What follows is an overview of my experiences with the MCSM: Messaging certification. I’ll walk you through my proces from signing up to preparing myself for the training and finally attending. If you are thinking of enrolling for the program, you might enjoy (or not, depending on how you look at it) reading this blog post. Don’t expect me to reveal questions from the exams or other type of content though. Not only would that violate my NDA, it would be unethical as well.
The re-branded MCSM: Messaging certification, formerly know as “MCM (Microsoft Certified Master)” and before that “Exchange Rangers” is one of the top-level certifications Microsoft offers for a variety of products including Windows Server (Active Directory), SQL, SharePoint, Lync and Exchange. Although you’re not always required to follow the training prior to taking the exams, I honestly don’t believe there are many people out there capable of just walking up to a certification center and passing. One of the reasons is that the level of detail, covered in the three weeks training, goes much farther than any information currently publicly available. Of course there’s also the human aspect of attending the training. In my rotation, we were 14 in total. And I can tell you, the accumulated experience and knowledge of the people in the classroom was absolutely impressive. Next to the classic tutoring, I probably learned more from everyone attending than I’d held for possible. Not attending the training means that you would have to miss out on this interaction and miss the chance to build a network of peers all over the world. One by one very knowledgeable individuals!
Preparing for the course wasn’t all that easy. After all, how do you start preparing for this? Although there’s a ton of good resources out there, I only had the Exchange 2010 pre-reading list to go off from and there aren’t particularly many books available out there just yet. Shortly before I left for the rotation, I bought early-access to Tony Redmond’s and Paul Robichaux’ “Exchange 2013 – Inside Out”. A purchase I haven’t regretted! Even in its pre-release form it’s a pretty awesome book and I’m sure that when the Pre-Reading list gets published, it’ll be on it. Just as was the case for Exchange 2010, by the way.
Based on these past few weeks, I put together a small (pre-)reading list myself. If you consider attending, or perhaps just for fun, you should definitely take a look at the following books, websites and other resources:
- Exchange 2013 – Inside Out (“Mailbox & HA” & “Client Connectivity & UM”)
- Exchange 2013 PowerShell Cookbook
- Mastering Exchange 2013: Design, Deploy and Deliver an Enterprise Messaging Solution
RFCs (some of them are quite dull, but they make a good bed-time reading!)
- All the RFCs from the Exchange 2010 MCM Pre-Reading list (http://www.dynamicevents.com/MCM/MCM_Exchange2010_Pre-reading_v1.1.pdf)
As for blogs or other websites, make sure to check out these:
- Exchange Team Blog
- Tim McMichael’s Blog
- Steve Goodman’s Blog
- Jaap Wesselius’ Blog
- Brian Reid’s Blog
- Eightwone (Michel de Rooij)
- The UC Architects
- Expta (Jeff Guillet)
- My personal blog & pro-exchange.be (a shameless plug, I know! )
Actually, there are many good blogs out there and I reckon that I probably left out some pretty good ones… So don’t treat this list as authoritative, rather as a starting point for your pre-reading.
Other than playing around with Exchange 2013, reading as much as blog posts (and information from TechNet), along with some of the RFCs that were on the 2010 pre-reading list, there wasn’t much I had done. Luckily, I did have some experience with Exchange 2013 in the real world as my company’s internal deployment had already switched to Exchange 2013 a while back. I do believe that future rotations will have the slight advantage of having more real-life experience with the product as it will (hopefully) gain more attention and develop a bigger install based than it does today.
A tip: make sure that you cover all the topics around Exchange 2013 (yes, this also means SharePoint and Lync related stuff). Don’t think some topics are less important. They’re not. Even though you won’t cover everything in detail during class, it will most certainly help you to understand the material being taught.
Registering for the rotation was pretty easy. After signing up through the Advanced Certification Portal I came in touch with someone from MS Learning who guided me through the rest of the registration process. It was literally a breeze to walk through the rest of the formalities (e.g. signing the NDA and some other paperwork for physical access to Microsoft’s buildings). If there’s one thing that I found a tad frightening it’s the fact that Microsoft has the right to cancel or reschedule the rotation up to two weeks before it starts. So if you book your flights early, make sure that you buy flexible tickets! Although I don’t expect it to happen that often (if at all), you’d want to be better safe than sorry, no?
