Which IT Certification is right for me? How to choose an IT Certification.
So you’re looking for an “IT Certification”?
Firstly, allow me to outline that this list is far from complete, and serves only as a very basic introduction into some of the most common certifications, and some of my personal opinions on them. If you have suggestions to add to this list please leave a comment and I’ll amend it!
Whether you’ve just started your career in IT, or you’re a seasoned veteran, the sea of IT related certifications can feel overwhelming. Unlike many industries where there is one gold standard that everyone strives for, IT is a highly diverse field with many pathways and specialities.
There are three questions you should ask yourself to help you on your career certification path:
1. Am I entry-level, advanced, or senior?
You should also aim for certifications that validate existing experience, or aim for one slightly above your current skillset. That said, aiming for certifications well out of your league can be a red-flag on CVs and raise suspicion.
2. Am I looking to pursue an Engineering or Management career?
Be honest with yourself, are you the type of person that prefers difficult problems, but dislikes dealing with organizing a team? Or are you a natural leader that enjoys organizing people to get a job done. Being honest about what career path you prefer with substantially help narrow the list of certifications that will help advance your career.
3. Do you have a specialty?
Niche skills are highly valued, and most niches may also have engineering and management tracts within them. Specialty’s like Telecommunications, Information Security/Assurance and certain software systems have a high return on investment that can be combined with our skills/certifications to create an appealing package.
Once you’ve gathered this information mentally, it becomes a lot easier to simplify to narrow your options into useful groups.
Engineering and Technical Certifications
The number one job of entry-level engineering certifications is to prove confidence with engineering fundamentals. Wow certifications like CCNP, VCP, etc. are not going to chime with where you are professionally. Focus on certifications that prove understanding of the fundamentals, and save the big money certifications for a couple years down the road.
1) CompTIA Certifications
The number one choice for entry-level engineers to get their feet wet in the IT certification world is the CompTIA + series of entry-level certifications. Furthermore, they are very easy to keep current, unlike many vendor specific certifications, your normal professional life will most likely generate enough continuing education credits to prevent you from needing to recertify.
a) CompTIA A+
The A+, albeit it fairly easy and expensive compared to the other in the family, is a must for someone just starting their career. The A+ proves that you are serious about IT as a career path, and rounds out your understanding of the ethics of IT — and proves your knowledge.
b) CompTIA Network+
If you feel confident enough to skip the A+ and go straight to the Network+, no one will judge you for it. Now a days the A+’s relevance in a highly networked world is becoming less and less important. The Network+ although basic, proves a fundamental understanding of the things that matter in networking. The learning process for The Network+ consistently opens technicians eyes to “why things happen the way they do”. Although the CCENT gets a lot of attention technicians who are attracted to the Cisco brand, the cisco certifications are growing increasingly less relevant in a vendor neutral world. The Network+ and CCENT test the same concepts, but the Network+ is much less geared towards on vendor.
c) CompTIA Security+
CompTIA’ s entry level security certification does a great job of preparing technicians for understanding IT Security risk. Furthermore it is actually recognised by the Department of Defense as being a entry-level technicial certification for IT professionals working in sensitive positions. Arguably the Security+ is the last component of a technicians transition into the next phase of their career.
d) CompTIA Healthcare IT Technician
Honestly, this certification is a joke. It’s very easy to acquire, and very inexpensive. However, it looks fantastic on a CV. Unless you work in Healthcare it may not be worth it, however if you’re looking at Healthcare jobs, the low cost of acquisition and less than two weeks of study time makes this an attractive option to trick HR into thinking you know what you’re doing.
CompTIA Certifications to avoid: Server+, Linux+, etc. There is nothing wrong with this certifications in their own right, but arguably at this point in your career there are a lot of much more valuable certifications for you to choose from. CompTIA is not a very good organisation to certify specific skills on, get your basic rounded out IT education, and move on!
