Best IT certifications for all levels of expertise

The following is a guest post by Greg Stuart, who originally wrote a series of articles about IT certifications for the TrainSignal blog. We’ve been working diligently to migrate TrainSignal’s content into our own library, and soon you’ll have hundreds of IT-related courses to help you study for these certifications!

shutterstock_128844151Whether you’re an IT newcomer trying to get your foot in the door, a seasoned mid-level employee or a senior-level IT professional looking to advance your career, certifications are a fantastic way to give your resumé that extra bit of, shall we say, oomph.

The amount of certifications available to IT professionals can be overwhelming. If you’re planning to get your first certification, you might be asking yourself, “Where do I start?” Or if you already have several under your belt, but want to round out your portfolio, you likely want to know which IT certification will get you the most return on investment. Well, luckily for all the would-be-certified IT professionals out there, we’ve put together a nice roundup of the best certifications you can get no matter where you stand in your career.

Top certifications for IT newcomers

1. CompTIA A+

The Computing Technology Industry Association (or CompTIA) is an IT trade association whose goal is to advance industry professionals through vendor-neutral education and certification. It’s a great place for newcomers to start simply because it isn’t influenced by any one company or marketing schemes. Its best IT certification for newcomers is CompTIA A+, which covers maintenance of PCs, mobile devices, laptops, operating systems and printers.

2. CompTIA Network+

Network+ is an easy choice as the second best certification for IT newcomers. While A+  does cover some of the physical networking aspects of IT, it doesn’t cover it deeply enough to gain the understanding you would need to land an entry-level networking job. The Network+ certification covers network technologies, installation and configuration, media and topologies, management, and security. If you want the best return on investment, and a more impressive resume, think of A+ and Network+ as a package deal.

3. CompTIA Security+

We promise we’re not sponsored by CompTIA. It just happens to have great certifications for beginners! That said, Security+ is an absolute must if you’re a newcomer to IT. There are many big mistakes IT beginners can make if they don’t fully understand the basics of IT security, and CompTIA Security+ not only ensures that candidates will apply knowledge of security concepts, tools, and procedures to react to security incidents, but that security personnel will anticipate security risks and guard against them as well. Security+ covers compliance and operational security, threats and vulnerabilities, application data and host security, access control and identity management, network security and cryptography.

4. Cisco CCENT

For those of you who already have the Network+ certification, or already possess entry-level knowledge of networking, Cisco Systems offers the Cisco Certified Entry Network Technician or CCENT, which delves deeper into networking, and is specifically focused on Cisco’s proprietary hardware and software. To gain the CCENT certification you will have to pass the Interconnecting Cisco Networking Devices Part 1 or ICND1 exam, which covers everything from installation, to operation and troubleshooting of network devices. There are also some security concepts covered, along with the basics of routing and switching.

5. Microsoft MTA

Microsoft has a detailed certification catalog, with certifications for everyone from a newcomer to an architect. As a newcomer to IT, plan on working with Microsoft technologies, whether that includes Windows Server 2008 or 2012, SharePoint or simply Windows 7; you’ll find yourself running into at least one of these technologies, if not all of them. Your best bet is to tackle the Microsoft Technology Associate or MTA certification. This will give you the baseline knowledge you need to interact with many of Microsoft’s products. There are different tracks to consider such as the MTA Database track or the MTA Development track, but the majority of newcomers will want to follow the IT Infrastructure track.

Top mid-level IT certifications

1. Cisco CCNP

At this point in time, you most likely have mastered the ICND 1 and 2 proficiencies and you have your CCNA certification. If that’s the case, then your next move should be the Cisco Certified Network Professional or CCNP. The CCNP is well respected in the IT community, and it seems as if it’s become almost a must-have for certain jobs. CCNP covers planning, implementing, verifying and troubleshooting local and wide-area enterprise networks, and the ability to work collaboratively with specialists on advanced security, voice, wireless and video solutions. CCNA certification is a prerequisite for CCNP.

2. VMware VCAP-DCA/DCD

VMware certifications have become some of the hottest in the IT industry. VMware’s mid-level certifications start with the VMware Certified Advanced Professional in Datacenter Administration or Design. The VCAP5-DCA exam is a unique, lab-based exam where you perform tasks using actual equipment to verify your skill at installing, configuring, and administering large and complex virtualized environments. Earning this certification demonstrates your expertise with VMware vSphere 5, as well as your ability to use automation tools and implement virtualized environments.

3. ITIL ® Foundations

The Information Technology Infrastructure Library, or ITIL ®, is a set of standards and practices that are primarily focused on keeping IT services in line with the demands of business. ITIL ® teaches you how to manage IT services better within an organization, and covers concepts and terminology used in the ITIL Service Lifecycle, including the linkages between Lifecycle stages, the processes used and their contribution to Service Management practices. ITIL ® Foundations is a course and certification that all mid-level IT professionals should pursue. Many companies want, and even require, their staff to have ITIL ® Foundations as a certification to further their profile in the competitive IT market.

