I occasionally get email asking me for career advice; I'm always happy to get those queries because I like helping people explore their skills and interests. Maybe I should have become a career counselor or recruiter instead of an Exchange guy, but it's a little late for that now . . . or is it?

A common thread in the requests I get is that people want to advance in their careers, either to earn more money or to prepare themselves to take on positions with more responsibility. Because the current job market is so tough, I thought now might be a good time for me to formalize some of the things I've informally told people over the years.

First, realize that your value to an employer is directly tied to what you know how to do, not just what you know in general. For most people, it's just not feasible to be expert in every aspect of designing, managing, and operating messaging and collaboration systems—so you have to choose carefully what you're interested in and build a strong portfolio of skills in that area. Developing specific skills can be hard if you're working as an Exchange Server generalist and want to specialize in a particular area, such as high availability, that might require equipment or knowledge that you don't have access to in your current job. Thankfully, Microsoft is generous with evaluation downloads of its software, so you can build complex virtual environments and get hands-on learning even without your current employer's help. Remember, if your end goal is to wind up in an executive position, you'll need a broad range of experiences.

Second, in a highly competitive market, consider what will set you apart from all the other folks who want the same position you do. What unique skills, talents, or experience do you have, and how can you highlight them? Career coaches have tons of tips on how to set yourself apart; research their advice and use it.

Third, for better or worse, employers use the Internet to check out candidates. A web search is one of the first things I do when I'm evaluating someone as a potential hire. What am I looking for? All sorts of things: confirmation of their claims of work history or product knowledge; contributions to the community; pictures of them drunk on Facebook; you name it. When you do stuff online, the evidence is likely to stay around longer than you expect, so be careful what you say and do—and search for your own name periodically so you can see what an employer would. What about certifications? Opinions differ; some employers are more interested in practical experience, but others consider certifications to be important evidence of knowledge or skill. In general, I don't think certifications ever hurt; if nothing else, they show that you know the preferred best practices of the vendor whose certifications you hold.

These are all pretty generic tips because I assume that your knowledge of Exchange and related topics is already solid. However, as basketball and football coaches and fans the world over know, solid fundamentals are what separate winners from losers—so make sure that your fundamentals are strong.