Disclaimer: If you read this article and put into practice the advice that is given here, you might give yourself a distinct advantage over most other people in the IT industry. In fact, it might even seem unfair to you that you're able to get your work done in a fraction of the time that you did before. If this is acceptable to you, then you can proceed to read the article below.

I'm going to introduce something new to you that I refer to as the "60-Second Challenge." Before I describe to you what the 60-Second Challenge is, I'm going to give you a couple of very different scenarios.

Scenario #1 (Old-School IT Behavior): Frank encounters a problem on the network he is administering and needs to find a solution as soon as possible. First, Frank begins to play around with the product, trying to find an answer. He attempts to do so through a trial-and-error approach. Unable to resolve the issue that way, he walks down the hall to talk with Peter. Peter will sometimes have the answer to Frank's questions, but this time he doesn't. Frank returns to his desk frustrated because he is no closer to a solution. Total time spent: 4 hours.

Scenario #2 (New-Wave IT Behavior): Kristy encounters a problem on the network she is administering and needs to find a solution as soon as possible. Rather than employing the potentially dangerous method of trial-and-error, Kristy dives headlong into the various research tools that she has learned to use as part of the 60-Second Challenge. After performing quick searches of various help engines and newsgroups, she locates someone who has posted a problem identical to hers. She reads the follow-ups and figures out what the solution is. She quickly fixes the problem on the network. Total time spent: 15 minutes.

So what is this 60-Second Challenge? The Challenge is to become so adept at finding answers to questions by using the Internet that you can find out virtually anything (given a fast network connection, of course!) within 60 seconds. You won't always be able to do this, but I do feel that the philosophy behind the 60-Second Challenge is very powerful.

Think about it this way. Somewhere somebody on the Internet has already answered just about any question you can possibly pose. With all of the Web sites, message boards, and newsgroups out there, it's extremely rare to come across a question that you can't find an answer to. Yet most people don't efficiently use the Web to solve their problems. Why? I feel the number-one reason is simply that they don't know where to look.

Here are some pointers about how to find out just about anything on the Internet. I encourage you to practice the 60-Second Challenge. Have a co-worker or friend ask you a question and see whether you can find the answer in less than a minute. At first, you probably won't be able to and it might be quite frustrating. However, after doing the 60-Second Challenge just a few times, you'll find your skills getting sharper. Put this method into practice for a couple of months, and you'll be amazed by how much more productive you've become! Here are some tools I suggest:

  1. Help Engines
    Much of the time, you can find answers to your questions in the documentation that comes with the product. The challenge here lies in finding the information quickly. One skill that is critical here is becoming familiar with the various methods of searching. Let's take the example of Microsoft's online Windows 2000 Help at http://www.microsoft.com/windows2000/techinfo/proddoc/default.asp.

    There's a search feature that you can use to assist you in quickly locating items within the Windows 2000 help files. To fine-tune your searches, you can use search parameters such as quotation marks and Boolean operators. Not sure what all that stuff does? If you check out the Help, you'll see a link in the Search section to "More tips and hints." That's a great place to begin.

  2. Support Web sites
    If you can't find the answer in the product documentation, another good place to look is on the Web. Microsoft's Knowledge Base is an example of an excellent resource to use if you are encountering problems with a Microsoft product. You can access the Knowledge Base online for free at http://search.support.microsoft.com/kb/c.asp.

    Using the Knowledge Base to find out how to perform a task might not be fruitful. Instead, you should use it when you encounter an error on your system. Using the information you get from Event Viewer (in Windows 2000 and NT), you can often quick track down solutions to your problems in the Knowledge Base.

  3. Newsgroups
    Newsgroups present a great way to quickly locate answers to some of the toughest questions. Here are a couple of tips to help you get the most out of the newsgroups. First, check out Microsoft's public newsgroups. You can easily access these pointing your newsreader (e.g., Outlook Express) to msnews.microsoft.com. Microsoft has more than a thousand newsgroups, so you're likely to find one that is pertinent to just about any issue.

    Also, it's essential that you search the newsgroups. Trying to read hundreds of posts to find the answer to your question is time-consuming. Rather than just reading all of the posts in a given newsgroup, search all of the newsgroups! One of the best tools that I've found for searching newsgroups is the search engine at Google. Check it out at http://www.google.com.

  4. Message boards
    Similar to newsgroups, message boards give you an opportunity to find out whether someone has already answered your question. Some of the best message boards that I've found for gathering information are:

    http://www.certtutor.net (Of course!)

    If you've searched the message boards and still can't find an answer to your question, go ahead and post the question. You'll often see replies within hours, and you'll usually be surprised by the high quality of the response.

  5. Search engines
    Search engines are where many people start, which is unfortunate because search engines are often the toughest places to find stuff. Because searching only for IT-specific results is hard, if not impossible, most people wind up with a lot of results that have nothing to do with technology.

We did stumble across one tool that is pretty cool if you use the search engines a lot. It's called Copernic and it will query all of the major search engines for you and order the results based on information from all of the engines. You'll never have to search multiple engines again! To look at Copernic, go to http://www.copernic.com

You also will want to look at some of the niche search engines. For example, TechTutorials offers free online IT tutorials. Directories such as TechTutorials can be much more effective than a general search engine.

Take the 60-Second Challenge this week and see just how powerful it can be!