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As anyone who has been working in the Microsoft space in the last few years knows, the rate of change for a Windows sys admin has accelerated greatly, and it's time to buckle in or fall behind.
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Gone are the days of an environment that remains static for years. We're now in a cloud and "as a service" world. With DevOps and Agile deployment methodologies in vogue, administrators get many small updates more frequently rather than the occasional, giant update every few years.
Due to this new world -- which usually makes business sense due to the economics of scale -- IT admins need to update their skills to stay current. How can you stay afloat in this rapidly changing environment and prepare for advancement in your IT admin career?
This shift is a bit of an inconvenience for an admin and everyone who works in information technology. It requires a new mindset and a different skill set to manage the evolving infrastructure. We have moved from a known environment in which we controlled when and where updates occurred. At the very least, we could trace those changes. Now, it's an outside entity that decides what updates happen and when they're applied -- often with no notice or communication.
Get your head in the Microsoft cloud
To adapt, admins need to be in the right mindset. In the world of Microsoft, you do yourself a disservice if you don't consider options beyond being fully on premises. It's next to impossible to stay on prem anyway.
Where does your email filtering service sit? Where do your OS updates originate from? How much does your disaster recovery environment cost to maintain? These questions are always going to come back to the cost and which one makes more financial sense. As a technical professional, you need to understand the pros and cons of different solutions at the high level. There is no ultimate better or worse answer; each has its strengths and weaknesses.
Because of changes in technical approaches from vendors and the rate-of-change expectations from companies, admins should learn as much as possible about Azure and Office 365. You may not use VMs in the cloud, but a major hardware refresh or office relocation that contains your existing data center may be all it takes for a decision to be made that throws you into the clutches of the cloud.
Admins new to Azure and Office 365 might be surprised by what each has to offer. Azure has a huge list of services and features that go beyond hosting VMs. Even Azure experts will say that it's not possible to be highly knowledgeable in all areas of Microsoft's cloud. Office 365 also has an extensive list of services and features that Microsoft changes and upgrades constantly.
To help sys admins, Microsoft provides a few ways to advance their learning efforts. The company's Evaluation Center offers test environments in its TechNet Virtual Labs to try out features in its cloud products. There are also Microsoft Mechanics videos that showcase new products and features with brief technical demos and discussions.
Engineer new possibilities with PowerShell
The road to better opportunities in your IT admin career journey is paved with PowerShell cmdlets. This automation and configuration management tool has been around since Exchange 2007, and every Windows admin should know how to use it, regardless of the task.
Many IT admins still barely use PowerShell. If you're in that group, don't put it off any longer. It doesn't matter which Microsoft product you work with; they all can be managed or configured with PowerShell. For an admin, it's a good career move. PowerShell experience is a strong bullet point on a resume. For some jobs that deal with Azure or Office 365 management, it will be a hard requirement rather than a desirable skill.
To learn PowerShell, there is plenty of material online, such as videos, articles and books for beginners. I prefer a more direct approach. I forced myself to use PowerShell commands for simple tasks I already knew how to do -- copying a file, changing an attribute on an Active Directory account or stopping a running service.
PowerShell commands can be cumbersome at first, but use Google searches to understand basic concepts, such as piping and variables. These efforts will build your knowledge to develop advanced scripts that perform complex tasks that would be impossible or extremely time-consuming with a GUI utility.
Follow Microsoft's lead to guide your career path
Companies that don't use Azure and Office 365 are scarcer every day. It can be hard to justify managing your own Exchange Server when Microsoft can do it for you. An admin who builds experience in these areas, even if it's only time spent testing and playing with the features, will be ahead of someone who did not invest the time to learn these technologies.
Even in your current job, use PowerShell to write a script for a particularly time-consuming task. For example, build one that generates a report of all users in the company by department and site, while excluding contractors and disabled accounts. This type of scripting ability is a great skill to have.
Keep an eye on Microsoft's direction, and stay up to date on those technologies. These efforts will make sure you're in the best place to advance your IT admin career internally or with another company.