The Changing Channel

How Does Microsoft's 'Professional Degree' Impact the Channel?

The new education program, announced by Microsoft at this summer's WPC, seems to raise more questions for partners than answers.

The potential implications of a professional degree program for the IT industry are nothing short of staggering.

Most all businesses turn to external resources for key business services such as legal, accounting and other professional support. Some are fortunate enough to require the services of an architect. All of these professionals have validating academic accreditation, professional degrees and professional licensing.

Most businesses are equally dependent on the systems engineers, network engineers, system architects, consultants and other professionals in our IT industry. There's virtually no difference in the importance of our services to these customers than the services of their lawyers or accountants. There the similarity ends.

The only certifications in our industry come from the manufacturers of the hardware and software or self-certifying associations such as CompTIA. You might obtain degrees in computer science from universities, but they're not recognized by customers.

Could a step in the right direction come from the Microsoft Professional Degree (MPD) Program introduced by Steven "Guggs" Guggenheimer, Microsoft corporate vice president and chief evangelist in the Developer Experience and Evangelism Group, at the recent Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC)? Here's how Guggenheimer presented the MPD in a statement from the WPC:

"The proliferation of cloud technologies and the delivery of Software as a Service has opened up tremendous revenue opportunities for our partners. The Microsoft Professional Degree will be offered via edX, as well as through Learning-as-a-Service offerings delivered through partners, to meet customers' evolving training needs and to help close the skills gap we are seeing across a number of industries."

The first MPD track will focus on "Data Science."

Alison Cunard, general manager for Microsoft Learning, replied to a few questions about the MPD in an e-mail interview.

Asked what the longer-term implications of MPD are for Microsoft partners, Cunard said, "We believe this program represents a timely opportunity for our partners to modernize and grow their business." Now there's some reason for partners to hope that Microsoft recognizes how the focus on Microsoft Azure and Office 365 has challenged them to transform their business models.

But then Cunard revealed a complicating agenda by adding, "At the Worldwide Partner Conference in July, we announced our Open edX on Azure initiative, which will help partners provide Learning as a Service to their customers. The MPD is an opportunity to leverage the Open edX on Azure platform and provide services to help their learners successfully complete the MPD."

That would make MPD at least partly content for the edX engine Microsoft wants partners to sell to their customers. It's confusing whether the program is for partners or customers or both.

I also asked about Microsoft's use of the term "university caliber" in describing MPD, which is easy to say, but the very first question in the MPD online FAQ addresses how this could be referred to as a "degree." The coursework involved doesn't approach the volume of work required of degree-bearing programs.

"We anticipated some conversation on the name," Cunard said. "But we do believe that the MPD is consistent with the definition of a 'professional degree' in that it prepares someone for a particular profession by emphasizing skills and practical analysis over theory and research."

What I hope to find out with further interviews is this: By now it's clear that the focus on Azure, Office 365, Dynamics CRM Online and Dynamics 365 signals the demise of the infrastructure sales and service business for partners. Is edX designed to do the same to learning partners?

What does that leave for partners beyond selling all these Microsoft services for continually varying compensation?

For years I've been asking what Microsoft has been doing to provide the kind of education partners will need to survive and thrive through these transitions. I thought that the MPD was a clear sign that Microsoft was prepared to offer cogent help to the partners who brought it to where the company is today. At this point, though, the program raises more questions than answers.

More Columns by Howard M. Cohen:

About the Author

Technologist, creator of compelling content, and senior "resultant" Howard M. Cohen has been in the information technology industry for more than four decades. He has held senior executive positions in many of the top channel partner organizations and he currently writes for and about IT and the IT channel.