No advanced training available, so what should experienced Exchange administrators do?

We all make personal decisions about how to progress our careers. Sometimes it's a decision to switch jobs to look for a more challenging or lucrative position. Sometimes it's a question of figuring out what we really want to do. And sometimes it's simply a question of what training we need to ensure that we have the right skills for now and in the future. Given the focus on cloud that exists today and the relative lack of training that exists for Exchange, on-premises administrators have some decisions to make. I was asked what to do by a reader. Here's what I said.

A recent message from a reader piqued my interest because it describes a problem that I think many people face today. Here’s what it said:

I have been an Exchange system administrator for about 12 years at a number of different companies. I like being a mail administrator and have sharpened my skills in Microsoft Exchange over the years. But now I feel as though I have reached a plateau in my Exchange troubleshooting knowledge.  I am wondering what I can do or what classes I can take to extend my Exchange troubleshooting knowledge?  With Microsoft closing down the Master program/ranger training I am not sure what options are available. “

There’s a couple of issues surfaced here by an experienced Exchange administrator who is figuring out what he should do to advance his career.

The initial question revolves around the topic of what training is available for Exchange administrators, specifically for those working with on-premises environments. A quick search reveals that quite a lot of classroom-based training courses for Exchange administrators are available in different parts of the world. However, the problem is that most are focused on helping people to attain Microsoft accreditation by passing the 70-341 (core Exchange 2013) and 70-342 (advanced Exchange 2013) exams.

Lots of online training is available too, ranging from Microsoft’s free virtual academy to paid-for courses run by companies such as Lynda.com and Infinite Skills. I don’t have much experience of this kind of courseware, but I suspect that the quality of the instructor and their knowledge and experience of using the technology in practice makes a huge difference in what you learn from the sessions.

But neither classroom nor online training answers the question. Anyone with twelve years’ experience running Exchange for a variety of companies can probably upgrade their knowledge to gain accreditation or learn about a new version of Exchange without going near a course. The question is how to gain more advanced knowledge such as the troubleshooting tips and product insight that the Exchange Product Group used to make available through the Microsoft Certified Master (MCM) program.

I certainly had some issues with the MCM program, not least because of the doubtful economics for both Microsoft and the participants, but there’s no doubt that the weeks of exposure trainees had to product team members equipped them with a range of knowledge not available elsewhere. For that reason, it was a real pity when Microsoft learning decided to cancel the MCM program in 2013. I felt that steps could have been taken to redesign the structure and delivery of MCM (Exchange) to become more efficient and cost-effective. However, that’s all in the past and MCM (Exchange) is not coming back.

It’s hard (and expensive) to design, develop, and deliver high-quality training for technology that is in a state of constant change. The quarterly cumulative update strategy for Exchange 2013 and Exchange 2016 means that courseware has to match whatever Microsoft delivers in an update. Some updates, like Exchange 2013 CU4 (SP1) are packed with new features while others are more of a maintenance release. The same can be expected for Exchange 2016 cumulative updates, all of which pose a challenge for those who create courseware, exams, and accreditation guides. Paul Robichaux and I experienced this problem when we ran the “Exchange 2010 Maestro” courses some years ago. We can attest to the lack of fun that exists in having to review courses against cumulative updates as they appear.

Because it’s much easier to update content and issue new versions, ePublishing helps if authors and publishers sign up to keep a watching brief on applications and do the work necessary to refresh material when Microsoft issues updates. We use this approach to maintain the Office 365 for Exchange Professionals eBook. It’s a lot of work, but it does mean that a book remains up-to-date. I know that MCM Andrew Higginbotham is working with Paul Cunningham to deliver an eBook on Exchange troubleshooting in the near future. Hopefully that book will be kept updated too.

I don’t have a great answer for where advanced Exchange server training can be found. However, perhaps the better question is how Exchange administrators should keep their skills updated in a world where technology changes at an incredible pace.

