Microsoft Certified Master : Exchange 2007 - A survivors guide…
I attended the Microsoft Certified Master : Exchange 2007, rotation 2; prior to attending I had the good fortune to be able to talk to previous Ranger/MCM candidates within Microsoft, who helped prepare me for the program. I thought it would be a good idea to consolidate this information, along with my own advice for future rotations.
I will leave it to others to talk about what the MCM program is and the and benefits of attending (there are many!); this post is simply to outline what to expect and how to cope with it :)
There are five flavours of MCM that currently exist. Although they loosely follow the same structure they are also very different. This post is regarding my experiences from attending the Exchange version…
- Microsoft Certified Master: Microsoft Exchange Server 2007
- Microsoft Certified Master: Microsoft SQL Server 2008
- Microsoft Certified Master: Windows Server 2008: Directory
- Microsoft Certified Master: Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007
- Microsoft Certified Master: Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007
What to expect?
So, one of the first things to know about MCM is that it’s essentially three weeks of your life dedicated to Exchange. If you want to stand any chance at being successful it is VITAL that you have cleared this time, both with your customers and your FAMILY!! – this is especially true if you are attending from Europe; the time zone and class schedule makes communication with family and friends quite a challenge. Make sure you set their expectations that you haven’t died or been abducted by aliens during the three weeks.
Be prepared for long and difficult days, some days during my rotation I would be awake at 7am and not get back to my apartment until 10pm. On average most days tend to run from 8am to 6pm of classroom teaching, then there are homework assignments and often there are recommended labs to complete. There are three exams to complete, studying for these exams usually takes up most of the weekend, so its probably not a great idea to plan anything too exciting for the weekend – we typically did a mixture of self study throughout the weekend and a group white board session on Sunday afternoon which gave everyone a chance to combine their knowledge and talk about what we “thought” might be on the exam (we were almost always wrong!)
It sounds like hard work, and it is, but its also great fun – honest :) If you enjoy technology and working with Exchange, the chance to spend so much time focused on a single product is actually really good fun – especially with a group of like minded people :)
The Exchange program has a great reading list – however it is a bit on the large side. Roughly it suggests you read the help file and every blog or whitepaper published on Exchange 2007. The approach I took, which seemed to work well for me, was to concentrate on areas I had the least amount of experience with. Once in class the content is presented very quickly and if you get lost there is very little time to recover, likewise the labs can be complex – Greg’s approach is to describe the end goal of the lab and not give you step-by-step instructions. This is great and allows more flexibility in the labs; however it also means that you may struggle if that area of technology is new to you.
Once I had identified my areas of weakness I printed out white papers and blogs etc, which I kept with me in my laptop case. Rather than read a book on the train or plane, I would read about UM or ILM. I still found these topics tough, but without the pre-reading I would have been totally lost!.
In addition to Exchange there are some additional skills that will make your time at MCM less traumatic. I hope Greg doesn't mind that I list these, but I feel that some exposure and familiarity with the following technologies would help all candidates…
ISA is used predominantly during the CAS sessions and lab work – its not necessary to be an ISA expert, but some hands on practice configuring publishing rules and listeners would have helped me beforehand – likewise understanding what troubleshooting processes and features to use would have been handy.
It also appears compulsory to say the phrase “Green Ticky Ticky” whenever something goes well in ISA (Everyone in R2 will understand that! - and so will you if you go through a rotation!)
A large proportion of my rotation ended up staying at the Redmond Trails, which are essentially a collection of self catering apartments about a 25 minute walk from campus. You will not spend long in your chosen accommodation, so it is important to be realistic regarding the items you buy. It’s unlikely you will have much time to prepare food or cook – we literally just had coffee and ready meals in our apartment. Pretty much all of the time was spent studying to ensure we passed the exams. The apartments usually have fast internet access and Microsoft FTE’s can access their lab environments via the corp VPN.
Make sure that you know how long it takes to get to class, there is a no tolerance approach to lateness; on your first late you will be made to do something appropriately embarrassing (this is usually recorded!) – but be under no illusions, class will start regardless of you being there or not. Since a huge part of the exams are based on the verbal information provided by the instructors, your instructor may choose to give the rest of the class a bit of “important” information in your absence! – you may also find that additional homework is received for the entire group due to one person being late – DO NOT BE LATE! :)
My flatmate and I decided to walk whenever possible – you spend so much time cooped up inside the classroom it seemed like a good idea to get some fresh air and exercise whenever possible. Be warned however, its Redmond – that means it rains – a lot! so be prepared :)
Class usually begins on a Monday so try to get up to campus on the Sunday beforehand so that you know where you are going on Monday morning – there is nothing worse than frantically racing around campus trying to find a building or somewhere to park! Get there early, grab a coffee and try to relax – its going to be a busy day :)
Dealing with Jetlag
Unless you live in Redmond or somewhere close, it’s likely that you will experience some degree of jetlag during the first week of MCM. Previously I had tried many things to get over jetlag, the most suitable for me is just to adopt the new time zone as quickly as possible and deal with a few days of being incredibly tired. A good friend of mine who attended the OCS MCM rotation in January suggested that rather than fight the jetlag, study when you can and sleep when you can. For most of the European candidates this means getting up at 4am each day, doing some study from the previous day’s class and then going to sleep at 7pm after class. At the end of the first week you have pretty much adjusted anyway. Those that didn’t adopt this technique found that they were studying when their bodies wanted to go sleep and they were not able to remember a great deal from their study sessions.
