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How to become a real Guru: The Microsoft Certified Architect Program


Microsoft's most difficult--not to mention pricey--certification, the Microsoft Certified Architect (MCA), offers industry professionals an opportunity to join an elite crowd (there are presently only about 90 Architects).

The MCA certification raises the bar to an entirely new level for Microsoft who has in the past been accused of facilitating paper-certified "engineers" with the MCSE program. With its steep costs ranging from $10,000 to $25,000 (depending on which architect program you're seeking) to its rigorous on-campus boards where you defend a real-world solution before other architects who've earned the hallowed title, the MCA is the meatiest certification Microsoft has ever put forth--and it's about time.

Here's an overview of the MCA Program. Ready to become a legend?

MCA goals and why now?

The MCA program is the first of its kind from Microsoft and sets a new benchmark for their certifications. It is hands-down the most difficult and expensive certification ever offered by Microsoft. But why now?

Some key folks on the Microsoft certification team were kind enough to give me a few moments of their valuable time.

Bill Wall, director of certification strategy for Microsoft Learning, tells me that the MCA program has two main objectives: to maintain vendor neutrality and stay community-driven.

Vendor-neutrality

On the topic of vendor neutrality, Wall said, "Architects need to be able to speak to business problems which may involve multiple technologies. This isn't a typical Microsoft product certification, per se, but a certification that you can design and architect a solution to a real business problem."

Per Farny, the director of advanced training and certification for Microsoft Learning said it this way: "The MCA seeks to find a balance between high levels of technical expertise and business acumen."

Community-driven

Wall says that Microsoft's vision is for the program is for architects certifying architects. Ccertified MCAs sit on all review boards and play a large role in the approval of new candidates. This helps self-regulate the MCA program. In order to maintain the credibility of their own cert, they must ensure that only the truly deserving get through.

The options

The MCA program has two major options: A technology-focused path, which I will call Technology Architect (though Microsoft refers to them internally as "rangers"), and a more generalized offering for those with broad-based skills which I will refer to by their formal monikers: MCA-Infrastructure or MCA: Solutions.

MCA: Messaging or Database Technology Architect

The Technology Architect program offers two tracks:

  • Messaging (Exchange Server)
  • Database (SQL Server, with an emphasis on online transaction processing)

There are two major phases to becoming a Technology Architect. First, a four-week mandatory training period with weekly written exams is required-the emphasis is on solving business problems with the technology. The onsite training occurs at Microsoft's facility in Redmond and runs 8-6, Monday through Friday, with study groups on the weekends.

The certification phase is next. In this phase, the candidate must complete an online lab-style examination followed by a rigorous review board interview. The exam will be focused in your certification area and will be lab-oriented and difficult.

The Technology Architect review board-assuming you get that far-consists of five people including actual architects and Microsoft representatives. During the review board, which lasts almost two hours, candidates will be expected to present a case study, and then discuss different technology options with the board that's evaluating their breadth of knowledge. After a short break, the board then role-plays with the candidate, simulating situations that involve consultative advice. Candidates are examined for communication skills, their ability to build trust, bring a project-oriented approach to the table, ask the right questions, and define the problem correctly.

Costs for the Technology Architect certifications are $25,000 dollars, paid in full before you begin the program. Rob Linsky, group manager of Microsoft Certifications for Microsoft Learning, helped explain why these costs are high: "The classes are a very expensive component of this program. The best people in the world teach these classes and as you might expect they are very busy folks and come from many places across the globe. The logistics to make all of this happen drive the costs of the program up, but we want to ensure quality instruction is provided-no compromises."

MCA: Solutions or Infrastructure Path

On the more broadly based architect path, there are two focus-areas: Infrastructure and Solutions. Infrastructure architects are usually more operationally focused, whereas the Solutions architect is more consultatively focused (or customer facing). You could view these two paths as pre-sale and post sale if you'd like.

The path to certification for the Infrastructure or Solutions Architects is somewhat less intense as well as less expensive. For example, the four-week training period is not required, nor are all of the examinations. These certifications are heavily back-loaded, relying on the review board for most of their weight.

The primary hurdle with the the MCA Solutions or Infrastructure certification is the review board interview. The review board is no laughing matter though. Conducted only four times a year, it lasts over two hours and is comprised of four members. There are six stages:

  • Presentation. You get 30 minutes to describe a solution that you were the lead architect on. Your communication skills are heavily evaluated during this phase.
  • Solution questioning. For about 40 minutes or so, the board peppers you with questions about your solution. And then you leave for a break while the board privately discusses your strengths and weaknesses.
  • Candidate questioning: When you return. the board focuses their questions on you the candidate (as opposed to the solution), fleshing out your competency in the skill areas.
  • Closing statement: This is your final plea for certification. You get five minutes.
  • Voting. You aren't present for the voting. You have to obtain three of out four votes to be certified.

