Compañeros! Welcome back to the SQL Trail. In episode 66 I talk with Microsoft Training Author Graeme Malcolm. After talking with Patrick Thomas in episode 64, I was introduced to Microsoft’s newest learning curriculum, the Microsoft academy, and their first offering in data science. Microsoft consulted data scientists along with several companies to identify the core skills they need to be successful. A curriculum was developed to teach these functional and technical skills, combining highly rated online courses with hands-on labs, concluding in a final capstone project. This episode talks about the new program and what is next for Microsoft learning.
Episode 66 Quote
“But there is a generation of people who we find learn differently. They prefer to use massive online open courses or MOOC’s as we call them. The like to do real deep, long term study in their own time. Rather than study for just one exam at a time, they kind of what to take on a whole program and do that online. So we’re trying to reach that millennial audience.” – Graeme Malcolm
Listen to Learn…
- Why Graeme believes education and certifications are changing
- How the Microsoft EdX program works (is it free? Is it paid? What’s included?)
- What you’ll learn in the year-long education program
- What MIT and Microsoft have to do with MOOCs and learning data science
- What’s next for Microsoft and EdX
About Graeme Malcolm
Graeme Malcolm is a SQL Server trainer, specialist, blogger, and author. He’s worked with SQL Server since version 4.2. Graeme was one of the first Microsoft Certified Solutions Experts (MCSE) in SQL Server 2012 Business Intelligence in the world, and was the lead author for Microsoft Learning’s entire BI curriculum for SQL Server 2012. Follow him on Twitter @Graeme_Malcom.
Connect with Graeme on LinkedIn
Microsoft Academy Data Science Program
[Video] Updating your Database Management Skills to Microsoft SQL Server 2014 : (01) Making the Most of Memory
EdX Courses taught by Graeme (EdX Page)
[Book] Programming Microsoft® SQL Server™ 2000 with XML (Developer Reference) 2nd ed. Edition
Graeme’s YouTube Channel
Carlos Chacon: Well Graeme welcome to the program.
Graeme Malcolm: Thanks very much its great to be here.
Carlos Chacon: All the way from UK, although recently relocated to Seattle.
Graeme Malcolm: That’s right. Yeah, you’ll detect the Scottish brogue in my accent but I have traded one rainy city in Edinburgh for another one in Seattle.
Carlos Chacon: Hopefully its good comparison.
Graeme Malcolm: Oh yeah definitely. Loving it. The coffee’s much better.
Carlos Chacon: Very nice. So ultimately you described yourself as a content developer for Microsoft. Part of the reason we’re talking today, earlier we were talking with Patrick Thomas. We are here at the IGNITE Conference. And one of the new programs of Microsoft that is rolling out is the professional program. And so I guess tell us a little bit about that and what the content developer does.
Graeme Malcolm: Okay. So that was two questions in one. So we will get your [inaudible 00:04:20] for money. So first of all what a content developer does. My original background was in training. I was an MCT for many years. I then worked with a vendor company for Microsoft creating trading materials. It was an obvious leap to go from delivering training to creating training and then creating any other sort of learning content that helps people learn the technology. So these days my job is primarily to come up with curriculum design for a set of courses that we are going to build and then manage the creation of those courses in the labs and all the things that go into them. So that’s me.
The MCP program, which is probably more interesting to people. The thinking behind this was we recognized that there’s a kind of new generation of learners coming through. We’ve had the established MCP program for many years. I’m sure lots of people will be familiar with that and [inaudible 00:05:14] and the certifications there. Its great. Employers love it. Employees love it. Its a great program for people who want to learn product skills and take them into their role. But there is a generation of people who we find learn differently. They prefer to use massive online open courses or MOOC’s as we call them. The like to do real deep, long term study in their own time. Rather than study for just one exam at a time, they kind of what to take on a whole program and do that online. So we’re trying to reach that millennial audience. We’re just trying something new to see what we can do that can please to those needs and help people learn skills that will get them into a role rather than maintaining the product skills for already being enrolled.
Carlos Chacon: Sure. So one of the programs that they’ve developed is on data science. So I guess tell us about the decision to start there and what the status of that current course is?
