Are you ready for the Cloud Pro Challenge?

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Education, education, education said a former prime minister, highlighting what he felt was the key to future prosperity.

While that mantra ultimately didn't serve Tony Blair very well, most companies know that the key to a company's well-being is highly trained and motivated staff, on top of the latest trends and using the newest technology.

Yet it's a sad fact of life that training budgets are one of the first things to be cut when companies are putting a straitjacket on their spending. The theory's fine but sometimes financial reality gets in the way.

But no business can afford to be complacent. Indeed, companies ignore training at their peril. According to a survey from The IT Job Board published in July, 42 per cent of IT staff are actively looking to leave their jobs. And it's not always more money they're after. The main reason given for leaving a job was cited as career progression.

At present, there aren't many bigger challenges in IT than cloud, nor can the technology be dubbed boring. Just about every industry observer believes it's going to be the dominant platform over the next decade so any techie worth his or her salt will want to be jumping on the cloud bandwagon.

What's more there is a skill shortage. Some commentators have described the lack of specialist cloud skills as the biggest problem facing cloud computing and the biggest inhibitor to growth. But, as we've already seen, companies are increasingly reluctant to spend money on training and developing those skills. How can this disconnect be bridged?

Microsoft has come up with an answer. The company has developed the Virtual Cloud Academy, a fully comprehensive training programme aimed at providing IT staff with the skills they need to meet the challenges of the cloud. And, here's the best bit, it's entirely free. So there's no reason for any company to use financial restraints as an excuse for not participating.

The MVA programme offers a range of modules that cover everything from virtualisation to managing Office 365 from cloud design and building cloud management skills. It also offers users a chance to get acquainted with Azure.

IT Pro's sister site Cloud Pro has entered into a partnership with Microsoft to throw down a challenge. Over the next couple of months I am going to be undertaking this course, watching every video, taking every test. I shall be detailing my experiences on this blog, setting out what skills I've picked up, what I've found difficult and, conversely, what has proved easy.

I'm starting with the Virtualisation module. But they are all self-contained courses and you can start on whichever one takes your fancy.

Logging on to the system is easy enough, all it takes to register is Windows Live ID and you're away. In addition to videos, there is an array of Microsoft downloads to play with so that you can get a handle on the software you're being taught about. I shall be looking at Hyper-V Server 2008 R2 with Service Pack 1 (SP1).

Here's a challenge to all of you: take that course with me. Match your scores with mine and tell me about your experience. We'll publish your experiences on Cloud Pro and, as a further incentive, we're offering a prize to the cloud student who has notches up the highest score.

At the end of two months, we'll be offering a Lenovo Ideapad Z570 to enable you to keep up with the course on a brand-new machine and a De Longhi coffee machine to provide you with the caffeine boost to keep going.

Microsoft employees don't count for this, but company staff are themselves going on the cloud adventure. Here's Microsoft's Andrew Fryer taking his first steps on the course. Andrew has a background in business intelligence and data management and found the modules contained invaluable information.

"There's lots of anecdotal stories from the field along with the high level stuff and the demos really get the concepts across and there's not too much PowerPoint in there either. When it came to the assessment questions the level jumped into considerable detail- for example on the Hyper-V deployment module in the Hyper-V for Vmware professionals the platform course I confess that I did have to rely on what I just learned to get past some of the networking questions."

I'm already following in his footsteps. I'll detail my experiences on the virtualisation module next Tuesday.

Look forward to hearing from you all. Good luck!

Max Cooter

Max Cooter is a freelance journalist who has been writing about the tech sector for almost forty years.

At ITPro, Max’s work has primarily focused on cloud computing, storage, and migration. He has also contributed software reviews and interviews with CIOs from a range of companies.

He edited IDG’s Techworld for several years and was the founder-editor of CloudPro, which launched in 2011 to become the UK’s leading publication focused entirely on cloud computing news.

Max attained a BA in philosophy and mathematics at the University of Bradford, combining humanities with a firm understanding of the STEM world in a manner that has served him well throughout his career.