Tales from certification-hell: What an MCM, MCA, MCSM, MCSM Charter Member, MCSE or MVP really is

It has been two years since Microsoft announced the end of the Master program. (Microsoft Certified Master & Architect (MCM & MCA) – The End of Advanced Certification. – And a planned new beginning?)

But that does not mean that the certification is “dead” or even “valueless,” as has often been mistakenly referred to.

Quite the contrary: it is almost more valuable because only those who made it through all the exams by 31 December 2013 may call themselves MCM or even MCSM today.

What is “dead,” then, is the “program” – the certification track with the exams, and thus the possibility to obtain the certificate.

As I have been repeatedly asked over the course of the last years what an MCSM actually is, or a “Charter Member,” and how the MVP fits in there, I would like to try to elaborate on it here. Only I am not responsible for the illogical backgrounds – this was all Microsoft Learning.

Let’s take a look at the certification pyramid as it had been available at Microsoft Learning online for a long time:

Very conveniently, it still includes the “old” track “MCTS-MCITP-MCM.

This first certification series was replaced by the new track “MCSA-MCSE-MCSM” due to the development towards the cloud and the emergence of Windows Vista, Windows Server 2008, and for SQL Server Version 2012.

Hence this explains the difference between MCM and MCSM:

The MCSM is, just like the MCM, the highest technical certification of Microsoft, but for the recent server systems.

For SQL Server, the MCSM that could be obtained on SQL Server 2012 is thus also called: Microsoft Certified Solutions Master: Data Platform (see the official data sheet here).

The MCM, i.e. Microsoft Certified Master SQL Server was available for SQL Server 2005 and SQL Server 2008 (see the official data sheet here).

How do the exams for MCM & MCSM differ from those for MCSE and MCSA?

The standard certifications are preceded by a series of multiple-choice exams. You can read the exact exams here:

MCSE: Data Platform

The MCM as well as MCSM required an additional (“additional” because an existing MCITP certification was prerequisite), so-called “Knowledge-Exam,” equally in multiple-choice format. However, the questions here were significantly more complex and practical.

The decisive difference, though, is that the Master required a practical exam, i.e. the “Lab-Exam.” This exam was carried out at a terminal with access to a real SQL Server environment at which various problems were to be solved within a specified time period.

For the MCM SQL Server 2008, the allotted time was 5 hours and 25 minutes. For the MCSM on the basis of SQL Server 2012, tasks had to be solved within 7 hours.

– I am not allowed to be more specific here.

Unfortunately, it was only from September 2013 onwards that it was possible to pass the exam for MCSM: Data Platform.

In total, seven experts world-wide have successfully taken this opportunity.

That said, I hope this explains why the MCM certification is not valueless, and certainly not the MCSM certification: One of the original ideas for the Master program was to examine in such a way that one could be sure that the examinee who passed thus proved true practical experience in solving complex problems with SQL Server. And this experience does not get lost. Once you have experience in SQL Server 2005 Database tuning, Desaster Recovery etc. you can also rely on it in more recent versions as well.

What applies to all product certifications is that the new features do not necessarily have to be known at this level.

(For me personally, this was the reason to also add the MCSM exam right behind: so I could prove my knowledge in SQL Server 2012 with the then new features AlwaysOn and ColumnStore.

– And of course to make up for the “disgrace” of having screwed up the Lab-Exam on the first go with 82% of the required score (because I erred in the time zone?).

– And, quite luckily, I was successful at it – and this with no chance at a retry, as I passed it on the last day the exam was available :-): MCSM (Microsoft Certified Solutions Master) Data Platform on SQL Server 2012

Regarding the next point, I admit that the pyramid shown above was actually not quite complete. Originally, it looked like this:

So what then is an MCA?

MCA stands for Microsoft Certified Architect.

This certification, which was at the top of the pyramid, was not so much a technical one – i.e. no further practical exams or the like were carried out. Rather, the examinee was required to answer questions from a committee, the “MCA Board,” on the implementation of real projects with SQL Server.