2) Microsoft Certifications
Whether we like it or not most entry-level positions are very heavy in desktop administration. In the current state of IT, Windows Desktops and Servers still form a bulk of the average organisations infrastructure. Microsoft certifications do have pretty annoying recertification requirements, and are notorious for changing far too frequently. Anyone with a MCSE will know that the MCSE has been retired, and then brought back, lending a lot of confusion to Microsoft Certified Professionals. Realise that Microsoft Certification require recertification every 3 years which can be a hassle if you do not need the certifications for your current job.
Microsoft certifications are a little different than most, as they are usually take the form of several small exams that you can mix and match to form a certification. The MCSA allows you to test on your core skills and forms an excellent stepping stone to the MCSE at the next point in your career. As your skills develop and you develop additional competency with Windows Server products, your credits don’t go to waste. However, if you live the Microsoft ecosystem, the time and energy invested in the tests can quickly become mute.
Unless you’re looking to go into a Cisco specific career path, don’t waste your time/money! CCNP Specialists do well, but the CCENT/CCNA on its own carry’s little value anymore.
4) Other inexpensive and miscellaneous certifications
Over the early part of your career, no doubt a lot of subsidised or vendor specific certifications may be offered to you. If you have the time and energy, go for it! Typical examples of these maybe The Dell Series of Certifications (DCSE), The Sonicwall CSSA (Certified Sonicwall Security Administrator) is another common one that you may be offered through an employer. Symantec also offers a number of free certifications on their products. Although these certifications won’t hold much value if you’re looking for a senior position, they do help to fill in a CV at the beginning of your career, and make you look like you’ve been keeping busy!
What comes next?
At this point, most engineers are probably looking for a specialty or know what their niche is most likely going to be. A lot of options open up for engineers
Don’t do it. None of their certifications at this level hold much water.
2) Microsoft MCSE
A very attractive option at this point, or one of the other specialised certifications. This give an excellent opportunity to show your experience working with a specific Microsoft product line, Exchange, SharePoint, Windows Server, etc. Furthermore, your MCSE credits will apply towards the other Microsoft certification career paths if you decide to get very specific into a product line.
3) Cisco CCNP
The trick to the Cisco CCNP, is the concentrations. The CCNP on its own doesn’t carry that much weight in the current world. But environments that implement Cisco usually specialise on a few products. CCNP: Wireless, and Voice are very well paying specialities that definitely have significant value. Although this certification path is expensive, and time consuming. If you already have a CCNA, and work with Cisco for your job, this may be an excellent pathway to take.
4) Redhat RHCSA
If you work with Linux on a day to day basis, the Redhat line of certifications is more or less the only industry Linux certification that holds water. The RHCSA is now the lower tier Redhat certification, replacing the RHCT. Although less complex and respected as the RHCE, it offers an effective way to get familiar with Redhat’s unique testing environment and prove your commitment to Linux system administration
BICSI is the organisation that regulates cabling standards for telecommunications installations. Although not directly in the classic scope of IT, there is a lot of value in BICSI for those who work in datacentre or large diffuse campuses or environments. BICSI offers a line of installation certifications which although basic compared to their flag ship RCDD product offer an excellent opportunity to learn the ropes of telecommunications wiring. Although this certification may offer a low return on investment for IT professionals in very software oriented environments, it might prove to be very valuable for professionals who manage datacentres or large campus networks.
6) VMware VCP and all of its specialties.
The number one issue with the VCP is PRICE. It is a very expensive certification because of the mandatory classroom requirement (~$3000), however definitely at the right skill range for a technician with a few years on-the-job experience. The VCP is very popular right now in certain environments because of the overwhelming moving to virtualised environments. However if you’re paying for this certification out of pocket it may be very difficult to get a good return on investment.
Mastery Level Certifications
1) Redhat RHCE
The RHCE commands respect in Linux environments because of its requirement for a intense proctored on-site lab with actual Redhat installations. The test is not possible to brain dump and requires substantial preparation and experience. Although, not as easily recognisable as many other certifications, in environments where it matters it won’t be hard to get a ROI
2) BICSI RCDD
The RCDD is a very specialised mastery level certification for skillset IT Transport architets. Although not for everyone, if involved in datacentre design this might be an excellent certification to look at. Unfortunately, it’s not well known outside of IT transport, and learning materials are more difficult to acquire, which makes getting a return on investment difficult.
