Getting Started with IT Certifications

This question surfaces very regularly: you are at the beginning of your IT career or maybe have not even gotten into your career yet, and are wondering where to get started with certifications. Maybe you are in high school, maybe you have finished college, perhaps you are six months into your first job and feel that having a certification will help to move you forward. There are a lot of options and a lot of information about IT industry certifications out there but pretty regularly the advice around getting started comes down to just a few basic opinions and I will share mine (having worked in the certification industry for many years and having spent time both as a hiring manager and as a corporate career counselor in IT.)

Certifications that often get mentioned for people “starting” in IT include the CompTIA A+, CompTIA Network+ (often called the Net+), Microsoft’s MTA certifications and Cisco’s CCNA.

When just getting started in IT, though, I recommend starting with a firm foundation. Some certs, like those from Microsoft and Cisco, might be great but begin to take you down very specific career paths which may or may not be the right ones for you. We should hold off on those kinds of certifications until we have a little of the basics firmly under our belts. They can be great as a next step, but we do not want to get ahead of ourselves.

It is also extremely important to note that the Microsoft MTA exams are “pre-professional” certs, not certs for IT Pros. They are not meant to demonstrate a level of skill for an existing IT Pro or even to show that someone is ready to work as an IT Pro but instead to show that someone is ready to intern in IT or to attend IT classes. The MTA is targeted at high school students to take after entry level high school classes and are too low level to be considered even at the college level, let alone at the working level. You should never include these on a resume, even if you have them, once you are working in the field. They are excellent for showing initiative for high school classes but should not be used as goals of their own.

CompTIA is a vendor neutral certification authority so tends to be a good starting spot in IT. CompTIA also focuses on more entry level and broad certifications than most other providers. This makes then exceptionally well suited to entry level folks looking to certify themselves before moving into more specific career paths. And because they tend to focus on foundational knowledge the effort spent certifying is rarely wasted at an educational level either.

CompTIA has two major certs that are generally considered here, the A+ and the Network+. The A+ is by far the more well known outside of IT circles, and this is actually because it is not an IT certification at all. The A+ was originally designed to certify that someone had the appropriate experience level of someone having worked on a helpdesk for six months. However the knowledge tested by the A+ generally covers archaic hardware and tasks that generally do not exist in IT at all but belong to another, related, field of “bench work.” No amount of IT experience, even decades of it, would prepare you for the exam. This makes the A+ specifically targeted at bench careers and has become the industry standard in that area – which includes local computer stores, Best Buy’s Geek Squad, Staples and other non-IT computer “fix it” shops. The skills tested by the A+ are too “low” to be useful for testing in IT and focus on aspects of computers that are rarely, if ever, of concern to IT.

The A+ tends to focus very heavily on hardware and physical repair of consumer equipment. It does not cover tasks common to any level or style of IT. While some entry level IT areas would consider the knowledge in it common, most IT disciplines would not see it as foundational or useful and even the most senior IT professionals would often find it obtuse at best.

CompTIA’s other general purpose certification is the Network+, originally designed to represent the level of knowledge expected after “two years” working in IT. Both of these assessments are very poor, the A+ represents general knowledge or low level archaic knowledge that you would hope the general public would have and the Network+ really represents the knowledge level that you would look for a new hire, first IT job person to have. The Network+ is not a differentiator, therefore, between candidates but more of a foundational level of knowledge and a standard requirement. But that does not make it bad to have, it makes it good. The Network+, unlike its counterpart, does indeed focus on common and very important IT knowledge that those seeking a career in the field should most certainly have or acquire if lacking.

The Network+ represents standard knowledge useful for effectively any IT position or career no matter what technology or area of focus one chooses to pursue. For someone looking to go after their very first job or for someone looking to establish that they are well qualified in their first position or even for someone just looking to prepare themselves for the world of certification testing, the Network+ is an ideal starting point.

It is very unlikely that a Network+ on its own is going to lead to a job or promotion, but it establishes a starting point for looking towards other things. It is, more or less, the final “standard” starting point for nearly everyone in the IT field today. Many will not take the Network+ and certainly there are many options to enter the field without it, but I personally recommend it to everyone in every focus of IT. The knowledge needed for it will be useful throughout a career. As a starting point for a certification portfolio it is unrivaled.

The Network+, as the name implies, focuses almost exclusively on networking knowledge. This does not mean that it is only suitable for those interested in networking related IT careers. Networking is a part of everything that we do in IT today and is even important knowledge for non-IT users who want to understand their computers and their networks better. Even very non-network jobs like database administration would benefit from a firm foundation in networking.

Moving forward from the Network+ the world of certifications opens up and this begins a much more complex discussion. CompTIA offers other, good, general purpose certifications, such as the Security+, but at this stage we should be prepared to begin a bit of soul searching to determine exactly what path we want our careers to take from here. There are so many aspects of the IT field there is no way to provide a solid, reliable next step without looking at both short term and long term career goals and interests.

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