be told by anyone, instructors, program managers, prior MCMs, no one. You will have to trust your knowledge, your abilities, your brain to bring it’s speed and your self to bring its best. The questions are tough. The answers are confusing. This is one test where passing score is lowest. To become an MCM, you must pass all written tests (3 in Exchange MCM) and a qualification lab. No one wants to fail but the reality will strike unexpectedly. If you are not prepared, it will. If you think you are prepared it will. If you know you are prepared, it still will. I wish all candidates best of luck but I warn you to be prepared.

Week 2, Exam 2, Week 3 and Exam 3

After the shock of first exam, even if you pass, you feel exhausted. But as I mentioned before time you won’t have. you will have a short break and week 2 instructions will start. You better leave your exhaustion behind, even if you didn’t pass, you don’t want it to get to you and interfere with your ability to grasp what’s coming your way for week 2. Get up and keep running. Don’t worry about first exam, you will have another chance if you need it.

Week 2 will be another grueling week. Learn from your week 1 experience. Learn from your first exam experience, share, help and build on the knowledge you have by working as a team. Work alone and you will be hurting. I may be wrong but I have seen those working in group having better chances of passing exams than those working alone. Don’t forget to relax a bit. Stay hydrated. Eat on time. Get good sleep every day.

Exam 2 will soon be a blur and you will have better understanding of exam format, depth of questions etc. It doesn’t mean you will be more confortable as I was more frightened of second exam than first one, though I managed to pass both in first pass, it wasn’t easy and I wasn’t sure that I had understanding of everything taught to pass. After humbling experience we start to underestimate ourselves and it may be a good thing sometimes as we push ourselves more, work harder too.

Week 3 will be close to an end before you know it. You will start getting tired, missing home, feeling ready for last exam and qualification lab. Wanting to get out of there. Exam 3 will roll along on Friday of 3rd week. You will have even less time to prepare than first two. Not having weekend to prepare can be offset by having a regime, working as a team and ensuring you review material covered daily.

The Coveted Qual Lab

This is what we all wait for. This is what we all want to excel in. This is what we all feel ready for. Until you actually arrive. The lab starts on Saturday of last week. It is usually about 6 hours. It contains few tasks for you to accomplish. I won’t say the number for obvious reasons. The tasks may seem relatively easy, simple. You may feel you will finish all tasks in allotted time. You may feel good. But not after the freight train starts. Starts to run you over I mean. The qualification lab is not easy. And while being accepted in MCM is an achievement in itself, passing qualification lab is another. I was dodging bullets. I was sweating. I was unsure 3.5 hrs into it. I didn’t have my first task completed until after. The problems are not ridiculous. They are not weird breaks or bugs. They are very logical. But you have to be very organized, thorough in your understanding of components, interdependencies, flow. You have to be fast. Act logical, act fast, don’t get stuck on one problem and spend too much time on it. Easier said than done I know. I spent 3.5 hrs thinking I was close. Don’t make that mistake. Allocate a time at the beginning and move on when the time is up. This will help you attack most of the problems if not all.

When the lab is over, you are done with your MCM training. You won’t know lab results until few days later. Now is the time to live it up. Go to a nice restaurant. Have the drinks you said no to for 3 weeks. Talk trash and curse the lab writers. Or just laugh at yourself and others for thinking they were brave enough to go for MCM. It’s all game.

Before you know it, you will be on the flight back home. Looking forward to meet your family. Take a day or two off. Or brave like me, starting the work very next day.

The Prize

Now comes the most interesting part! the prize of doing all the hard work.What we all have been waiting for! the lab results!

I got mine and I was ecstatic. I was beyond happy. All the hard work had paid off. I became one of those few Exchange 2010 MCMs! I was joining the elites. I was starting to believe in me again!

I HAD JOINED THE VERY FEW EXCHANGE 2010 MCMs!

Last word

I did not want to forget to mention this. While I was lucky enough to have made through all exams and the lab, not everyone were. If this happens to you, I would strongly advise DON’T GIVE UP. I made very good friends back there. And to them, you totally deserve it. You all have what it takes. While you didn’t make it in first pass, you wouldn’t be there in first place if you didn’t have what it takes to be an MCM. So don’t prove me wrong. DON’T GIVE UP.

I know I have made friends for life back there. You know who you are and you know you can always depend on me and I can on you. If anything, the experience was worth just because I met that amazing talent, those amazing professionals and those best friends.

And for those who are thinking if they are ready for MCM, don’t doubt yourself. You will surprise yourself. You will learn a lot. You will make great friends and if you work hard and give it all you have got, you will become a Certified Master!

If you have questions, concerns or comments, I will be glad to address them in best of my abilities. Just don’t ask what the answer is. It is always C.

Originally posted at http://blogs.technet.com/bshukla

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