Wayne Ewington

Tales from the trenches

Experiences of a MCM Rotation

Experiences of a MCM Rotation

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I recently became a Microsoft Certified Master (MCM) on SharePoint 2010 after attending “Rotation 5” (or “R5” as it is more commonly called). Since then a number of people have asked me about the process and experience of going through a SharePoint MCM. One thing that I should point out is that the following was my experience and my opinions. Other people who have gone or go through an MCM may have had or will have a completely different experience.

As for the MCM, the journey begins with applying at MCM Registration. However in reality it begins a lot earlier than this by ensuring that you have the right skills and knowledge, support from your employer, and (if applicable and more importantly) support from your family. The right skills and knowledge is an interesting one as to succeed at a MCM you need to be able cover all aspects of SharePoint from an IT Pro, Developer, and architectural perspective. Being good in just one functional area or in just one discipline is not going to cut it. You need both breadth and depth. Which means when you relate this to SharePoint, the subject domain area is huge!

The application process itself is fairly straight forward and involves paying a non-refundable US$125 application fee and providing a transcript of the four SharePoint 2010 MCP exams. In my situation, the SharePoint 2010 exams were still in Beta, so the requisite was the four SharePoint 2007 MCP exams. Once the prerequisites have been validated, you are then provided access to a portal to upload your CV and supporting documentation that you have written. The MCM program manager reviews the documentation and will then decide whether or not you can progress to the next step – the technical interview.

To the best of my knowledge, the SharePoint MCM is the only program that conducts this technical interview. It is typically one hour long and drills you on your experience and knowledge of SharePoint. If you have a weak point, it will be found! The simple thing that the interviewer(s) are trying to ascertain is whether or not you are capable of passing the MCM. Although this may sound a bit harsh, I believe that it is actually a good thing as they don’t want to waste your time and money or vice versa. Getting pass the technical interview is tough and also means that you have at least got a fighting chance of passing the MCM. If you don’t pass, constructive feedback is provided highlighting areas that you should probably work on. For R5, apparently only 40% of the applicants made it pass the technical interview.

Once pass the technical interview, it is a simple matter of choosing which “rotation” you want to attend and paying the course fee. As for what a “rotation” is, this is the three week training course that is run in Redmond, Washington four times a year. The course is run only in Redmond for the simple reason of logistics.

Prior to attending the rotation, you receive the pre-reading material. For R5 this was a 17 page document of hyperlinks, where each hyperlink typically pointed to a “table of contents” that you then drilled in to. Each one of these hyperlinks taking on average about 1.5 hours to read. However reading is one thing, comprehension and understanding is another. Taking notes on topics that you didn’t know or weren’t that familiar with definitely helped particularly when it came to revision time. As I was only accepted into R5 approximately 4-weeks prior it to starting, I had to prioritise the reading material, concentrating on the areas that I was weakest on. Even though I was spending 3-5 hours every night going through the material, I still didn’t complete everything. It also felt at times that I was reading everything in TechNet and MSDN.

MCM 1

Day one of R5 eventually came about and it was an opportunity to meet the other candidates for the first time. For R5 there were only ten of us with the majority from the US with a mixture of Microsoft and non-Microsoft people. The Microsoft people I knew of through various internal email distribution lists and conference calls so I knew that they were good. However listening to everyone introduce themselves on that first day was somewhat overawing due to the background and experience they all had. One candidate was even writing a book on SharePoint 2010. After listening to their introductions, I distinctly remember having feelings of trepidation and thinking “Was I good enough to be here?”

As for the training, this was by far the best technical deep dive training one could ever hope for on SharePoint. It was definitely level 400 and 500 and went beyond how SharePoint works but why it works in a particular manner. Helped by this were the instructors who were the best in their particular field and were flown in from the around the world to deliver their modules. Essentially the instructors were/are the “who’s who” of SharePoint with an impressive line-up of Scott Jamieson, Kimmo Forss, Steve Peschka, Sean Livingston, Maurice Prather, Spence Harbar, Todd Carter, Vesa Juvonen, Paul Randal, Neil Hodgkinson, Todd Baginski, and Bill Baer.

The format of the training was a mixture of presentation, exercises, and hands on labs. In some ways and more importantly were the discussions that the instructors and candidates had about the various topics. The reason for this was very simple: the experience and knowledge people had was incredible and freakishly scary. Listening to them and contributing definitely consolidated ones understanding. The hands on labs were also excellent as you got to play around with your own personal 32GB blade that was hosting a multi-server, multi-farm environment. It was here that you had the opportunity to try out different scenarios and put the theory to practice.

