My Journey to Become a Microsoft Certified Master (MCM) Part 2: The MCM Program

NOTE: I do not work for Microsoft, nor have I ever worked for Microsoft. The information in this post is my thoughts and not those of Microsoft or any other company. Unless said company read my mind and placed some thoughts there… I should buy a Dell… 🙂

The content in this post belongs to Sean Metcalf and may not be used for any purpose without express written consent by him.

Also, NOTHING in these posts will get you to pass and become a Microsoft Certified Master (MCM).  Only your knowledge & experience and internal motivation to be the best will do that. Sure, you can gleam some ideas that will help you prepare, but the MCM Program doesn’t teach to the test. You are tested on potentially anything and EVERYTHING that is Active Directory related (check the pre-reading list for topic coverage). The tests are extremely difficult. You are expected to be at the top of your game to pass.

I use both “Active Directory” and “Directory Services” interchangeably. The official certification is Microsoft Certified Master Directory Services (Windows Server 2008 R2).

This is Part 2, continued from Part 1, My Journey to Become a Microsoft Certified Master (MCM) Part 1: The Journey Begins


I arrived safely and checked into the motel of a hotel which is small, but serviceable. At least it is about 1 block away from the building I need to walk to every day (and 7-Eleven is 1 block the other way). I found that Safeway, an office supply store, a Thai restaurant, Red Robin restaurant, Arby’s, 5 Guys, Subway, and many other stores were about a 15 minute walk from the hotel.

The taxi from the airport was a Prius and cost about $60 to the Homewood Suites Hotel in Bellevue, WA. This sign in the taxi caught my attention.

NOTE: If you need a decent, cheap hotel to stay in during the MCM Program, the Homestead is OK.  If I had to do it again, I would seriously consider the Residence Inn which is only a few minutes more walk to the Microsoft building we were in. Homestead now has free WiFi & wired Internet, but still only provides servicing the room once a week. There’s a small, small kitchen area with a sink, microwave, stove top, and regular Refrigerator. It was suitable for my needs while there.

Sunday night I spent eating delivered pizza watching Super Bowl XLVI (46). I relaxed and didn’t read anymore figuring my brain needed a night off before the pain started. Enjoyed the game and found myself wondering if Madonna was 50 or 60 (she’s 54)…

The hotel room:

Day One: Monday (2/6/2012)
One month ago today, I started the first day at 7am to get badged, signed NDA documents, and at about 7:30am arrived in the classroom – my home for the next 2 weeks.

The Microsoft Building

There were 24 people attending this “14th Rotation” of the Directory Services Master program, 5 people from overseas (not Microsoft), 3 people from the US (not Microsoft), and 15 Microsoft PFEs from around the world (Asia, Australia, Canada, Russia, Romania, etc) . Everyone seems to have about 7-10 years AD experience (one person joked they had 15 years of AD experience since they worked with Exchange).  The PFEs are, as expected, knowledgeable and… chatty. In a good way. They are relaxed and ready for the next 14 days.  60% of the people in the room is Microsoft employed &  trained personnel from all over the world and are considered at the top of their game – this leads to some interesting customer stories (single DC for a single domain forest became corrupt… what to do…).

At around 8am MCM DS PM Ryan Conrad told us what to expect: this is the largest MCM DS class yet and based on statistics, only about 8 people will attain MCM status this rotation. Yup, 8 out of 23. Sobering words. 11 ended up passing this MCM rotation, but I’m jumping ahead. We learn that class this week is Monday – Saturday (though only 4 hours on Saturday) and we have Sunday off.  I don’t quite view Sunday as a day off considering our first test is on Monday which makes Sunday a study day for me.

