Reflecting on the MCM Exam Experience

When Microsoft announced that changes were being made to the Microsoft Certified Masters program for SQL Server 2008 last year I was initially pretty bummed out. I had been hoping to be able to attend one of the onsite MCM rotations at Microsoft. I wasn’t looking forward to the expense associated with that, but I was really interested in the training that was a part of the program more than anything else. When the new MCM exams became available at PASS Summit, I immediately signed up to take the written exam, initially on November 19th, and then due to some technical problems in Orlando, I ended up having to reschedule for January 21st. I found out last week that I passed the written portion of the certification, and immediately scheduled the Lab Exam for this morning, and I found out this afternoon that I had passed the Lab Exam. There has been a lot of discussion about the MCM exams and what someone might have to do to be able to pass them, so in this post I’d like to share my thoughts based on my experiences.

The Written Exam

Out of the two exams you have to take I’d say that the written exam was the worst of the two. Not because it was more difficult in level of content, but because it is multi-guess and those types of exams stress me out. When you arrive at the Prometric testing center, the only two items you should take into the building with you are 2 forms of ID and your car keys. Speaking of the two forms of ID, make sure that you read the requirements well; only one has to have a photo on it, but both have to have your name and a signature. When you walk into the testing center, they check your two ID’s, your keys go into a locker, you have to turn all your pockets inside out to prove there is nothing in them before you can go back to the testing center where they validate your information again, and then told you that you can put put your pockets back where they belong. From there, the test is like any other Microsoft written exam you’ve ever taken; only more intimidating. 

I didn’t feel that the questions asked were overly difficult; they fit inside of the concepts that I was expecting to be on the exam. To be honest I’ve worked harder problems on the MSDN Forums before, but there I don’t have a list of possible answers to choose from and I can always ask for more information before deciding what the correct way for someone to fix a problem is.  The problem with multiple-guess technology exams is that there are more incorrect answers than there are correct ones, and at least to me a lot of times multiple answers seem like they are correct answers and that gets me second guessing myself. I left the written exam uncertain about whether I had passed it or not, and I was feeling like I might have ended up on the wrong side of things.

If you plan to take the written exam, read everything that’s on the SQL Server 2008 MCM Pre-reading and the MCM: SQL Server online training lists, and understand the core concepts behind the subjects. When that list was originally published, I was surprised at how little of the material I hadn’t already read at some point in the past.  A lot of it was read trying to understand a problem someone had asked about on the forums.  Someone today asked me if I’d blog about how I studied and prepared for the exams. I’d have to say that my studying and preparation began four years ago when I started answering questions on the forums, and has continued ever since. People do all kinds of stuff with SQL Server that I would never dream of trying or doing.  They also get to upgrade and play with newer hardware and configurations faster than I ever will be able to, so when something new pops up as a problem, for instance the Power Management default in Windows Server 2008 R2 being Balanced cutting CPU speed in half, I’ve generally seen it by the time I am making similar changes in my own environments.

The Lab Exam

The Lab Exam for the MCM was AWESOME! I really excel at hands on work. And, generally you know when/if you got a question right by the results of the operations being performed. Taking the Lab Exam this morning was like having a week’s worth of the random stuff that pops up at work to make it a bad day, crammed into five and half hours. The exam is pretty much yours to run as you see fit, and I bounced all over the place the first half hour until I had resolved a order of priority for the questions based on what topics I knew the best to what I knew the least.  You do have access to the Books Online inside of the lab environment, but unless it’s just a quick look up and you know exactly what you are going after, it is going to do you absolutely no good.  You actually have to know SQL Server at a 400+ level and you have to know what you are doing from past hands-on experience so that it’s almost second nature.

I spent the last few nights moonlighting trying to watch as many of the MCM: Microsoft SQL Server 2008 Microsoft readiness videos as I could, and I even watched most of them at 1.4 to 1.6 times the regular speed.  If you think Paul Randal is hard to keep up with when he talks normally, give that a shot, you’ll have a whole new perspective the next time you listen to him speak in real life.  I actually don’t recommend that you watch the training videos at a higher speed if you are trying to actually learn from them. I did this because I found that I already knew a majority of the content and I was just trying to catch the stuff I didn’t know in a compressed amount of time.  Watching the videos alone won’t get you past the exam; you have to be able to apply the information covered in the videos and have real practical experience.  Also, you can’t know everything. If I had practical experience in every aspect of SQL Server, the last hour of my lab exam wouldn’t have been quite as stressful as it was. But, don’t worry; you don’t have to get every answer right to pass. Microsoft knows that even masters don’t know everything too!

4 thoughts on “Reflecting on the MCM Exam Experience

  1. I remember when you found out that the fall rotation had been canceled after finally getting approval to go. Brent and I both wanted to tell you real bad about what was coming.

    Welcome to the MCM community!!

  2. Thanks for posting Jonathan. I know that a lot of people who are making it through the MCM certs at this point are those who already have the knowledge and are just formalizing the certification. It makes sense that you essentially fall into that category 🙂

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