Doing a MCM is a bit like trying to sprint a marathon as it requires some very long days over the three week period. A typical day for me involved arriving at the training room between 6:30 – 7am to continue working on the hands on labs. The presentations would then start at 8am and would typically go through to ~6:30pm, often later. After the presentations I would continue working on the hands on labs until 9pm, sometimes much later before heading back to the apartment to review the day’s notes and do some additional study. Although we were given the weekend off, this didn’t really mean anything as this time was spent doing the hands on labs and/or preparing for an upcoming exam. What this meant was that a lot of coffee, tea, and soft drinks were drunk. Needless to say that the diet went out the window. In hindsight, one of the keys to surviving a MCM (and it was a survival) was the ability to stay focussed during the presentations and then prioritise and schedule your time outside of this. Due to time zone differences with my family, this also included scheduling when I would ring home.

MCM 2MCM 3

As with most rotations, the format was 5-days of presentations with an exam held on the Monday morning for the first two weeks. The third and final week had a slightly different format with an exam on the Monday morning (as usual) with only 4 days of presentations and the final exam on the Friday afternoon. This was then followed by the dreaded 8 hour qualification lab on the Saturday where you tested on your practical knowledge.

As for the exams and Qual Lab, one of the conditions of attending an MCM is that you are not allowed to discuss with anyone what is in these. This also included discussing the questions/tasks with the other candidates. This made it very “interesting” as after the exams as we would typically look at each other, usually with a sick look on our faces, and mutter something like “that was fun NOT!”. All I will say about the exams is that are fair but very, very tough. The questions were very carefully worded and typically tested you on multiple concepts. The answer was always there, you just had to work it out. Which also brings up another point: The instructors did not necessarily teach to the exam questions (or to the Qual Lab). To answer the questions required that you understood the concepts taught by instructors, as well as the pre-reading material, which you then had to tie together with your own personal experience.

As for the Qual Lab, this is the ultimate practical test that really differentiates the MCM from any other certification. Although this is an “open book” test, the biggest issue is the time constraint. Essentially the tasks you have to perform would typically take you about week in the real world. However for the MCM you’ve only got eight hours. So if you don’t know how to do something, or if you got the dependencies between the tasks wrong, them it’s going to be even tougher to pass. It is also (almost) impossible to complete all of the tasks. Remaining calm, scheduling what you need to do, and sprinting to the bathroom for bio breaks are the keys to passing the Qual Lab.

To qualify for a MCM SharePoint 2010, you need to pass the (prerequisite) four SharePoint 2010 MCP exams, the three exams, as well as the Qual Lab. If you fail an exam or the Qual lab, then you get the opportunity to re-sit these after a 45 day stand down period. If you fail on the second attempt, you then have to wait for another 90 day stand down period. Failing any exam or the Qual Lab for a third time means that you have to repeat a whole rotation (including reapplying and paying the course fees). Fortunately for myself, I passed all of the exams on the first attempt (one of the few in R5 that did). However I unfortunately failed the Qual Lab which required a re-sit. To be honest, I was very annoyed at myself as I knew that I could have passed it, but for various reasons on the day I didn’t. After receiving the failed confirmation email, I immediately booked the re-sit for first available time slot and started preparing and studying again. The good news was that I nailed the Qual Lab on the re-sit and completed the qualifications for the MCM SharePoint 2010.

Now that I have achieved the MCM, do I know everything there is to know about SharePoint? The simple answer is absolutely “no”. The product is far too vast and complicated to be able to do that. However the MCM motto of “know what you know, know what you don’t know, and never confuse the two” really applies and does become the underlying principle. Definitely my knowledge of the product has certainly increased, however I also know what I don’t know Smile.

Although this has been a long post, if I was to summarise an MCM in one word, that word to me would be “intense”. Definitely worthwhile and a once in a lifetime opportunity, but very intense.

  • Awesome post. Great picture of two of our underappreciated team members - the Starbucks machine and the soft drink cooler. :) Just to set the record straight, the qual lab is explicitly designed (and tested!) to be possible to complete in the time allotted - although given the breadth of skills required and the newness of the product, it's extremely challenging for every candidate.

  • Amazing!!! ...you are the perfect example of 100% commitment!... your post is fantastically informative and very inspiring yet sobering. MCM is clearly not to be taken lightly. Congratulations on passing!!! ...I am lost for words.

  • Really interesting read. But more importantly, congratulations!

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