Defending a Bad Decision

I
t’s already started.

A bit over 12 hours after MSL’s cowardly decision to announce the end of the MCM program (see my previous blog post), we’re already starting to see a reaction from Microsoft on the Labor Day holiday weekend.

SQL Server MVP Jen Stirrup created an impassioned “Save MCM” plea on the Microsoft Connect site this morning at 6:19. Now, 7.5 hours later, it already has almost 200 votes of support. More importantly, she’s already gotten a detailed response from Microsoft’s Tim Sneath:

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.

First, I want to thank Tim for taking the time to respond on a holiday Saturday. I have no reason to think ill of him or disbelieve him in any way. That said, it won’t keep me from respectfully calling bullshit. Not to the details of Tim’s response (such as they are) not to the tone of his message, but rather to the worldview that it comes from.

First, this is the way the decision should have been announced to begin with, not that ham-fisted, mealy-mouthed thinly-disguised “sod off” piece of tripe that poor Shelby Grieve sent late last night. This announcement should have been released by the person who made the decision, taking full accountability for it, in the light of day, not pawned off to an underlying who was allowed to sneak it out at midnight Friday on a three-day holiday weekend.

Second, despite Tim’s claims of being a developer first, manager second, I believe he’s failing to account for the seductive echo-chamber mentality that permeates management levels at Microsoft. The fatal weakness of making decision by metrics is choosing the wrong metrics. When the Exchange program started the Ranger program (what later morphed to become the first MCM certification), their goal wasn’t reach into the community. It was reducing CritSits on deployments. It was increasing the quality of deployments to reduce the amount of downtime suffered by customers. This is one of the reasons I have been vocal in the past that having MSL take on 100% responsibility for the MCM program was a mistake, because we slowly but surely began losing the close coupling with the product group. Is the MCM program a failure by those metrics? Does the number of MCMs per year matter more than the actual impact that MCMs are making to Microsoft’s customers? This is hard stuff. Maybe, just maybe, having more than a tenth of a percent of all MCPs achieve this certification is the right thing if you’re focusing on getting the right people to earn it.

Third, MSL has shown us in the recent past that it knows how to transition from one set of certifications to another. When the MCITP and MCTS certification were retired, there was a beautiful, coordinated wave of information that came out showing exactly what the roadmap was, why things were changing, and what the new path would look like for people. We knew what to expect from the change. Shelby’s announcement gave us no hint of anything coming in the future. It was an axe, not a roadmap. It left no way for people who had just signed up (and paid money for the course fees, airplane tickets, etc.) to reach out and get answers to their questions. As far as we know, there may not be any refunds in the offing. I think it’s a bit early to be talking about lawyers, but several of my fellow MCMs don’t. All of this unpleasantness could have been avoided by making this announcement with even a mustard seed of compassion and projection. Right now, we’re left with promises that something will come to replace MCM. Those promises are right up on my hearth along with the promises that we just got made in recent months about new exams, new testing centers, and all the other promises the MCM program has made. This one decision and badly wrought communication has destroyed credibility and trust.

Fourth, many of the concerns Tim mentioned have been brought up internally in the MCM program before. The MCMs I went through my rotation with had lots of wonderful suggestions on how to approach solutions to these problems. The MCMs in my community have continued to offer advice and feedback. Most of this feedback has gone nowhere. It seems that somebody in between the trainers and the face people that we MCMs interact with and the folks at Tim’s level have been gumming up the communication. Ask any good intelligence analyst – sometimes you need to see the raw data instead of just the carefully processed work from the people below you in the food chain. Somewhere in that mass of ideas are good suggestions that probably could have been made to work to break down some of those non-technical barriers long before now, if only they’d gotten to the right level of management where someone had the power to do something about it. Again, in a metrics-driven environment, data that doesn’t light up the chosen metrics usually gets ignored or thrown out. There’s little profit taking the risk of challenging assumptions. Combine that with a distinct “not invented here” syndrome, and it feels like MSL has had a consistent pattern of refusing to even try to solve problems. Other tech companies have Master-level exams that don’t suffer too badly from brain dumps and other cheating measures. Why can’t Microsoft follow what they are doing and improve incrementally from there? I believe it’s because it requires investing even more money and time into these solutions, something that won’t give back the appropriate blips on the metrics within a single financial year.

So while I appreciate the fact that Tim took the time to respond (and I will be emailing him to let him know the existence of this post), I don’t believe that the only option MSL had was to do things in this fashion. And right now, that’s the impression I believe that this response is going to generate among an already angry MCM community.

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Devin

Husband and father; technology consultant, speaker, author, and blogger; Microsoft Exchange architect and MVP; writer, reader, Xbox player, karate student, and music lover. Seeker of balance, reveler in life, learning how to look for the uplifting.

5 thoughts on “Defending a Bad Decision”

  1. “one we did not make lightly or without many months of deliberation.”

    Cant be so many months… In the near past they offered MCTs a discount and as far as i remember they announced only a few weeks ago that there were new test centers.

    “Only a few hundred people have attained the certification in the last few years, far fewer than we would have hoped. ”

    I thought thats the idea behind a “master” (not to forget an architect). Only a few are able to gain it.

    To me personally the training would have been much more important then the certification. I want to really understand Exchange.

    Hey Microsoft, im waiting for the next punch in the face (of the community)…

  2. Oops. One wonders why blackberry is suffering a slow painful death. The same could be said of Microsoft. It appears someone has a roadmap to break Microsoft down from within. After all this time, they realized they are way off the mark to warrant immediate dropping of the program. That’s quite a joke. Signs of things to come

  3. Let’s not take “Microsoft Learning cancelled MCM” and turn that into “Microsoft is suffering a slow painful death. Last I knew, Microsoft is still quite healthy.

  4. Devin could not have said it better. The real issue with cancelling programs without context and viable alternatives is that you allow people on the outside to fill in the gaps themselves. Even if MS turns out to have a viable alternative to certifications or Technet, the damage has already been done. Its during this information vacuum that people make technology (and by extension career decisions.) I have made mine. I can’t and I won’t depend on Microsoft. The toothpaste is out of the tube.

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