3) (ISC2) CISSP
Although designed as a management level certification, the CISSP has slowly become a very popular resume item in HR departments. At one time the CISSP was necessary almost exclusively for IA positions, however its popularity has grown as more organisations look to integrate their IT Security and IT Management functions.
4) VMware’s VCAP
The tier up from VCP, very specialised and becoming more and more sought after for large organisations running public, private, or hybrid clouds, as well as organisations that rely on VDI. Very expensive to acquire due to mandatory education, but becoming increasingly valuable.
5) Cisco’s CCIE
Arguably CCIE isn’t for everyone. Although it seems like a lot of engineers get very excited about CCIE and its career prospects, I know CCIEs who barely use their CCIE. The CCIE is an expensive, time consuming, and challenging process that requires a very large quantity of very specific Cisco related skills. Most of the CCIE knowledge is not transferable to other vendors and that makes its value limited. However, in Fortune 500 and Government work, Cisco is still king. Being able to develop integrated Cisco Networks is still a valuable and sought after skill. But make sure you’re after the CCIE as a means of confirming years of Cisco Related Experence, rather than simply because the letters hold a lot of weight.
Management is a completely different career avenue in IT. Although having accompanying engineering certifications is a must to fully understand the mission. There exists a number of certifications that help better proof understanding of methodologies and frameworks regarding the science of information systems, risk, and management.
1) OGC’s ITIL v3 Foundation
The ITIL certifications are becoming very popular in organisations. ITIL is an IT Service Management Framework is gaining a lot of popularity in organisations all over the world. The Foundation certification is very inexpensive (~$200), and is usually bundled with a class at no additional cost. It’s a quite easy test for the IT Professional that will definitely exhibit a commitment to quality management.
2) (ISC2) SSCP
Although I prefer the CompTIA Security+ certification for the majority of professionals not looking to go down a specifically security tract, the SSCP, is about the same difficulty, and gets a management professional into the (ISC2) Ecosystem. Formal IT Risk assessment based on the ISO 27001 standard is getting very popular, and would round out a professional IT Managers CV.
3) PMI CAMP
Forma Project Management, especially the PMP, is becoming very popular. The CAMP is an excellent stepping stone for someone just entering IT Management to get some experience with the PMBOK. Although the Project+ certification is similar, it does not have the natural path to the full PMP, which is much more widely recognised.
1) OGC’s ITIL v3 Intermediate
The ITIL Intermediate tier certification requires a dedication to the ITIL methodology, so it won’t make much sense for people not within ITIL based companies. However, it can be a huge differentiator with companies who may are interested in formal IT Service Management, and Quality Management.
2) (ISC2) CISSP
Although there are many other high quality IT Security related certifications, the CISSP is definitely the most recognized. In reality the CISSP is designed for managers to assess risk properly based on the ISO 27001 framework, and is useful for managers in many roles.
3) PMI PMP
The PMP certifies a manager’s experience and knowledge relating to formally managing projects. Although not strictly an IT related certification, the complexity of IT projects has made The PMP highly sought after in the IT industry.
1) OGC’s ITIL v3 Master/Expert
Although arguably not useful for many people outside of those actively managing and implementing ITIL based environments, the ITIL v3 Master certification is excellent for those who want to implement detailed quality management systems in IT functions.
2) (ISC2) CISSP-ISSAM
A new CISSP Specialisation for Information Assurance professionals. Although, this certification is highly specific in scope, it would be useful for a senior professional looking to fully understand all the details of information assurance.
3) ISACA CGEIT
ISACA offers a interesting line of high end IT management certification, including the Certified in the Governance of Enterprise IT (CGEIT). Although still a relatively niche certification, the CGEIT is proving to be popular with professionals carrying other ISACA credentials like the CISA.