Individuals need to spread the message about the value of certification, according to Chris Pirie, general manager, global sales and marketing at Microsoft Learning. He also talked to Gary Flood about trends for next year including Windows 7 and cloud computing.

ITT: What do you see as certification's value? Why, in 2009, are we still debating its relevance? Why is it still a 'minority sport'?

CP: OK, I agree that not everyone is not on board yet and there are definitely things in the way to explain that. I've thought about this a lot and I think we can start tackling the problem from two angles.

The first is the employer point of view. Think about the guy running the IT shop or staffing IT projects. A staggering number, I have to tell you, of people in this category 'get it'. They want to hire or promote or invest in their people, they take a strict return on investment approach and see that certification makes a difference. Just log on to any IT job board and you'll see that - pick a certification, not just one of ours, and the market has started to assign values to it and tie job opportunities and resumé filtering to it.

But then there are definitely employers who don't 'get it,' don't even want to 'get it'. There are a whole set of objections that get aired here, about lack of relevance, about the worry that if you train them they will up and leave and so forth, that it's what the individual has done in past jobs that matters, etc.

This is what I and we as a company have started saying to this group, and it's tied to our messages in some ways around what we call dynamic IT: do you want to carry on doing just 'break/ fix' IT or do you want IT to become seen as a strategic partner?

The IT manager who buys in to this loves the certification story. He sees that he needs to get the talent to make this transition and he sees certification as an investment need. I am simplifying a bit as there is a whole detailed framework behind dynamic IT.

ITT: You say two perspectives, but that seems to be just one, the employer's?

CP: Yes, because while Microsoft has a job to do here, as in fact does the whole IT training and certification industry, there's also a people-ready story here. You can buy all the software on the planet but if you don't have the right people to work with it there's going to be nothing you can do.

It's people, by which I mean the people who themselves benefit from certification as a way to demonstrate the evolution of their skills, who are crucial here. Put very simply, the answer to why certify is that it helps you get better jobs.

ITT: And for that very reason, a manager would say: 'I can't justify spending the money on such people.'

CP: It's an understandable reaction, sure. But if you think about the justification to spend the pounds and the time on training, then in the current climate it just makes better economic sense to invest in your own people - to keep them engaged, active, creative, interested in their own skills sets. It'll cost more to swap them out and hire again.

ITT: Is that a convincing argument?

CP: Well, we could spend a lot of time trying to persuade hiring managers about all this. My personal opinion is that it's going to be the certified individuals who will make their views plain - that they know this is a good thing to do.

ITT: This is where, surely, the certification industry is struggling. Where is the hard data to support that?

CP: Actually, it is beginning to come through. We have both internal and external information that suggests this is a worthwhile investment.

ITT: In the meantime, where is Microsoft on training on new, upcoming technologies like Windows 7 and cloud computing?

CP: We have what we call a 'readiness promise' to the rest of the {Microsoft] business, a kind of service level agreement on when training will be available based on a target of having something ready more or less about the time of the first public beta.

In the case of Windows 7, as a general principle, the people who need to know about it first are the people installing and configuring it, so we have aligned training and exams around helping those people out in the first instance and the whole upgrade plan on these exams is on our website and we are pretty much there.

With cloud computing, well, that is a more complex story as it's more than our technology involved. While we see a lot of value for cloud with the computing power available on the local level and desktop we do as a company see huge potential for computing services and resources being delivered this way.

This is especially true for developers, for whom in many ways cloud is just fantastic; it will give them so much more flexibility. But we think there are some questions that haven't been answered yet about identity, security, access and so on.

So meanwhile we are in close contact with the Azure [the Microsoft cloud computing platform first detailed last October], doing a lot of talking about what skills, what foundational aspects, developers will need here. It's great news for developers all in all but it's all still very complex.

ITT: What, then, to sum up, do you see as the major trends for Microsoft Learning and certification in 2009?

CP: There's an awful lot of really exciting things starting to come together here that actually follows on from your cloud computing question.

You've got things coming together in other words about the way people want to consume not just technology but technology training. Here's my starting point: ten years ago we all got very excited about e-learning and let's just say our thinking has matured somewhat since then. What I think we all can see now is that it's a combination of learning content and learning services that is what people want.

A book is a fantastic tool for self-study but it can't help you build or play in a virtual testing environment. What I think we'll see soon is people like us offering ways to combine the two, to let people play safely, in a sandbox approach, while keeping open their options for other forms of learning.

Think about distance learning, about access remotely but with support from teachers and mentors; this will end up being delivered by Microsoft on the same platform as Azure, perhaps.

The guy out there who is committed to certification but isn't the sort who can take being forced to sit in a classroom for five days straight, this is his answer. There's going to be a much more flexible learning model all round, I think.

In the meantime, yes, it's a tough economic market right now. But then people like Gartner are still telling me that there is a growing global demand for IT skills. That could be as many as seven million new jobs in the field worldwide by 2011 and 25 per cent of that growth will be in emerging economies.

So there is still strong demand for IT training. In our own certification programme we see continued growth and if anything people use times like this to invest in themselves and their own career.

OK, beyond the immediate horizon it's anyone's guess really how this will all pan out but I think the future for certification in particular is about the IT career.

ITT: Can you expand on that idea?

CP: What I mean is if there is future in IT certification, it isn't down to the certification industry, not to Microsoft, Cisco, CompTIA, anyone like that - it's down to the people out there getting certified who may end up virally spreading a new message, that it's really helped them with their careers and employment.

We won't - and shouldn't - ever have models like dentistry or accountancy where certification is mandated or you can't practice, where an external body makes you keep up to date with your skills.

What's better is certified people telling non-certified people this is the right way to progress your career.

Further information

Microsoft Learning