Graeme Malcolm: Sure. So the data science curriculum for the professional project. Professional program rather than professional project, was… we considered a whole number of different areas. Obviously we create curriculum and all sorts of technical eras. Data science is just one of these eras, just know that it’s a very hot topic among people in the industry. There is a huge gap in the skills for that. We have all sorts of figures. Companies looking for data scientists and people with analytical skills and just not being able to find them. And when we started to speak to academic institutions who are out there. We have been pondering with Harvard on their CS curriculum, for example, through edX. They were finding, yes they were getting students through and that’s great but there’s still a huge gap. A huge opportunity to get lots of people through. So we felt as an organization, Microsoft is data lead. We have huge in house expertise in data science. So it kind of made sense that it would be a good starting point to build out those new curriculum.
Carlos Chacon: So I think we’ll get into the nuts and bolts a little bit of the program, but its interesting that you bring up working with a university. The program is designed to be six months long. That’s a long time. What’s the difference between this course and like a college course?
Graeme Malcolm: So in some respects its quite similar and obviously the nature of college courses is changing anyways as they embrace these new approaches and then a lot of universities are now offering online courses through MOOC’s. We’re not the only people doing that. And there is a certain amount of overlap in the approach we’ve taken. We’ve tried to be more conceptual in the skills that we are teaching. So we are more open to talking about technologies other than Microsoft technologies fore example. We obviously do teach Microsoft technologies but we also look at things like R and Python and Spark and then all sorts of stuff that are there in the open source area and we talk about the underlying concepts so you know, you never have thought that a couple of years ago “Hey I want Microsoft to learn statistics.” But now that’s part of the program. So we are trying to embrace that more kind of holistic approach to what are the skills you need. Not just the specific Microsoft product skills but what are the more general skills that you need to succeed in that particular area.
Carlos Chacon: I think it is an interesting idea. Kind of the new Microsoft, if you will, embracing that idea that in the course you will review statistics. There is no underlying Microsoft technology for that but ultimately as an overall need, you have to have that base in order to make the science part of it work.
Graeme Malcolm: Yeah. Absolutely and I think as we go forward with this program we are learning all sorts of lessons about what we can do well in terms of producing content on areas that we have subject matter expertise in and areas where perhaps we want to partner with other people. So for example, in the data science curriculum we’ve partnered with Columbia University, who [inaudible]. And we are using that as part of our curriculum. So we are open to these kind of partnerships in areas where perhaps that someone who has a great story for that particular subject, you know, we can bring that into the fold.
Carlos Chacon: One of the other differences with this program and for example the MCP, which is really, you pass the exam and you become the MCP is that so where there is a charge for the exam. These courses, there is a charge for the course and that gives you access and then you can get access to all the modules. And also there is some additional, the way it was described was some group discussions, or even like a mentoring type attribute. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?
Graeme Malcolm: Sure. Yeah. Well first of all in the pricing the courses themselves are actually free. You can order all the content for free. The payment is required for a verified certificate. So if you want you can complete all the training, get all the knowledge out of them that you want and that’s fine, there is no charge for that. To get the program certificate for each course you have to get a verified certificate because we have to know you are who you say you are and there is a fee for getting that certificate. So that’s how that works. Then the fees that are charged, you compare that to any of the other open universities out there its generally pretty low. \
The other part of your question in the terms of the mentoring and the forums and what’s actually in the courses. We’ve designed them to try and have an element of community. So every course has a discussion forum and we encourage students to share answers. Well not share answers but kind of thoughts about how they are approaching the problems in there. We have teaching assistants that kind of monitor those forums and will look for students who are perhaps finding one particular thing difficult and trying to help them through that. So there is an element of… although its not direct live teaching there is at least somewhere you can go to get help and either from your peers or from teaching assistants.
Carlos Chacon: So on that community discussions, one of the, I’ll say issues, that you might have with an open forum like that is that you’ll then have varying levels and so lets just say there’s a group. They’ve been in there for three of the six months. I start in as a newbie, I may feel left behind because people are talking about content three months down the road. Is there a closed, or like is there a set open and closed date or is this continually you can just go and sign up when you want?
