The launch of Windows 7 brings not only a new operating system, but also new training and certification opportunities. Gary Flood takes a look at the new market.

According to IDC, by the end of 2010 around seven million IT professionals globally will be working in one way or another with Microsoft Windows 7, the latest iteration of the core Microsoft desktop operating system, launched with much fanfare and slick marketing last October. Great news for Microsoft's investors, one might say: what's in it for the IT professional themselves?

Ground for scepticism preventing one from dancing the Macarena about Windows 7 is of course the ongoing economic recession and a tough employment market in IT. Is there really enough market drive in Windows 7 to make it worthwhile to get trained - let alone certified - in the technology?

You won't be surprised to learn Microsoft very much thinks so. 'The general consensus from the market is that we've got this one right,' says Chris Pirie, General Manager of Worldwide Marketing and Sales for Microsoft Learning, the company's global education and training arm, based at Microsoft HQ in Seattle.

'According to IDC, 20 per cent of the entire global IT workforce will be using Windows 7 by the end of 2010, with it being used on a wide variety of devices, from desktops to thin clients to mobile devices and beyond. Windows 7 will be used by a customer base from schoolkids to consumers to small to the largest enterprises. And many organisations will be migrating to it, some from Vista, but of course many from XP - great market momentum is what we are seeing around its take-up.'

Pirie and his team have put significant investment into a range of training packages for the IT professional (as well as the home user/consumer) to support Windows 7 adoption. They have launched, for instance, the so-called Career Assist package, available through Microsoft’s 1,500 strong roster of Microsoft CPLS (Certified Partners for Learning Solutions, i.e. training providers it works with to deliver training on its product set). This is a special offer - running only until June - which includes instructor-led training, a certification exam voucher and a fully-licensed copy of Windows 7 Ultimate.

Professional development

Microsoft has meanwhile also unveiled its Career Campaign, which provides guidance, career paths, special offers and certifications for common IT job roles performed using its software. Through customisable learning plans and special offers, it says, IT professionals can train to get certified on Windows Server, Windows client technologies, Microsoft Exchange Server and Microsoft SQL Server. The aim is to help individuals 'chart their course from their current skill level to their desired job role and skill level, from beginner through experts,' with a range of time-limited and changing special offers to help you meet your career goals.

First-hand experience

So does Windows 7 training work? Jay Ferron, an IT professional, Microsoft Most Valuable Professional and a member of the STEP programme (for Springboard Series Technical Expert Panel, a community that was built up by Microsoft around Windows 7 to drive awareness of its value), notes: 'I am very happy with not just the content but the structure these days of the Microsoft certification story.

'When the MCSE [Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer] was abolished a couple of years ago there was a lot of moaning, but the problem with the MCSE was that it was too general,’ explains Jay, who’s also a MCITP (Microsoft Certified IT Professional) Consumer Support Technician and a MCITP Enterprise Support Technician in Windows 7 and has worked with a number of the US' top corporations and written books on Microsoft technologies, plus is very active in the Microsoft Certified Professional community. ‘I don't want to sit through a five-day course on something if only two hours of it is relevant to my job and that's what was missing from Microsoft training before - it wasn't job-role specific. I am glad to see that's finally changed.'

Jay is happier these days, he says, to 'take this course and that exam, or send my team on them' to achieve specific qualifications that he feels demonstrate real competence in the actual jobs people need to be hired for. 'That to me means the piece of paper I get at the end is valid and shows I can do something real.'

And did the content for Windows 7 do that? 'The training for 7 is pretty much close on,' he thinks. 'If you do the course I think you will pass the test at the end and you can really get a sense of the power of the OS this way, too.'

From XP to Windows 7

Germany-based Rolf Masuch, a MCTS (Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist) in Configuration of Windows 7 and an MCITP in Enterprise Desktop Administration, with credits towards becoming an MCITP in Enterprise Desktop Support Technician for 7, seems to be equally happy with the product. 'I like the new OS very much. I think it will gain good market share and though I liked Vista too, using it you just do start to feel that 7 is better. I think there's a genuine hunger for this out there too and so adoption will be strong and there will be a big replacement market.'

In terms of the Windows 7 education material, Rolf, who is Product Manager for IT Services and Consulting at his firm, has some warning for the unwary here.

'I found it quite different - in a good way - from the equivalent in XP or Vista,' he says. 'At first glance it seemed a lot less “technical”. There was much less registry tweaking. It's then that you realise this is a better way to approach things – there is a lot of technical detail once you start drilling down, but you start with a real emphasis on getting the bigger picture and how to configure the OS, very interactively, right from the start. I'd say to IT professionals coming at this for the first time to read the materials very closely to get the most out of them.'

Career opportunities

But is there a real financial incentive to do all that hard work - to make the push to get things like a new job-specific MCITP piece of paper, say? One source to help with the bigger picture is MSEmploy, a training and recruitment portal that launched in the UK last August and links companies in the Microsoft partner network with IT professionals skilled in the technology who are looking for jobs or training (it lists over 2,000 courses available from Microsoft training providers, for instance).

'Certification is key in an economy in decline like ours is at the moment,' says Rick Tolfrey, Partner Engagement Manager at its London office. 'Experience is still very important, of course it is, but we are seeing relevant certs as being of great interest to our audience, who value it as it in turn helps their credibility and accreditation with Microsoft. The message is you absolutely have to invest in training to get on in this market.'

And Windows 7 specifically? 'I see a clear groundswell of interest, with a lot of engineers and MCSEs contacting us already asking about what they have to do to get skilled up. We've also run a couple of information events about it recently that were massively oversubscribed. There is definite interest out there.'

So there does seem to be opportunity around Windows 7 and the chance to get some qualifications that might not just be relevant to the technology for a change - they might help you get a better job. Surely we need to leave the final word on all things training and Windows 7 related to Microsoft itself, in the form of Pirie, who reminds us: 'By joining the five million strong community of certified Microsoft professionals you are proving you know something useful.

'The message in today's market and economy, surely, is that to succeed you need to become a true lifelong learner: and that, let's be frank, no-one is ever going to care so much about your career as you are. We'd like to think we are a close second!'