My Journey to the #Lync MCM

Over the years not much has been said about the Microsoft Certified Master (MCM) or the soon to be called Microsoft Certified Solutions Master (MCSM) or the Exchange Ranger which it originally began as.

In my career I have been fortune enough to have worked with some great people who have been rangers or MCM/MCA’s or have gone on to become rangers or MCM’s.  I have also be honored to have working with a few individuals who I would consider as industry leaders and have either been trainers on the MCM or run it. One individual in fact taught me everything he knew about Exchange when he was a mere mortal like me and I will never forget his soapbox.

These experiences are very much what had driven me to follow this road and today be a member of this great community and collection of individuals who are very much the centre of excellence in each product.

From the outside it had seemed as if it was a secret society of secret handshakes.  Having seen first-hand two individuals go and attend the old Exchange ranger and very much come back different people just they if they been assimilated by the Borg maybe they had as they both work for Microsoft now.  Oh dear, should have thought about that before I went, I definitely diddrink the Microsoft coolade whilst I was there.  Maybe that why I’ve ditched my iPhone for an Nokia Lumia and I’m ditching my iPad for a Surface, too late now.

One experience which blow me away was when I was looking at a really weird public folder submission and replication issue and was well into the depth of diagnostic logging and tracing mail messages around the environment.  Having the availability of an Exchange Ranger as an architect on my project to QA things, I decided to ask his opinion.  So I described what I was seeing, he just knew the issue and spent 10 minutes describing how public folders worked under the covers and told me to go and look at an AD attribute which with a change and replication fixed my issue.  At the time I did go and Google that attribute and the only reference to it was in the list of AD attributes for an Exchange schema change.  This is just one of many Ranger/MCM experiences for me.

Attending the MCM is all about timing, if you’re going for the experience and to learn your probably going for the wrong reasons in my opinion.  Don’t get me wrong you will learn loads but this is no normal training course, it is pretty much assumed you know almost everything about the product at least that you can learnt from loads of deployment and in content available from Microsoft (helpfiles, document etc) and in blogs from MVP and other MCM’s.  At the end of the day the content and exams are level 400 whereby an standard MOC course and MCP exam is level 200, so don’t shocked to find things are really hard and when taking the practice exams (not available on all MCM courses) if you’re getting 20-30% which was about the class average in the first attempt on my rotation.  The course is geared toward increasing your understanding rather than teaching you new skills.

I am an MCM in Lync 2010 but could have followed the road with Exchange.  I did feel ready to attend back with OCSR2 however due to the rotation finishing in OCSR2 I couldn’t go.  In hindsight now I wasn’t ready and with a six month gap until the first Lync rotations and the major product change, it wasn’t ready until a further 12 months of deployment experience with Lync until I felt ready to apply again.

One thing which has always been conveyed by the MCM’s is important of testing/tracing and logging in looking at scenarios to understand the product and protocols.  In the four months between being accepted to attend and attending the rotation I spent most nights and weekends in my home lab doing what I hadn’t done in deployments and look at different scenarios.  In an ideal world I would have liked more time and done a later rotation, but due to family commitments I only had a window to be away for 3 weeks otherwise it would be been another 18 months or more before the time was right again.

There are a few blogs on the experience Jeff Guillet had posted his experience ‘Exchange MCM Training Comes to an End’ and also JonMck’s post “So…. You want to be a Lync Master?”  AKA LOST in Building 40 and also Bojan Nenadic series on Born to Learn which are really good and should be read.

I won’t revisit what has already be said on other blog post but:

  • There was one single large study group on my rotation, but I think much smaller are probably better
  • Do plan ahead in term of eating in the evening
  • Eat well, eat lots of fruit and stay off the junk food and sugar drinks!
  • Coffee is your friend and your foe!
  • Enjoy the experience, do network, share experiences and socialize with others
  • Recording the audio from the session is a good idea, but you need to make hand/typed notes too as you won’t be able to review all before the exams
  • Do pay attention to everything said in class and also conversations
  • Do try and relax
  • Reread the content and repeat the lab if you have time, in fact read everything careful
  • With the Lync MCM, the Lync MCM insight content on the MS partner by the Unify Square folks was really good for revision

Having worked and spoken with many rangers and MCM’s over the years I knew it would be really hard work, but I was still blown away.