Some other items Ryan pointed out (and my observations):

  • The classroom instruction does not cover everything on the tests – in other words, they do not teach to the test. This isn’t too surprising given that pretty much anything Active Directory can be tested.
  • The MCM Program is 70% conceptual understanding, 15% design & implementation, and 15% troubleshooting. And 100% challenging.
  • There are Objective Domain documents that list the topics covered on the 2 knowledge computer-based tests. One is about 8 pages and the other is about 5 pages listed pretty much every topic one could name relating to AD and its peripheral technologies.
  • Test Retakes – Maximum of 3 attempts per test and can be done at your location (i.e. home).
  • Retake schedule: minimum 45 days before attempting retake of Knowledge test & 3 months before attempting retake of Certification Lab exam.

We also learned that the nearby Microsoft Cafeteria was closed for renovations, though there were several New York style Food Trucks outside every weekday at lunch time.

Cafeteria Radiation Sign

Temporary Cafeteria Tent

Food Trucks

You gotta love “Happy Grillmore!”

Caribbean Jerk Station… mmmmm….

After introductions (most people in the room have been working with AD in some capacity since Windows 2000) and some logistics, the first presenter, Matt Reynolds, launches into Core AD topics (the AD DB, Schema, LDAP,etc) at about 9:30am. We break 1 hr for lunch (12pm – 1pm) and finish for the day at just after 6pm. Not a bad first day. I left the building for my hotel room at around 9pm (working on labs and ensuring my notes were complete).

The “Core DS” topics with Matt Reynolds covered the AD Jet database which fascinates me. Ever wonder why AD uses Jet database technology instead of SQL? Ever wonder how the change “remove a user from a group is handled and replicated?” or the difference between a Foreign Principal and Domain A user in Domain B group is stored in the database? This is the session that covers a lot of these interesting topics. Using a tool and LDP.exe (separately), we dumped the AD database and examined the structure identifying objects by their PDNT, impacts & effect of indexing attributes and much, much more.

The break room

Day 1 of 15 was done and surprisingly, I didn’t feel crushed. I was completely expecting to be overwhelmed with new content, but thankfully, I felt well prepared for a Master-level coverage of AD. I learned some minor things along the way, but I knew most of the discussed topics. Certainly there were some nuances I didn’t completely understand that were clarified on this day and there were a couple of things I paid careful attention to since I had never had to perform the operations before. However, as I looked through the 21 pages of notes I took on Day 1, I didn’t see much I hadn’t already read & studied (and thankfully retained pretty well).

After day 1, I wrote “God willing, this will be the tone through the rest of the course and I will be able to stay on top of the content.” That is the key. This is a 300 – 400 level course and if you are learning this stuff for the first time or are hazy on it, there’s no time to slow down to comprehend it. That has to be done at night and at that point you are missing out on practice lab time and reviewing the material covered that day. Ryan noted at the beginning of Day 1, that if you put the time and effort into it, you can pass. That’s really what it boils down to. I spent a lot of time front-loading my studying by reviewing all the pre-reading list material until I knew it cold. I realized then that I wouldn’t have time to process and gain comprehension of more difficult topics.

With that said (written?), I have been doing some hardcore prep for this for about a year, diving deep into the esoteric topics of AD database change committal & AD structure. I have also done a ton of work using Powershell to extract data & stats from all sorts of AD elements. Don’t underestimate the MCM Program. Your best bet is to plan to be crushed with deep technical information and prepare for that. This helps tremendously. Trust me.

More Core DS fun on the menu for Day 2.
Day 2 was much the same as Day 1 for me. Not crushing. Same as Day 3. Day 4 was AD Replication which delved into an area with which I don’t have as much experience as many of the others in the program specifically involving USN tracking, Up-to-Dateness Vector & High WaterMark. That was the first time (and last) during the MCM Program that I felt out of my depth (and maybe LDS – aka AD-lite). The week finished as it began. I felt like I knew most of the material covered with some added depth and minor areas I didn’t know about. I certainly felt much smarter about AD and realized I had a lot of studying to do before the first computer-based knowledge test on Monday morning at 8am.

