MCAP stands for Microsoft Certified Architect Program, a program Microsoft has devised in order to identify top industry experts in IT Architecture. These recognized professionals must have 10 or more years of experience, possess strong technical and leadership skills and form an elite community.
Unlike other IT certifications, this credential was built and is granted by industry architects, as candidates must pass a rigorous review board with previously certified architects. The certification itself will involve no written tests (unlike the current MS certifications which rely primarily and absolutely on written exams). Rather, candidates must demonstrate their skills and knowledge by creating architectures that solve complex business problems and then present their solutions to a board of their peer architects.
This certification is targeted to practicing solutions architects and infrastructure architects who have successfully applied frameworks and methodologies to create an architecture that serves the entire IT lifecycle. These architects can employ multiple technologies to solve business problems and provide business metrics and measurements to describe the success or failure of the projects they drive. A candidate for the program will have to have a broad-based knowledge that extends well beyond Microsoft technologies. It is expected that only about a quarter of the emphasis of a candidate’s knowledge will be on Microsoft-related architecture technologies; the rest will relate to general architecture principles and best practices that aren’t Microsoft specific. In addition, the non-technical skills domain that candidates will face throughout the process will be broad, including such knowledge areas as project management, decision-making, strategic thinking, and oral and verbal communication.
Microsoft officials say that the new certification has already received the thumbs-up from some of the IT industry’s most influential veterans.
The Microsoft Certified Architect Program is currently in its beta stage and is conducting initial board reviews with recognized industry architects. No cost or time estimates are available at this time, however the program is scheduled to initialize at the beginning of 2006. It is expected that the time to complete the program will range from 6 to 12 months but the final timeframes are still being defined.
Infrastructure Architects – Infrastructure architects use the specifications provided by the enterprise architect to create an infrastructure that support the needs of the business. They provide input to the solutions architect with the constraints and tradeoffs needed to create a viable solution. They analyze business problems and create feasible infrastructure architectures, not necessarily based on a single technology or vendor. They specify the technology, and work closely with the engineers to ensure proper implementation. They have technological knowledge and are able to research and specify a viable infrastructure. They have a wide breadth of knowledge and skills, with pockets of deep knowledge, and typically keep their depth of knowledge current. They have the skills to present the information to different groups with different technical and business levels. Infrastructure architects are able to participate in the development of a business case and provide business justification. They are able to discuss why an infrastructure solution is selected and how it will be implemented. In addition to having the skills of an engineer, an infrastructure architect creates an integrated enterprise solution. They use their broad set of skills to create a solution that provides interoperability and efficiency, and a cohesive infrastructure.
Solutions Architects – Solutions architects use the specifications provided by the enterprise architect to create/design a viable solution that considers and leverages existing infrastructure and intellectual property to support the corporate business needs. They analyze business problems and develop feasible solutions that are collaborative, and in many cases not based on a single technology or vendor. Solutions architects have sufficient technical knowledge to research and specify a solution that will solve a business problem. They have a wide breadth of knowledge and skills, with pockets of deep knowledge. They have the skills to present the information to different groups with varying levels of technical and business skills. Solutions architects participate in the development of a business case and provide business justification. They are able to discuss why a solution was used and how it will be implemented. They also collaborate with business managers and technical developers and engineers to build consensus around the architectural solution. In addition to having the skills of an applications architect, solutions architects have the skills to present the business solutions, extended verbal and written skills, and the ability to create integrated enterprise solutions. They use their integration skills and broader set of skills to create a solution that provides interoperability and efficiency between applications. Disciplines not covered by the initial release of the Microsoft Certified Architect Program are: enterprise architects (defined as being the next level above infrastructure and solution architects), academic architects and new architects (track record of at least 10 years of project involvement and success required).
During its beta phase, applications to the program are only being received through trusted referrals. The program is expected to be opened publicly in the first half of 2006 when a non-referral application process will be made available to experienced architects.
The certification process has 8 steps:
- The Microsoft Certified Architect candidate is expected to have at least 10 years of verifiable experience as a practicing architect prior to applying for the program.
- The candidate applies for acceptance into the program by:
- Contacting Microsoft directly (via the Microsoft.com web site) during an open enrollment period.
- Being referred by his or her employer.
- Being referred by an existing Microsoft Certified Architect or Microsoft Certified Architect Review Board member.
- The candidate’s application is screened for the necessary work experience.
