Become a Product Expert in 30 Days

Photo by Karen Baijens used under creative commons attribution license 2.0

Want to stand-out in an interview with a company you’re dying to work for? Or perhaps you want to move to a new role but don’t feel like you have the background or experience to convince someone to hire you. You have two choices: You can sigh and dream about how nice it would be to get there some day or you can dedicate yourself to mastering a product they use/sell to show then why they’d be crazy not to hire you.

Can you really do it in 30 days?

I’m absolutely convinced that you can. Why? I’ve done it before on multiple occasions and I’ve helped others do it too. Keep reading and I’ll lay out a 30 day roadmap to becoming a product expert on Exchange Online, part of the Office 365 product suite. Along the way I’ll talk about the general principles behind the roadmap in case you’re smart enough not to want to be an Exchange expert and want to master something else.

Before we begin let’s get in the right mindset…

Throughout the process of mastering a product it is likely that you will get stumped, forget simple things, make mistakes and even possibly curse my name. That’s the good news. The great news? You will make progress. You will learn new things. You will learn more from your mistakes. You will demonstrate your mastery again and again.

Show me a person who doesn’t make mistakes and I’ll show you a person who doesn’t do anything. — Leonard Rubino
tl;dr If you’re giving up on reading here and want the easy answer it's unlikely you can master something in 30 days. Sorry.

Day Zero
If you want to show others your mastery of a subject the easiest way to do that is by blogging about it. Not only will it reinforce what you’ve learned, but it will require you to be able to describe it to others in a logical organized fashion. There’s no better validation of subject mastery than being able to explain it to someone else.

So if you don’t have a blog, go sign up for one now. WordPress and Blogger are both free. The blog is where you’ll be documenting what you learn as a teaching aid for others…

I promise I won’t document all 30 days in excruciating detail but the first few days are important for building the right habits and understanding how issues you encounter become teachable/blogable moments.

Day One

Office 365 has a 30 day free trial. Most software does. So you’ll get the opportunity to become an expert without spending any money on a subscription. In the case of Office 365 you may still have to outlay some $ if you want the “full experience” and that may be true of other applications as well.

Some possible Office 365 expenses (none are absolutely required):

  • If you don’t already have a domain name a .club domain currently costs $1.99 to register and a .space domain is $2.99.
  • If you want to play with some of the more advanced features you may need a SAN certificate.
  • A VM to try out some really advanced configurations if you choose.

Some possible expenses for other products you want to master:

  • A book on the subject.
  • A VM in Microsoft Azure or AWS to test the software on.
  • <unknown>

Ok.. back to Day One… If you need to buy a domain congratulations! You now have your first blog post article. Document the process of buying your domain through the domain registrar of your choice. I use Dotster but you can google to read reviews and choose whoever you prefer.

Did I say you had your first blog article? You might have 2 or 3. Did you have to search multiple times to find a domain that was available? Write an article on how to choose a domain name. Were you offered “Domain Privacy” by the registrar? Did you read up on what it was? Write an article on the pros and cons of it (I don’t use it but I can see why some might choose to).

Why am I wasting my time writing articles about some unrelated pre-requisite step when I’m trying to become an expert on SomethingElseEntirely? First, it’s good practice for writing blog posts. Second, experts tend to know lots of things about adjacent spaces to their primary area. While registering a domain is pretty simple by some standards it leads on to some other more interesting and complex topics.

Still Day 1…

Now it’s time to sign-up for a free trial. Visit Microsoft’s website and document the sign-up and on-boarding process.

Pro Tip — Since you’ll be taking screenshots for your blog try to take those before you fill in fields with potentially sensitive information, it saves you from having to figure out how to mask that data later.

Microsoft actually has pretty good context sensitive help. If you have a question and have to consult the help make a note of the question you had in your mind and the answer. Those make for good “Pro Tips” or “things to be aware of” bullet points when you document the process.

If there are multiple options, describe what they mean and why you chose the option you did where appropriate.