Don't forget you are there for three weeks – its an endurance game, no point in pushing yourself to breaking point in the first few days!!
One of the most important aspects of attending MCM is the social side. You will be sitting in a room with a number of other Exchange candidates – you probably have had a very similar career path to the guy sitting next to you. It’s also highly likely that you will learn a huge amount from the people sitting around you - as well as the guy standing at the front of the class. Some of the class discussions are fascinating – everyone sitting in that room with you has earned their place, however they may have a totally different perspective than you – taking the time to participate and learn from these discussions is highly rewarding.
Greg also runs a couple of nights out, all of which are great fun and allow you to get to know your fellow candidates in a more social setting. All of you are in the same boat and will go through the same highs and lows as each other. By the end of your time at MCM you will undoubtedly have made several new friends.
Health and Welfare
This is one area that concerned me before I got to MCM. If these classes are 12 hours and we have homework, study and exams – how will I cope for three weeks?
The time passes incredibly quickly, but it’s vitally important to keep yourself alert and well rested. Get as much sleep as you possibly can and ensure that you keep yourself well hydrated throughout each day. We all know we should do this – right? But it’s all too easy to forget. There are frequent breaks – make the most of them – don’t be afraid to request a break, if you need one…. the chances are everyone else does too!.
The classroom also acts like a Petri dish for colds and illness – in my rotation we had sixteen candidates, half of which had flown long-haul from around the world. Then we all sat together for 12 hours a day or more in a room with no windows! – combined with lack of sleep and the stress of the program led to many of us catching a cold (including Greg!). So, make sure you have cold medication, headache tablets etc – be prepared! There is nothing worse than trying to absorb information when you’re not feeling well and you have an exam on Monday!
The exams are multiple choice, closed book and computer based - but don’t expect MCP style questions. These exams can be tough, very tough! There were times during our rotation where those little multiple choice exams seemed impossible!
There is no easy way to pass the exams; the best advice is to pay attention during class and MAKE NOTES! Some people like study groups, others prefer to study alone. During my rotation we spent several hours each weekend going through topics on the whiteboard, checking that our understanding was correct. We also attempted to guess what likely questions would be asked on each topic – this proved largely unsuccessful (devious instructors!) but participating in these group sessions definitely help me; usually I prefer to study alone, so I was surprised to enjoy the group sessions. My advice is that if you typically study alone, why not study the material then head off into class for a short while and see how you get on in a group. Besides, it might make a nice break from your apartment!
Another tip that I found useful was during the week as you come across areas that you think might be on the exam, write them in marker pen on a sheet of A4, then tape it to the wall. I found this particularly effective for remembering lists; although our apartment did look a bit odd after three weeks...
Pay attention to the slide decks; not only might they have links on them (questions can come from the slides, notes, links or verbal content!) but quite often the slide notes are very revealing :)
This sorts the men from the boys! there is no easy way through – it’s tough. Without giving too much away, the test is essentially made up of a virtual environment containing a number of servers, routers and other infrastructure which has various things broken. You are given multiple tasks to complete within the lab which will require that you fix some of the breaks. Just to make things a little harder, you have a time limit which generally means that if you attempt to fix all of the breaks you will run out of time. The real skill is in determining exactly what you need to fix in order to complete the tasks as quickly as possible.
A support background will definitely help here, although it’s essentially just about being logical and working through each problem as you find it. Those that are successful generally take a task approach, so rather than fixing everything, simply fix the minimum things required to complete that single task, then move on to the next. In our qual lab there was nothing that could be described as complicated – all of the problems had relatively easy fixes, however finding that simple fix might take an hour or more. It’s also worth remembering to check the basics, networking, DNS, AD – it’s amazing just how much chaos Greg can cause without actually doing much!
Take your notes electronically as you go. Various candidates advised me to do this after struggling to get their notes completed before the time ran out. To complete the qual lab, not only do you have to fix the breaks, you have to detail the changes you have made to get things working. Without these notes you will fail, if the notes are not complete or Greg is unable to understand them, you could also still fail! Your notes will also help you should you need to back out a change that you have made to the environment.
Other Stuff and DSN
Its meant to be fun as well as a challenge. One of the guys from my rotation had an agreement with his daughter that he would take her toy “Theodore” with him everywhere he went for the three weeks and take pictures so that she could see what he had been up to. Theodore quickly turned into the class mascot…
Rotation 2’s mascot “Theodore” showing just how easy OCS is… :)
Are you ready?
Both before and after attending MCM I would talk to people about the program. One of the most common comments I heard was that they would love to attend but they didn't think that they were ready yet.
After going through the program and surviving I have some advice for all of those people (you know who you are!) – if you have the opportunity to attend this course, do not pass it up because you think you might not make it – you probably know much more than you think you do already :)
MCM Exchange 2007 - rotation 2’s home for 3 weeks – I'm not entirely sure where we all were when this was taken…
If you are interested in attending Microsoft Certified Master (and you should be!) - I recommend you check out the following links…
PS. The pictures were all expertly taken by Morten Kjønnø
Posted by Neil Johnson , MCS UK, MCM Exchange 2007