Thoughts on the Discontinuation of the Microsoft Masters Program by Microsoft Learning

I’m putting aside a fun post I’m working on about how my recent trip to Africa and seeing its wildlife on our safari relates to SharePoint to write this unfortunate post instead.

As most of you know, Microsoft sent an email to all of its MCMs/MCSMs/MCMAs (I cannot keep acronyms – nay, initializations – straight. If that’s not right, forgive me.) saying that their programs are to be put on hold starting 1 October, 2013. I didn’t get the email because I don’t hold any of the certifications. In fact, I don’t hold *any* certifications and have never seen any need to. However, I know how valuable and important the MCMs/MCSMs/MCMAs rotations are to the longevity of the products they teach because I know many of the people who hold those certifications for SharePoint.

While I didn’t get the email, it’s freely available on the Web at this point. I’m including it here in its entirety from Neil Johnson’s blog simply because I found it tough to track down, only seeing various snippets in others’ posts.

We are contacting you to let you know we are making a change to the Microsoft Certified Master, Microsoft Certified Solutions Master, and Microsoft Certified Architect certifications. As technology changes so do Microsoft certifications and as such, we are continuing to evolve the Microsoft certification program. Microsoft will no longer offer Masters and Architect level training rotations and will be retiring the Masters level certification exams as of October 1, 2013. The IT industry is changing rapidly and we will continue to evaluate the certification and training needs of the industry to determine if there’s a different certification needed for the pinnacle of our program.

As a Microsoft Certified Master, Microsoft Certified Solutions Master, or Microsoft Certified Architect, you have earned one of the highest certifications available through the Microsoft Certification program. Although individuals will no longer be able to earn these certifications, you will continue to hold the credential and you will not be required to recertify your credential in the future. You will continue to have access to the logos through the MCP site, and your certifications will continue to show in the appropriate section of your transcript, according to Microsoft technology retirement dates. If you are a Charter Member, you will continue to hold the Charter Member designation on your transcript.

Also as a Microsoft Certified Master, Microsoft Certified Solutions Master, or Microsoft Certified Architect, you are a member of an exclusive, highly technical community and you’ve told us this community is one of the biggest benefits of your certification. We encourage you to stay connected with your peers through the main community distribution lists. Although we won’t be adding more people to this community, you continue to be a valued member of it. Over time, Microsoft plans to transition the distribution lists to the community, and, with your consent, will include your information so that it can continue to be a valuable resource for your ongoing technical discussions.

Within the coming weeks, you will receive invitations to an updated community site. This community site will require you to sign in with a Microsoft Account and will replace the need for a Microsoft Partner account as is required today. From this site, you will be able to manage service requests for the Masters and Architects communities – such as ordering welcome kits and managing your contact information for the distribution lists and directory – and accessing training rotation and other community content (if applicable).

If you have not ordered your Welcome Kit, the last day to do so is October 31, 2013. To order your Welcome Kit, please contact the Advanced Cert team at advcert@microsoft.com.

We thank you for your commitment to Microsoft technologies.

So this may seem all well and good. Existing certification holders can “continue to hold the credential and you will not be required to recertify [their] credential in the future”. That’s good because those folks worked damn hard to reach the “pinnacle” they have achieved. Telling them that they couldn’t claim the certifications anymore would just be silly, right? Plus, they are going to get “an updated community site” to use, helping them all to “manage service requests for the Masters and Architects communities – such as ordering welcome kits and managing your contact information for the distribution lists and directory – and accessing training rotation and other community content”. Of course that content won’t be generated anymore based on the announcement, so I’m not sure what the benefit there is.

Over on the Microsoft Connect site (a site whose true purpose I do not actually know), a SQL Server MVP – Jen Stirrup – quickly started a petition called “Please don’t get rid of the MCM and MCA programs“. At this writing, the voting has it at 305 for and only 5 against. Obviously, it’s a self-selecting audience voting, so that ratio comes as no surprise.

However, if you read through the responses to the petition (very difficult to do if you choose to use a mobile device or by printing it, as the text is cut off down the right side), you’ll start to get a handle on the anger that this decision is engendering.

