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When Microsoft launched its Professional Degree Program at the company’s annual Worldwide Partner Conference last July, the first course was focused on data science.

More than 50,000 people have signed up for the course since then, according to Chris Roy, Microsoft senior director of learning services.

When the company launched the program, many questions were raised. Is this truly a professional course? Will students ultimately receive a real “degree”? And why is Microsoft, a manufacturer and software developer, offering these courses?

The answer to the first two questions are “yes and no” and” not really.”

“Universities are looking to accredit our courseware,” Roy said. “Some are being very progressive. As an example, we’re working closely with Harvard.”

Roy also points out that Microsoft’s interest is based on student and industry concerns. “As we’ve talked to large customers and Microsoft partners, the big concern is about the lack of applicable skills among people coming out of universities with computer science degrees. They want to know if they can incorporate our curriculum into their programs.”

What’s driving them? “Large customers like Boeing are becoming nervous about not having enough white-collar workers for their IT jobs,” he said.

Roy acknowledged that Microsoft has moved away from using the word “degree” because, at this stage in the development of the program, it causes some confusion. At the Microsoft Ignite conference in late September, the program was reintroduced as simply the Microsoft Professional Program (MPP).

Roy takes great care to emphasize that this change speaks to now, not the future of the program.

Why Microsoft?

According to Steven Guggenheim, corporate vice president and chief evangelist with Microsoft’s Developer Experience and Evangelism Group, “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.”

When asked what the longer-term implications of the program are for Microsoft Partners, Alison Cunard, general manager for Microsoft Learning, replied: “We believe this program represents a timely opportunity for our partners to modernize and grow their businesses.”

Rob Rubin, director of the Microsoft Professional Program, explained, “We decided to offer curriculum not based on products but on concepts using both Microsoft and open-source tools.  We made sure to provide interactive labs, and real-world experience.  Fortunately, we had very little baggage or history with data science offerings and could make a clear statement that Microsoft would offer conceptual training and open source.”

Why Data Science?

“Data science courses demographically had two interesting characteristics,” Rubin said. “The first was distribution across many big countries. The second was a substantial millennial distribution in the age demographics, accompanied by a high participation by women—over 30 percent.”

Why 50,000?

The implications of a professional degree program for the channel are a potential game-changer.

Businesses turn to external resources for key business services, such as legal, accounting and other professional support. Everyone turns to their doctors for medical treatment.  All of these professionals have many things in common, including validating academic accreditation, professional degrees and professional licensing.

Most business are equally dependent on the systems engineers, network engineers, system architects, consultants and other professionals in our channel to help them make the most productive use of their most precious assets, their data. There is virtually no difference in the importance of our services to these customers from the services of their lawyers or accountants.

The only “certifications” in our industry come from the manufacturers of the hardware and software, or self-certifying associations, such as CompTIA.  One may obtain degrees in computer science from universities, but the skills acquired to achieve them are not those sought or recognized by customers or anyone else.

With the introduction of the Microsoft Professional Program, the channel is one step closer to achieving parity with the other core professions. Academic accreditation. Professional Licensing.

Perhaps we’ll soon see a doctorate in data science, or with the upcoming MPP courses announced at Ignite, doctor of big data engineering or a Ph.D. in front-end web development.

Howard M. Cohen has spent 30-plus years as an executive and community leader inside the IT channel. He  now writes and presents about it in Channel Insider, Redmond Channel Partner, Insight Technically, Channel Partner and more.