Make sure you have an awesome home lab setup.
By this I mean not just a virtual server that you set up in order to go through a book doing the lab exercises verbatim with a click here, click there and whoopdie-do it does what the book says. I’m not talking about that.
I’m talking about having a production environment at home. Yes a production environment. This is absolutely critical. And what I mean by that is that you do a project at home and have those servers running full time, 24/7, doing what it is that project is designed to do.
For example, one project that I recommend to my candidates to do in order to prove they’ve got great experience with both Windows and Exchange servers is to install from scratch a Windows 2012 server and Exchange 2013 server, make the Windows 2012 an AD server and set-up Exchange so that it is sending and receiving emails through the internet externally with a domain that they have registered for their family’s email.
And then what you do is you give all your family members, cousins, aunts, parents, friends, neighbours, heck even your dog – an email address and have them set it up on their devices – computers, phones, Android, IOS, etc. So that they are running Outlook connected to your Exchange server with your own domain name that you have set up. The reason why this is such a good way to have a production environment set up at home, is because to do that successfully you will need to know about domains names, mx records and how emails criss-cross the internet. You will have to know which ports to open on your home router, you will have to have a static IP address on your home internet connection or set-up something called dynamic DNS in order to facilitate that. You will also have to set-up security on your Exchange server so that you don’t get spam, you have to set-up the links between the Active Directory controller and the Exchange server. All these things mean that you have to have end to end knowledge of how email and email servers work and even computers on a domain environment because you have to configure everything from the tablet, mobile phone and PC or MAC on one end, to the router, DNS and MX records at the other end. And not only that, you will have to document it all to make it easier to support later on. Further to that, it has to be a stable environment that you have to have up and running all the time because if it goes down, your Mum will phone you and start screaming at you complaining that she can’t get her email. (Well I hope your mother doesn’t scream at you.. but you get my drift). That’s why it is critically important that you are monitoring it and you have a monitoring program like PRTG on your mobile phone and then you’ve effectively got a small business set-up. That is how a lot of small businesses run (at least before the advent of Office365). Of course, if you don’t have the tin lying around, then doing the same project in the cloud is always an option. Make it a production environment though – don’t just muck around with stuff without actually getting it to work and have real users using it.
That is a brilliant project to get real world experience with Exchange server that you can do yourself. And if you present that as relevant experience on a resume and in an interview, then you will stand out from the crowd as being a cut above. Doing projects like this in your own home environment means you’re not just book smart but you actually understand it because you did everything yourself using online free resources to help you get the knowledge you needed in order to set it up properly.
Now, a little story. I’ve had a candidate who was a crew trainer at McDonalds who didn’t just have a set-up like that but he had about 15 servers doing different things around his house and he set it up from scratch. Now his resume looked amazing because it had all this technical stuff in it and a lot of technical documentation about his home network set-up. It had a network map and everything! When I interviewed him, he was able to give me as-built documentation for all those servers that he had set-up as well! Crazy – and he had no IT job experience! So he has documented everything, he has network maps for it and he even monitors it from his mobile phone. And when I asked him during the interview, have you had any experience with Windows Server or Exchange Server, have you ever installed it? He was able to say, “Actually I have, here is the documentation for my network at home, here’s what servers I’ve got running, this one is a Windows server, this one is an Exchange server, this is what they do around my house.”
And that was good enough commercial grade experience, if not true commercial experience for me to be able to present him to my clients and say “This guy is a grad, who is good, who can do the job that you want him to do, even though he doesn’t have the commercial experience because look what he has done at home himself and look what he has running at home that he set-up from scratch himself and he maintains, monitors and supports.”
There’s no excuses anymore! This shows an employer you are passionate about IT and invest in yourself and your own knowledge. Furthermore it proves you have the knowledge and potential to learn more.
The next installment looks briefly at your CV as a grad. Until then, happy hunting.