The email was sent at about 10pm EDT Friday night in the United States. For those of you outside the States, this weekend is our annual Labor Day holiday. In brief, Wikipedia describes our Labor Day as “a creation of the labor movement [that] is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers”. It’s ironic that this is the time that the Microsoft Learning (MSL) folks decided to send out the email for several reasons. As with many holidays elsewhere, we have Monday off: it’s effectively what a “bank holiday” is in the UK and elsewhere. Because of this, many people really try hard to disconnect from work and their email until Tuesday. Because of this, one can extrapolate that the email was sent when it was to stretch out the awareness of it and marginalize any backlash. Also, since it’s a holiday “dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers”, it’s meant to celebrate the type of achievements that the MCM/MCSM/MCMA folks have attained.

Tim Sneath, who is a Senior Director muckety-muck at MSL (based on my LinkedIn sleuthing) responded to the comments in the discussion on the petition on Saturday afternoon. Here are his comments in their entirety, again because there’s a lot there and it can be tricky to parse it all out.

Posted by Tim Sneath on 8/31/2013 at 1:32 PM

Thank you for the passion and feedback. We’re reading your comments and take them seriously, and as the person ultimately responsible for the decision to retire the Masters program in its current form, I wanted to provide a little additional context.

Firstly, you should know that while I’ve been accused of many things in my career, I’m not a “bean counter”. I come from the community myself; I co-authored a book on SQL Server development, I have been certified myself for nearly twenty years, I’ve architected and implemented several large Microsoft technology deployments, my major was in computer science. I’m a developer first, a manager second.

Deciding to retire exams for the Masters program was a painful decision – one we did not make lightly or without many months of deliberation. You are the vanguard of the community. You have the most advanced skills and have demonstrated it through a grueling and intensive program. The certification is a clear marker of experience, knowledge and practical skills. In short, having the Masters credential is a huge accomplishment and nobody can take that away from the community. And of course, we’re not removing the credential itself, even though it’s true that we’re closing the program to new entrants at this time.

The truth is, for as successful as the program is for those who are in it, it reaches only a tiny proportion of the overall community. Only a few hundred people have attained the certification in the last few years, far fewer than we would have hoped. We wanted to create a certification that many would aspire to and that would be the ultimate peak of the Microsoft Certified program, but with only ~0.08% of all MCSE-certified individuals being in the program across all programs, it just hasn’t gained the traction we hoped for.

Sure, it loses us money (and not a small amount), but that’s not the point. We simply think we could do much more for the broader community at this level – that we could create something for many more to aspire to. We want it to be an elite community, certainly. But some of the non-technical barriers to entry run the risk of making it elitist for non-technical reasons. Having a program that costs candidates nearly $20,000 creates a non-technical barrier to entry. Having a program that is English-only and only offered in the USA creates a non-technical barrier to entry. Across all products, the Masters program certifies just a couple of hundred people each year, and yet the costs of running this program make it impossible to scale out any further. And many of the certifications currently offered are outdated – for example, SQL Server 2008 – yet we just can’t afford to fully update them.

That’s why we’re taking a pause from offering this program, and looking to see if there’s a better way to create a pinnacle, WITHOUT losing the technical rigor. We have some plans already, but it’s a little too early to share them at this stage. Over the next couple of months, we’d like to talk to many of you to help us evaluate our certifications and build something that will endure and be sustainable for many years to come.

We hate having to do this – causing upset amongst our most treasured community is far from ideal. But sometimes in order to build, you have to create space for new foundations. I personally have the highest respect for this community. I joined the learning team because I wanted to grow the impact and credibility of our certification programs. I know this decision hurts. Perhaps you think it is wrong-headed, but I wanted to at least explain some of the rationale. It comes from the desire to further invest in the IT Pro community, rather than the converse. It comes from the desire to align our programs with market demand, and to scale them in such a way that the market demand itself grows. It comes from the desire to be able to offer more benefits, not fewer. And over time I hope we’ll be able to demonstrate the positive sides of the changes we are going through as we plan a bright future for our certifications.