Here, it was not so much about technique – the MCM already covered that part – but rather about other skills such as team leadership and concept competencies.

Read here what an MCA says: What is a Microsoft Certified Architect?

This is why the MCM is oftentimes referred to as the highest “technical” certification.

Yet it is in fact the MCA which is the highest Microsoft certification by far and without restrictions.

Trivia: The very first round of MCAs did not have any SQL Server Version in the title and was simply called „MCA: Database.“ There are 26 worldwide. (This number is definitely fixed, even if not all names were published.) In 2007, this title became the MCA: SQL Server 2005.

Trivia²: In the “MCA: Database“ era there was an “MCA apprentice” which was awarded to the first experts who made it through the “Ranger” program (the forerunner of the MCM program), but who due to their role could not sit across from the MCA Board – they subsequently became MCMs. (Thanks to boB Taylor and Assaf Fraenkel for this in-house information.)

5 MCAs for SQL Server hold the MCA both for 2005 and 2008.

For SQL Server 2012, there was no more MCA to be obtained.

The last, final and public list of the MCAs, MCSMs and MCMs worldwide can still be found here:


Note that the list, and hence the number, is still not entirely complete as not everyone wants his name published.

For SQL Server, there is thus the following number of “Masters” worldwide:

MCM SQL Server 2005 MCA SQL Server 2005 MCM SQL Server 2008 MCA SQL Server 2008 MCSM Data Platform
33 23 (+3) 172 7 (+1) 7

Because I thought this comment by Brent Ozar, an MCM colleague from the US was so casual, here is an updated version:

“There are more people who set foot on the moon (12) than there are MCSMs for SQL Server 2012 (7).“ 😀

Well, and then there is still this „thing“ here:

What is an MCSM: Charter Member (Microsoft Certified Solutions Master Charter – Data Platform)?

This “certification” was awarded to all MCMs in addition to the MCM. Without any further exam or prerequisite. Ultimately, accordingly, it certifies: nothing.

Hard but true: Here you can read the official statement: Existing Microsoft Certified Masters To Receive Microsoft Certified Solutions Master Charter Certification.

Why would they do this?

Presumably this was a kind of “consolation” for the discontinuation of the certification series. Initially, it was only intended for a transition period, but after it became clear that the MCSM would not exist for much time the Charter Member was awarded permanently.

(By the way, in addition to that the MCSE: Data Platform was “given” to all MCMs. – At that time, though, I had already obtained this title the standard way so I was not even tempted to skip exams :-)).

At this point, I can hardly disguise the fact that I am not particularly happy about any bending of value of the Microsoft certifications.

Unfortunately, these aspects are ultimately only confusing in the certification jungle. Previously, a “Charter Member” was usually awarded for the achievement of a certification within the first six months after the first appearance of a certification. (Sources: What’s the deal with Charter Member certificates?,

https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/learning/program-membership.aspx )

As a bonus for those who were the first to venture on these exams and passed them. – These “First Achievers” were definitely not able to rely on any braindumps – and we are all aware that the normal exams are easily achieved with all sorts of tricks.

– I myself have achieved 6 certifications with the Charter-Member status up to now (and I am not counting the senseless MCSM).


At the end of the day, the Charter Member logo does not have a significant background. Therefore, I hardly use it anywhere – for, who would like to explain, when asked, that a certification does not really mean anything.

Let’s turn to an entirely different certificate:

SSAS Maestro

For this rare certification I can neither give a logo nor an exact number of individuals who hold this certification.

This certification had an even shorter lifespan than the Master. The Maestro was introduced in order to be able to offer a corresponding premium certification for the Business Intelligence part of the SQL Server, particularly the Analysis Services. Here you can read the official announcement of that time:

What is the SSAS Maestros?
There was not even an announcement of discontinuation.

We have one topic left: The MVP Award

One is entitled to the question: “What’s this got to do with it? – It is not even a certification!”

I agree. However, not everyone is aware of this, and it is still a welcome title at conferences or in projects. That’s why I will briefly explain what an MVP actually is or is supposed to be.

