I've recently started running Microsoft Office 365 in an enterprise edition, with the primary purpose of testing Lync 2013. That means I've been reading a lot of Microsoft TechNet articles on setting up Office 365 Enterprise and Lync Online. I also attended an in-person event for Lync at the Microsoft office in Denver, which was a nicely organized half-day summary of February's Microsoft Lync Conference (which I also attended). Basically, I'm taking every opportunity at the moment to learn more about running Lync.

The benefit of training is one area highlighted in the 2013 IT Skills and Salary Report, recently released by Global Knowledge and Windows IT Pro. According to the report, "More than 80 percent of this year's respondents said training was a good investment for their company and their career path. Ninety percent reported gaining new knowledge that could be used in their existing position, and more than 70 percent of those who took certification training reported seeing gains in on-the-job effectiveness."

With training that clearly benefits the goals of the business, it's no wonder the study concluded, "More often than not, gaining new skills meant earning more money. Higher raises were likely for those who trained as well as for those who earned a certification within the previous 12 months." In other words, if you're not taking advantage of training opportunities, you're probably doing yourself and your career a disservice.

Related: What I Learned at MEC: The C is for Community

The Salary Report goes into some detail about the types of training IT pros chose, but what's important to note is that you really have a wide variety of options -- from free or low-cost do-it-yourself training to pricier in-person events and instructor-led classes. Here's a rundown of some of the top training resources you should be aware of in the Microsoft Exchange/Lync/unified communications (UC) space.

Websites

Many good sites exists with a variety of resources to help you keep current with new releases from Microsoft and trends in the marketplace around these technologies. This list highlights a few of the best and most well-respected sites for learning about Lync and Exchange:

  • TechNet Library: Exchange. This is your source for official Microsoft documentation on Exchange Server. You'll find basic how-to resources for Exchange 2013/2010/2007/2003 as well as Exchange Online. Every Exchange admin should be very familiar with this site.
  • TechNet Library: Lync. As above, this TechNet site provides official documentation for Lync 2013 and Lync 2010.
  • I Am MEC: Microsoft Exchange Community. This website was launched at the Microsoft Exchange Conference (MEC) in September 2012 as a portal for all things Exchange. The Learn tab features links to the Exchange Server TechCenter, the official Exchange Team Blog (an invaluable resource in its own right), how-to videos such as the popular "Geek Out with Perry" series, certification training information, and several other resources. This site is also where you'll hear news of upcoming MEC events first. You do have to log in with a Microsoft account to access the site.
  • NextHop: Microsoft Lync Server Documentation Hub. This site is probably the closest thing to the I Am MEC site available for the Lync side of this world. As well as numerous technical blog posts from Lync team members and outside bloggers, this site features links to resources such as the Lync 2010 workloads poster (Where's the 2013 poster, we wonder?); other useful blogs, including the official Lync Team Blog; and information about the free Lync tools available from Microsoft.

In addition to these Microsoft sites, you can find other good content sites, such as Windows IT Pro, and many, many blogs or microsites from technical experts and MVPs. There's no way I can mention all of them, so I won't even try. If there's a site you find features particularly useful training material, feel free to list it the comments section below, and be sure to say what the site offers to set it apart.

Podcasts

In the messaging and communications area, there's probably no better podcast than the UC Architects. This biweekly podcast features technical discussion from both Lync and Exchange experts who have a passion for UC; in fact, the group was started because there were no other dedicated podcasts for this topic area. I recently wrote about how the group formed, and you can find all their available shows on their website.

Although not specific to Lync or Exchange, there are some other useful podcasts that admins should be aware of to keep abreast of the latest Microsoft news, trends, and how-to content. Here are a few good sources:

Conferences

In-person events provide unique opportunities to learn new technical material, investigate third-party products and add-ons, and interact with product experts and peers. In many cases, a conference might be your first opportunity to get hands-on experience with a major new release. Of course, anything involving travel probably ends up on the high end of the cost scale, which means it can be more difficult to get it approved from your organization. Presenting the business case for why such a trip will benefit the company can certainly help, and I've noticed many conference websites have started including resources aimed at this purpose.

If you're an IT generalist in the Microsoft space, you probably think first of Microsoft TechEd, particularly if you're limited in conference travel. To be sure, TechEd is a great choice. However, there's much to be said for attending a smaller event that focuses tightly on specific applications, such as the Microsoft Exchange Conference (MEC) and the Microsoft Lync Conference. In addition to the deeper focus on these product areas, you also get the benefit of networking with other admins who share the same focus on Microsoft's UC technologies. Highly recommended!

Although there's no definite word yet on when the next Lync Conference will be, Microsoft recently announced that the next MEC would be held March 31 to April 2, 2014, in Austin, Texas. That gives you a lot of time to prepare. If you don't want to wait that long, and have 2013 budget money to spend, you can always attend the Microsoft Exchange Connections event in Las Vegas in the fall. As usual, this event will be collocated with Windows Connections, DevConnections, and the variety of tracks that fall under those two so that attendees can visit sessions from any subject area.

Other Resources

I don't know about you, but I get "invitations" (OK, marketing pitches) just about daily for webinars, virtual conferences, free white papers, and other online resources from many different vendors -- yes, including my own company. And I try to take a look at these and participate whenever the topic is interesting and I have the time. These events tend to be free for users (vendor supported) or sometimes available for a low-cost registration -- certainly nothing like the expense of going to an in-person event.

Of course, online events don't offer the full range of networking that in-person events do, although many events do feature Q&A sessions with speakers or opportunities to chat with sponsors. Training in the office can lead to interruptions and distractions. One nice thing about online events is that they're usually available for viewing or download for a period after the live event. So if you get called away, or you can't make the scheduled time, you can always view the material on demand to suit your schedule.

You might also want to investigate offerings from training companies, such as Global Knowledge, Mountain View Systems, or TrainSignal. The training methods used by different companies vary, from in-person instructor-led classrooms to self-paced video tutorials, which means you can probably find a company that suits your budget and learning style. You can also find help preparing for specific certifications, such as the Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP): Enterprise Messaging Administrator. And remember, certifications were a key factor leading to higher raises, according to the Salary Report.

If you're looking at Microsoft certifications, you can probably find training assistance on the Microsoft Learning website. As well as showing you which certifications are available for specific products, this site has links to training materials for the certifications that Microsoft currently offers, along with many other useful resources. Another Microsoft site that's worth noting here is the Microsoft World Wide Events site, where you can find and register for Microsoft-hosted in-person events in your area, virtual labs, webcasts, podcasts, and more.

Plan for Training

I'm sure there are other training methods I've left out. For instance, you can't underestimate the benefits of having a lab where you can test things out, break them, fix them, and do it all over again. Hands-on, trial-and-error technology play, where you don't have to put your live environment and end users at risk, is great experience at any time. If you have other favorite training resources I failed to mention, please leave a comment below. And be sure to take a look at the full Salary Report for further information.

Technology is always changing. It's part of what makes our jobs so interesting, but at times frustrating. It's also why making training a part of your career development is so essential. Whether you plan for one or two trips a year to conferences or put in regular time with favorite blogs or attend a webinar once a month, you'll be doing yourself and your company good. Make sure you put training in your plans -- and put it on your calendar to help avoid those interruptions even when you are in the office.

Learn More: First tests of Exchange 2013 on Azure point to the future?

Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins
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