Core Microsoft Cloud IT Professional Skills

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Last year I wrote an article about:

Core Professional Skills

which are still valid and I encourage you to go and read that article as well as this one.

For this article I want to focus on the more specific core skills for IT Professionals working with Microsoft Cloud Technologies such as Microsoft 365, Office 365 and Azure.

PowerShell

Being able to use PowerShell comfortably in today’s Microsoft Cloud landscape is mandatory I believe. There is so much that you can only do using PowerShell as well as it being the way to be more efficient when managing multiple environments. I am not saying however, that you need to become a developer or start using something like Visual Studio. As I often say, to be proficient in PowerShell you really only need two commands – Ctrl + C and Ctrl + V.

PowerShell allows you to easily take what others have created and run it or improve on it. I fully appreciate however, that getting up and running with PowerShell can be challenging, especially with so many services. With that in mind I wrote this article:

Microsoft Online PowerShell Setup/Update scripts

that will help you get up and running quickly. In fact you’ll find a whole swag of my scripts freely available at:

https://github.com/directorcia

Ensure you check back there regularly as I constant update and add more scripts.

The best way to become familiar with PowerShell is to use it! If you are doing things using the web interface, try replicating that task with a PowerShell script. Yes, it might take a little longer initially, but once you have the script you can re-use it over and over again. That’s one of the benefits of scripting.

PowerShell skills are not merely limited to the cloud, just about every Microsoft product support PowerShell in some form. That is a big differentiator when considering suppliers. For example, if you become a CIAOPS Patron, you get access to a best practices script that I have created and configures over 20 different items and services in a tenant to make it more secure and easier to use. You couldn’t do that easily with different vendors.

An investment in PowerShell as an IT Pro is simply a ‘must’ for anyone who wants to remain relevant in the Microsoft world going forward.

Identity

Understanding identity is something few IT Pros really have a good grip on in my experience, especially when it comes to the cloud. In short, there has to be a single master source of user identity somewhere in the environment. On prem, that was typically the domain controller. In the pure cloud that is Azure AD. However, things start to get complicated when you are talking about Azure AD Connect syncing and stuff like ADFS. This can place identity in multiple locations BUT the master is still in one place (on prem for both again). Now add to the mix things like Azure B2B and B2C, where is the master identity now? Further, add Azure AD Premium and enable attribute write back. Again, where is the master identity? Now add device management with the likes of Intune and you see pretty quickly how all of this stuff depends on identity. Get that wrong and stuff just doesn’t work.

You soon see that identity can involve a lot of moving parts very quickly. However, there are still basic principles that it conforms to, but in my experience few IT Pros seem to know these. Without these basic skills you are going to really end up chasing you tail when troubleshooting or potentially creating security holes during configuration.

Start with understanding the basic three Microsoft Cloud identity models – Cloud only, Synchronised, and Federated. Understand what the fundamental differences are between on premises AD and Azure AD (and there are plenty). Once you have a good grip on that start adding options like B2B, B2C, Azure AD Premium and so on.

Understanding how identity works in a hybrid and mobile world is critical for many aspects today and no more so than security. Spend the time and learn the basics and you’ll greatly reduce the chance of over sights or misunderstandings.

Use the stuff you sell

Another things that constantly amazes me is the number of IT Pros who DON’T use the services like Office 365 they actually sell to customers. Many still use on premises mail servers! Yes, there is an investment to be made coming up to speed with a range of new technologies but the best way to do this is to use them every day and learn in small increments. Simply ignoring them is merely kicking the can further down the road and making the mountain to eventually climb that much higher.

Sure, everything in Office 365 may not be relevant, but IT Pros should know something about everything on there. They should have some very basic idea of what the service does and how it could potentially help their customers. They don’t need to be an expert in it. If need be they can delegate that off to a partner who specialises in that particular service. Office 365 is now so large that most can’t, and shouldn’t do everything. However, they should always have the option to refer a colleague who can help if asked by a customer for anything they don’t know about because sooner or later the customer is going to ask what that service they have no idea about does. Not even knowing the basic of what it does looks really bad.

Some of the services in Office 365 you’ll probably need to play with and work out how they can benefit a business. This make it easier to sell and support customers. A recent good example I saw was a large Microsoft reseller business sending out surveys using the free version of Surveymonkey! Sure Surveymonkey can do the job but what about using Microsoft Forms and then integrating that with Microsoft Flow for automation, because the survey task doesn’t end with just collecting responses now does it? I’ve built a number of automated services in my business using Microsoft Flow, many of these I can sell to customers to also help streamline their business. What about things like Power BI and what it can do, etc, etc.

Every service in the Microsoft Cloud provides the potential to offer services around and therefore generate revenue. You don’t make money doing what everyone else does (i.e. migrating emails), that is a commodity market. You make money doing what few others can or want to do. The more work it takes to get into that area, the less competition there is and will be and higher the margins. That’s just simple business investment mathematics for you.

The opportunities inside the Microsoft Cloud of Office 365, Microsoft 365, Azure, etc are endless yet I see the majority of resellers doing almost next to nothing with these services themselves. Selling and supporting the stuff is so much easier when you actually use the stuff! Most partners also get the stuff from Microsoft for free. Go use it! NOW!

Become certified

For those that need some sort of syllabus to follow to learn the Microsoft Cloud I would suggest you consider completing the new certifications that are available for both Azure and Microsoft 365. I have written about

The benefits of certification

in the above article. It is not about getting a ‘bit of paper’ it is about using them as a focused way to learn the products, with the added benefit of being able to prove that you know your stuff.

