Whither MCA and MCM and why?

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When I discovered that Microsoft planned to retire its Microsoft Certified Master, Microsoft Certified Solutions Master, and Microsoft Certified Architect credentials in October, I was more than a little bit surprised. It seemed completely counter-intuitive to me that the company’s pinnacle certifications, highly touted and apparently highly valued in the employer and MCP communities, would be headed for oblivion.

In digging into the situation, I discovered a TechNet blog post dated Aug. 30, 2013 (“Retiring the Microsoft Master certifications and training”), that appeared to provide the first indication that such a change was in the offing. And in fact, although the post says retirement was scheduled for Oct. 31, 2013 (Halloween), the cert pages for MCM, MCSM, and MCA all say the official end date is Dec. 31, 2013 instead.

Given that many more companies are adding senior (master level) and architect certifications these days than are doing away with them, I was more than mildly curious as to what prompted Microsoft’s decision at this time, for these dates. Naturally, I reached out to Shelby Grieve, Director of Certifications for the newly-renamed Microsoft Learning Experiences (LeX) division, formerly known as Microsoft Learning. On Nov. 8, we finally managed to talk by phone, when she answered all of my questions, and a great deal more, during a productive one-hour conference call.

Master and Architect: Sidelined Temporarily and Indefinitely

Ms. Grieve was quick to point out that there was nothing wrong with the concept of master and architect level certifications per se, and that LeX is by no means abandoning those kinds of credentials. Rather, she indicated that the issues came from program uptake, which she said failed to reach the scale that Microsoft wanted, and thus also failed to create the kind of impact the company wanted these credentials to make in their overall certification community. She indicated that their conversations with current and prospective holders of the MCM, MCSM, and MCA credentials indicated four primary problems with the current offerings – namely:

1 — With less than 1,000 professionals qualifying for any of these items in their decade-plus of tenure (the MCM goes back to 2001, with the other two credentials of somewhat more recent vintage), they failed to reach the populations that Microsoft wanted them to.

2 — Handling these programs required numerous manual steps, including registrations and application processing, and grading of lab exams, involving excessive amounts of staff time and energy to handle.

3 — As currently implemented all three programs impose high costs on participants: the credentials themselves are expensive (thousands of dollars), demand two to three weeks of training (only offered in Redmond) and travel expenses, and take candidates away from the workplace for some time (involving opportunity or lost productivity costs).

4 — Though these credentials all possess significant depth and breadth of technical scope and coverage, testing too often focused on minutiae and details removed from topics, issues, and techniques more focused at on-the-job concerns and requirements.

In short, these programs need reworking and re-engineering. That’s why Ms. Grieve said they’re being sidelined rather than permanently taken off the MS certification roster, though she’s not yet sure when they will return to the line-up, or if they will reappear under the same or different certification credential names. As Microsoft ponders its next set of senior (Master) and pinnacle (Architect) level certifications however, Ms. Grieve says that the company’s goal is to lower the barriers and costs to participation and maintenance of such credentials. This is more or less what I had expected to learn, and I was pleased to understand that MS has put its top-level certs on hiatus rather than deciding to do away with them completely and forever.

As to how long it might be before senior and pinnacle certs re-appear, and in what form or under what names, Ms. Grieve was unwilling to speculate at this time. She allowed that the LeX team has some significant work to do, and some serious hurdles to overcome, before anyone’s willing to talk about what’s next in this arena.

So What Else Is New at LeX?

The biggest challenge that LeX faces at present comes from the rapid pace of technology change and development these days, particularly as it’s reflected in Microsoft’s new “rapid cadence” for major software release. Thus, for example, Windows 8.1 and Windows Server 2012 R2 followed their predecessors by only a year, and LeX must determine how to manage the more or less continuous updates and changing to learning and assessment tools for related certifications tied to those platforms.

Ms. Grieve said that LeX is actively engaged in figuring out how to adapt its training, testing, and ongoing certification validation (by which she means recertification) for holders of existing credentials. Early next year, the company will launch a pilot project to test out its processes and procedures to manage a new approach to developing and delivering training materials and testing instruments to help them (and their training partners, MCTs, and yes even certification candidates and holders) keep up with this more rapid pace. She wasn’t able to share any details on this just yet, but she did that the new approach “requires a different perspective on how candidates study for MS certifications, and how instructors prepare to teach certification topics online and in the classroom.”

LeX is also looking very closely at its core credentials, particularly those in the MCSA and MCSE programs to make sure they meet market and technical needs, and provide holders with skills and knowledge relevant to today’s and tomorrow’s workplaces. The company is looking at adding more flexibility to these credentials, which may mean possible specializations within specific topic areas, or perhaps a return to mandatory and optional exam elements in the mix.

Whatever happens it should be interesting to see what Microsoft LeX comes up with. I’ll be talking regularly with Ms. Grieve and her colleagues there, so please count on me to keep you informed as the shape of things to come becomes more definite, and LeX is ready to share them with me – and you!

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Ed Tittel

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ed Tittel is a 30-plus year IT veteran who’s worked as a developer, networking consultant, technical trainer, writer, and expert witness. Perhaps best known for creating the Exam Cram series, Ed has contributed to over 100 books on many computing topics, including titles on information security, Windows OSes, and HTML. He also blogs on IT certification topics for numerous outlets, including GoCertify.com and CertMag.com.

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