The first weekend started with a half-day of AD LDS which I have never used or worked with. I did learn something really cool I didn’t know before and that is one can export a production AD schema and import it into an LDS test environment and use that for testing schema updates ( Especially with 3rd party schema updates.

After learning some interesting and some not so interesting details regarding LDS, Ryan gave us some additional information about our first knowledge test on Monday. He showed us a question that had been removed for a reason I don’t think I am allowed to mention, but it doesn’t really matter why. The question gave me great insight into how to prepare for the test. Sorry, no more details on that.

It would be really cool to have Surface as a coffee table in my house. Ironically, I saw 4 people playing with a deck of physical playing cards on top of the Surface computer…

The First Knowledge Test
I took the first knowledge (Prometric-based) test Monday morning of Week 2 @8am. Usually when I take a Microsoft test, I skip any questions that will take me more than 1 minute to answer. I also mark any question I am not 100% certain I have answered correctly. This provides me plenty of time to complete the test and not feel rushed. When I get through all the questions and arrive at the summary page at the end, I review all the marked questions (skipped questions first) taking as much time as I need. As I go through each of the marked questions, the once I feel pretty sure are correct, I un-mark. After going through this familiar process, I still had about 18 questions marked! Down from 35! I reviewed them all again, then clicked on End Test. When I was prompted “Are you sure you want to end the test?” I clicked No.

I admit, I was sweating at this point. Here I was a year later after all the studying, note-taking, note-re-writing, and I was about to complete 1 of 3 tests that could get me the MCM certification. If I failed one, I was done for 45 – 90 days until I could attempt a retake and lose momentum. I don’t think I have experienced test stress like that ever before. I reviewed my Marked questions again and failed in feeling any more confident with my answers. I clicked End Test a second time, and quickly clicked through every screen until I got to the results screen.

Now, the MCM test results screen is unlike the MCP test results screen which shows a huge PASS in the middle of the screen with little other distracting information around it (other than score). The MCM result screen shows your name, address, some other stuff and then a small pass about 2/3 the way down with test immediately above it (if you passed). I mention elsewhere the tests are Pass/Fail which isn’t entirely true. They are Pass/No Pass. If you meet the pass score (which we don’t know), you Passed! If not, you wait a couple of days until you get your score. This is so that if there is a question that no-one gets right, the passing score can be adjusted. Ryan stated that this has NEVER happened, but is an option. This is why I note the tests as Pass/Fail.

At first glance, the questions didn’t seem that tough. Until you read the questions a few times. The test questions were often structured so that 1 word changes the answer from A to D or there are several elements in the question and each element alters the answer. Depending on how well you read the question (and understand the material), you will select A, B, C, or D. I had several questions where I changed my answer 3 times due to me re-reading the question 3 times. I had missed a critical element each time. I have to emphasize how critically important understanding AD, how it works, how different OS versions have AD differences really is. In life and in Microsoft certification testing.

So, in retrospect, seeing a sample question on Saturday may have lulled me into a false confidence.

I Passed! Out of the 23 people in the program, only about 60  –  70% passed the first test (by my reckoning). I am one of a few non-Microsoft people ( out of 8 ) who passed this test. Several Microsoft employees didn’t pass. These tests are no joke.

Day 1 of Week 2 (Day 7 of instruction) started with the 2.5 hour knowledge test at 8am. Several people disappeared after they finished the test until later that after (likely didn’t pass the first test). After a lunch break until 1pm, we dove into 5 hours of PKI + 2 hours of PKI labs. Which is about where we picked up on in Day 2, 300 level PKI information for about 9+ hours.

The rest of week 2 involved getting more in depth instruction on FRS (did you know there’s a 3 second delay from the time a file change is written in the NTFS Change log to when NTFRS starts work to replicate the change?), DFS-N (emphasis on differences between domain & computer namespaces), DFS-R (Yes, the migration from FRS SYSVOL to DFS-R SYSVOL is straightforward and you can skip to stage 3 -You Shouldn’t-, but what REALLY happens during this process?), Group Policy (yes, Group Policy is stored in 2 different places, but how and why?), disaster planning, and new AD features starting with Windows Server 2008 & 2008 R2.