Costs for the MCA: Solutions or Infrastructure certifications are $10,000 dollars, paid in two $5,000 increments.

Are you qualified?

Frankly, not many will qualify for the MCA architect programs and that's the way it's designed. However, for those interested in exploring their eligibility, the qualification requirements are as varied as the programs. I've broken them down by each area of emphasis.

To qualify for MCA: Messaging

To even pre-qualify for the Messaging Architect program prospective applicants must:

  • Hold an MCP (It's safe to say that anyone seriously considering this program will have one of these already)
  • Be fluent in English (speak, understand, and write)
  • Be an MCSE with the Messaging 2003 specialization
  • Have at least three years of experience architecting and deploying Exchange Server
  • Have a 300-level knowledge of Exchange Server, which means that have a conceptual component level knowledge of Exchange that you usually only get from having "been there-done that!"

After applying, there are more requirements. Assuming your application is accepted the prospective candidate must:

  • Pass a lab-based examination (where they check to see what your knowledge of technologies Exchange is dependent upon like DNS, Active Directory, and basic mail routing, etc).
  • Complete an interview (not to be confused with the interview board that comes later)
  • Give them a pile of money (you have to pay your tuition in its entirety)

And all of that is just to start the program!

To qualify for MCA: Database

On the database side of the house, the same pre-qualification requirements apply-substituting SQL knowledge for Exchange, of course. Additionally you need experience with the Microsoft Operation Framework (MOF) and must hold the Information Technology Information Library (ITIL) Foundation Certificate in IT Service Management. However, unlike the Messaging track, after your application is accepted, there's no further examination. You only have to complete an interview and pay your tuition.

To qualify for MCA: Solutions or Infrastructure Path

On the MCA: Solutions and Infrastructure Programs, the pre-application requirements are far less stringent, with the weight of the certification being back-loaded. Since the bulk of your certification is determined in the review board, your ability to show you deserve the certification will be highlighted. This includes a review of your resume and experience. Because architects are certifying architects, there is an implicit desire by those already certified to ensure their ranks swell with only those truly qualified thus not diminishing the value of the certification.

Microsoft even mentions in their program guides that experience is one of the most important factors towards earning certification. Many of the architects have at least ten or more years of experience with some having twenty.

But just because the MCA: Solutions and Infrastructure programs have less up-front requirements don't think that just any old idiot can get this certification. Only those truly deserving will be able to achieve this certification. That you can guarantee.

36 comments
collisons
collisons

Hi Jeremy, I have always somewhat been confused about the backdrop of a MCSE certification with all the different terms flying around. So what's the latest on the MCSE saga? Thanks for your elaboration.

daibatron
daibatron

I personally knew an MSFT employee who recently obtained the SQL Server Ranger title. Technical guru? I have no doubt. Technical architect with non-MS technologies? I doubted. Besides MSFT employees, who can afford 4 weeks on-campus training plus $25K? Ridiculously funny program. I will pass on this certificate.

leonardw
leonardw

I think the cost is absurd. Why spend so much money for a certification when the technology is going to change in a few years anyways? I made the decision to pursue my Masters degree in CIS opposed to certifications. End Result: Im inundated with job offers. Anyone can get a certification, but not everyone can go to a University for 6 years. DEGREE >> CERTIFICATION.

danutzp1
danutzp1

The MCA program for the Solutions track is way too fuzzy and not structured. I've been thinking for a while to pursue the MCA but never went as far as pursuing it. I may be a good architect (or not?) at my work but due to the fuzziness in the MS program how do I know that I fit into the board's idea about what a good Architect is? Risking $10,000 on a fuzzy and unstructured Microsoft certification is pure gambling.

nocahoma
nocahoma

$25000 up front... Think I'll pass..

star_topology
star_topology

A few sarcastic comments... "Have a 300-level knowledge of Exchange Server..." Don't they know that the max skill is 375? (For WoW fans) "Give them a pile of money" After all, that is the MS way. "Be fluent in English" Not touching that one. I heard MS was overhauling their certifications as well. I'm graduating with a BBA in MIS this weekend, and I would love to get some certs, but not if they keep changing. Though this one would seem to be the be-all-end-all certification.

LocoLobo
LocoLobo

but I thought MS was doing away with the MCSE in the near future. Or drastically changing it? How does that effect the prequalifiers listed in the article?

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

You'll get more up-to-date information by Googling MCSE and sticking to the Microsoft links.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Some of us have families to support. Degree and cerification are two different animals, with the same goals. Filling up blank space on the I love me wall and convincing an employer that despite a complete lack of experience you do have potential. As for the tech changes, well yes certs are planned to go out of date and academia is out of date before you start. Certs are how to use a particular tool, a degree is or should be the theories behind why. Neither one guarantees, you are any good . The scariest thing about either investment, is there is absolutely no way to guarantee a return. Yes you could beat out someone with a lesser qualification, but they aren't going to pay you the extra you put in. Personally I'd go the four year route and get an MBA, for a career plan.

