With the recent release of the Microsoft Certified Master (MCM) Program for Office Communications Server 2007 and as the Program Manager responsible for its launch this year I wanted to provide a little more information about the program, its focus and what you can expect should you attend one of the forthcoming deliveries or ‘rotations’ as they are termed.

Author: Adrian Maclean

Publication date: December 2008

Product version: Office Communications Server 2007 R2

If you follow the activities on the Exchange team blog you may have seen a recent post by Greg Taylor talking about the launch of the MCM Program for Exchange 2007. In this post Greg also gives some good background on the Ranger program in which Master has its roots so I shan’t cover that ground again except to say that with the launch of the MCM Program for OCS 2007 we are creating a training and certification offering for OCS 2007 and OCS 2007 R2 that is fortunate to share the same heritage, goals and high bar that made Ranger the huge success it was.

Who is the program targeted at?

Common to all the Masters series (Exchange, SharePoint, Windows Directory and SQL) the OCS program is not aimed at newcomers to the product. We are targeting those that already have considerable hands on experience with LCS and OCS. This doesn’t mean to say that they have spent time setting environments up in a lab but rather that they have designed and built real world deployments either for their own enterprise or as a consultant for their customers. To help illustrate the sort of experience we are looking for a number of sample applications can be reviewed here. We are targeting the top 1% of the OCS experienced IT Pros so this program really isn’t for everyone.

We appreciate that given the relatively small numbers of deployments of LCS (when compared to products like Exchange) and the short time that OCS has been available the pre-requisites outlined will be challenging to achieve for many but there is method in the madness. By defining some pretty exacting entry requirements I’m trying to ensure your best possible chance of success – so if these requirements put you off applying then the program probably isn’t for you at this time. If however, you feel that you genuinely have what it takes then we’d love to have you sign up.

What do I get for my money?

The first thing that I should announce here is that the first public rotation in March is half price (the January rotation shown on the website is a dry run for the development team, very much an alpha and as such isn’t available externally). That’s right folks – for one time only you get the chance to attend the OCS Master program for half the normal program fee! The rotation in March is a public beta so you can expect that we will still be ironing out some kinks in the program but on the flip side we will still very much be in the program development and review phases and so keen to gather feedback and ideas on how to make the final shape of the program even better.

The next piece of good news is that we are offering the June rotation at a 30% discount off the normal program fee if you apply before February 14th 2009. This amounts to a discount of $5550. See here for more information on the conditions of this offer.

The program is a huge cross group effort within Microsoft and the instruction team that we’re assembling represents some of the very best field, support and product group based knowledge of OCS available today and between them we have developed a comprehensive and technically challenging curriculum that explores the product to an incredible level of detail. There is information here that you just won’t find elsewhere and what is more the individuals delivering the sessions are amongst Microsofts and our Partners most experienced and battle scarred consultants who bring unique, real world perspectives to round out the technical side of the materials. Many of the instructors will be well know to you from their blogging and community efforts.

You’ll get long days of detailed instruction (most days are 8am to 7pm in class), individual and group activities, over 20 hands on activities and a substantial lab environment to enable to you to really drill into scenarios and components that you would either never have the time, infrastructure or teaching support to do otherwise.

Will I learn how to make phones ring?

Up to a point. One of the most important things to understand about the program is that it isn’t all about voice. Voice is of course a core component to the product and as such also to the program and we build on the work that other readiness programs such as Voice Ignite are doing and provide another level of detail to the technology whilst then presenting you with some of the most complex voice designs that the Microsoft field have encountered giving you the opportunity to develop and practice your capabilities on real world designs and in a complex lab environment that includes a complex telephony infrastructure.  Yet our goal remains to cover the breadth of the product recognising that customers deploy OCS in different ways for different reasons. Some want instant messaging and presence whilst others are looking to reduce travel costs by deploying conferencing solutions. To reflect this diversity of requirements we cover all the components and modalities in detail.

So what will I learn?

Here is a quick overview of how the three weeks of training are made up.

In week one we first drill into the dependencies of OCS. As a graduate of the Exchange Ranger program I am a strong believer in fundamentals and dependencies. If you don’t understand the protocols, services and infrastructures upon which your solution depends then you can have little hope of being a credible consultant when deployments run into technical difficulties and require a depth of understanding that enables a root cause to be quickly established and rectified or how to understand how infrastructure dependencies impact design decisions. We move onto IM and presence looking in detail at how the heart of OCS works from both a server and a client perspective. Building on this we then drill into conferencing from both detailed technical and architectural perspectives.

Week two is mainly about voice and all that entails. Some of the most exciting sessions here let you explore real world complex voice designs and really get into what it takes to get design and deploy these. We also look at video and video interoperability with other vendors and then what it takes to design and deploy edge infrastructures.