Graeme Malcolm: Right. So each course. We start with the concept of kind like an academic year. So from July. We start the first of July to the 30th of June. That’s our academic year. So at the moment we are in the 2016-2017 year. Each of the courses runs four times throughout that year. And it runs for three months at a time. So basically it runs for a quarter. You sign up. You have to complete… whichever courses you are taking in that quarter you have to complete with in that quarter. If you don’t or you don’t get a passing grade, you are welcome to retake it the next quarter but you retake it from the start, you don’t carry credit across. If you see what I mean. So that’s kind of how it works.
So the longest you will ever be in the one instance of a course, one run of a course, will be three months. Now even within that we get the varied level from day one. You will get varied level of knowledge. What we find and what I think one of the strengths of the MOOC approach, particularly from a millennial audience who are used to doing this, people tend to help one another. Its kind of reaffirming. We see the students that come in there, the ones that do have the knowledge will try help the ones who don’t. Even without us interceding. Its a pretty nice, friendly, safe environment for people to learn.
Carlos Chacon: Yeah I think that’s key, getting a community that is willing to share, makes that experience so much better to be able to do that. So I guess I will talk about the nuts and bolts of the training. Its kind of broken down into four sections. So fundamentals, at least in the data science course, which is the only course that is currently available. You’ve got the fundamentals, the core data science, applied data science, and then a project on the end. The first three make sense to, you got to divide different content and topics and kind of spread those out. I guess any other additional thoughts there and then maybe lets jump into the project, with what that details.
Graeme Malcolm: Sure. So the units that we’ve broken it into are really just kind of organizational units. You know its not like you complete unit one and then something happens. Its just a good way of spitting up the content. What we kind of found when we researched and we did a lot of research. We spoke to a lot of data scientists who were enrolled and really quizzed them on, “Hey what are the skills that you need to do to your job? What is it you do day to day? And what skills would someone need to do that?” And what we found was that there are some fundamental skills as you would expect. There’s the basics of I know how to explore data. I know how to to work in something like EXCEL and filter and create charts and that type of thing. I have statistics. I have basic understanding of statistics.
One of the other interesting ones that came up, given that you know that this podcast is for primarily for SQL audience, we had suggested well TRANS-X equaled something that really database developers do and the data scientists that we spoke to said no we spent a lot of time writing SQL code. So that then became a fundamental kind of building block for if you want to do data science you have to know some SQL. So those kind of became the fundamentals.
We then partnered with a professor from MIT called Cynthia Rudin and a local Seattle based consultant who specializes in big data problems, called Steve Austin. And those guys built a series of three courses for us, really just covering the essentials of data science in the sense what are the processes you follow to do the other science. What are the techniques you can use to visualize the data, explore or find outliers, remove outliers, or clean them or all that data managing that you have to do to get it ready and then what are the kind of principles for machine learning models that you might build from that data or the different types of machine learning models. How do you build them? How do you optimize them? So really deep scientifically based approaches. Its not about using the tools. Its about understanding the underlying principles of how these things work.
So that became the core data science area. The third unit is where we wanted to say, well you’ve learned these skills, you understand the principles of what machine learning is or how to manipulate data. What do you do with that? And there are some specific types of scenarios that you might want to work in. Maybe you want to work with big data. So maybe you want to do all of this on SPARK, on a distributed cluster. How do you do that? Or maybe you want to focus on a very specific niche area, like I want to do image analysis or I want to do text analysis. What are the principles I need for that? So we kind of took those core principles of huge general data science and gave you specific applications of that. Or maybe you are a developer, you want to build a client that consumes that stuff. And we’ve tried throughout our entire curriculum to say well there are principles you need to understand. There are concepts.
The tools that you would use primarily for a lot of that stuff aren’t necessarily Microsoft tools. Generally you write a lot of scripts in R or Python. You might use as you are machine learning as a kind of way of productionizing this. A very easy way to build your machine learning model and publish it as a web service but within that you still maybe writing your own Python or R code. So there is a lot of kind of technology based skills or programming based skills you have to learn that are common to data science that go with those principles before you can start applying them. And then back to the competition or the project rather.