This is an incredible learning experience. It is obvious why there are only a handful  of people pass each rotation. There is so much deep technical information compressed in a short amount of time. This is mainly because as Masters, we were all expected to know most of the information. The program is meant to refresh and enhance existing knowledge as well as to ensure deeper comprehension of relevant technology areas. In week 1, we jumped from updating the schema, to indexing attributes, to updating AD using LDP.exe (LDAP tool), to searching AD using LDP, to triggering tasks on FSMOs and DC/GCs using a LDAP modify request, to tracking authentication using NetMon, to … Lots of really great stuff. Did I know much of the information? Sure. Did I know all of it? No way. Certainly not the way it was packaged and presented. The Master class alone is well worth the price of admission.

Here was my schedule for Week 1 (aka time at Building 40):

  • Monday: 07:00 – 21:30 (1 hour for lunch) (18:00 on: performing labs & reviewing/updating notes)
  • Tuesday: 06:15 – 21:30 (1 hour for lunch) (18:30 on: performing labs & reviewing/updating notes)
  • Wednesday: 06:00 – 21:00 (1 hour for lunch) (17:30 on: performing labs & reviewing/updating notes)
  • Thursday: 06:30 – 20:30 (1 hour for lunch) (17:30 on: performing labs & reviewing/updating notes)
  • Friday: 06:30 – 19:00 (1 hour for lunch) + (17:00 on:  performing labs & reviewing/updating notes)
  • Saturday: 07:00 – 16:30 (1 hour for lunch) (13:00 on: performing labs). Study from about 1800 – 2300.

Daily sessions ran from 08:00 until around 17:00 – 18:00.

After the daily sessions there were several optional practice labs that didn’t walk you through how to do things. The lab would have some items with an objective and maybe some hints.

Sunday, I studied from 11:00am – 5pm and then joined 8 of my fellow candidates in a 4 hour review of the material from the past week from 6pm – 10pm.

NOTE: These practice labs are not the cert lab. Doing all these labs guarantees nothing except better comprehension of the material covered in the slides and by the instructor.

My study area in the hotel room:

During Week 1, we covered the following in depth topics:

  • Core AD stuff
  • The Active Directory Database (ESE)
  • AD Replication
  • Client Interactions (aka DC Locator)
  • Read-Only Domain Controllers
  • Authentication (NTLM, Kerberos, etc)
  • Domain Trusts
  • Lightweight Directory Services aka ADAM

Week 2:

  • Sunday: Study day (1100 – 1700, then study group from 1800 – 2200)
  • Monday: 1st Knowledge test (0800 – 1030), Lunch until 1pm, then PKI from 13:00 – 18:00, then PKI labs until 20:00
  • Tuesday: more PKI 0800 – 1800 then labs until 20:00
  • Wednesday: 08:00 – 16:00 then labs until 17:30  – Study from 18:30 – 00:00
  • Thursday: 0800 – 1800  – Study from 19:00 – 01:00
  • Friday: 0800 – 1800, then labs until 1900  – Study from 20:00 – 02:00
  • Saturday: 2nd Knowledge test (0900 – 1130), Lunch, then work on re-doing the labs in preparation for the Certification Lab (13:30 – 17:00). Rest & Relax.
  • Sunday: 09:00 – 18:00 Certification Lab Test

Daily sessions ran from 08:00 until around 17:00 – 18:00.

