Microsoft Certified Architect Certification Process
So here it is, my first blog entry, finally!
Last week I got certified as a Microsoft Certified Architect: Infrastructure. It's quite an honor, especially considering just how different it is to other exam-based certifications out there.
In the case of MCA the process is a lot more rigorous and there are no exams.
As taken from http://www.microsoft.com/learning/mcp/architect/default.mspx, "The Microsoft Certified Architect (MCA) programs identify top industry experts in IT architecture. Microsoft Certified Architects (MCAs) have proven experience with delivering solutions and can communicate effectively with business, architecture, and technology professionals. These professionals have three or more years of advanced IT architecture experience; possess strong technical and leadership skills; and form a tight, supportive community. Candidates are required to pass a rigorous review board conducted by a panel of experts. The MCA credential was built by and for industry architects."
I had to write a case study on a project I had performed an architect role in. That's not a deep technical role by the way. If you look at the description above you'll see strong leadership skills are required too. There is also a lot more to it than that. The board that reviews candidates actually looks for specific competencies and many of them are not technology related at all.
Take a look at http://www.microsoft.com/learning/mcp/architect/archcompetencies/default.mspx for more details.
These competencies include:
- Organizational dynamics,
- Process and tactics,
- Technology breadth
- Technology depth.
It's pretty pointless try to get the certification without understanding how to communicate with various stakeholders in a business including:
- Operations Staff
- Project and Program Managers
- Technical staff
You will also need to demonstrate how you can work effectively in an organization mired in politics and embedded bureaucracy. It's a pretty difficult challenge, and you really need to have faced that multiple times in a project of the scope that you communicate with all the stakeholders in a business before you can be effective at putting together a case study.
So unlike MCSE and MCSD this is really not a technical certification. It is a bit in that you're expected to know what you're talking about and that you can act effectively in a technical environment, but it's also not because it's looking for a wealth of business and project expertise you just don't get by being a deep technical person and nothing else. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being deep technical; many people make a fortune doing so. This is just not the certification you should be chasing if that is what you are.
The board review process is pretty disarming. As much as you prepare and prepare, nothing really prepares you when you face your peer MCA's and get reviewed. They are looking for specific things and expect that you demonstrate them. Some things you might not expect to be questioned on but that are there include:
- Solution Development Lifecycles
- Operations (frameworks such as TQM, MOF, CMMI, CoBIT and ITIL. Also thinking about operations as part of your design cycle)
- Architecture frameworks such as TOGAF, WSSRA, Zachmann
After putting together a case study, CV/resume and completing a self-analysis of your competencies you wait a little while with the MCA team reviews your submissions and determines if you're a candidate for the board review. The MCA process can stop at any time, and this is effectively the first point at which it can!
After you're selected, you're then informed of your review date, venue and time. You are then expected to prepare a 30 minute presentation on your case study. You will need to ensure your presentation includes your solution, your specific role in the solution (they're less interested in the project, than what you specifically did, but you still need to know the project details for the QA later), how you delivered the solution, what decisions were made and why and also demonstrate the competencies in line with what they are looking for.
They cut you off at exactly 30 minutes, so make sure you prepare your presentation properly and dry-run it multiple times! In my case I finished with 3 seconds to spare!
As a side note, but a rather important one, pick a case study for a project you know well. Pick something recent where you worked with as many of the stakeholders I listed as possible. Ensure the project you chose is not overly complex, because you're just not going to be getting the solution and the project dynamics across in 30 minutes. You do need to choose something interesting and challenging, but there is a fine line and you need to ensure you do not cross it. In my case I used a sub-project of a far larger project. I spent a couple of minutes defining the total project and then ensured they understood which piece of the overall project I was going to focus on.
The board then proceeds to ask questions that are mostly related to the case-study for 40 minutes. Each board reviewer has 10 minutes to ask what they like about your case study. You will need to remain cool, calm and collected and most importantly of all you better say you don't know something if you don't. They use precision questioning techniques and you can pretty much get yourself into a whole tangled web if you don't.
After the 40 minutes of questions, which is quite tiring, you have a five minute break while they strategize on what they'll be asking for the next 40 minutes questions round. If you're like me you'll walk out a little dazed and confused and completely unsure how you're doing. They are pretty poker faced so you will not get much of a read on anything or how well you're doing.
After that it's a free for all. Each board member has 10 minutes again, but they ask pretty much anything they like. So if they feel they'd like to drill into a competency or a depth technical area they do! It's even more daunting than the first round of questions and makes you feel like and even bigger idiot than before.
After that's over you have 5 minutes to say anything you like. In the case of my one other colleague that was accredited he did a sales job mentioning why he thought he was an architect. In my case I just said thanks and made some remarks about how I thought they could improve the room layout! Yeah I'm nuts. In my final five minute opportunity to ensure I got certified I chose that!
Anyway, I survived. Whether you pass or fail they give you amazing feedback from the process that can only serve to help you become an even better architect than ever.
A key learning for me was that the board members actually do want you to pass. They're looking for specific things and you must demonstrate your capability in those areas, but nothing they asked me was absurd or obtuse. They didn't try to pick holes in me. They were just interested in uncovering my skill areas, and I think they did it very professionally.
The certification is tough to get, but that's also part of its attraction. You cannot just learn some technology super well and get it. You need to have so much experience and faced many different situations to be able to achieve it. To me it's a breath of fresh air in an industry that is saturated with exams and boot camps pumping out inexperienced people. In a way the standard certifications are there to provide employers with a minimum set of standards for employing competent people. The architect certification is a master certification and demonstrates experience and expertise as well as demonstrating a number of soft skills and competencies. It's something you have to work for, not just learn for.
I hope these mutterings help someone, somewhere do well in their MCA review process. If it did drop me a note a let me know. I'd love to know I helped someone out there.