There has been a lot of interest and discussion about the MCM | Exchange Server 2007 Program since Microsoft announced it earlier this year, and as the PM responsible for the Exchange Program I wanted to give you some of the history of the program, tell you more about what to expect from the program, try to answer some of the many questions I receive every day about the program, maybe try to motivate you to apply, or perhaps even dissuade you from applying if you aren't quite ready.
So what's the Program all about?
Well, the official version is here - but I want to give you a more personal take on what the program is about, having been through the previous version of the program myself (known at the time as Exchange Ranger) around 3 years ago. The experience is one I look back on as the most rewarding six weeks (as it was then) of my professional career, and the major milestone of my career; I have never been so busy since (a blessing and a curse, but mostly a blessing).
The program we refer to today as MCM grew out of that very successful Exchange Ranger program, established 5 or so years ago by the Product Group to help customers successfully deploy Exchange and avoid hitting problems that many customers faced. Back in those days Exchange was responsible for generating a lot of support calls. It was, and still is, a complex product, and it was too easy for customers to get themselves into a mess, and then call Microsoft hoping we would be able to fix the problems over the phone. Often this wasn't the case, as their original design was often flawed, their implementation was poorly completed, the solution itself was too complex, or for one of many other reasons. The goal of the Ranger program was to highly train consultants and architects who would then go out and make sure the design was done right, make sure the solution was tested, make sure it really met the requirements, and ultimately, to reduce the number of customers getting themselves into situations that required a call to Product Support.
The program was very successful in accomplishing these goals. Critsits (Critical Situations - if you don't know what it is; trust me, you don't want one of those) were proven to have been reduced. But you may wonder why you have never heard of the Ranger program. That's because, just like Fight Club, the first rule of Ranger was not to talk about Ranger. OK, not really, although it seemed like it. But it was because the program started originally as a Microsoft Internal-Only program, and no-one else needed to know about it at that time. Over the years, though, the program was opened up to Gold Partners. Now, many of the people who have been through the program work for partners, some small and others large partner organizations, as well as graduates from storage and hardware vendors. In short, a real mix of individuals, all of whom come together in a community of peers - but more about that later.
I had first learned about the program when I joined a Microsoft partner company who had sent several people through Ranger, and it was clear those guys knew some serious stuff. I thought I was pretty knowledgeable about Exchange, but they had forgotten more than I knew, had access to stuff I could only dream of, and frankly, got all the great jobs, the money and the fast cars; they got the lot. I never had the chance to go whilst at that company because I left to join Microsoft.
Six months after joining, and whilst working for MCS in the UK, I got my chance to go to Ranger and spent six weeks (six of the hardest working weeks of my life I will add) in Redmond attending the training. I was fortunate enough to pass the exams, and pass the Qual Lab at the end and in those days when we also ran the Review Board for MCA | Messaging at the same time, I managed to scrape through that, too. Sound easy? Not when you understand that only 3 of 16 who attended got the whole way through that first time, and I can assure you that I was in a class full of people I have the utmost of respect for. It was very tough and intensive, and some of my classmates have subsequently gone on to pass the required pieces.
But whether we passed or failed the first time around, we all learned an incredible amount, and what's more, we shared an incredible experience. Spending that much time with a group of very bright individuals is a learning experience in its own right. We learned from each other, we learned from the instructors, we learned about ourselves. That sounds cliché, but when you have worked six days a week, twelve to fourteen hours a day, you really find out what you have to do to learn, to survive, to succeed. It's not just a training course, it's an experience. To this day I could email any one of my classmates with a question or request for help, and I'm certain they would offer it, as would I for them.
The fact that this is an experience and not just a training course you turn up for and sit through, is what makes Ranger, sorry, Master, what it is. Many of the things that made Ranger what is was still are there in Master. I know, because that's how I want it to be. During the training you might wonder why some things are done they way they are, but I can assure there's rarely anyone who doubts that the methods used make sense when they get to the end. There's a lot to learn and the only way to do it is to get your head down and work hard. That is of course, if you want to get the most from it.
Who is the Program Aimed At?
The program historically was aimed at those working in the field of consulting. As time went by people from engineering roles and support roles began attending and now I tend to think of the program at being aimed at consulting or field engineering roles. I would also like to add Enterprise Administrators of Exchange systems to that list too, but whatever your job title is, the key thing is this: you need to have had a lot of hands-on experience working with, designing, troubleshooting and migrating/upgrading to Exchange 2007.
We try to keep all technical sessions at around level 300 - 400, and that level means you already need to know some stuff. If you are lost from the start, you will be wasting your money. This is one of the reasons why we require not only some MCP exams, but also your resume. I want to see what kind of experience you have before I accept you into the Program. I want you to be successful, and if you don't have enough experience to carry you through when the going gets tough, you will struggle. In most cases, I would rather people in that position wait a year or two before applying again, and during that period spend time working with the product, learning skills and gaining experience, because experience is probably the most important factor in success in the program, and experience takes time, it's as simple as that.
What Will I Learn and Who Will Be Teaching?
