I’m still trying to catch up from being out all last week, serving on the MCA boards at the MTC in Austin. As usual, it was a great learning experience, but it’s also a grueling week and I’m way behind.

I continue to be impressed with the level of skills the candidates and board members have. I took a lot of notes on things I need to become more familiar with and there were a few questions that I had never heard of, so I had to do a little late night research. Hopefully, this will be the first in a series of posts about the MCA program.

 

Tenets

Like most good processes, there are some key tenets to the MCA program. The first tenet is that the candidate has to be a practicing architect. Another tenet is the ability to communicate up, down, and across, which, in my mind, is one of the key differentiators from a "technical lead" and an "architect". I know lots of great technicians that struggle communicating with customers, senior management, or the business users. To be successful, you need to be comfortable moving between multiple vocabularies and be able to understand multiple perspectives. Because the board consists of infrastructure architects and solutions architects, there are always a number of questions on how to talk to the other discipline, which is often entertaining to observe.

Another tenet is to provide predictability and repeatable success by leveraging frameworks, methodologies, patterns, and best practices. Again, this separates the heroes from those with more mature processes. It’s also key to have examples of where you have veered from a process or framework – and why.

 

The most controversial tenet is vendor-neutrality. Yes, this is a certification from Microsoft, but the MCAs and program directors are trying very hard to make the certification a vendor-neutral achievement, focused on advancing the architect role as an industry standard role rather than a Microsoft specific role like most of our other certifications.

 

Seven Core Competencies

The seven core competencies the MCA measures are: Leadership, Communication, Organizational Dynamics, Strategy, Process and Tactics, Technology Breadth, and Technology Depth. Given the level of competency a candidate has to demonstrate for each, it is difficult to imagine someone achieving the goals without being a practicing architect. I guess it’s theoretically possible, but this is the driving factor for the first tenet I mentioned above.

It’s interesting at how polished people who "present" often are (consultants and MCTs often excel here). If you’re not presenting on a regular basis and getting lots of questions in public, you should try to incorporate those activities into your job. Regardless of career, I think it will help – potentially a lot. The MCA board process is a bit un-nerving for experienced presenters as most experienced presenters are very good at reading the audience and tweaking their communication based on non-verbal feedback. The board tries really hard to "observe" rather than "participate", so the lack of feedback can be bothersome – even when you know in advance. I’ve had a lot of success using this during interviews – it’s amazing at how people interpret an interview void of emotion or feedback.

Consistency

Because the MCA program uses a review board, there is some level of subjectivity involved, which was one of the issues during the beta process. As a program, the program directors do a lot to reduce the subjectivity. As a group of architects who want the certification to mean something – hopefully something important – we work really hard to maintain a consistent bar. We’re also tweaking the mentoring process to make sure a candidate is fully qualified and knows exactly what to expect before appearing before the board.  

 

I think this is also more consistent with the advancement of the architect profession. The real value is not in passing the certification, it’s in the relationships you build, the feedback you receive, and how you grow. Every time I work with the MCA program – as a screener, mentor, board member, or just providing an opinion – I learn something. To me, that’s the real value of the program.