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.


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."


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.

Editor's Picks