- Upon verification of experience, the candidate is accepted into the program and assigned a program mentor. The role of the mentor is to help foster their success through the program’s rigorous certification process. All program mentors will have already completed the certification process. Mentors will come from Microsoft as well as externally chosen sources.
- In addition to a program mentor, the candidate is given access to a library of self-paced technical and non-technical content to assist them in the preparation of their solution.
- The candidate submits his or her solution to the Review Board in preparation for formal presentation to the Board.
- The candidate attends the Review Board Meeting and presents his or her solution to the Review Board members. Upon conclusion of the presentation, the candidate fields a series of questions about his solution and presentation from the Review Board.
- After the formal presentation and a positive vote from the Review Board, the candidate is awarded the Microsoft Certified Architect credential.
Microsoft Certified Architect Review Board
The Microsoft Certified Architect Review Board is composed of four voting members, a moderator, and a recorder. The moderator’s job is to keep the board in schedule and to execute the voting process. The recorder takes notes of the questions asked by the board, the formal votes, and the feedback that the board provides to both successful and unsuccessful candidates.
All board members are required to undergo training before they can judge candidates. The formal nature of the program and the strict adherence to process provides confidence that candidates will be treated equally and quality will be maintained. Today, board members are a mixture of certified architects and senior technologists drawn from Microsoft, partner companies, and customers. Over time, boards will be staffed predominantly by certified architects, also considering the advantage of having personnel such as CIOs, CTOs, or enterprise architects on the board. To maintain continuity and ensure that a consistent standard is maintained, each board has at least one member who has sat on a previous board.
The certification process has documented criteria that the Microsoft Certified Architect Review Board uses to judge candidates:
Leadership: Candidates demonstrate that they develop partnerships with stakeholders across the organization on their projects; that they can mentor others; that they develop and form strong teams; and that they achieve successful results.
Technology Depth: Candidates demonstrate that they have a deep understanding of the concepts and application of at least two core technologies (for example, messaging, storage, Windows, networks, etc.) plus the ability to quickly assimilate information about new technologies.
Technology Breadth: Candidates understand architectural best practices and are able to apply them across a breadth of technologies to orchestrate a solution. They also have views on the future development of a technology and how it might influence current solutions. Finally, they understand the interaction between infrastructure, solution, and enterprise architecture and practices.
Strategy: Candidates demonstrate understanding of enterprise architectural frameworks such as TOGAF and operational frameworks such as ITIL and be able to use these frameworks in their projects. They also understand project management principals and how architects interact with project managers to deliver projects. In addition, they understand the economic dimension of projects and how costs influence the available choices for technology.
Organization Dynamics: Candidates show that they are able to recognize the key stakeholders in a project and that they can work with those stakeholders to drive a project to a successful conclusion. They present the ability to pick the right battles at the right time and then recognize the political landscape that influences a project within an organization and then influence organizational politics for the success of their projects.
Tactical/Process: Candidates demonstrate that they can gather and refine project requirements from both a technical and business perspective. They understand how to effectively prototype and test a solution and also showcase the talent to create effective project artifacts. Lastly, they exhibit the ability to refine project goals and the tactics necessary to achieve those goals as the project develops.
Communication: Candidates show that they maintain well-written and accurate project documentation; they are able to present information on a technical subject in a concise and measured manner; they have the ability to influence others; they have the ability to manage conflicts effectively; and to tailor their communication to the needs of the target audience.
The Microsoft Certified Architect Board Review
The appearance that a candidate makes before the Microsoft Certified Architect Review Board takes two hours with another thirty minutes used for board discussions after the candidate leaves the room. The process is divided into six stages:
- The candidate makes a 30-minute presentation to describe their solution and the board does not interrupt the presentation unless they need to clarify something, such as an acronym that the candidate fails to explain. This presentation is critical because it establishes the tone and pace for the remainder of the session. Successful candidates invariably establish a rapport with the board and convey the security that they are a master of their topic and of their solution. Like a job interview, it is a good practice for candidates to avoid claims that they cannot substantiate and to finish the presentation in the allotted time.
- The board then questions the candidate for 40 minutes. Each board member is allotted 10 minutes to ask questions to determine whether the candidate meets a specific criterion, such as leadership. Board members are encouraged to direct the candidate into areas of technology that they are uncomfortable with. The intention here is to see whether the candidate can think on his or her feet in a stressful situation; has a broad view of technology; and is able to answer questions intelligently and with some confidence when challenged. Questions that are rude or that insult the candidate, his solution, or his company are not tolerated.
