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On the training track

The director of business and product strategy for Microsoft Learning chats about the current training landscape, and what lies beyond it.

When it comes to technology training, there are heaps of certifications, in specialization areas that range from home networking to wireless to security. But few can match the firepower of the Microsoft Certified System Engineer (MCSE). Every year, thousands of IT professionals go after the certification, and the credential is a must-have for many employers. Recently, Microsoft expanded its training options by launching Microsoft Learning, a division of the company that brings together product resources, event information, skills assessment, and more. Dan Truax, director of business and product strategy for Microsoft Learning, chats about the current training landscape, and what lies beyond it.

Microsoft already had a pretty good corner on the training market with its MCSE. Why did the company feel the need to create Microsoft Learning?

The company already had all of the resources in place, but in different forms. We had training and certification information, and training partners, and event information. About a year ago, Microsoft decided that to bring all this together into a single organization would give customers a total learning experience, rather than just individual products. It’s important to have all these resources together, because now we can address the way that people want to learn, which is through a blend of resources.

How is this education through multiple resources something that’s different than what was done in the past?

I think that historically, people had a preference for how they wanted to learn. They went to classes, or they learned through books, or they did online training. Now, there’s a huge drive toward blending these, and it’s fascinating to see how people are combining resources like instructor-led training and e-learning.

It’s interesting, too, to look at how different groups approach blended learning. For example, individuals that are new to technology tend to gravitate toward classroom-based education, where they can have more hands-on instruction and ask questions. For individuals that are more up to date with technology, they tend to like e-learning and other training that’s self-paced.

Why do you think there’s a transition to blended learning now?

The work force in IT has matured over the last decade, and I think that has a lot to do with it. There are definitely people new to technology, and there always will be, but now we see a growing number of individuals who have all their basic technology skills and just need to expand them, or stay current.

During the dot-com implosion and the subsequent economic malaise, training was one of the areas that got cut at many companies. Do you think it’s starting to see resurgence now that budgets are less lean?

Definitely. I think that companies are shifting to a new mode, and you no longer have these conversations about cutting the training budget. They’ve seen how important technical skills are, and how they’re crucial for making projects successful. So, you don’t see people trying to get by without training now. The conversations are around what’s happening in the business, and what kind of skill gaps exist in companies, and how training can aid in projects and fill those gaps.

How can a company determine where learning is needed, and whether their IT professionals need additional training?

Microsoft Learning can be instrumental for this, because we’ve just launched an organizational assessment tool. We really believe it’s one of the key things we’ll be doing in the next decade, providing this kind of service. With the tool, you can go through an assessment to find out what skill gaps exist and develop a learning plan for each person.

What’s involved in doing an assessment like this? Is it simply making sure that IT is up to date with certifications, or is there more involved?

There’s more involved, because it gives the administrator a way to identify skill gaps for specific roles or projects. Let’s say I’ve been assigned to a team that’s running a project, and I’m supposed to fulfill a role, and have certain responsibilities. For example, I might be the person on the team that’s responsible for designing a technology infrastructure. Once I’m assigned that role, this tool can give me an assessment through an inventory of my skills. It can also show what skill level I have.

Then, based on how I like to learn, it gives me a customized learning plan and recommendations for training. Once I’ve gone through that, there’s a continuous learning cycle put in place to make sure that my skills stay up to date. We’ve just rolled out this assessment feature, and it’s gotten very good feedback, we think it’s going to be very popular.

In terms of training in general, what areas do you see garnering more interest in the near future?

I think there are a couple of trends. For one thing, I think that people who already have a baseline of knowledge are getting deeper into specializations. There are still many people going after the MCSE and the MCSA (Microsoft Certified System Administrator), but there’s momentum in the industry around topics like security and messaging skills. There’s just a major demand for more in-depth training.

If someone was looking for the next big training direction, I’d tell them it’s security. There are specializations for system administrations, and you can become an MCSE with a focus on security. That’s getting a lot of interest right now.

Where do you see Microsoft Learning headed from here?

We’re constantly evolving and making sure that we have the right resources in place, and that we’re finding new ways to deliver training. I see that continuing in the future, especially as blended learning takes off.

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