One of the most engaging presenters that I saw on my trip to Redmond last month was Lutz Ziob, General Manager at Microsoft Learning, who dispelled all British preconceptions about German humour and delivered an interesting presentation about how Microsoft views its education programmes.
Having personally re-engaged in the learning process recently and with a number of exams planned for the next few months, now seems like a good time to post something about the direction which Microsoft intends its learning programs to take (including certification).
Lutz Ziob has a strong background in the IT industry – having worked at WordPerfect, Novell and CompTIA (where he introduced the Linux+ certification) prior to joining Microsoft. Starting off by introducing the Microsoft Learning Mission ("Help Microsoft customers and partners realise their full potential by providing them with the necessary knowledge and skills to optimise the adoption and use of Microsoft solutions"), he then went on to add a few analogies of his own:
- If we believe one car-maker’s marketing message, one should be more intelligent, and more attractive to the opposite sex, because they drive an Audi… is that true? Almost certainly not but it does show that to use a product (let alone use it well), it helps to know something about it.
- What about a holiday at Disneyland? Disney may claim that it will transform your life. It may lift your spirits for a period – may even may you think differently about travel, but transform your life? Unlikely. On the other hand, learning a new skill (such as how to use Visual Studio to write computer software) may well have an impact on your career direction and as a consequence your life may be transformed.
- Or, moving back to the motoring analogy, switching to a new car may involve a few minutes of working out where the controls are and generally adjusting to the environment – switching operating systems (e.g. Linux to Windows) is a little more involved.
In short, skills are either a barrier or they can enhance an individual’s (and hence a company’s) overall success.
Microsoft Learning claims to be "Microsoft’s centre of excellence for learning" and offers products in a number of areas including:
- Publishing (Microsoft Press).
- Office specialisation.
- Instructor-led training.
Connected in some way to over 11 million learning engagements annually, Microsoft is instrumental to many in their entry, advancement (or just remaining current) in their chosen career. From Microsoft’s point of view, the goal is to reach as many customers as possible and educate them whilst increasing their satisfaction with Microsoft products (and making money).
I’m in the fortunate position that I get involved with many Microsoft products early in their lifecycle (at least from the point of view of understanding what the product does – even if I no longer spend as much time on the implementation aspects as I once did) and one of my frustrations is that I often attend a pre-release training course but have to wait for a while before the certification exam is available. It was interesting to hear Microsoft Learning’s view on this as their customer readiness program for a new project begins around 12-18 months prior to release. As the product enters beta testing, books and e-learning are generally available, with instructor-led training following once there is sufficient customer demand (generally after product release) and certification at release.
Microsoft uses the term "unified skills domain" as a methodology to integrate assessment, learning, reference and certification products, recognising that the cost in training is not so much the cost of the training itself but the resource cost of the time taken to attend the training – to which I would add that cost of the training itself is still a significant factor. Microsoft’s intention is that books, e-learning and classroom training come together as a whole without repetition and compliment rather than overlap (or even worse – contradict) one another (although it has to be said that the trainers I have spoken to recently are unhappy with the quality of the learning materials being provided recently).
Moving on to focus on Windows Server 2008 certifications, it’s worth noting that nearly 4.5 million certifications have been granted over their 15 year history with 2.2 million unique Microsoft Certified Professionals. What these figures don’t show though is that Microsoft saw certifications peak in the late 1990s and then tail off, although they claim that there has been a resurgence since they added performance-based testing and a new certification framework.
This certification framework sees the replacement of the Microsoft Certified Professional/Systems Administrator/Systems Engineer (MCP-MCSA-MCSE) progression with a new structure of Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist/IT Professional/Professional Developer/Architect (MCTS/MCITP/MCPD/MCA). Each new qualification has two parts – the credential and the certification (e.g. Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist: Business Desktop Deployment with the BDD). Most notably: the MCTS is retired with the associated technology; MCITP, MCPD and MCA require re-certification for major technology changes; and the MCA qualification is Microsoft’s high watermark certification that requires proven ability to deliver business solutions, including an interview board with and is broader in scope than Microsoft’s technology looking at wider IT industry issues.
I’m somewhat skeptical about the program as my first-hand experience indicates that some (not all) of the exams represent little more than a piece of paper to indicate that a set of questions was correctly answered – questions that in one recent case were available for purchase on the Internet in the form of a practice exam! By contrast, Red Hat certification (even at the lowest level) involves correctly configuring a real (not simulated) system. Microsoft’s architect qualification attempts to address this but is only expected to be attained by a few select individuals and so I was interested to see what Microsoft is planning for the MCTS/MCITP certifications for Windows Server 2008 certifications.
Lutz Ziob explained that, for Windows Server 2008, there are five distinct certifications, three technology-specific and two job-role specific:
- Networking Infrastructure Configuration.
- Active Directory Configuration.
- Application Infrastructure Configuration.
- Server Administrator.
- Enterprise Administrator.
As for previous MCSE upgrades, there are upgrade exams (70-648/70-649) – but only from Windows Server 2003 (the skills gap from Windows 2000 is viewed as too large – I’d better update my MCSE by taking exams 70-292/70-296 before they are retired at the end of March 2008).
And when responding to comment that Microsoft certifications are sometimes too easy to obtain and that experience is what counts, he responded with another analogy – would you rather take a long-haul flight fly with a pilot who is certified to fly a Boeing 747 (for example), or one with many years experience but who has only flown smaller aircraft? This is equally applicable for a doctor, nurse, lawyer, electrician, architect, structural engineer, etc. so why should IT be any different – why not insist on experience and certification? I have to admit that I take his point and he positively encouraged the journalists and bloggers in the audience to quote him on saying:
"Certification programs do not replace experience"
[Lutz Ziob, General Manager, Microsoft Learning]
"Experience in itself doesn’t guarantee that someone knows what they need to know"
[Lutz Ziob, General Manager, Microsoft Learning]
So where is Microsoft heading in respect to improving the learning experience? New initiatives in what Microsoft refers to as the learning plus services model include:
- Performance based testing: the main complexity here is the need to simulate incorrect configurations too and so here are some limitations; however Windows Server 2008 certification makes use of virtualisation technology to allow the monitoring of what a candidate is doing – working in a "real" situation on a "real" system.
- Virtual classrooms: Microsoft Official Distance Learning (MODL).
- Re-inventing the classroom experience: moving away from an instructor leading a roomful of passive students – trying to bring online services into classroom so that the trainer becomes a coach with the ability to adjust materials on the fly (e.g. add/remove modules).
- Ability to provide documentation in both printed and soft (e-book) formats (however when asked for assurance that Microsoft Press would not completely abandon printed books, Ziob replied that there are no plans to phase out printed books).
For anyone considering learning about Windows Server 2008, more information is available at the Windows Server 2008 learning portal.