The hardest part of my job has nothing to do with my responsibilities to my employer or my clients. The hardest part of my job is fulfilling my responsibility to myself. The hardest part of my job is finding the time outside of my job to keep my hands-on skills sharp.
This is why I have a home lab environment. I have been spending all of my free time lately building new servers to create a Windows Server 2012 environment using my TechNet subscription. My plan is to build two Hyper-V servers and a Windows Storage Server so that I can learn the “ins-and-outs” of Microsoft’s virtualization technology. Eventually I will add orchestration capabilities through Microsoft’s System Center product line.
I am sure that the above reads like a Microsoft advertisement, but I have built many different environments in my home lab in order to learn different technologies with. Vmware, Linux KVM, and Xen are virtualization technologies that I have had in my home lab in the past. Once I am satisfied that I have a good understanding of Hyper-V I will deploy a Citrix solution in my lab.
The point is not to learn a single product, but to stay familiar with what it requires to build and deploy my own environment now that I no longer an administrator for a business. You need to keep yourself familiar with the hands-on work of an IT administrator as you move up the IT ladder. How else will you be able to relate to your customers or staff?
Find the time to build and work with a home lab. Keep your skills sharp by doing and not just reading. Consider it your daily IT workout. You cannot maintain a healthy career unless you do the hard work to keep it healthy in the first place.