During Week 2, we covered the following in depth topics:

  • PKI
  • FRS
  • DFSN
  • DFSR
  • Group Policy
  • Backup & Disaster Recovery
  • “Small topics” = AD recycle bin, fine-grained password policies, Managed Service accounts, etc

Snacks, Day 2:

Snacks, Day 12:

Definitely not enough of the good stuff to last the 2 weeks!  🙂

The Knowledge Tests:
My time was filled with 10+ hour days of classroom instruction (at 300 & 400 level) and computer lab work which I followed with hours of studying. Every day, I copied down the information from the slides into my 5 subject college notebook as well as key insights from the instructors. I have found in the past that writing notes and especially re-writing my notes greatly improves my comprehension as well as material retention. During week 2, I typed my hand-written notes into OneNote hoping to have some useful information to help me pass the Certification Lab and improve knowledge retention.

There were 2 computer-based knowledge tests (~ 50 questions, 2.5 hours each) which involved extremely difficult multiple-choice questions (several elements in the question combined in certain ways could change the correct answer from A to C or B to D – sometimes it was a single word that changed the answer).

My strategy while at the MCM Program was to focus on 1 test at a time. I wanted as much positive momentum as possible, gaining confident as I progressed. I figured that retaining as much knowledge as possible would be beneficial during the Cert Lab.

The first knowledge test, on Monday, 2/13, had ~ 70% pass rate in our “rotation” of 23 people, 15 of which were Senior Microsoft Premier Field Engineers and 8 were “external” (non-Microsoft).

The second knowledge test was just days later on Saturday, Feb 18th. The pass rate for that one seemed to improve slightly although some who passed the first test failed the second one. The questions were similar to the first one, but like Manny, our instructor from the last day said, “The test is easier, but more difficult.” The test material wasn’t as deep, but was tougher since week 1 is more core AD topics, while week 2 covers the more peripheral topics.
After a short lunch break, it was time to study for the Certification Lab Test.

Certification Lab Prep:
I questioned Ryan as much as I could to get information about the dreaded cert lab.
He had the following advice:

  • Take Breaks
  • Don’t get stuck on one item (ie. Take more than an hour working something)
  • You will get frustrated/angry/whatever, walk away from it and/or move on to another item.
  • Scripts aren’t allowed. They aren’t necessary (Sean’s note: they really aren’t)
  • You will not know the passing score, like the other tests, this is Pass/Fail.
  • There are no bonus points for finding a unique way of performing a certain step and
  • There are no bonus points for doing things not required by the scenario.
  • Get plenty of sleep the night before
  • If you don’t know it by now, you won’t know it for tomorrow.

Based on this I formulated my plan for the cert lab:

  • Stop studying by 7pm the night before.
  • Get a full night’s sleep the night before
  • Stay relaxed the entire time. Don’t stress & don’t sweat it.
  • Enjoy the experience.
  • Approach it like a game. If you don’t pass, you retake it in 3 months. No big deal (This is what I told myself. I didn’t believe it then and still don’t).
  • Do as much as you can.
  • Do what you know first. Work on the others later.
  • Keep track of all changes you make.
  • Keep track of the time.
  • Don’t get burned out
  • Identify dependencies and work them first.
  • Prepare for a worst case scenario: the cert lab environment is trashed and needs lots of work.

Sunday, Feburary 19 – The Cert Lab

There was a lot of work to be done in 9 hours and was likely possible, but several items required additional steps to fix them. We were each handed an envelope containing a 6-page detailed scenario involving a list of tasks that need to be done in the 8 hours (+ 1 hour for “lunch” and breaks I never took). Each task took at least 5 steps, though most were 20+ steps to complete normally. In this environment, there were at least 10 additional steps required, and frequently more like 20+, to even get to where you could start on what you wanted to do. Each task included a clear objective and I could usually identify the necessary steps involved in completing the objective as well as about how long it would normally take (the additional work came out of nowhere).

Was it tough?

I don’t feel that it was as technically challenging (though NOT even close to easy) as it was overwhelming (certainly after the extremely difficult & tricky knowledge tests).  Sure, there was a LOT of different things you had to know in order to start at step 1, but after passing both knowledge tests, that wasn’t as difficult. You got one thing done to see another item that needed fixing. Or, just when you thought you were done, something else popped up.

