As for the flippant piece of advice I gave my friend, about trying to get interviews for a similar job, there is actually something you can take away from that. There’s no need to go all the way to securing interviews if all you really need is the technical test questions you’re likely to encounter in those interviews, as a host of technical tests are available on the web. Downloading technical tests and then honestly setting out to get the answers can provide much needed guidance when it comes to going about keeping your skills up to date. However, it is best to avoid trying to game the system by learning off the answers to technical tests with a view to using that knowledge specifically for the purpose of doing well at interview. Any potential employer who knows what they’re doing will see through this straight away (the friend I mentioned earlier is actually really good at what he does, and the story about not knowing what he was supposed to be doing is really a yarn about the differences between his previous and current employers styles of management). Despite the obvious temptations here, it is important to remember that the point of this exercise is to develop learning scenarios for systems you’re not actively supporting in your day to day job.
There is another way to get really thorough experience of computer systems that is only ever spoken about in hushed tones. When you want to get into the mechanics of how something works in a way that might fire the imagination more than the other methods I propose, then you could try hacking it. Learning how to get a system to do things it was not strictly meant to do, or learning how to bypass system security, or whatever less then mainstream task you have in mind for a system, often requires a high degree of knowledge about that system. I in no way endorse any sort of crime, computer related or otherwise, but there is something to be said for all those hacking website that dish the dirt on how some widely used systems contain flaws and vulnerabilities. The real irony of those sites is that most of them have hidden behind disclaimers stating that they are for “educational purposes only” in order to keep the site online and the operator out of trouble, but the fact is that they can be very educational indeed, and the style in which the information is presented is often a lot more entertaining than dry technical manuals.
The problem faced by anyone wanting to advancing their technical skills is not the issue with not having answers but it’s with not knowing what the question is in the first place. Being able to create good quality training situations that dive deeply into a technology and thus provide quality experience is a skill as valuable to a technology professional as being able to do quality research or having a good deskside manner though, just like those skills, it’s not something too many of us spend a lot of time thinking about.