Thank you for listening… we appreciate you more than you know.

Tim Sneath

tims@microsoft.com

From this we get that while the program “loses [Microsoft] money (and not a small amount)”, “that’s not the point”. Yet Tim goes on to say that “the costs of running this program make it impossible to scale out any further”. In other words, it’s about the money. This from a company that has at least $50 billion in the bank, “yet we just can’t afford to fully update” the programs. Tim also says that “with only ~0.08% of all MCSE-certified individuals being in the program across all programs, it just hasn’t gained the traction we hoped for”. This is the program that Tim describes as being aimed at the “ultimate peak of the Microsoft Certified program”. In my view, that .08% number is not at all worrisome. I don’t know what the denominator is, but as far as I know, there aren’t more than a few hundred MCMs/MCSMs/MCMAs globally. To me, that’s the very definition of a “peak” or “pinnacle”. Turning to Dictionary.com, we find that a pinnacle is “the highest or culminating point, as of success, power, fame, etc.: the pinnacle of one’s career” and a peak is “the highest or most important point or level” or “the maximum point, degree, or volume of anything”. Just as in grade school here in the US when we took those achievement tests, less than one-tenth of one percent – .1% – were able to reach the top level. That number is about right; the program is hard. Very hard.

The fact that only .08% of all MCSE-certified individuals have achieved the MCM/MCSM/MCMA certifications is a Very Good Thing. Everyone knows that the lower level certifications are no sure indicator of actual skill level. You are as likely to get a highly accomplished, MCSE-certified individual as you are to get a dud. There simply are too many people managing to get those certifications, however they do it. There is zero question in anyone’s mind about the abilities of the MCM/MCSM/MCMA folks. They go through a program that has such rigor that it exhausts them. Some people don’t make it, nor should they. If they can’t do it, then they aren’t masters.

As Mary Jo Foley has pointed out in her article on ZD Net about all this, there may be some sort of “hope”, since Tim says that MSL is simply “taking a pause” and “looking for ways to create a new ‘pinnacle’ certification program”. Well and good, but there are people in the middle of preparing for or taking the certification exams who are left high and dry after expending huge amounts of personal effort and undoubtedly large amounts of funds already. Those investments will fall by the wayside, including such seemingly inane things as non-refundable plane tickets worth thousands of dollars for people to travel to Redmond for the rotations and exams.

So, why should I even care? Why should I be spending Sunday afternoon on a holiday weekend writing this post? I’m not now – nor have I ever been – in the programs at question. Spencer Harbar (@harbars) – never a shrinking violet – put down most of his often caustic style to make some great points in the petition thread. Again, in full.

Posted by Spencer Harbar [MCA, MCSM] on 9/1/2013 at 10:45 AM

@Tim.

Leaving aside the actual decision and its merits or otherwise for a moment. Surely you must recognise that the manner of your organisation’s communications this weekend would be met with such anger? And cause Microsoft much (further) embarrassment.

Why did you let it happen this way? Why did you not step in and stop the impending disaster created by such an ill-informed, arrogant and downright unprofessional message to your best customers? None of us would ever treat our customers in this manner, it isn’t acceptable from you either.
You state that you come from the community. Indeed, as you are aware many of know you from way back – either personally, thru Microsoft, or following your blog along with your move from the UK. If you are really a developer first and understood *this* community, the email message your organisation sent to all of us never would have been allowed.

You have years of experience in this space, but yet, the contents of the message were approved, and here we are – dealing with the fallout from something that could have so easily be prevented if you had actually engaged the community, rather than professionally insulting it.
I guess I am prepared to give you the benefit of the doubt at this point… but a lot depends on how you react going forward, especially to the contents of this message.

Your remarks below categorically demonstrate in a multitude of ways something that most of are acutely aware of already. That actually MSL leadership does NOT understand these programs, why they exist(ed) and their relationship with Microsoft’s strategic objectives, the state of field readiness for the products and workloads they address, and customer requirements. You talk to a bunch of good stuff about a new “pinnacle” and doing so in line with MSL’s market demand. That’s all very well and good, and I wish you all the best with that, but that’s not, nor ever will be what the MCM/A is about. Therein of course lies the nub of the greater problem of course – and I’m sure a topic of much debate going forward.