Having gone through that, having learned the fundamentals, learned the core skills and looked at different applications of those. We kind of felt we would be doing people a disservice if we said, “Hey you could just do that and then you can go out and get a job.” The employers want to know that you can actually do this stuff. You can put it into practice. And you know a student graduating with us wants to feel, “Hey I’ve built a portfolio, in fact here’s my skills.” So we partnered with the Cortana analytics team. They have a competition plan for them. Very similar to Kaggle if you are familiar with Kaggle.
And what we do with that is we basically give the students a huge data set. There are two million observations in the data set. And we say to them, “Hey you need to go and build a machine learning model based on this data. We’ll reserve some of that data back but we’ll test it with that and you have six weeks to build a model that scores an accuracy level of seventy percent or more.” And what was interesting about that was as the competition was running each time you submit an entry it appears on a leaderboard or scoreboard. And we kind of assumed that once people got passed seventy percent they’d be done. No people are really determined to get to the top of that leaderboard, so it was a great driver. I think the students got a lot out of that competition just because it kind of drove them to try to improve and tweak and I think the process of doing that forced them to learn for themselves by actually doing the thing we are teaching them to do, which is great.
Carlos Chacon: You know I think its a great idea. Again you’ve kind of gone though this process of several months of the course. You’ve built up relationships, hopefully with the other students in the course and then to be able to have this project and then be able to try it again to say, “Well that was attempt one, let me see if I can do that a little bit better. Where is an area that I didn’t understand that maybe quite as well as I could have or should have. Let me try that again and that will just make that easier the next time around when I am facing a data set and need to carve it out.” Again applying that hands on approach to all of these theoretical, I don’t want to say theoretical, but to this point it could be theoretical understanding.
Graeme Malcolm: Yeah. That was exactly what it was. I think what I loved about it was how real world that was. If I were genuinely a data scientist and I had a problem at work and I couldn’t optimize it I would reach out to the community. I would reach out and say hey guys anybody got ideas on how I could do this. And that is what we saw happening in the forum. So people were applying the skills that they learned in the courses. They were doing their best to get the model to where they needed to get it and then they were cooperating with one another to try to move the ball further down the field as you guys over here say. So it really was a very positive experience and I think any future programs that we do having that capstone might not be a competition. But having a capstone project at the end that you put into practice the things you’ve learned. I think that’s a key thing. A key element that don’t have to maintain.
Carlos Chacon: Again. After having spoken with Patrick, one of the things we talked about was the Ranger or the Masters program having gone away. Right again, that was kind of focused for Microsoft people and they opened it up for others as well. Are Microsoft people going to be taking these courses like this? Or is the intent purely for outsiders?
Graeme Malcolm: Actually both. I mean the first thing to say categorically this is not a replacement for the Masters program. This not a bait and switch thing that is going on. This is a whole new idea that we are trying. In trying that internally we run it as a pilot for Microsoft employees but also some invited partners. So we had eight hundred people that went through the initial wave. They were actually forced to try and complete it in three months rather than six. So we really pushed them on that which was challenging. So we’ve got that. It’s going to remain open. We’ve got a lot of internal interest. A lot of people across Microsoft are saying hey this is really applicable to what I do and they want to take that. So we are offering that to our employees. Also to partners. Its now available for general registration, so you can go straight to academy.microsoft.com and go up and then sign. It will remain internal. It will remain used by FTE’s but its a public offering.
Carlos Chacon: So you mentioned the registration process. But because of the gated start, if you will. I mean everybody’s trying at the same time or other times there is a wait list. I guess when can people expect to get in if they were to register. You know here we are in October. When’s the next classes and when would people realistically be able to start. Are you gonna… I guess is there any cap. You mentioned eight hundred in the first group. I’ve heard several thousand are on the waiting list so to speak. I guess what’s that process?