Microsoft’s sign-up process covers a lot of ground so you may actually want to create a 2 or 3 part series on the process so that you don’t wind up with a huuuuuge article like this one. Apparently people don’t read through to the end…. :)

Day 2

Start by creating your first mailbox in the UI. Document the wizard and steps. Think about what fields you’re filling in and why. When you’re done you may see there are some more advanced ways to do it (like using PowerShell). If you’re geeky enough to know what PowerShell is you might play with that method now, or save it for further down the road. Either way creating a single mailbox can yield AT LEAST 3 blog posts: Simple mailbox creation process, Creating a mailbox in PowerShell, and Things to consider when creating mailboxes.

I could probably come up with 15 more blog posts on mailbox creation and some of these ideas may occur to you later. When they do jot them down and when time permits try to flush them out into a full article.

Days 3–30

Continue the documentation process for additional features as you walk through the UI. Go through it methodically and try to document each feature and option. In Exchange that might be Mailboxes followed by Distribution Lists and then Contacts. Then you might write an article which describes each and when to use them.

If you’re trying to master another application that might mean walking through each menu item and documenting what they do (and what options you get when you right click or perform some other action on an object).

Look for external resources

Since we’re documenting Office 365 do searches on the items you’re learning about. See what others are writing about. See if your experience matches. Provide links to other good resources when you find them (experts don’t know everything… they’re just really good at Googling for answers when they need them).

Encounter an error message? Awesome! Document what you were doing when it happened, what it meant and then Google for a fix if you need to. Now write another blog post.

By the end of 30 days you should easily have 100 blog posts covering everything from simple how-to’s to more complex operations. You’ll have a number of error/troubleshooting/resolution articles and will hopefully have some “tips and tricks” articles as well.

You’ll also have found a number of great 3rd party websites and resources. Consider submitting one of your articles to them for publication. I know many of the Exchange experts running those sites and they are always hungry for more content… you may not get paid for it, but now you’re published somewhere which is external validation of your newfound expertise.

If you’ve found a community of experts answering questions for others you can jump in and try to help with your newfound knowledge. Every question you answer is potentially a new blog post or an edit to an existing one if you haven’t already covered the scenario.

What’s next?

You’ve read this far? What a trooper! I hate to disappoint you, but if you’ve done what I outlined above it’s time to apply for that job because you’re an expert. Don’t stop blogging or helping others though… that’s what passionate experts do.

Are you really an expert though? I promise you that if you’ve really spent 30 days playing with features and documenting them… and tried to do some advanced things to push your limits you are now really an expert.

I have 15+ years of experience with Microsoft Exchange. I’ve managed millions of mailboxes and consulted in hundreds of Exchange environments. I’ve written on Exchange extensively in books and magazines. By most definitions out there I’m an expert on Exchange. Personally I rate my skill level as a 7 out of 10. I do that because I’ve worked/collaborated with a few 8s and 9s. I know exactly one person I consider a 10/10 on Exchange who wasn’t at some point part of the product team at Microsoft.

If you really put forth an effort over 30 days to master a product you’re probably somewhere between a 5 and 6 at this point. You may be thinking WTF, but I believe a typical user/admin is really more of a 2 or 3 with a product and one who has a solid understanding is probably in the 4 to 5 range. If you are confident enough to pitch in and help others (and are reasonably accurate in your answers) then that puts you in the top 75% of people using the product. Welcome to expert country, newbies buy the first round.

What you don’t have… and can only come with time/mentoring is real world experience troubleshooting and answering questions for others. That comes with time and while you won’t always be able to figure out the answer on your own you’ve put down a solid foundation.

I’ve been a hiring manager; that company you were dying to work for is going to take a hard look at your blog posts and other activities. Few, if any other, candidates will have that level of external evidence they know something about something. It won’t guarantee you get the job but it will be seen as a big differentiator over a lot of other candidates (even ones who might have way more than 30 days worth of experience).

Final steps?

Click the heart because I crave external validation
Highlight something you found useful
Leave a comment and tell me what you really think
Pick a product and go master it
Stop back by in 30 days with a link so I can ooo and ahhh over your work.