I've been thinking a lot lately about this concept of "community," specifically as it relates to life in the Internet age, and even more specifically as it relates to the world of Microsoft Exchange Server. Having other people to discuss and exchange ideas with can be essential for furthering your knowledge and understanding of the technologies you work with, yet the life of many IT pros and Exchange Server administrators is most likely very insular. Finding the time to interact with others to form community can be all but impossible.
I've recently been diving into Twitter. I've found this a great place to find out what the experts in the community are saying; you can always count on them to tweet links to their latest blog posts. And you can also get timely updates from the Exchange team, and other Microsoft product teams you might have an interest in, as well as many of the individual experts and developers from those teams. Twitter is a fairly open environment that lets you interact with just about anyone you want—but there's no guarantee they'll respond.
And it's harder to find and build community with Exchange admins who aren't blogging and tweeting regularly but are just out there doing their jobs daily the best they can. I'm sure that doesn't mean these individuals don't have useful and interesting things to say; they probably just don't have a lot of extra time to say it, or don't feel confident that anyone cares to listen (perhaps because overbearing bosses have told them to just shut up and get their work done). But I know from personal experience that sometimes the only way to figure out what you already know is to talk it out or even try to explain it to someone else—and you can't do that in isolation.
Another potential source of community online is forums, and you can find many with both general IT topics as well as some with dedicated Exchange focus. Probably some of the best technical minds should be found on the Microsoft TechNet forums, where you can expect interaction with Microsoft employees and MVPs. Within the broader forums, you'll find areas dedicated to Exchange Server 2010 and Exchange Server generally. Of course, forums can be sort of hit or miss: Sometimes you get the answer you're looking for and possibly make a connection; other times you're met with absolute silence, no matter how many times you try to rephrase the question.
If you have a user group in your area, that's undoubtedly a great way to connect with other admins facing similar problems. However, you might not have an Exchange-focused group nearby—which is what I discovered, to my surprise, here in the Denver/Northern Colorado area. We've got some Windows or general IT groups, and there's even a thriving SharePoint group. But if your job is focused on Exchange, you probably won't get enough Exchange discussion from a group such as those. On the other hand, how many admins have the luxury to focus just on one platform or technology these days?
When I started thinking about Exchange community, I asked our Exchange contributing editors, Tony Redmond and Paul Robichaux, what they thought. They brought up the now-defunct Microsoft Exchange Conference (MEC). Tony went so far as to say he thought Exchange community had "lost its way" since Microsoft stopped hosting that conference, and both Tony and Paul ended up writing blogs about what MEC meant to the Exchange community—good reads, both, which you should check out (links below).
Although MEC isn't around anymore, there are certainly other Exchange conferences you might consider attending. In addition to technical sessions on the latest developments with Exchange Server, the experience can provide you the opportunity to meet and interact in person with both other admins from the field as well as the experts giving the sessions. You'll also have the chance to meet with vendors of third-party products that you might be considering and see live demos.
As with every other means to community, however, going to a conference isn't a simple solution. Travel budgets aren't what they used to be, and even spending time away from work itself can be too difficult to arrange. You can certainly attend online seminars and virtual events to pick up the technical content, but I'm not sure how good those solutions are for developing community.
I make the assumption that to succeed at your job, you need to establish some form of community. You might not agree; perhaps you feel you work best in isolation. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts. Let me know where you go to find answers and establish dialog with your peers about issues that concern you in messaging and mobility. And in the meantime, if you're planning to attend Microsoft Exchange Connections next month in Las Vegas, hey, I'll be there, too! Stop by and say hi!