From 22 Ranger deliveries and 1 Master delivery I have yet to meet anyone who can say they were not blown away by how much they learned, or more interestingly, how much they realized they didn't know. One of the key tenants of Ranger is "know what you know, know what you don't know, and never confuse the two" and this is something I make sure all of our candidates live by. No one knows everything, but it takes a special kind of person to admit it sometimes, in this world of technical one-up-man-ship that we work in. And we do, don't we?
So I'm not going to post the full agenda here for many reasons (it changes as things change in the product, that's the main one; this is never a locked-down course), but I will outline it for you as follows:
- During week 1, we spend two-and-a-half days on CAS, and two-and-a-half days on transport. We spend a lot of time going into the design of namespace, proxying, redirection, certificates, securely publishing CAS, etc., during the CAS sessions. In transport, we dig deeply into the transport pipeline, routing, hygiene, tuning and troubleshooting. There will be plenty of light-bulb-coming-on-over-your-head moments as some things start to make sense.
- During week 2, we spend the majority of the 5 days looking at the Mailbox role and associated technologies, digging deep into database internals, storage, and continuous replication, as well as looking at performance troubleshooting and sizing. The final day that week is spent on UM, configuring UM, making phones ring, setting up Auto Attendants, all that good stuff.
- The final week brings Exchange back together again, looking at Exchange as a whole, and spending time on High Availability, as an entire solution, and then migration and co-existence.
In addition to the time in class, which is five days a week, 8am to ... well, it varies, but on average, 7 pm-ish, there are weekend projects/assignments, some evening homework, as well as some social events to help break the routine up a bit. Three weeks go very fast.
As for instructors, I don't want to drop names here either. I could, but I won't. All of them know their stuff, and I mean, really know their stuff. In the first two weeks I tend to use instructors who are focussed on the one area we are covering; the transport guy, for example, does nothing but transport, the UM guy does nothing but UM, etc. The third week, which as I said is more about Exchange as a whole, is taught by people with years of field expertise. Consultants, Architects, Existing Rangers, basically people who have been there, done that, know all the tricks and how to use them. Their years of experience benefit the class, and their mistakes can hopefully be avoided (by you).
Aside from the instructors and the agenda though there's another great resource to help you: the rest of your class. Exchange is a huge technology, covering many areas and over time people tend to specialize, or simply gain experience in specific areas. And so a large part of the learning is based on group discussion and white-boarding. We can all learn from each other, from our own real world deployment experiences. This is not the kind of training where you just sit and listen to an instructor whilst he or she makes their way through 495 PowerPoint slides. When I went through the program, one of the most valuable sessions lasted three 14 hour days and the instructor used about 60 slides in total. There was a lot of discussion, hands on with labs and white-boarding, and it was awesome.
How Much Will This Cost?
To attend the three weeks of training, it will cost you $18,500. That program fee gets you the training and your first attempt at all four exams. It does not include your expenses or travel.
At first glance that's a lot of money. At second glance, it is a lot of money. And we know this will put it out of reach for some people, particularly the self-employed, but it's a question of value, not just one of cost. Is the training valuable? Without doubt, no one who experiences it will ever disagree. The question is more whether it is value for money. Rather than me trying to convince you, here are some comments from the first Master delivery we just completed (these are uncensored and verbatim):
- It was an great experience, It really worth, even coming from my pocket
- Given the price and the time commitment required from this program, I wasn't coming in with moderate expectations. I expected the best, and that's what I got.
- Worth every penny and hour of aggravation
Obviously the cost/value discussion is not one I can win with everyone reading this, but I will add that we hope to deliver this program elsewhere in the world, and that may ultimately have an effect on cost. We may even look to provide discounted rates for particular audiences. But those cases and others like them are still 'maybes' at this time. That may change, so keep your eye on the Web site, as that is likely where we will announce any promotions like this.
The other side of the cost/value discussion is one of your increased marketability once the training is completed. Based on feedback Microsoft has received from IT professionals and leaders who have successfully completed the MCM training program, some of the MCM program graduates have achieved return-on-investment numbers such as 90 percent project success rate, 95 percent customer return rate, and 50 percent increase in billable rate. I'm not stating that Microsoft can guarantee that any of your rates will increase by obtaining the MCM credential, but based on past experience, it could happen. It worked for the partner I worked for before Microsoft - the Ranger was charged at a higher rate than me, because he knew more than me. Customers were educated about the value of the program and certification, and were prepared to pay more for it. This is a fact, it happened to me.
So Am I Buying a Certification?
No, certainly not. You are buying training which potentially leads to certification. Sure it's a hot new certification if that's what you are interested in, but you won't be getting that certification just because you showed up to class and know a bit about Exchange. That won't get you very far, as you are going to have to work very hard to pass the exams.
What I have found interesting is the attraction people have with regard to the training as an experience and the certification itself, which nicely leads me to the next section.
What Are The Benefits To Me?