I see that such certifications are going to become a real point of differentiation going forward. Office 365, Microsoft 365, Azure and the like are now common services that anyone and everyone can purchase and access. Thus, many believe they know what they are doing with these services but few really do. The only real way to get an independent verification of this knowledge is going to be via certifications.

I have been called into help so many customers with absolutely criminal Microsoft Cloud configurations done by some so-called ‘cloud guru’ who clearly had no idea at all of the products or what they were doing in any way shape or form. Many customers are becoming far more cautious about whom they trust their cloud services to, as they should be. They should really be asking questions about the experience and knowledge of those working with these systems. Ask yourself, how can you truly and honestly demonstrate your knowledge and experience with the Microsoft Cloud? If you can’t, then certifications maybe an option worth considering.

Above all else, I believe certifications provide a structured learning path and testing of your knowledge. You shouldn’t be afraid of failing a certification exam, you won’t die. Believe me you won’t. I haven’t and I’ve failed plenty of exams! See it as a way to confirmed your knowledge in a controlled environment. Personally, I’d rather find out that my knowledge wasn’t as strong as I thought in an exam rather than in the heat of battle. See certifications as a primary way to verify and expand your knowledge while reinforcing your commitment to professionalism in your chosen field.

Security starts at home

There is little doubt that IT security is now a big thing in the age of the cloud. Everyone is so dependent on IT systems today. No matter what the size of the business, IT security matters! Bad actors are smart operators. They know where Aladdin’s cave is typically located, inside an IT business. Why? Because inside an IT business is normally the keys to many, many other systems. If they can get in here, then the rewards can be enormous. That means IT Pros and IT businesses are big and enticing targets to crack.

If you are IT Pro, ask yourself whether you take security seriously. Are all your devices, phones, computers, files, etc encrypted at rest? Are you using MFA everywhere you can? Do you have good and unique passwords. Do you have alerting set up on your own environment? Have you reduced the surface area for attack as much as you can? Where is your documentation? What is your disaster recovery plan in case of internet outage, power outage, building inaccessibility, etc.

Unfortunately, my experience is that many IT Pros don’t have good best practices when it comes to security. They don’t follow industry best practices. They don’t have a good understanding of attacks and vulnerabilities and tend to give security best practices a low priority over getting the job done. For example, creating full admin accounts just to get something working or overriding security just to get a PowerShell script running. Yes, more security is painful, but that’s the idea. You want to make it as hard as you can for the bad actors.

Take a good hard look at all your systems and ask yourself if they are as secure as they could be. You’ll have to ask this question over and over again because the landscape is constantly changing. The price of security is eternal vigilance. Have you got things like Protection alerts enabled? What about Activity alerts? Activity auditing? Most importantly, do you have a checklist which you use to enable security? If you don’t, why don’t you? Do things randomly, get random results or in this case vulnerabilities.

Yes, security is hard. Yes, there are lots of options. But this is exactly what the bad actors exploit. They exploit the simple fact that people don’t want to put in the effort to be secure. That lack of effort sooner or later results in real financial loss.

The best way to sell security is to implement throughout your business. Ask yourself regularly, is this as secure as I can make it? Once you are serious about security other will see that and understand why they should also be. If they don’t, even after you have shown them, why should you continue to deal with them? Perhaps those businesses are not ones you should be associating with, because we are all only as secure as the weakest link in the chain and the closer you are to the vulnerable system the more financial damage your business is likely to feel when something inevitably happens.

Take responsibility for IT security seriously. Start with your own systems and be the example why others should be as well.

Write stuff down

Whether you use pen and paper, OneNote, a blog, or whatever, there is NO WAY you can keep all this stuff in your head! My number one destination for information is OneNote for many, many reasons. It doesn’t matter what you use. Just use something!

The benefit of maintaining a blog is that firstly it is available everywhere there is the Internet. Next, it may in fact help someone else. If you are reading this then you have benefited from what I post publicly. That’s the power of blogging. Adding to the aggregated knowledge of Microsoft Cloud services available for free is a good thing. Your unique experience and situation many one day turn out to help someone else in need. Pay it forward, as they say.

Another benefit of a blog is that you can point people to it to demonstrate your knowledge and dedication to your craft. Even if your destiny is not as a business owner, having a regularly updated blog stands you out from all the ‘wanna –be’s’ out there claiming to be IT Professionals. You don’t have to be more right that everyone else, you just need to show you are learning. True IT Professionals NEVER stop learning. They are not afraid to try and fail because that teaches them what not to do next time.

Learning is the one skill that once mastered will serve you no matter what changes happen in the industry, in your profession or in your life. You become better when you learn something. You become great when learning becomes part of your daily routine. Remember, most people in this game don’t actually have a structured learning system. They react, scramble around, do internet searches until something random puts out the fire. As they say, do random things and you get random results. Winners have systems. Be a winner, build a system.

True IT Professionals take a professional approach to their business and career. They are proud of the work they do and look to push themselves to improve. They are always looking to improve, invest in themselves and add value while helping others. They are humble enough to appreciate they need to continue to learn in this profession and welcome the challenge of developing their knowledge of the products and services that are available. They are always willing to help others and recognise those that help them. But most of all, they embrace the challenge that that IT profession provides them.

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