At this point, I would like to quote from the blog of a former MVP, Mitch Garvis:
“The Microsoft MVP Award is not for people proficient in their technology; it is for people who share their proficiency with community work, such as blog articles, speaking events & presentations, tweets, forums, and such.“
(Source: My parting words as a Microsoft MVP)

At Microsoft itself it reads as follows:

Who are MVPs?

Microsoft Most Valuable Professionals, or MVPs, are community leaders who’ve demonstrated an exemplary commitment to helping others get the most out of their experience with Microsoft technologies. They share their exceptional passion, real-world knowledge, and technical expertise with the community and with Microsoft.“

“How to become an MVP?

While there is no benchmark for becoming an MVP, in part because it varies by technology and its life-cycle, some of the criteria we evaluate include the impact of a nominee’s activities in online forums such as Microsoft Answers, TechNet and MSDN; wikis and online content; conferences and user groups; podcasts, Web sites, blogs and social media; and articles and books. Each nominee’s activities are compared to those of other candidates, and active MVPs receive the same level of analysis as new candidates each year.”

(Source: Microsoft: Most Valuable Professional)

That means there is no standardized procedure as to who deserves this award, nor is there an exam.

Neither are technical skills in the foreground here, and nor are they ever the reason for such an award. For technical knowledge, there are and were exams.

Even if unfortunately there are no longer any practical exams since the discontinuation of the MCM program, the MVP is no replacement.

Quotes such as “He has been awarded the title ‘Microsoft Valuable Professional’ by Microsoft based on his technical knowledge” are thus misleading.

It is true that among the MVPs there are many real experts, but it is not the criterion. There are many certified Masters who do not have the time or opportunity to make their knowledge available to the public for free (this, too, is an aspect) – or they do make it available, but the deciding people do not hear about it, or there is a country-specific quota of a maximum of MVPs per topic, and so on, and therefore they are not awarded the MVP.

On the one hand, there are those who have been extremely active in the community for years, have been presenting at dozens of international conferences, have even been nominated, and still do not receive any award. (See cases like Mark Broadbent)
On the other hand, there are also those of whom almost no one has ever heard, and who only with the MVP actually become known and as a result are in demand and become active. In the end, this is how it goes with many awards. There will never be an absolute fairness. – An award is no certification after all, and sometimes maybe it’s better to not take such all too serious.

Therefore, I can consider myself lucky that I became MVP in 2014 after having been active on conferences in Germany and as far as in the USA since 2009. (6 conferences in 2012, 11 in 2013, and then followed the MVP award in 2014)

In general, one can become an MVP if you are very active in the community of a product. Be it through assistance in online forums, giving presentations without fee at various conferences, writing comprehensive blog articles, or other forms of commitment that are helpful in some way to the product line or to other clients. This does not require a specific level of technical complexity but rather the continuity – which is, from my personal experience, quite time-consuming. This is why I am happy for anyone who is acknowledged by Microsoft with this award.

However, there is no guarantee to be recognized at reaching a specific amount of commitment. And to set as one’s goal to “become MVP” would not do justice to the original idea behind the award.


Those of you who know someone who you believe has deserved to be awarded with the “MVP” by his or her activities in the last 12 months (another criterion) may nominate him or her directly here: Nomination as MVP


What I can say from my own knowledge of the Master and MVP community is that Masters usually possess a broader spectrum of technical knowledge and, as required in the exams, they are very well-versed in several areas of database engine (for example Backup & Restore + Indexing + Fulltextsearch). As for MVPs, there seems to be a higher specialization in exactly one topic (For example Indexing or High Availability). This is really my personal impression and not evidenced by any surveys or exams, and it is not meant to sound negative. 🙂

What are the advantages of the MVP?

To me, it is the insight at an early stage into future developments of SQL Server long before its release, and the direct contact to the product team. To be able to have open discussions with Microsoft developers, and in my case especially also the Security team – under NDA and with relatively few restrictions – is an invaluable bonus.

I hope I was able to shed some light on the jungle of Microsoft’s premium certifications. 🙂

Happy learning & sharing


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