The actions of Microsoft Learning extends over certifications taken by millions of people. To find out what it does and the latest on certifications, Gary Flood spoke to Chris Pirie, general manager, global sales and marketing at Microsoft Learning, based at Microsoft's global HQ campus near Seattle.

IT Training: How do you fit into Microsoft?

Chris Pirie: I report to Lutz Ziob who is the overall global manager of Microsoft Learning [see article on Lutz and changes he is spearheading in Microsoft Learning]. I am responsible for the revenue aspect of the business, meeting the quite rightly very high expectations people have in terms of quality of our educational material and also getting the message out to people about what Microsoft is doing for both customers and partners around education.

ITT: What is Microsoft Learning?

CP: Our job is to ensure that lack of skills is never going to be a barrier to the adoption of Microsoft technology. We have three audiences for this. One is the information worker, the professional person using Microsoft applications like Word or Excel in their daily jobs.

The second is what we call the IT professional; this covers people with jobs like database administrator, network administrator or manager, desktop support specialist - the people who manage the It infrastructure we all rely on a daily basis.

The third is what we call the developer community, an extremely important group to us, as these are the people who need to develop and extend applications based on Microsoft platforms like .NET, and this last group tends to be the audience most interested in the Microsoft certification story.

ITT: So how does Microsoft Learning cater to these three groups?

CP: One way we get the job done is by leveraging the Microsoft 'DNA'. We have around 1,500 training partner providers for a start, worldwide, or Microsoft Learning Solution Providers as we call them, and around one million classroom seats will be filled this year via such partners for people using our training materials.

An important element here is our global community of MCTs, Microsoft Certified Trainers, of which there are 15,000 experts out there qualified to teach about our products now.

Then there is Microsoft Learning as an organisation itself, which has four different business lines: Microsoft Press, the traditional classroom based training business, e-learning and digital education and the certification programme.

Microsoft Press and the e-learning components are very much geared to the self-study approach; at least 3.5 million people have by now bought a Microsoft Press book to help them, for instance.

But it's unquestionably certification which is the sharp, pointy end of what we do - if for no other reason than a Microsoft Certified individual becomes one of our best customers. They are loyal to us, great early adopters of our technology and are very efficient and demanding users of our technology and assets.

ITT: We've heard a lot about 'community' around all this and it's a word you've used yourself a couple of times now - can you explain what it means here?

CP: Community is a really exciting and core phenomenon here. When you educate someone - anyone, about anything - you by accident almost create a community, even in the smallest classroom. Our classroom, our community, is a bit bigger. Our and industry estimates suggest there are 30.7 million of what we call IT professionals and developers on the planet and we have, over time, certified about only 4 million of those, so this is definitely a market that is far from being exhausted yet.

In any case, we spent some time surveying that subset of people about why they had got certified and what they get out of it. We found three things that really focused our thinking.

One, people want relevance from certification. It has to be useful to prove their relevance in the workplace and the wider marketplace and so it has to be a real test of real skills that employers value.

Two, they really respond to the idea of certification as part of a journey, that it maps on to career and your progress in it and through it. It's a way to mark progress from when you start as a desktop support technician, say.

But three came back loud and clear as community. One of the key desired benefits about being in the certification programme is this aspect, where they can feel part of something bigger and it's a huge driver for people's engagement.

In one sense, having a Microsoft certification on a resume means you have a little piece of the overall Microsoft brand that's now yours, and that's great. But just as valuable to our certified people is feeling part of a community, where you can go to solve problems, find appropriate information and individuals, generally use it to help you in your career.

Totally spontaneously, nothing to do with us, we've seen things like clubs of Microsoft certified professionals banding together for discussion and networking in major Russian cities, for instance. So the community of people we have helped train is vital.

ITT: But still to some extent controlled by you surely?

CP: People have this idea that our exams and material is dreamed up by a bunch of people with grey hair here [at Redmond, Microsoft's global headquarters]. I think they'd be surprised at the reality. When we sit down to create a syllabus or write a new exam we bring in practitioners from the field itself, usually hundreds of them, in order to get the best and most relevant questions.

Microsoft Learning involves a lot of the real world and a lot of the certified community to do its job, let me tell you.

ITT: On that note, where are you guys with the 'new' or 'next' generation of certifications, the whole post-MCSE idea?

CP: Those aren't really the formal names for what we've been doing, but OK. We knew that the MCSE wasn't working any more as it was too monolithic, not mapping specific job roles and technology and so on, so we started changing it around the time of the 2005 set of technology releases, starting specifically I think with that year's release of SQL Server.

People have been tending to shift to the new exams pretty much as we had expected them to. The biggest switch to the new format has been in the developer community; 76 per cent of all exams relevant to this group were in the new format last year [Editor's note: when Microsoft people - and its enterprise customers - talk about 'year', they tend not to mean the regular calendar year but the company's fiscal year, which runs from July to July].

As we had predicted, it's been a bit slower in the IT professional track, where 23 per cent are doing exams in the newer model, which is slower but still double on what it was the previous [Microsoft fiscal] year.

A Microsoft exam in any case tends to have a three to four year 'shelf life,' so the older formats will be pretty much gone any way, well, if not by this summer I'd say by 2011 for definite; they may be the majority end of this year [i.e. end June 2009]. At the same time, I have to tell you that the biggest search term that leads someone to the Microsoft [Learning] home page is still 'MCSE'.

ITT: Do you feel the issue, the paper tiger maybe, of things like MCSE exams and other IT qualifications being a bit meaningless has gone away - the idea that they are just 'brain dumps'?

CP: Well, that may have been true at one time but today these are just simply not easy exams. There are a number of things our exam writers can do - and do - to make sure they are real tests of analytical, not just memory skills, and we are leveraging a lot of virtualisation technology to do things like get people to work with real technology: can you put this machine in state x, or can't you?

Next month: In part two of this interview, Chris airs his view on certification, and outlines Microsoft Learning's approach to upcoming technologies, such as Windows 7 and cloud computing.