How to…Become a Small-Business Specialist

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With the focus on enterprise-level certifications like the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), why would anybody want to become a Small Business Specialist? There are plenty of reasons to take the Designing, Deploying and Managing a Network Solution for a Small and Medium Business (#70-282) certification exam. Two of the best reasons are because 99.7 percent of U.S. businesses are small businesses, and the #70-282 certification exam counts as an elective toward the MCSE.

The Windows Small Business Server 2003 (SBS) system departs from the usual Microsoft server space mantra. In the past, computer consultants and technicians would focus on large-scale, long-term projects in the large business space. They avoided the conundrum of the SBS, which had products like Exchange, SQL and Internet Security and Acceleration (ISA) Server located all in one box, only dealing with an SBS installation if they were in between projects. Many arguments were made against the coexistence of these applications on one server. Another big turn-off for many people was wizards, believe it or not, because techies weren’t really sure of what configuration changes were made under the hood. This resulted in techies ignoring the wizards and going straight for the native tools—which, back then, would break SBS. Today, this is no longer a concern.

An MCSE I knew was called in to upgrade an SBS 4.0 server to SBS 4.5. There had been some issues with the server already, but when the MCSE “fixed” the server, the problems accumulated to the point that the SBS installation was removed and a “real” server solution at a much higher price was implemented. The MCSE stated that SBS was a good idea gone wrong and not capable of performing all the tasks it was purchased for. That MCSE was me, back in 1998. I have since changed my tune.

With the 2003 version release of SBS, the cat is finally out of the bag. Not only are the server applications in SBS optimized to work together (they can later be unbundled with a transition pack if needed), but also the pricing levels for the Windows Server 2003 were changed by Microsoft, making it affordable even for the smallest of small businesses.

The Standard Edition ($599) comes with Windows Server 2003, Windows SharePoint Services, Exchange Server 2003 (with a maximum of 16GB on the mail store, soon to be upgraded to 75GB with Exchange Service Pack 2), Microsoft Office Outlook 2003, the Microsoft Shared Fax Service (which manages up to four fax boards simultaneously), a whole slew of wizards and an intuitive server management interface that makes working with SBS 2003 a breeze. The Premium Edition ($1,499) has the same basic features as the Standard Edition and includes SQL Server 2000, ISA Server 2000 and Microsoft Office Front Page 2003.

Now you see where there could be controversy—especially since the licensing rule requires you to keep all the components on the same server without separating them. Not surprisingly, most SMBs don’t really care about this technical mumbo-jumbo. They’re interested in faxes, e-mail and easy data retrieval at a bargain price—and they expect it to work flawlessly. This is where SBS steps in. With the rapidly growing popularity of SBS 2003 and the hands-off attitude taken by many certified professionals, SMBs are finding themselves with a great product but a shortage of computer consultants and technicians who are both familiar with and want to work with SBS 2003. On top of that, SBS 2003 is marketed as an entry-level server, so business owners try to save money by not hiring a consultant. This works about as well as trying to be your own doctor.

I am participating in a chat at in Germany about expanding the SBS domain and adding additional domain controllers. In SBS, you can only have one domain, as the SBS server has to be the root of Active Directory (AD), and no child domains or trust relationships with other domains are allowed. Participants are coming back and asking why, if you are going to use several servers, should you implement SBS in the first place and not put in a “real” domain infrastructure. The answer is about the customer, not the technology, but most people still don’t get it. Microsoft got it, and understands both the customer and how to create solutions. A $61 billion software giant can’t be all that wrong.

So what am I really driving at here? You may not have ever considered getting an SMB designation, but if you are in the process of acquiring your MCSE to further your employment opportunities, the SMB space can be a great stepping-stone.

How about a reality check: If you have no hands-on experience at all and walk into a job interview with a certification, what do you think your chances are compared to someone who has hands-on experience and just hasn’t bothered to take the exam? In a recent interview with Fred Johnson, CEO of Ross-Tek in Cleveland, Ohio, he stated that he just hired a new techie with no certifications because he had some experience but, most importantly, soft skills. Soft skills are the ability to talk to an end-user or computer-illiterate person and manage to treat them nicely, without letting them know you think they’re an idiot.

While you are waiting to have the interview with the large company where you really want to work, most likely you will be job hunting at the neighborhood computer store, trying to do some installs on your own (i.e., starting your own consulting business) or working for a small IT provider in town.

Working with a small business customer is more challenging than working in a large company where you only have a specific job task, like desktop support or managing the Exchange server. When you support a small business, you become its consultant, whether you like it or not. Here you will learn soft skills—or you will be out of a job. Small businesses have many diverse needs. You will not only be consulted on what hardware and software to purchase but also will do desktop support, deploy Group Policies and implement disaster recovery. With SBS, you will manage a miniature domain with anywhere from two to 75 users. Working with SBS 2003 Standard Edition exposes you to Windows Server 2003, AD, GPOs, Exchange 2003, IIS and other services. You will get to see how third-party line-of-business (LOB) applications interact with the Windows system.

There is a big gap in the number of technicians who are certified to design, deploy and manage a SBS compared to the number of SBSs out there. Passing the #70-282 exam will make you more desirable for IT companies that service the SMB space. The exam focuses not only on your technical know-how (it cross-examines you on SBS 2003 and Windows Server 2003, ISA and Exchange) but also on your business savvy. But this does not make you a Small Business Specialist yet. The exam is the major part of it, but you also will have to pass a sales assessment on the Microsoft Partner site. Not a partner? No problem. Go to and sign up as a registered partner. There is no charge, and while you are there, you may want to consider purchasing the Action Pack at $299, which will give you more Microsoft software than you can study in a year. Consider this another way of getting hands-on experience. It includes Virtual PC, so you can play with all the new software and prepare for the exam without having to have six or seven computers sitting in your living room. More information on the Action Pack can be found at the partner site.

Once you have signed up on the partner site, get free Web-based sales and marketing training. Yes, you heard me right. Learn to sell solutions based on technology. That is an attribute that most technicians lack. This would be a great add-on to your resume or interview. You have social skills somewhere, and it doesn’t hurt to let the interviewer know that. So go to https://partner.

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