I think it’s pretty clear I am a Microsoft ‘guy’ – heaven knows I make my living on their server platforms and am a 5-year Cluster MVP. Believe it or not, I’ve used many platforms over the years (NetWare, HP-UX, Solaris/SunOS, Oracle, Sybase, Informix, and probably a few others I’ve forgotten).  At the same time, I’m also outspoken which has gotten me into trouble in the past (including when I was a blue badge/Microsoft employee, but I’ll take those stories to the grave). I call things as I see them, and I think there’s one recent thing that needs to be called out for what it is – how not to handle your business.

If you haven’t seen or heard by now, Microsoft has killed their advanced certifications (MCM and MCA). Jason Brimhall (Twitter | Blog) wrote a great post on the topic, which not only has good commentary but has a link to a lot of the reactions, so I don’t need to rehash any of that. Brent Ozar (Twitter | Blog) also has another blog post which I don’t think is in Jason’s list.

Although I am not a SQL Server MCM (MCSM, or whatever they were calling it at the end), I did teach a few rotations of it. I was very honored when they asked me the times I did get to speak to those folks going through the process. The way the program was initially structured – and apparently the other disciplines were still for the most part – was that it was a 3+ week investment of your time in Redmond and anywhere from $15,000 – $25,000 (they lowered the price over time). Now, that’s clearly NOT a certification for everyone. I think the statistic used in that Microsoft response in the Connect item listed below was .08% – less than 1% – of all people who get certified went for this advanced certification. From a business standpoint, I can see where that is not necessarily where you want to be. Having said that, I also think it’s not a bad thing. It shows that it isn’t a paper certification that just anyone can get. You have to earn it by (shockingly!) knowing what you’re talking about. All of these programs started back a long time ago with Microsoft Certified Architect and the Exchange Rangers. I remember talking to some Exchange Rangers in about 2003 at TechEd when I was still a blue badge. Those were some really smart guys.

Anyway, I can remember chatting with Joe Sack (now of SQLskills; TwitterBlog) after I taught at what I think was the last full SQL Server MCM rotation (or one of the last). We were talking about how he needed to scale the program (both in terms of making it cheaper and repeatable)  to make it survive, yet still make sure it hit all the right marks and ensure it still was a high level certification. I would call what Joe was able to achieve a success, and it looked like the other disciplines (Exchange, Active Directory, Lync, Sharpoint) were heading in that direction, but the costs were still astronomical. I think that the SQL Server one was attainable. It still was not ‘cheap’ per se – $500 for the knowledge exam and $2,500 for the lab, but it wasn’t so unattainable that many people couldn’t either save or convince their company to pay for it. I mean, 3+ weeks away plus hotel, travel, and $20,000 is a hard pill to swallow. $3,000 is much more affordable in relative terms. I have many friends who are SQL Server MCMs, many of whom acquired it after Joe scaled things. Every single one deserves it.

The problem here I think is partially a business one: with less than 1% of the people going for it, is it worth keeping? At a pure pragmatic level, absolutely. You want to recognize some of the best of the best. That said, I understand the financials. Microsoft just paid Nokia $7 billion, but that doesn’t mean Microsoft Learning has access to more capital. Like any business unit, they have a budget. “But they’re Microsoft!” you may scream, and on one hand, I agree with you. You want to be taken seriously in the enterprise space? Have advanced certifications.

I know there was growing concern among some MCMs because there was not a SQL Server 2012 version of the exams, and what the upgrade path would be especially with release cadences being upped. Now we have our answer – Microsoft essentially killed all of the advanced certifications, even MCA which has been around longer than the rest of them. It does make me sad.

What bothers me is how they went about doing this. I run a business. Part of the success of any business is its reputation – mindshare if you will. Another part is, to a degree, goodwill and treating your customers fairly. I think in this case Microsoft got some bad advice. They dropped the news late on a Friday before Labor Day weekend here in the United States. Maybe they figured no one would notice. Oops. As of now, there is a Connect item to bring back the SQL Server MCM. As well intentioned as it is, and Microsoft even responded (see Tim Sneath on 8/31/2013 at 1:32 PM), I doubt it will change things but I certainly encourage you to +1 it if you believe in the MCM program and advanced certifications.

If Ben or I ran SQLHA like Microsoft Learning just treated its best customers, we’d be out of business. There’s a lot of anger and resentment from passionate folks who are now saying, “Why bother getting certified at all?” This is going to present a big challenge for people like Microsoft Gold Partners if they can’t force their people to get certified – they’ll drop their Gold status. So if Microsoft wanted to cause the maximum amount of damage, they found a great way to do so. The collateral damage has the potential to be huge.

At the end of the day, a certification like MCM or MCA helps  you differentiate among many of the people out there. People hire Ben and myself, or Denny Cherry, Brent Ozar Unlimited, SQLskills, etc., because we’re established and know what the hell we’re doing. We’re all very lucky. But for those who don’t have a presence and track record out there like we do – how do you know they are good? Heck, we’ve cleaned up a ton of messes over the years that some supposed ‘consultants’ caused. I’m sure the other folks I’ve listed could say the same. Good for our respective businesses, but bad for you. MCM went a long way here. I saw in one of the Sharepoint MCM posts in the aftermath something to this point about how the Sharepoint MCMs cleaned up a lot of messes. Anyone can claim they know what they’re doing, but we’ve seen the results. It can be ugly. Most folks are honest and do great work, but it’s those few bad eggs that spoil it for everyone.

I’m not trying to bite the hand that feeds me (to a point), but Microsoft dropped the ball here. I have no doubt it was a tough decision. But sneaking out in the dead of night hoping no one would notice? That’s bad business that I think has caused more ill will towards Microsoft from its staunchest supporters than any other action they could have done. I truly hope they mean what they say and are looking into ways to implement advanced certifications that work for them (and us, too), but I won’t hold my breath forever. Friday was a sad day, especially for those who spent a lot of time, effort, and money to get those well deserved certifications. Let’s hope Microsoft makes the right decisions long term to do right by them.