Industry Leader Q&A: Brent Ozar Becomes Certified Master for SQL Server 2008

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Brent Ozar achieved SQL Server 2008 Master status earlier this year, becoming the fifth person in the U.S. outside of Microsoft to achieve the company's highest technical certification. A Quest Software SQL Server expert at the time, Ozar has since joined, a provider of training and consulting focused on Microsoft SQL Server, as a principal consulting partner.  In this issue, he provides an arcane gliimpse into the intense 3-week-long onsite program that include the most difficult exams he had ever seen.

Congratulations on your achievement. And, nice job on the blog chronicling the process. It reminded me of Scott Turow's memoir "One L" about his first year at Harvard Law School - in the sense that it's a peek into an experience shared only by an elite few.
Ozar: That is exactly what it was like. Just unbelievable - an absolute once-in-a-lifetime experience. I was convinced that I was going to be underqualified.  I thought that whoever goes through this program must be some kind of demigod. But I got there and found that they are all real people who had the same kind of experience that I had, and we all struggled together.  It was very fulfilling.

How many people were going through it with you at the same time?
I want to say there were 12 of us in my rotation, the majority of which were actually Microsoft employees. If I remember right, there were five of us who were from outside Microsoft - a combination of consultants and people who work for large companies like Quest Software.

You were writing about the experience while going through it.
Ozar: Writing a blog about this as I was going through it was such a huge gamble on my part - putting myself out in front of people and saying I might not pass this. I blogged the whole time through. Every day I posted something about what the experience was like as well as my preparation up through the program. I really wanted people to feel what it was like going through the program to encourage people to take that step.

How did you first get the idea of doing this?
Ozar: An architect at Quest, Douglas Chrystall, actually approached me and said, hey, they've got this elite program for Microsoft people - would this be something that you would be interested in. We do so much work with technology - with SharePoint, SQL Server, Windows, Active Directory - that the more advanced knowledge that we have in the company, the better products we can build. The more training we have in-house, the better off we are. So Douglas approached me and asked - and wow, why would I not? I didn't think I was going to pass. The program has an abysmal pass rate at the moment, but it was one of hose things I thought I should try as a-once-in-a-lifetime experience.

In order to get certified on newer releases, you won't have to go through the same process, just take a refresher course and a test?
Ozar: Yes, thank goodness. Your certification is good for life on that product - SQL Server 2008 and 2008 r2, which makes sense because there are still a lot of people deploying SQL Server from 10 years ago. But if you want to up your certification to the next version of SQL Server, you have to do another 6-hour lab.

What was that lab like?
Ozar: The lab was the most intensive experience I have ever had in IT in my life. I've had CIOs and CTOs behind me tapping my shoulder and asking me when the server is going to be back up or how fast can we make something happen with no money - and this 6-hour lab was definitely the toughest experience that I have ever had.

You knew the process was going to be hard - was there anything that surprised you?
Ozar: Usually, when you go to training events or conferences, there is this nice, easing-in period - the first 10% of the time is spent on the 101 level to get you up to speed because not everyone can be a the same level of qualifications - and the MCM program was not about babying you to get you up to speed. If you didn't already have, say, a decade of SQL Server experience you were going to be in a world of hurt - and we had students who were in a world of hurt. They jump straight in from the very first day. You get a half an hour of housekeeping information about where the bathrooms are and when lunch is going to be and then it is level 400, level 500 for 3 weeks straight. It is just this non-stop gusher. The first 3 days, it is exciting to learn these new things but by the middle of the second week you are just going, if it is not on the test can we just skip it?

Describe the schedule.
Ozar: You do have weekends off in that you don't have class but you have your exams first thing on Monday morning so you really have to cram and study quiz questions with each other the entire weekend. There were people who tried to fly home on the weekends and they did not succeed in passing the certification.  For your final exam at the end of the third week, on Saturday morning you have one written exam that you have to pass, and then you have the 6-hour lab after that. So it is certainly not a "go see Seattle weekend" kind of thing.

Tell me about the testing.
Ozar: You have one written test after every week which is pretty much the same format as the MCIP test - the regular Microsoft certification test. They are multiple choice, pretty straight-forward and you are either right or you are wrong. And then your final lab, the fourth piece of the testing process, is a 6-hour lab where you are given a set of requirements with things that you have to do and you have the lab in which to accomplish them - and the timer starts now. It is open book, you can bring any notes or scripts that you have, but it is up to you to build out everything that has to be built in the 6-hour time span. It was funny looking at the list of things that I had to do. There was a long laundry list of things and I could have picked any one of them and said to a project manager, this is going to be 40 hours' worth of work for me to do it right and get it tested. It was all killer, no filler.

How was the camaraderie among the participants?
Ozar: There were really two kinds of people. There were the kind of people who did group studies and amongst those people, myself included, it was like we had gone through war together. I know these guys very well now. I know which ones react to stress well, which don't, which ones I would call. And then there were ones that didn't interact and studied on their own, and even then, I know those folks really well based off of the experience we had together, but the camaraderie of the people who did the studying together over the weekends was just amazing.

Now that you have completed the certification, how will you put it to work?
Ozar: There are so few MCMs, and it is now actually down to four that don't work for Microsoft because one who was in my rotation ended up going to work for Microsoft. There are so few of us, and all of us are so committed to helping the community, and answering questions. The kinds of people who get this certification are really in it because they are wildly passionate about SQL Server, so any time you get a chance as a community member to interact with an MCM - go do it, bring your questions, talk to them about their experiences.

Interview conducted and edited by Joyce Wells. A condensed version of this article appeared in the September Database Trends and Applications print edition.