Kathi: Brent, explain what the MCM is and why our readers might be interested in learning more about it.

Brent: When the US Army needs to solve a very tough problem, they send in a Ranger - a member of an elite Special Operations team, the best of the best.

Microsoft had similar needs - they have armies of people doing support, consulting, and engineering for SQL Server, but sometimes they need to send in the very best.  They need someone to parachute into a client site to fix the nastiest database problems, and they need to know they can count on these people to just take care of it.  They designed the Ranger program to train and certify their top-tier employees on architecture, implementation, and troubleshooting.

The Ranger program was notoriously difficult, but the end result was that the few successful graduates were clearly the best of the best.  They had all the knowledge and tools they needed to tackle any SQL Server problem.

The public needed a program just like that, only maybe a little less intense, with less guns and knives.  ;-)  Microsoft introduced the Microsoft Certified Master (MCM) and Microsoft Certified Architect (MCA) programs to fill that need.  MCMs go through a very difficult three-week program with written weekly tests and a final hands-on lab.  It's expensive, and the pass rate isn't high, but if you pass, your employer knows they can send you into any battle.

If you ask your CIO about the toughest certification program, he'll probably mention Cisco, the networking vendor.  Cisco's highest tier of certifications, CCIE, involve a day-long hands-on lab at one of Cisco's offices.  If you pass one of those, IT managers know you mean business.  CCIEs don't get job interviews - they interview companies they'd like to work for.  MCMs aren't as well-known as CCIEs yet, but the programs are similar, and I can see MCMs getting that same reputation over time.

Kathi: You are one of the few people in the world with SQL Server 2008 MCM status.  How does it feel when you realize that you are more likely to win the lottery than to achieve this amazing feat?

Brent: I'm so happy because now I have more money to spend on lotto tickets.

OK, no, seriously, I was really humbled.  Our MCM rotation had 11 candidates, and only a few of us passed on our first try.  All of the people in my rotation were very, very skilled, and I was completely blown away that some of them didn't pass, yet I did.  I actually felt guilty, because I felt like some of those guys deserved it more than I did.

The tricky thing about the MCM - just like everyday SQL work - is that in order to get the job done, you need to know more than what's in the book.  You need solid troubleshooting skills, good intuition, and the ability to manage your time.  Just because someone has Books Online memorized doesn't mean they'll be a good DBA or developer.  When I finished the lab, I was proud of the technical tasks I'd accomplished, but I was even more proud of the way I'd been able to work around the challenges and pitfalls that weren't documented in any books.

Kathi: What was the most difficult part of the process for you?

Brent: The most difficult part of the MCM was before it even began.  It's hard to find the time to study all of the MCM prerequisites, and some of the prerequisite material is quite difficult to read.  When I'm faced with a huge stack of whitepapers, suddenly I notice that the dishwasher needs to be emptied, the dog needs to go for a walk, and I need to clean my sock drawer.  It takes tremendous discipline to read - and absorb - all of the material.

In my rotation, only a small minority of the candidates took the time to read all of the prerequisites, but I think those students fared better in the day-to-day training.  Reading documentation is no substitute for real-world experience, but it helps enhance your knowledge by filling in the edge cases and strange scenarios.

Yes, someone can still become an MCM without reading the prerequisites, but why not give yourself the best chance for success when so much is on the line?

Kathi: Any advice on how to get employers to pay for this training or at least provide time off from work?

Brent: When your boss wants you to:
 - Solve tough problems faster
 - Make smarter hardware purchases (and less gambles)
 - Recover quickly when disaster strikes
Then the MCM will help get you there.

Whether your boss will pay for the MCM or not, start doing the prerequisites yourself.  It takes a while to get the two MCITP certifications and do all of the prerequisite reading - perhaps a year or more if you're trying to juggle a full time job, a family, and your studies.

When you're ready, walk into your boss's office and lay it all out.  Show your newly won certifications and set down the pile of whitepapers you've studied.  Ask him to quiz you on their contents.  Tell him that you've put all this work in without costing the company a cent, and it proves that you're an employee worthy of the company's investment.  Your company doesn't want to spend thousands of dollars to gamble on an employee that might not pass the program.  If YOU look like the most likely employee to take advantage of this advanced program, then the company will be more likely to bet on you.

Say, "I've gone as far as I possibly can on my own.  I'm ready for the toughest certification Microsoft has to offer."  At that point, if your company isn't willing to invest money in you, it might be a sign that you and the company aren't the right match, but you can't come to that decision until you've put your own skin in the game.

Katih: Sounds like you were really busy during the entire time. Were you able to spend any time enjoying the Seattle area or hanging out with the other students?

Brent: I spent every night working on the labs and building flash cards.  I did take short breaks to have dinner with Buck Woody and with Jimmy May, because those guys are priceless friends who gave me the mental support to keep going.  I'd advise MCM candidates to only focus on studying or on very short bursts of activities that energize them.  You need as much positive energy as you can get.  I blogged because that was a therapeutic outlet for me at the end of the day, but otherwise, I studied my rear off.

There have been MCM candidates who tried flying home for the weekend or spending the weekend doing tourist activities.  Those students didn't pass.  If you want to see Seattle, go to the PASS Summit and arrive a few days early - it'll cost you a lot less than a failed attempt at the MCM certification, and you'll be happier.

Kathi: If you had to do it again, what would you do differently?

Brent: Part of me thinks that before the program started, I should have spent more hands-on time with SQL Server features I don't like.  For example, replication has consistently given me problems, so before the class, I learned the bare minimum to get the job done.  As a result, some of the master-level replication training went over my head, and that was a wasted opportunity for me.

The other part of me says that I'm probably never going to have enough time to become a replication expert.  I don't want to do a half-hearted job at implementing something as important as replication.  If somebody needs replication, I'd point them to Wendy Pastrick or Kendal Van Dyke.  I wish I could learn everything about every feature of SQL Server, but there just isn't enough time between every release.  Every release adds more cool new features, too, making expertise even harder to achieve.

Kathi: Any additional advice for DBAs out there who might be thinking about tackling the MCM?

Brent: The Microsoft Certified Master program opened doors for me.

I blog a lot about how you should build a personal brand, and how that makes your career easier.  People approach you with jobs because they know who you are and what you do.  Having a blog *AND* an MCM opens all kinds of doors.  People know where to find you, and they know what you know.  I've always gotten job offers through my blog, but now the quality of job offers has gone through the roof.  Michael Smith, a seriously good DBA, went through the MCM rotation with me, passed the first time, and went to work at Microsoft within a month!  That's an incredible opportunity that only happens with those three magic letters - MCM.

The program isn't easy, and not everyone passes.  But like blogging, just the process of doing it forces you to learn so much more about SQL Server, and it makes you a better DBA and developer.  Worst case scenario - you learn a lot.  Best case scenario - you learn a lot, and you can get hired almost anywhere.

Next I think I'll work on the US Army Rangers certification.  How hard can it be?