Graeme Malcolm: So as of this week its open. You can go in there, you can register. You can start straight away. The next batch of classes that run is obviously going to be for the final core of this calendar year. So from the 1st of October til the 31st of December. So you can sign up and get in there right now and get started on the courses. Like I said we’ve only just opened registration. We had fifty two thousand people waiting to get in there. So we’re not at the moment we don’t intend to cap any sort of entrance. We’re happy to have everybody go in there. There maybe is the platform is just out there. It might take a little while to get registered and started right now. But the process is reasonably simple. You sign up at the Microsoft. Sorry… academy.microsoft.com. You can then… You will be linked from there to your edX course. The first edX course in the series. All the courses are offered from a platform called edX.org. So you can go to the first course. And the only thing you then have to do is link your edX account to your Microsoft Professional program account. You’ve got two different identities and we need to link those so we can track your completion. So there is a little bit of a kind of logistical hurdle to get through to begin with.
Carlos Chacon: Now that sounds like the Microsoft training I know.
Graeme Malcolm: Exactly yeah. So there is always the reality of how you do this but its fairly straight forward. We’ve got a pretty good engineering team here working really hard on making that as smooth as we can. Once you’ve done that once, that’s it you are then registered in the program. You’re edX account is then linked to your MPP account and we will track your progress as you go through.
Carlos Chacon: So as we mentioned there’s currently one program. It’s kind of now just opening up. What’s the future? What are kind of, in the horizon, what are other topics you are looking to tackle?
Graeme Malcolm: So couple of the immediate ones that we are looking at doing next year are big data engineering, which again is kind of related to the data science world. It’s not exactly the same but we are looking at big data engineering track and also front end web developer track is the other one that we are looking to launch. So those two for definite. We are discussing all sorts of ideas with all sorts of people to try and figure out what is there demand for out there? I guess a key things for us to consider for this audience, what’s appropriate and for the certification audience, and the MCP audience what’s appropriate. Some things would be appropriate for both. Some things are very much about people already enrolled just learning, you know product skills and not…. we’ve done that with MCP. We’re very successful there. We will continue doing that. Other things that are more longer term or more generic in terms in their skills kind of belong in the Microsoft Professional program. So as we are ready to announce those we will.
Carlos Chacon: Very nice. Yeah I think based on the initial reception. Fifty one thousand people waiting on the registration list to get in, that there’s lots of people interested in a program like this.
Graeme Malcolm: That seems to be the case. We are thrilled at the reception of people we’ve had. The people who have been through, the eight hundred pilot participants, by large I would have to say the feedback was hugely positive. And there are things we are changing as a result of the feedback and it will continue to evolve and that’s great, But pretty much most of the people I’ve spoken to had a really positive experience and found it useful including existing data scientists. There were people who went in there and had years of experience and still came out saying, “Hey look I learned stuff. It was valuable to me.” And that’s great.
Carlos Chacon: Very nice. Well I guess we are looking forward to more things coming out of the academy.microsoft.com.
Graeme Malcolm: Watch this space.
Carlos Chacon: Should we do SQL family?
Graeme Malcolm: Sure lets do SQL family.
Carlos Chacon: So while not a SQL person per se, we will adopt you into the SQL family. We’re a big family. So we can always use a few content developers. So our first question is what’s your best piece of career advice?
Graeme Malcolm: Over the years the thing I’ve learned is make sure that you are doing something you really enjoy. That you really love doing. It can be very easy to get kind of wrapped up in the ego of, like I’m the best guy in that particular thing or the monetary competition side of things. The best jobs I’ve had I’ve been really passionate about what I’m doing and I’m just really enjoying it. I think you will get more out of life if that’s what you focus on.
Carlos Chacon: Again. I do appreciate you coming on the podcast and you chatting with me today at the IGNITE conference. And our last question for you today is if you could have one super hero power what would it be and why do you want it?
Graeme Malcolm: One super power. Given my experience in the past year or so in building this program I’d love the ability to be in two or three places at once. That be great. That would make my life much more efficient I think.
Carlos Chacon: Okay, So kind of the duplicating ability. Very nice. Well Graeme, thanks so much for being on the program today.
Graeme Malcolm: Oh thank you Carlos, its been great.