You must learn to understand that the MCM/As are not a bunch of “IT Pros” with some certs. And I mean *really understand*, not claim you understand and expect us to believe you. We are the leaders in the marketplace, but yet you send us an obtuse message late on a Friday evening on the Labor Day weekend? And you sign off that message with “Respectfully” despite its contents representing a clear and direct professional insult to the recipient and in many cases their employers.

If you really did have the “highest respect” for this community, as you claim, then you would have ensured this decision was messaged correctly and handled in a professional and considered fashion. Furthermore you wouldn’t be labelling us “IT Pros” – wow! Do you have any concept just how ridiculous that term is to describe the people in this community?

I for one, after investing five years of my professional life in this program, are waiting for you to issue a strong public apology for the manner of MSL’s recent actions. Without such an apology, I find it hard to see why we would possibly be interested in helping you in the future “evaluate your plans”.

You claim that you have spent many months deliberating and that “it wasn’t easy”. I’m sorry – it just doesn’t wash. Not one bit. Did you really mean to say that in a message that you knew I would see? You have never, not once spoke to us about any of this. MSL were at TechEd selling rotations and exams recently. If you spent months on it, how come you couldn’t spend the 10 minutes necessary to step back and realise that not having your story straight and sending a blunt little “up yours” to all of us would be a disaster? The “context” of the decision is irrelevant to the main reason why everyone is so angry at you and Microsoft this weekend.

Please, if you respect us, make an argument with credibility. We are the people that “no matter what the problem, everything will be OK” – the regular Microsoft defensive soft soap and lip service will be seen through in a New York nanosecond. Again, if you respect us, then don’t play us for fools.

Without an apology for the nature of the way this decision was communicated, I don’t see how you can expect any goodwill from the majority of this community going forward.

Respectfully

The guy that just lost his job because of your actions

As Spence is clear to point out, he has a vested interest in the program; he’s been teaching it for over five years (maybe since it started?). However, Spence points out at least one of my biggest beefs. Microsoft seems to have lost the ability to communicate with it’s most ardent supporters in any sort of cogent or effective way. As I said yesterday on Twitter in a bit of pique:

9-1-2013 4-29-43 PM

The people in these elite programs stand by Microsoft in many cases where Microsoft doesn’t even deserve it. They make the products work when no one else can – they are *far* better then anyone in Microsoft Support will ever be. To be told that they are losing some of the meaning in perhaps one of their most significant professional achievements via a poorly thought out email over a holiday weekend is simply ludicrous. It has quite a few of them suggesting they should go and work for Oracle or take up other technologies now. I’m am absolutely certain that this is not MSL’s goal.

Not only is the email a slap to those who have the certifications, it amounts to a firing-by-email to Spence and the other instructors. They heard about the demise of the program at the same time. Again, this can hardly be what MSL wants to be doing to some of their most talented and passionate supporters and instructors.

Now, an apology would be nice, and a reversal would probably appease some people. What I find so galling about all of this is the utter lack of connection Microsoft has with most of us out here. I believe that this shows in their products, their award programs, their market share, really everything.

As an MVP, I see this in almost every interaction I have with people at Microsoft. I’m awarded something nebulous in a program that is ill-defined and oddly run. I’m told I’m getting all sorts of inside information, and that comes primarily from people in Marketing roles, so I have no idea if it means anything at all. I’m told that I cannot say anything remotely critical of anything the SharePoint Product Group does because it might upset them. (I have saved those emails, believe me.)

The general vibe from Redmond has changed from something fairly positive and become “we know best, you don’t get it, and we don’t really care what you think”. I do have data points to back this up, as my interaction with people in Redmond started back in 1999. At that point, I was younger and more naïve, but the general feeling about ‘Softies was that they were extremely bright and that they could listen to the marketplace. Their products were good, if not perfect, and they strove to improve them. They let us know what was coming up; not far into the future, but we got some good info so that we could plan ahead.