There are several. First off, you get the training. I honestly believe that will give you more value in the long term than any certification. The certification though is of course your proof to your customers and partners (and the personalized letter signed by Rajesh Jha for you won't harm either), but the training you will get will make your projects more successful, your designs more complete and make you the go-to guru for Exchange amongst all your peers.
Aside from those benefits, there is one other key benefit to becoming a Certified Master - inclusion in the Ranger/Master community. Community is a big part of the program, and I work hard to give our community real benefit and value. The best and simplest example of that value is the community DL - on that DL are a couple of hundred people: all the graduates of the program and the instructors, plus some others of special value, such as Product Group folks, MSIT engineers, etc. Basically people we see as having value in their opinions and contributions. I have kept every thread since I joined that DL three years or so ago and it comes in VERY handy from time to time. One of the coolest things is that the background and experiences of those on the DL all vary so widely that community members can get answers to storage questions, security questions, and architecture questions from the people who are creating and documenting best practice, not just following best practice.
Another thing we do is something we call Continued Education. Twice a year, we arrange some kind of session or short course where we offer the chance to come back and do a refresher or learn something new. Sometimes it's something outside of Exchange (we ran a three day ITIL course earlier this year, enabling attendees from our community to become ITIL certified), sometimes it's something inside Exchange (hands on sessions with the next version of Exchange is another good example).
If you can't make the trips to Redmond, then I also arrange community conference calls. In the last few months, we have had sessions on CAS/Hub Transport scalability, Loadgen, and the perception and statistical analysis of Exchange in the newsgroups and on blogs. Sometimes technical, sometimes industry related, to give some broader perspective which we all need from time to time.
Aside from those things I have already mentioned we try to do lots of other things whenever we can; dinners, discounted trade show passes, the chance to interact and provide feedback with the Product Group, access to pre-release builds, that sort of thing. In short, if we know there's something we can do to give the community something back, we try to find a way to do it.
How Can I Learn More? What Can I Do to Prepare? How Can I Apply?
I hope I haven't put you off applying, with all that talk of 14 hour days, no time for sleep, and a class full of other geniuses. I haven't? Good! You can apply by following this link, but before you do, ask yourself this: are you sure you are ready? Do you already know Exchange from end-to-end and are you already at the top of your game? If so, go for it! We have some seats available in the March and May 2009 sessions and will be adding more in 2009 very soon. Those two deliveries are on the main campus in Redmond, but I am hoping to do some further afield next year, as well, so keep your fingers crossed if there's no chance of making it to Redmond.
The reason I am trying to make sure you are sure about your skills before you apply is because the target audience for this program is the top 1% of certified IT Pros. I want those that attend to succeed. The classes are hard to get in to, they are usually less than 20 people, and so I want to be sure the people in that room are likely to pass and do well (as well as contribute to the learning of everyone else), and are not there to learn how to use Exchange; to use an Americanism, this is not Exchange 101.
If you do decide you want to apply, and become accepted then you need to get ready. Here's my advice and my tips for survival and success, both leading up to the training, and during:
- Before turning up, take a long hard look at Exchange and list your weakest areas, the areas you really wouldn't want to have me interview you on, and then work on them. I did this before I turned up and it meant my weaker areas were strong enough to keep me just following the content, which is the bare minimum place you want to be.
- Clear all other projects from your plate for the duration of your visit. Aside from the fact that I don't allow email, IM, phone calls, etc., in class, you won't have time to work on anything else whilst in Redmond. Really, you won't. A recent candidate told me he wanted to blog of his experiences as we progressed. He didn't have the time to write one article whilst the training was on. It's intensive. Give it 100% and you'll do well, give it 80% and you will fail - and there's a good chance your boss isn't going to let you come again.
- Speak up if you don't understand something. Don't be shy. You are here to learn, showing you don't know something is not a sign of weakness, but quite the opposite. It takes a brave person to admit they don't know, and that person is braver than the one who was too scared to admit they didn't understand something.
- If you can't work with a hangover, don't go drinking. Simple as that.
- Keep your brain and body fuelled. Drink, eat, exercise, sleep when you can, and relax when you can. It's a test of endurance as much as Exchange at some points.
- Contribute - if you have something to add, speak up. We all make mistakes and you probably will too. That's ok. See the previous point. I don't mind people getting things wrong, as long as they learn from it. I also mean contribute to the team, and help each other. We all have strengths and weaknesses; play to your strengths and help others and hope someone can help with your weaknesses.
- Study in whatever way suits you best. Some people like to study in a group, some study alone; do whatever suits you best.
- Enjoy yourself. It is a lot of fun. Spending that much time without outside distractions working just on Exchange, is great fun. If you don't feel like that about Exchange, you're probably not ready for this. It's an Exchange love-in. With tests.
I hope you get a bit more of an understanding now about the program, the way it works, what you can expect from it, and if so, I'm happy with that as a result. If you have any more questions about the program though please feel free to email me directly, grtaylor at the usual place, and I'll do my best to get you the answers you are looking for.
So, do you have what it takes? I hope you do, I'm sure plenty of you do. So go fill out an application.
-- Greg Taylor