- The candidate leaves the room and the board members spend five minutes discussing the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses and identifying areas that need additional investigation.
- The candidate returns for an additional 40 minutes of targeted questioning.
- The candidate is invited to make a closing or summary statement up to 4 minutes in length.
- The candidate leaves the room and the board moves to the voting process.
Many candidates will find the process exhausting because of the extended period of highly intensive interaction during their presentation and the subsequent questioning by the board. However, there is nothing really different here to the stresses and strains that many architects experience when they have to justify their work to senior management.
The Voting Process
Following the second session of questions, the candidate leaves the room and the board takes an initial vote. Each of the board members votes “Pass” or “Fail” to establish a baseline of how the each board member views the candidate. The board then rates the candidate according to each of the seven core competencies. All board members’ opinions are noted and become part of the formal record of the board proceedings.
Once all the ratings against competencies are gathered, the board provides formal feedback to the candidate. The candidate’s strengths are noted but the majority of the time is spent providing specific feedback to the candidate on how he or she can improve the overall solution and presentation. The experience and qualification of the board should provide it with sufficient knowledge to submit feedback and advice that a candidate will find valuable.
The final step is the formal board vote. Normally, this reflects the initial vote taken before the feedback and assessment process, but there are instances where the discussion changes the vote positively or negatively. To pass, a candidate must receive three pass votes from the four voting members.
Approaching the Board
With good preparation and attention to detail, most candidates that are accepted into the program via the rigid program guidelines should be able to approach an Microsoft Certified Architect board with confidence. Microsoft will provide a mentor to every candidate upon acceptance into the program and this should assist candidates in the preparation of their solution for their formal presentation to the board. Preparation is always a key factor in achieving success.
Here are twelve points that candidates can take into account as they prepare for an Microsoft Certified Architect board appearance.
- Select a recent project for the presentation, ideally one in which you had significant leadership responsibility. Be prepared to discuss the challenges that arose in meeting that responsibility, the internal politics, trade-offs that were made, how you communicated with senior customer management and your own management. You are strongly encouraged to eliminate/change/alter anything that is confidential or might be considered as sensitive information by your employer.
- Practice the presentation and make sure that you can make the major points within 30 minutes.
- Include some diagrams to illustrate the logical architecture of the solution plus some details of the solution. For example, details of the Exchange organization, its interaction with Active Directory, connection to the internet, and control of spam and viruses. Be prepared to whiteboard other aspects of the project at sufficient detail to convince the board that you have deep knowledge and understanding of the solution. Have some knowledge of your internal infrastructure, especially the OS, networks, and messaging environments so that you can contrast and compare your solution with other technology deployments.
- Be prepared to discuss TOGAF or other frameworks and how to effectively apply architectural frameworks in projects. Being able to discuss the concept of an Adaptive Enterprise and how to apply these concepts in practice is also an advantage.
- Be prepared to discuss how ITIL can be effectively applied in projects.
- Present your understanding of how to take a project from concept to design to deployment and the different challenges that exist at each phase.
- Do not waffle if you cannot answer a question. Acknowledge that you do not have the answer and move on.
- Have some views on how technology will develop in the future, especially in your own areas of competence and/or expertise, and be able to show how these developments may impact the projects and solutions that you are developing now.
- Be prepared to discuss multiple areas of technology, including some that the board may introduce. You have to be able to show the board that you are not a “one-hit” wonder when it comes to technology and that you possess knowledge across a wide breadth of technologies.
- Be able to show that you have achieved a longstanding and ongoing relationship with customers. Consultants who “hop” between projects to act as trouble shooters or in a pre-sales role are unlikely to be as convincing during discussions about projects.
- It is good to be able to show that you understand the economic impact of projects and technology as a whole. For example, understand how the return on investment is calculated, the difference between capital costs and running costs, and how to make trade-offs to meet project budgets. It is also good to be able to demonstrate awareness of the customer business environment and the dynamics that influence their business.
- Finally, take the time to submit timely, well-prepared documentation to the board. Submit documents that are prepared to the same level as any customer deliverable. Ensure that the documents are clear and concise, spell checked, and formatted appropriately. Apart from these points, candidates who remain calm and measured will prosper during board questioning.
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