I thought I'd add my thoughts and experience to this thread....
I am now a technical architect (or Technical Design Authority as some people put it). I design high level server and network infrstructure, through the initial idea on pen and paper, all the way to implementation and support of the finished production system. Over the past 7 months I have designed a cloud computing infrastructure for the Building & Energy management sectors. I am currently MCP, MCDST, MCSA, MCITP:SA and VMWare VCP5-DCV.
I am 24 now and started work when I was 18. I left college and went straight to work on a 1st line helpdesk doing basic windows desktop support. I only had a BTEC National Diploma in ICT along with decent Maths and English. My main skill however was a huge, proactive interest in computers.
After a short period learning the ropes of the support world, I became technical lead for a "1.5" line team where I had more admin rights over a large active directory and got to learn more about a windows domain environment. Thanks to this experience I was able to start studying for and taking Microsoft exams. I started with desktop stuff in Windows XP at the time and passed all 3 exams in Windows XP.
From there I left the company as I could not see a clear route of progression to the next level, and Im one to believe that life doesn't wait for me, so I must make my own opportunity and go from there. I took a 2nd line applications support role for another large IT company. This involved more in depth Windows environment work where I was able to get hands on with GPO's, AD Security groups, Shares, software deployment and print servers etc... This experience allowed me to start taking Microsoft windows server qualifications. I eventually passed the required exams for MCSA in Server 2003. After a while I became technical lead for the 2nd line team and this allowed me to spend much more time focusing on the more advanced technical problems and liaising with my 3rd line colleagues in order to learn more about the system architecture. Sure enough, after I while I wanted to further myself again but there was no clear route to do so internally, so I left the company and took on a 3rd Line Infrastructure specialist role for another large company at a large data center.
Now this role exposed me to the real nuts and bolts that made up the works of the systems I had only previously been able to brush the surface of. A large windows based environment, numerous SQL clusters, an Exchange environment, a VMWare environment, IIS web servers, log shipping services, BizTalk servers, Cisco routers, EMC San's... The whole caboosh. My team were responsible for it all, the whole platform that supports the application layer that provides a service to the end users. In this role I learnt LOADS. Server builds, software patching, GPO implentation, AD work, Domain Controller migration, AD Schema upgrades, Taking things in and out of CISCO load balancers, provisioning SAN storage, Certificate PKI infrastructure etc.....
In a way, at times I felt like I bit off more than I could chew. Going home late, struggling with the thoughts of how I would achieve something on time whilst adhering to strict procedure etc... It all seemed a bit daunting... But I stuck at it and eventually became confident in the day to day running of the infrastructure. I cannot stress the importance of having a strong experienced team to learn from and work with in this case. Without the help of the more experienced engineers, I would not have learned a fraction of what I did, regardless of how much training material I read. This is where I started taking the further exams to get me MCITP:SA in server 2008.
The next stop was contracting, 3rd line environment support. Really good money, over £300 /day over here. Most of this role utilised skills that I had already learnt from past roles but gave me the flexibility to implement my own improvements and take full technical ownership of a certain platform aspect. This was by big introduction to Project work besides regular support work as well. I took a liking to the Citrix XenApp platform and after a short while I was the technical owner for it and managed expansion and maintenance of the Citrix farms. Outside of work I had also been experimenting with VMWare a lot (mainly due to studying for exams). This role then gave me an opportunity to head a large P2V (Physical to Virtual) project. I learnt a lot more about ESX, the Hotclone and Coldcloning process, Storage in VMWare, HA, DRS etc....
That was an excellent role, but unfortunately the business unit moved north and I found myself out of work when my contract finished.
Next stop was a server support role, which I must say was a downgrade technically from what I had been doing but I needed work. This involved looking after a massive AD and Exchange environment and also gave me an introduction to a Linux web hosting platform. This is when I studied hard and gained my VMWare qualification. A Company that I done some contract work on the side for then contacted me about an idea they had and I asked them to employ me on a perm basis. They did. This is where I am now. A Cloud Services Architect.
The moral of this story is that life doesn't wait for you and present opportunities on demand for you. You must really put yourself out there and strive to learn. The key to success is the drive for learning. If you get a real buzz out of achieving something you never knew about earlier, then you're on the right lines. Use your own time to further yourself, make yourself known at work. Don't see difficult problems as a pain in the neck. See them as a challenge and go for it. Having the drive and enthusiasm to learn, coupled with experience will allow you to make your own oppertunities and eventually find your way to the right role. Start small. Aim big.
Edited by The_Rocker - 9/24/13 at 2:45pm