The introduction of the SMB focused Office 365 exam serves the SMB channel well, as it presents a more realistic set of expectations of technologies that SMB customers will generally utilise versus the content that is covered in the earlier Office 365 deployment and administration exams. The initial Small Business Competency mandatory requirement for someone to have passed exam 70-323 Administering Office 365 didn’t do a great job of matching the real world SMB based skills and scenarios to the exam content, instead focusing on skills more befitting those deploying to larger enterprises. This left an exam gap that Microsoft quickly acknowledged, and the rapid introduction of this SMB focused exam. With the Silver Small Business Competency discounted until June 30, 2013, you have a good incentive to get this exam before then.

The new exam does a good job of more closely targeting the skill set an SMB focused Office 365 partner should have, without venturing into the skills required for enterprise deployments. Don’t take that as meaning this is an exam that focuses on P1 at the exclusion of the Enterprise plans, instead it’s more likely to target scenarios which include directory synchronisation, without going down the single sign on path. While P1 offers great value and functionality, there are limitations that you need to be aware of during the exam, and you definitely also need to be familiar with the components of E1, E2, E3 and E4. For the full list of topics that may be covered in the exam, take a look at the Microsoft Learning page to ensure that you don’t let anything slip through the cracks. Read on for some of the things that the exam guide doesn’t necessarily make obvious, and that may help you focus your energies. For a larger list of resources that I will update based on reader feedback, check out my other post here.

The exam guide only lists one online resource - Administering Office 365 for Small Businesses Jump Start, which I definitely recommend as the best starting point to get more familiar with some of the areas that are included in the exam. Chris Oakman and Stephen Hall do a great job of delivering 9 modules of content that introduce many Office 365 concepts, allowing you to determine what areas you may need to focus on. Those of you who are SMB focused, and have traditionally been delivering SBS based solutions, will definitely appreciate the additional insights into integrating and migrating from SBS, even if that’s not a focus of the exam.

So what are the other resources you should be aware of? Continuing on the training video focus, the Office 365 Jump Start is 15 video modules, and while it covers a great deal of more enterprise focused content, it does cover more topics in greater detail than the SMB focused videos. These training videos do help fill some of the gaps in the SMB focused training videos due to the additional time they can spend on topics, so it is definitely worth taking a look at the ones that you feel you will benefit the most from.

For both of these Office 365 Jump Start training video series, I encourage you to download them rather then watching them online. Unless you have serious bandwidth restrictions I recommend going for the highest quality downloads that are available for each recording, and this makes the demonstrations much clearer, and it also means that you can watch them from the luxury of your couch on your television without grumbling about the video quality. Downloading them also means you can copy them to different devices you may want to watch them on without having to stream them repeatedly.

Your current skill set will determine the path that you need to go down for your preparation, but the good news is that those of you familiar with some of the underlying components of Office 365 – and by that I mean the on-premise versions of Exchange, SharePoint and Lync, the skills you have already acquired will definitely help you in the exam. If you are already competent with SharePoint for example, don’t expect the SharePoint Online questions to be particularly challenging.

What this means that you don’t need to spend a huge amount of time looking at SharePoint, and instead you might find that the SharePoint Online service description, the Office Web Apps service description and the Office 365 P1 Service Description could be your best places to start. Take look at the SharePoint Online administration interfaces to see how the P1 and E plans expose their capabilities. Spend some time enabling public facing websites, comparing how Office 365 roles and permissions differ to what you are used to in SharePoint, and how allowing invited guest access differs in P and E plans.

It’s not just SharePoint Online where you need to understand the roles and permissions, one of the things we are more likely to do in the SMB space is limit the use of different user and administrator types, sometimes to the point where we as the partner act as the overall administrators of the environment, and mostly assigning the customers the necessary user rights. Even in the SBS world we tended to work with a subset of user types versus what the full versions of the components allow, so make sure you are familiar with the different administrator roles and what they can and can’t do.  

If you already work with Exchange via PowerShell commands, and have a basic understanding of the required syntax, you will find that you also have an edge with the exam. That’s not to say that you need to be a PowerShell expert to get through this exam, not by a long shot. My PowerShell skills primarily revolve around snippets saved in text files that I reuse as necessary, and were more than adequate for this exam. Knowing the important cmdlets is much more important than knowing all the options each cmdlet may have. In the day to day management and support of Office 365 tenants you have several activities that do require PowerShell, so it is something that you will need to embrace sooner rather than later.

Staying on Exchange but moving away from PowerShell, get yourself familiar with how you can manage mailboxes without access to the Exchange Management Console, instead relying on the web based Exchange Control Panel. Set up mobile devices for ActiveSync, and apply policies to control options such as password requirements. If you can, set up a hybrid environment with an on-premise Exchange 2010 server to see the options that this opens up. While not necessarily appropriate for some smaller SMB customers, the skills gained will be beneficial as your Office 365 customers grow in seats. To get started with learning about Exchange Online and how it differs to Exchange 2010, take a look at the service description.

I personally think that Lync is most likely to be the technology that most SMB partners haven’t had a great deal of exposure to, due to it not being a part of SBS. I found that the level of knowledge required on Lync to be quite low, but that could also be because I’ve been exposed to Lync for several years. If you master the configuration of the Lync client, and accessing Lync from a variety of devices, you are going to be well on your way to covered. Again, as a starting point, the service description will give you an indication of what the capabilities are so that you can get testing.

You will need to know what the requirements are for connecting clients to Office 365, from the minimum version of the operating system, to the version of the Office desktop applications that are supported. The setup of client devices will also mean that you need to be familiar with the capabilities of the Sign In Assistant, and what the Office desktop setup software installs and configures on your PC to help Office integrate better with Office 365. Again, check out the service description to get an understanding of the Office 365 Pro Plus subscription, as well as some of the related technologies to aid client setup.

In order to get the best preparation for this exam, there are several things that you will need to get up and running. The first two are Office 365 trial accounts for testing – a P1 and an E3 tenant. There are enough differences in the administration pages of these two plans to warrant setting them both up. If you want to do a good job of testing directory synchronisation and hybrid scenarios you should plan on setting up a few Windows Server 2008 R2 virtual machines, maybe more, depending on how much of your current infrastructure you want to integrate versus just running Active Directory and Exchange test environments for your training exercises.

I’ve deliberately kept the number of links in this article low to prevent too much distraction from the article, but as mentioned near the start of the post I have included the list of resources I used in the following post. I hope that those of you who aren’t overly familiar with Office 365, but have experience with the on-premise versions of these products see that you can leverage many of your existing skills, as well as develop new ones. I’d like to thank Robert Crane and Loryan Strant for their assistance with preparation for this exam, and strongly encourage you to check out their blogs as well.

Mark O’Shea
Device And Platform Lead
Twitter @intunedin  
MVP Windows Expert – IT Pro