One guy turned in his test scenario and walked out after 3 hours effectively giving up. At noon.
It was not easy.

I followed my game plan of relaxing and taking it all in stride. I had a full night’s sleep and was well rested when I arrived.

I planned the first hour to put together my plan of attack and only used about 30 minutes for plan & prep before starting. I identified the most valuable tasks and planned to work on them first, leaving the low value targets for about the halfway mark.  At first, the entire list of tasks seemed impossible to do in the time given and just when I was starting to feel overwhelmed, I dove in headfirst, not coming back up for air, or a break, for several hours. We were given an idea of how each component was weighted, so we could focus on the areas that were valued more highly.. I grabbed a stack of paper before we started and dedicated a sheet to each task I worked on. At one point, I had 4 sheets in front of me tracking progress on each.

I started with some of the tougher components (with higher value) and worked through them over the next 4 hours. The, I knocked out a couple of the easier items to build confidence (and feel like I was making progress). After that, I balanced between tougher and easier.  I didn’t leave my desk until about 11:30am (bathroom break) and jumped right back in. At about 1pm, I noticed there was food on my way back from my 2nd bathroom break and grabbed a turkey sub and sat back down  to continue fixing the broken item of the moment. I took one more bathroom break a couple hours later and before I knew it,  time was up. So, maybe 7 minutes total break-time. I was extremely focused and pumped the whole time. Only at around 5pm did my back start to ache and I starting feeling fatigued.

I made sure I did something in every area of the scenario. In fact with most of the items, I didn’t even get to check if they were configured correctly since I ran out of time. One of the first items I worked on, I went through everything I believe I needed to do and FORGOT about it. A few of them I did a few steps and realized I needed an hour+ for each (I did what I could).  I ran into a bunch of environmental issues that made even some of the simplest tasks take 5 times longer than they should have. The good thing was, I was expecting this. The bad thing was, I wasn’t expecting a simple task to take sooo much extra time. That is why after it was over, I was certain I had failed. I didn’t do as well as I would have liked and didn’t feel very successful.

There were several people who finished or were very close to finishing most of the tasks (and tested them successfully & even took screenshots as proof). Others finished about 50-75% of the tasks (to the best of their knowledge).

I did my best and feel that other than going back in time a bit, there isn’t anything else I could have done.

It was an incredible experience that few even attempt (Ryan said less than 200 people have gone through the MCM DS program) and I am humbled by the knowledge and experience of my fellow MCM candidates.

Ryan took us all out to Magianno’s for dinner. My mind was still spinning from the Cert Lab experience as I’m sure many others were feeling similarly.

I flew home first thing Monday morning and couldn’t help but go over the Cert Lab in my head. I passed both of the knowledge tests which was a tremendous accomplishment. I couldn’t possibly have passed the Cert Lab the first time, right?

Ryan sent an email out late Monday night stating that he finished scoring the Cert Lab (which took him all day) and that we would receive our Knowledge Test #2 scores and the Cert Lab results.

Tuesday I stayed home and tried to guestimate how I did on the Cert Lab. As the day progressed, I started to feel more positively and pretty good about my chances.

Tuesday, February 21st at 9pm, I received an email stating:
“Congratulations! You have earned the Microsoft Certified Master | Windows Server 2008 R2 Directory certification!”

I was stunned, only about 25% of all people who attend the program pass all 3 tests during the 2 weeks and the vast majority of MCMs have only achieved the certification after multiple retakes.

NOW I AM A MICROSOFT CERTIFIED MASTER in Directory Services, 1 of only about 100 in the WORLD!

Random Photos from the trip:

Using a Porsche to transport furniture?

Mossy Tree

NOTE: All the information in this post was accurate as of February 2012. The MCM Program is updated and adjusted regularly, until it’s not…

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