The cloud is the biggest influence on Exchange now. This will continue for the foreseeable future. Exchange 2016 benefited from technology developed to serve the needs of Exchange Online and transferred back to the on-premises version, especially in the area of High Availability, but few if any features will be delivered specifically for on-premises use in the future. For this reason, it makes sense for all Exchange administrators to pay attention to what’s happening inside Office 365, especially in the area of hybrid connectivity and all that entails, including directory synchronization and single sign-on. Even if your company has no plans to use Office 365 in the immediate future, I would setup and maintain your own test Office 365 tenant. It’s a cheap learning vehicle that can provide great benefits for both the individual and the company.

I’d go further too. Office 365 is a completely different environment to Exchange on-premises. Although many companies select email as the first workload to move to the cloud, there’s huge value to be mined from other parts of Office 365 right up to replacement of traditional PBXs with the new E5 plan. Replacing old Windows file servers with OneDrive for Business, creating a new collaboration platform around Office 365 Groups, or implementing an internal video training and communications vehicle using the Office 365 Video Portal are three examples of how value can be extracted from Office 365.

And on the administration side, there’s a world of detail to be mastered to understand how Office 365 works and what to do when it doesn’t. Understanding Azure Active Directory and Azure data services are good skills to have and your PowerShell skills will continue to be useful. Office 365 Reporting and monitoring need a different approach to on-premises servers, especially when hybrid connections are in the mix. Change control can be an issue, so there’s work to be done to consider how First Release might be used within a tenant.

The cloud doesn’t eliminate the need for training and maintaining personal skill sets. It’s just different. Other technology paradigm shifts have changed the way we acquire knowledge and that challenge is not going to disappear, no matter how Microsoft, Amazon, Google, and others continue to advance cloud services.

My advice to my reader is not to get stuck in an on-premises rut. Even if your current world is dictated by on-premises servers, it’s wise to keep an eye on the future and understand what’s happening inside Office 365 and how your Exchange skills are both the same and different in that environment. The action is in the cloud. You need to be able to move there – when the right opportunity appears.

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Discuss this Blog Entry 5

on Jan 27, 2016

Excellent topic!! This is the reason why attending Devconnections has become an annual event for me. Not only for the conference content but to network with other On Prem admins like my fellow reader.

on Feb 9, 2016

Stay tuned for some news about the speaker line-up for the 2016 IT DEV/Connections conference. We might not have the Kool-Aid that will be available at Ignite (in abundance), but we will have some great sessions that will help admins manage their systems.

on May 21, 2016

Still have this issue even after applying your solution…..
Do you already have another solution for this issue perhaps?
Thank you in advance!

on Jan 27, 2016

I would echo Tony's comment about cloud skills. The demand for highly-trained on-premises Exchange administrators is not likely to grow substantially. For all of my clients, email is the first thing they move to the cloud, and everyone who does it never looks back. Cloud-based email is more reliable and easier to use for everyone.
If you are that skilled in on-premises Exchange, you will pick up Office 365 and other cloud based email systems very quickly. Sure you can't tweak every setting, but there are a whole new set of provisioning and troubleshooting skills you can acquire.

on Feb 3, 2016

I got many Clients are staying with Exchange Server (On-Premises) due to Security and Compliance, basically they do NOT want their Emails/Data in the Public Cloud, these Clients will need top Exchange Server Engineers to manage their Exchange Servers. With that said I also have Clients with Hybrid environment who also need top Exchange Server Engineers to manage their Exchange Servers :-)

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On-premises and cloud-based Microsoft Exchange Server and all the associated technology that runs alongside Microsoft's enterprise messaging server.

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Tony Redmond

Tony Redmond is a senior contributing editor for Windows IT Pro. His latest books are Office 365 for Exchange Professionals (eBook, May 2015) and Microsoft Exchange Server 2013 Inside Out: Mailbox...
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