In our rotation, people were staying in different hotels. If you’re looking for something at a walking distance (approx. 15 min walk), I can recommend staying at the Silver Cloud Inn. It wasn’t too expensive and breakfast was included. A little closer to the campus was the HomeStead (Extended stay America). They’re a bit cheaper, but don’t include breakfast. I personally enjoyed the daily walk to and from the campus. It’s an ideal moment to clear your head for a while. However, we were (extremely?) lucky with the weather… I can imagine if you’re attending a rotation during winter, these walks being less enjoyable. The Silver Cloud Inn does offer a free shuttle from the hotel to Microsoft’s campus, but you’ll have to figure another way to get back as it’s only available until 5 PM…
Some fellow students stayed at hotels either in downtown Redmond or too far away to walk. So make sure you rent a car if you choose one of those!
Our rotation started on June 3rd. Given I had to travel half around the world, I made sure I was there a few days beforehand to get used to the time zone difference. You wouldn’t want to be caught by Jetlag during the first few days of training, believe me! I arrived Thursday before the start of the rotation, which gave me more than time enough to get adjusted. However… June 3rd came quickly and what happened than is literally somewhat like a rollercoaster. The next three weeks I found myself almost living in a (well-equipped) classroom and eating mostly junk. Before leaving for the US, I had made the resolution not to give in (too much) to fast-food and unhealthy habits. It didn’t take too long before they were gone through. Maybe it’s me, but I just didn’t feel like keeping myself busy trying to find some healthier things to eat than what the classroom had to offer. It doesn’t mean you couldn’t though. If I ever get to attend an upgrade (or who knows maybe a rotation for another product?!), I know that I won’t be making the resolution to start with. That way I don’t have to feel bad for not sticking to it …
Anyway, back to the rotation. During the 3 weeks, you’ll be taught almost non-stop. Days would start at 08:00 AM and usually last to somewhere between 06:00 and 08:00 PM; though walking out (much) later wasn’t an exception. Usually, you’d stay to do some labs after class. Our first “day off” was on the second Sunday, which we gladly used to catch up on some labs… No rest for the wicked, I guess? Even though most instructors try to end in a timely fashion, they just don’t always succeed. That or you just want to practice a bit more perhaps. This is one of the cases where more is better, trust me!
Three weeks fly by… And before you know it, you’re off to take the exams. The written exam is the day before the qual lab. Funny enough you get the results of that exam immediately after taking it. Although usually I like knowing whether I passed rather sooner than later, I was kinda afraid this time. Failing would inevitably put me off for the qual lab the day after. Seems I wasn’t the only one looking at it like that. Someone in our class refused to view his result and turned off his phone so he couldn’t accidentally read the email: pretty clever! 🙂 In my case, curiosity won… It was a big relieve to see that I actually passed the written. I still trying to figure out how I passed, but I’m glad I did!
And then it was time for doomsday. A full-day qual lab in which you will face the wrath of a system administrator who just had a bad day. Possibly even a week… Hell, rating by how f***** up the environment was, you’d even wonder how that guy could ever get near a computer in the first place! :p Just to put things into perspective: if I said before it was hard, think again. The qual lab is possibly one of the toughest exams I ever took. Looking back at it, it was kinda fun too. Yes, after being back for a week, I start to “enjoy” the experience, although I would rather avoid taking it a second time. At time of writing I don’t have my results back, but I expect them any time now… Honestly, I don’t have very high hopes. But we’ll see.
Over the past few weeks, I learned a lot and I learned from the very best. I’ve got to know what my strengths were but also where my weaknesses are (hello, UM and SharePoint!). Overall, I would advise everyone who’s interested in Exchange and willing to lift his/her knowledge to the next level to take the step (or leap, whatever you want to call it). I understand that the overall cost is a somewhat limiting factor, but I truly believe there’s value in it. Whether or not that amount can be regained through additional assignments or possibly a higher rate, is something I hope to find out in the next few months and weeks. Even if that’s not the case, it would’ve been worth it; but I don’t think this last argument will convince your employer to pay for it. And now that I come to think of it: I was amazed (and shocked at the same time) to see there were quite some people who attended the rotation by paying for it themselves… It seems that a lot of companies don’t see the value of (or aren’t able to profit more from) the certification. I do hope that Microsoft keeps threshold for attending and passing the MCSM certification high enough. Nothing would sadden me more than to see the value drop to a point where the “regular” certifications (like MCSE or MCITP) once were.
I want to conclude by thanking everyone who organized, taught or attended the rotation and helped me through it. My experience wouldn’t have been the same without you, guys! Thanks!
Our “last dinner” only a few hours after the dreaded qual lab.