Microsoft Ignite–Day 3

Yesterday in short? Loooong. I was there from 8:30(ish) until 6:00 pm. I facilitated (meaning–helped people find a seat) a Windows 10 certification prep exam. I sat, for five hours, outside the practice test room, and answered questions about the new certification paths. Well, I tried to answer questions, but mostly listened to one of my fellow MCTs, who was very knowledgeable. The fastest way to become an expert is to freely and fully admit your ignorance! Microsoft has recently revamped the certification paths, and a lot of people are very confused by it. Which brings me to my subject of the day…lifelong learning.

Yeah, yeah I hear you say. Lifelong learning is the buzzword of the decade. But aren’t we all lifelong learners? Isn’t life itself nothing but learning? After all, they do say ‘live and learn’. It is true. You have always had to absorb more skills, techniques, and work arounds, no matter what the era. What I think is different now is that you will need to continue to engage in formal learning throughout your life. I think this is mostly driven by the speed of change in technology.

Imagine yourself as a carpenter in the 19th century, or indeed, the 9th century. You learned the skills and techniques from a master, probably as a formal apprentice. Once you could prove that you knew the requisite skills to build buildings or furniture, you were deemed a Journeyman, enough to start working in the trade. That was all you needed; you were set. (You could proceed to Master status by submitting a piece to the appropriate Guild, and then be deemed Master, but that was optional.)

Here’s the thing–the tools and techniques changed slowly. Slowly enough that a worker could integrate them into his skill set over time (or not). Not every carpenter had access to the information about the changes or equal access to capital (if necessary) to buy new tools. Learning new skills wasn’t necessarily a competitive advantage because the population wasn’t necessarily aware of the new techniques. A lot has changed hasn’t it? There are no fields of work these days that are not impacted by the rapid change in technology. More importantly, the change is not just rapid, it is accelerating. Consumers are aware of the benefits of improvement in technology, and so demand the integration of these benefits in products and services that they buy. If you can’t provide those benefits, you lose competitive advantage. Whether you work for a large corporation or yourself, you must continually integrate the relevant skills into your work so that they are reflected in your product or service. And the resources to acquire these skills are endless; Lynda, PluralSight, SkillShare and Microsoft Virtual Academy are just a few of them. These are all websites; there are also online classes, in person classes, books, study guides, and videos on YouTube.

To leverage the benefit of these skills, you need to advertise that you possess them. This is where the ‘certification economy’ comes in. All of the major tech players have a certification path, including Facebook (that was a new one on me!). Linking your learning to a certification path helps you structure it in a meaningful way. Half of the challenge of ‘keeping up’ is knowing what you need to learn to be ‘caught up’. In a way, that is what going to college has been for–a structured path for learning the skills you need to be considered ‘educated’. For technical learning, getting and remaining certified is the structured path. Like a college degree, a certification shows that you have mastered the skills you claim to have.

Microsoft recently re-designed its’ certification program. The details aren’t germane here, but what is interesting is that now the certifications do not expire (just like a college degree). However, it is incumbent upon certificate holders to display a commitment to ‘keeping up’ by periodically taking a test in either a new technology or one that has changed significantly recently. (This should be familiar to doctors, lawyers, and accountants, who are all required to take a minimum number of continuing education units (CEUs) each year.) It won’t be long before most Information Workers (and I am using the term in its’ broadest reach) will want to identify a learning path and continuously certify. Let’s just call it a lifelong transcript.

Some people may be daunted by this prospect. Consider, though, that there are companies who are monetizing the need to keep the aging brain agile. Why not in-source this work to yourself and commit to maintaining certification in a chosen technology? It can’t hurt, and it certainly can help!