CG IT
CG IT

The thing with Microsoft platform or even Cisco infrastructure is that without any experience you haven't a clue. I've seen college grads use Group Policy and OUs as a means to secure file and folder access. I've seen them remove all computers from the computers OU , then wondering why Group Policy doesn't apply.... I've seen college grads who didn't have the first idea of DNS, DNS Zones, names spaces , A records, PTR records. On Cisco equipment, they didn't have the first idea of how to connect to the router or switch using the console port. and most of all, I found college grads to have a somewhat prima donna attitude even when clearly, they didn't know what they were doing.

clangston
clangston

The risk is higher than the reward. Who wants to pay for certification by review board? Other than image for holding an exclusive 'title', where is the incentive? Will people understand MCA's are more qualified at X than those without? There are so many certs to choose from, why MCA? WIIFM? I will be impressed if this certification takes off. I wonder how much money the MCA's on the review board earn for their service. Do you think its a 4-way-split? Seriously, $2500 for a 2 hour interview is not bad. That's 2.5 million dollars per year :) I'd have to start my own company if I had that kind of cash laying around. I think my company would branch into VoIP, spam filtering, and MMORPG.

hachur
hachur

Dunno. Me be qualified?

ManiacMan
ManiacMan

I think most employers won't give a rat's arse about it and won't even spend money to send any of their employees to get certified. At $25,000, the only ones who will bother with this are those who already own their own business and have $25,000 to burn and write off, or some spoiled rich kid whose parents have money to burn. I for one will not be wasting my time or energy on this nonsense and would rather spend $1,000 to get a CCIE instead. This is really arrogance on the part of MS to do this.

Cutting-Edge
Cutting-Edge

If it is followed up from a job offer from MS with 6 figure package...........as part of the deal.

Kjell_Andorsen
Kjell_Andorsen

I seriously doubt alot of people are going to pay for this cert out of their own pockets. This program seems designed with the idea that various companies will cover the cost of sponsoring their top Admins and Engineers for the Certification. I suspect there will be significant incentives offered by Microsoft to companies that employee MCAs in much the same manner that Cisco offers incentives to partners who have a certain number of Cisco certified employees on staff.

DantheBestMan
DantheBestMan

This is another cert by Microsoft for Microsoft. Companies that hire an MCA should understand that they are going to get Microsoft solutions.

tfenner
tfenner

Most notable technology certifications expire every 3-8 years on average. There are exceptions, like CompTIA certs, but they are all considered entry-level certs, and are normally looked at as nothing more than resume fodder. If you want a end-all cert that you can apply to the business side of things, I suggest looking at ITIL (which I believe does not expire) or others certifications that do not expire.

purelabor
purelabor

We spend 10 to 15 THOUSAND just so we can sell more M$ products? For that kind of money I could do a lot more and push any product that I want. Also, the problem with other MCAs testing is that if you don't appeal to them then your out. With real testing at least you can show were you answered the questions right. With an interview you could be screwed before you even start.

jhayesit
jhayesit

I consider myself to be pretty knowledgeable with microsoft AD/Exchange infrastructure but i am not sure that a 10 - 25k investment would be a good investment or that it would have a good ROI on my career. Unless that employers start reimbursing for this cert, but it seems high for most. I guess only time will tell.

Kjell_Andorsen
Kjell_Andorsen

It's true that Microsoft is changing their Certification program and that there will be no MCSE certification for Server 2008. MS seems to be doing away with the rather generic MCSE in favor of set of Role-specific MCITP (Microsoft Certified IT Professional) certifications. I am willing to bet that the MCA program for messaging will be changed to allow those who attain the MCITP: Enterprise Messaging Administrator certificationto apply for the MCA.

ManiacMan
ManiacMan

when they don't know jack )#_^#@ about anything and get all defensive when us seasoned pros point out their shortcomings. I hate working with people who aren't humble and think they know everything when in reality, they don't know squat. I recall back in the 90s' when I was tasked to work with a so called "NT4 MCSE". Anyhow, we had a crashed NT4 server because the RAID controller on the Compaq server died. This self professed "expert" of an MCSE quickly runs to get an NT4 CD in a pathetic attempt to repair the OS. I told him that it's not the OS that's the issue, but that the RAID controller had failed and needed to be replaced because the system was not seeing the logical drive that the OS was on. The guy looked at me like I had 3 heads and had no clue what I was talking about. Yeah, he was one of those fresh out of college kids who went to those boot camps and got his MCSE by memorizing answers and questions from the braindumps instead of actually knowing anything about NT4 or server hardware.