I stayed in a hotel just a short walk from building 40 as I’m not really a morning person nor did I want to drive. Sleep is  very precious whilst at the rotation.  The unnamed hotel which I stayed at was the closest and quite basic (plus cheap) but I didn’t spend much time there enjoying it delights.

Classes start at 8am and finish at 7pm and then most people do about 2-4 hours of labs or whiteboarding after class. I was usually getting back to my hotel at 9-10pm and then eating doing a bit more reading and if I was lucky getting to bed for midnight and then my head was full of thoughts and ideas thus couldn’t sleep.  With the jetlag on the first week I probably had about 10 hours sleep in the first 5 days.  I think on the 2nd and 3rd weeks I was up to about 4 hours of sleep at night.

Saturday is a work day!  On our first Saturday we started at 9am (luxury) then did badly on practice test. Then at about 10.30 we start the first half of a practice lab.  At 2am (in the morning!) had lunch and then did a bit more till 4am and went back to the hotel.  Sunday is supposed to be a rest day or wash day.  I did 4 more hours in the lab on the Sunday.  That was week one for me, and if I knew how tough it really was I probably wouldn’t have gone, it’s no holiday and I thought I was prepared.  Week 2 for me was great and week 3 the classes were interesting but was all about the exams.

The standard of the MCM is incredibility high, there were 24 people on my rotation only about 10 passed the knowledge exam and just one (not me) passed the qualification lab exam at the first attempt.  Even the best TechEd speakers, authors and existing MCM’s haven’t passed at the first attempt, so I don’t feel so bad about needing a retake, but I shouldn’t have need one, if for my silly mistakes during the lab.  But I was well prepared and I did go to pass!

The rotations cover everything about Lync, the pre-attendance training covered the depths of telephony, SIP and SDP protocols and was eye opening. Then the sessions cover client and server internals, disaster recovery, cloud, UC development and voice or whale and sharks 🙂  Do read the pre-reading content, I would say at least twice, you should be confident on the whole product, end-to-end and deploying and configuring it in various scenarios and also integrating with other Microsoft and 3rd party products and most importantly without thinking and referring to the documentation.

There is a different mix of skills need to become an MCM, Flaphead’s blog article “Exchange Server 2010 MCM”, describes it as being a “Swiss army knife”, but it is more than this an MCM in my opinion is someone who can architect, design, deploy, troubleshoot as support the product who is both consultant and support engineer.  Also an MCM should have the depth and breadth of knowledge on the product and understands it business value and regardless of the situation or issue and do what is right for the customer or deployment.

The program has changed over the years with becoming more accessible with SharePoint hybrid delivery and also the new path for SQL and Exchange however the standard have remained high, if your think you’re an Exchange or SQL guru, you can see how good you think you are with trying the knowledge exam at your nearest Prometric exam centre, I for sure wouldn’t have passed my knowledge exam without attending the rotation.  With Lync and the physical aspects of phones and gateways learning is always going to be difficult and expensive, thus a hybrid delivery or remote learning is probably impossible.

As I said the MCM will soon become the MCSM and I can’t see the certification become easier in fact I would like to see it harder still with Lync and cover more 3rd party integration to really strengthen the value of the certification as ultimately businesses will be running their mission critical communications on the platform but you can say the same about SharePoint, Exchange and SQL too.

Beyond the MCM, I am still learning and understanding more about technology on deployments usually in 3rd party integration.  With troubleshooting or understanding problems I now think differently usually thinking about it at a protocol or architect level and then build upon there through tracing and logging.

If someone asked me “whether I would do it all again?” and “was it worth it?”  For me I really don’t know, a made a lot of personal suffices to be in a position to be able to pass.  I truly feel honored to be able to finally call myself an MCM and to be a member of great community of individuals and my name is on the hall of fame

I wouldn’t say the MCM chapter is now closed, yet I have just completed the epilogue.  Now I am an MCM I am looking upwards and will probably attend a Lync 2013 rotation in the future and in the meantime continue to learn more yet I still need a write a new development plan, as I have somewhat been on a study vacation which sadly with this post is ending.

So about passing the exams….”what happens on the master stays on the masters”  Good luck and believe!

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