Bringing it all together in week three we look at broader architecture and operational issues such as high availability, disaster recovery, monitoring and capacity planning.

One final area that I felt strongly about including in the curriculum was application integration. One of the strengths of the Microsoft UC platform are the integration possibilities for existing line of business or newly developed custom applications. Where carefully scoped and executed such integrations can drive considerable returns for our customers and it was with this in mind we have ensured you will learn how to identify and, at a high level, architect solutions based on our range of APIs and development environments. Will we turn you into coders? No – that isn’t the aim but we will make sure you understand the ‘art of the possible’ with the tools at your disposal.

Throw all that together with lots of class discussion, white boarding and hands on time and you’ve got a feel for what you’ll be getting.

One other comment – we cover both OCS 2007 and R2 in the instruction although the focus is primarily on R2.

Despite the structure of the curriculum around you there is only one person that is in charge of your learning ‘experience’ – you. We will provide you with the tools, information, environments and training to become the most highly skilled and qualified OCS consultants on the planet but it is entirely down to you as to how much value you derive from these elements at your disposal. You will get as much from the program as you put in in terms of time, effort, attention and sheer determination. Given that you will also be bringing experience of your own you will also be expected to contribute for the benefit of the group. The rotations typically will include people from around the globe who have each faced different challenges and have different experiences that are valuable to share and so working with each other and as a team will ensure your own best possible chances of success.

How do I get the experience necessary?

You need to have the exams listed on the website on your transcript for starters and you really need to be in a delivery role. By this I mean that you are actively engaged in the design and deployment of OCS infrastructures rather than simply supporting an existing deployment. So if this isn’t you today you will probably not be accepted onto the program as we will ask for a resume that illustrates your real world experience and if you don’t have the experience we won’t accept your application. Again, I’m doing my best here to ensure your best possible chance for success rather than being difficult for the sake of it. Getting into programs such as Voice and OCS ignite will certainly help but real hands on experience is key. Also, don’t send me a fictitious resume – if you make it into the program and fail you’ve wasted a lot of your time and money. I really don’t want anyone to be in that position.

What about that Voice Specialisation Exam?

This exam (88-924) is due to be re-released in January 2009. You will need to take and pass this exam as a pre-requisite of attendance for the June 2009 (RTM) rotation. Due to the timing of this exam only being available in January we will not be enforcing it as a pre-requisite for attendance in the March (public beta) rotation.

How will I benefit?
Here I’m going to call out some of the same things that Greg mentioned in his Exchange blog

Training
You are going to get three weeks of the best training on OCS available. Period. That does count for a hell of a lot and will help you build your credibility as a true subject matter expert.

Recognition
You will have a recognised certification which demonstrates that you’ve been trained, tested and found to meet or exceed a bar that ensures you are the best out there. Others can say they’re the best, and who knows they might be, but you’ve got a cert to prove it.

Community
Despite the OCS MCM program being new to the Masters series we already have an awesome and growing community that spans our instructors, the MS field, the UC Product Group and the support side of the organisation. For me this is probably the most critical component of Ranger that we are bringing to Master. The strength of the community of certified individuals and handpicked MS and Partner experts has a unique value all of its own. I’ve seen the Ranger community have a hugely positive impact on Exchange as a product over the years. It is my goal that the OCS Master should do the same for OCS.

Continued Education
In line with the other Masters programs we will have a number of annual training events to enable you to keep up with the latest and greatest. We will also feature sessions with the PMs and others that can bring specific knowledge to bear on different subjects.

What are the tests?

There are four. Three are written and one is lab based. You have to pass all of them to certify.

What if I fail?

Good question – given the depth and breadth of skills required to pass it is entirely possible you will fail the program at the first attempt. If that happens we will work with you to help you understand your weaknesses so that you can work on those and provide mechanisms for retakes of the exams and lab.

Once I’m a Master what’s next?

Wow – you’re keen. Becoming a Master in OCS is a pre-requisite to the forthcoming Microsoft Certified Architect in Office Communications Server 2007 certification. I don’t have a date for you right now on when we’ll be bringing this program on stream but it will most likely be the first half of 2009. I’ll post more information once it’s available.

How will the program evolve?

As we head towards Wave 14 we will be building an upgrade path for Masters that certify on OCS 2007/R2 to enable them keep their certification up to date. I will also be working with the growing Masters community to drive value back into the product and the wider IT Pro community by authoring blog posts based on the lab work and personal assignments they complete during the rotations.

Where do I sign up?

We have seats available in the March and June rotations so if you think ‘It’s time to be a Master’ then sign up here. If you have questions about the program please mail me directly – admac at you-know-where and I’ll do my best to answer them.

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