danutzp1
danutzp1

My wife is a physician. She recently passed the written part of the Board Exam. In a year or so she MUST pass the oral examination, she will not stop being a doctor if she fails but she will have a hard time keeping her privileges in the hospitals, this is the law in Texas! I would not mind having to take an exam as hard as the physician's board exam IF we had the same amount of materials and help with the study. After all it is not just an assessment exam; it is also an opportunity to learn. Spending 10k on a bet and hoping a board of 4-5 people will like me is too much gambling and I do not see much benefit in that. I just saw recently IASA trying to put together training to helpe architects become real Architects: http://www.iasahome.org I'll wait to see what they do in a year or so and if it is worthy then I may spend my money on that.

tfenner
tfenner

May be us all be qualified?

ManiacMan
ManiacMan

I'm MCSE 2003 certified and I already made close to $130,000 gross on my last contract because I also have extensive hardware and systems integration experience. Anyone not already pulling in six figures as an MCSE is not automatically going to see six figures by getting this pathetic excuse for a certification. I don't see the ROI by spending $25K on what I see as a gamble.

ron_r_a
ron_r_a

Why would a company pay $25,000 plus travel and accommodations to certify someone who is already working for them? When I worked for a Fortune 100 company, they would arrange in-house training. The same lessons passed onto multiple employees at a much cheaper cost. But nobody got an official certificate. And consultants, who live and die by the mighty dollar, will hire someone already certified. And then they still have the nerve to charge extra for the lettered suffixes. This is interesting... the fundamentals I learned in college are still relevant today. Yet, all the knowledge passed on by Microsoft and its army of wannabees is apparently useless in short time. Miraculously, a fist of dollars can always revive the knowledge for a brief period. Aside from my college degree, I once had over a dozen hardware and software certificates. Now, I use them to line the bottom of a birdcage. Best use I ever got from them.

ManiacMan
ManiacMan

Perhaps they don't like your shoes or your haircut, or the fact that you're older than them? They can easily take your $25K and tell you that you don't qualify. This is like a pathetic fraternity initiation, but with a $25K price tag attached. For that kind of money, I'd rather get 20 different industry certifications instead of dumping into one specific vendor.

tfenner
tfenner

Unless you are working as a consultant, which allows your organization to use this new cert as a selling point to its customers, I think it is safe to assume you could forgo the MCA and just focus on achieving the other certs for administrator roles.

mobaugh
mobaugh

I'm going to have to agree with Leonard. I've been in the IT industry for close to 20 years and have been certified on various Unix platforms as well as Microsoft (beginning with my Microsoft NT 3.51 Server MCSE). Over the years I've become increasingly disenchanted with the way all these paper have diluted the value of those certifications. The only certifications I think have real value these days are Cisco's CCIE, a few of the GIAC certs, and maybe the CISSP. After 20 years I decided to go for my post-graduate degree in information security. It was a brutal four years (had to work go and to school part time) but well worth the effort as it gave me a definite edge when I interviewed for my current position. To be fair, that degree wouldn't be worth as much without all the experience I've had behind it. Candidates fresh out of college will typically lose out to those with more experience, unless the employer is trying to save money. But if someone with experience ever asks me which certification they should get, I'd have to say... go for a Masters Degree or MBA in CIS from a vetted college or university. You'll qualify for far more opportunities than with just a vendor certification or two.

ManiacMan
ManiacMan

He was a paper cert, but put him to task, he wouldn't know where to begin and would stick his head in the sand like an ostrich.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Who came to tell me how the new owner's computer systems work and how to interface to them, who after I explained the proposed plan said. Just one thing Tony, What's TCP/IP ? I did the NT3.51 Admin course, got a lot out of it, in terms of of How To's compared to VMS.

rdcpro
rdcpro

Come on, this isn't intended to be a low-level cert that you would expect all your developers and network engineers to have...it's a high-level certification you'd expect your Architect to have. If it was easy to get, then it wouldn't be worth anything...just like those online college degrees you can buy. As for the cost, imagine what it costs to have a board of 4 top-flight architects do this interview. I'm expecting each one bills a least $300 per hour...probably more. These are not necessarily MS employees. If this scares you away from IT, perhaps you should be asking yourself if you'd like fries with that whine and cheese.

ManiacMan
ManiacMan

At this rate, the only people to practice IT are the ones who are already millionaires and are CEOs' or CTOs' who have $25K to gamble away. Let's just hope employers won't buy into this stupidity and see it as nothing more than a bragging right. Knowing how those morons in HR work, they'll probably buy into stupidity and will throw out resumes that don't display this certification. It's truly said at what's happening in IT and at this rate, I think I'll be switching careers very soon.

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