Nowadays, everything is a secret until it breaks something, then it is what they meant to do, and it must be our fault. Products like Windows 8 and the SharePoint 2013 app model are an enigma. People at Microsoft are actively working against each other due to their venomous stack ranking evaluation practices.

With this ill-conceived, poorly communicated, odd decision about the Masters program, it just feels like more of the same. Many of us are losing faith in the very company that helps us feed our families and support our lifestyle due to that company’s own – often inept – actions.

There are a lot of “real” reasons floating around about why the program is really being stopped. It’s too expensive, it’s too elitist, no one understands it, it’s all about the cloud. Given what I know of Microsoft, we’ll never know the real reason. To me, what’s more important than the “what” or “why” here, though, is the “how”.

This is yet another slap in the face to some of Microsoft’s biggest fans. That’s just plain dumb.

Other Opinions

MCM certs gone: Microsoft’s “cloud” reality distortion field in full force by Jeremy Thake (@jthake)

Microsoft Advanced Certification (MCA, MCSM, MCM) – the end of an era by Wictor Wilen (@wictor)

The fall of the Master by Radi Atanassov (@RadiAtanassov)

Retiring the MCM/MCSM/MCA Certifications – Thoughts On Why Microsoft Would Do This by Seb Matthews (@sebmatthews)

Death of an MCM by Chris Givens (@givenscj)

Are Microsoft Losing Friends and Alienating IT Pros? by Steve Goodman (@stevegoodman)

10 Comments

  1. While I would never aspire to be a “master”, I can certainly understand the ire of those who do. I have been a SharePoint developer for 5+ years but a Microsoft consumer for more than I care to admit and have become somewhat disillusioned myself. I’ve always considered myself a “Windows” girl even when those around me were bragging about their whiz-bang Macs.

    Admittedly, I do own Apple products (typing this on my iPad) but my heart still wants Microsoft to succeed. I bought a new ultrabook last week with Windows 8 and thought the interface wasn’t awful, just a little awkward. But SharePoint is another story, for another day.

    I honestly hope Microsoft rethinks this decision and have to agree they are out of touch with their developer community. Can they really afford to loose that support? I guess they’re willing to take that gamble.

    Reply
  2. Nice article Marc. I have gone in and out of waves of certification. I have pursued it when it has been a job requirement. I was one of a handful in 1994 at IBM owned Catapult to be elected to become Window 95 certified, and one of even fewer to pass the test. It was tough back then. At Sun Microsystems, certification was a requirement for teaching, when I taught Java 1.1 in 1997. Later as a Microsoft Certified Trainer, specific certification was also a requirement. Now, I like to take tests when I can, but they do require prep time and are not necessarily as important as true experience.

    But the certified master series and the certified architect roles really intrigued me. The scarcity, and the cost! $20,000 or more, flights out to Redmond to get hammered by an elite panel on your knowledge, all of that really sounds exciting. I have tons of respect for the MCM’s and MCA’s out there. So sad Microsoft canned the program.

    I feel really sad for anyone who was 1/2 way though completing one of these or had invested thousands of dollars and tens of thousands of lost work time to pursue an MCM or MCA only to have the rug pulled out from them. Very well written. Thanks for posting.

    Reply
  3. Great post Marc, I agree wholeheartedly. Having been an MS vendor on/off for the past 15+ years this is simply a continuation of the bad management practices in play since Ballmer and Kevin Turner (Wallmart-ization of MS) started running the show in an attempt to cut costs and impress wall street (rather than innovating). Developers and the eco-system are considered a “dime-a-dozen” that can be off-shored. From inside sources, these latest “cuts” are just a continuation of trimming back costs and focusing on the “big ISV’s” who deliver more value (profit). These latest actions have been part of a very deliberate decision to eliminate the smaller players both as internal vendors and external ISV’s or MCM/A – precisely because MS doesn’t want to spend money supporting them. They don’t see the “value” of these programs (no direct profit). The discontinuation of TechNet being another example (under the guise of ‘piracy’).

    The resignation of Ballmer is a very welcome announcement.

    Reply

Leave a Reply