4. Microsoft MCSE

What once was known as the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer certification is now recognized as the Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE). The Server Infrastructure certification covers identity management, systems management, virtualization, storage, networking and efficiently running a modern data center. In addition to Server Infrastructure, there are several other tracks that you can take to gain your MCSE. They are: Desktop Infrastructure, Private Cloud, Data Platform, Business Intelligence, Messaging, Communication and SharePoint. Within each track there are several exams that are needed in order to get the certification. If you have your MTA already, it can replace some of the exams that are required for the cert.

5. ISC2 CISSP

If you are leaning more towards the security side of the house, the International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium, Inc. (ISC2) has the certification for you. Their Certified Information Systems Security Professional cert has become a big time player in the IT field. With this certification you demonstrate that you have a firm grasp on security and have mastered the 10 security domains that they’ve tested you on. Along with the exam requirements you also have to have at least five years of experience doing direct security-related work and have that experience endorsed by another CISSP in good standing. Find a CISSP and get them to take you under their wing. When you’re ready to pass the exam they can vouch for you and cover that requirement.

Top senior-level IT certifications

1. CCIE

Cisco Systems has probably the most difficult IT certification on the market, the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert. The CCIE is no joke, as many networking experts can attest to. The CCIE was introduced by Cisco in 1993 to specifically distinguish the best of the best in networking in the world. The program continually updates and revises its testing tools and methodologies to ensure unparalleled program quality, relevance and value, and is only authorized in a few different locations across the globe. To get the certification there are two requirements. First you have to pass the written exam, which consists of anywhere from 90 to 110 questions. Secondly, you have to take and pass a lab examination. The CCIE is an incredible certification to have, but it takes time, money and discipline to get there.

2. VCDX

VMware certifications have really heated up the market over the past five years. Certifications like the VCP5-DCV and VCAP-DCA/DCD are becoming highly desirable for many companies. However, the VMware Certified Design Expert (VCDX) is the king of all virtualization certifications, and has become a highly sought after certification for senior level professionals. VCDX is the highest level of VMware certification. This elite group is comprised of design architects highly-skilled in VMware enterprise deployments and the program is designed for veteran professionals who want to validate and demonstrate their expertise in VMware technology. VCDX5-DCV certification is achieved through the unique design defense process, where all candidates must submit and successfully defend a production-ready VMware Solution before a panel of veteran VCDX-DCV holders. This process ensures that those who achieve VCDX status are peer-vetted and ready to join an elite group of world-class consulting architects.

3. RHCA

The Red Hat Certified Architect (RHCA) certification is the highest certification you can get within the Linux world. Linux skills are in high demand in today’s IT industry, and being an RHCA will pretty much land you the job you want without a question. Much like the CCIE, there are no “paper” or fake RHCAs. You have to actually pass five hands-on lab exams, each taking up to eight hours to complete. As an RHCA you’ll possess skills such as installing and configuring Red Hat network satellite servers, creating base and child channels on a satellite, configuring iSCSI targets and initiators, configuring run time kernel parameters, and many other skills. You also have to be a current RHCE (Red Hat Certified Engineer).

Certification royalty

If you get to the point in your career where you’ve received one or all of the highly advanced certifications listed in this article, then you can pretty much consider yourself certification royalty. The nice thing about these certifications is that you will cross paths with each of the technologies at some point in your IT career, so getting some or many of these certifications is a no-brainer. Regardless of which certifications you go after, being certified will surely help you advance in your career, and make you a more valuable IT professional.

Greg Stuart is a vExpert and systems administrator/network administrator by trade, who has worked a slew of IT jobs in his career. He’s put his time in with certification training, obtaining A+, Network+, Security+, MCP, CCNA, VCP4, VCP5 and NCDA. He now works as an IT consultant and runs the blogs, vDestination and vLATAM.

ITIL® is a Registered Trade Mark of the Cabinet Office.

13 thoughts on “Best IT certifications for all levels of expertise

    • I absolutely agree with this request. As a senior software developer/manager I am interested in the most relevant certifications for myself and my development teams.

      • Just want to add my voice to these two comments. A very useful article. I expect it would not be so clear cut, but it would be great to see the same thing for developers.

  1. A+, Network+, Security+ from CompTIA are great certifications and having all 3 gives a very solid overview of what IT is about, however these exams might still be difficult to pass for newcomers, that is people who wish to switch to IT from a completely unrelated profession. There is another, less known certification, offered by CompTIA called IT Strata Fundamentals and for those who find A+, Network+, or Security+ too difficult it might be a better starting point. The description below comes from the official CompTIA customer support site:

    “The exam covers the explanation of technology and computer hardware basics, compatibility issues and common errors, software installation and functions, security risks and prevention. The exam will also assess the candidate’s knowledge of Green IT and preventative maintenance of computers. Candidate job roles include network and system administrator, sales engineer, account manager and business development manager. The Strata IT Fundamentals certificate is ideal for individuals and students preparing to enter the IT workforce and professionals changing careers to IT or technology-related fields. The certificate can be a stepping stone to higher certifications in CompTIA A+, and with specialized experience, CompTIA Network+ and CompTIA Security+. Visit the CompTIA Strata IT Fundamentals homepage for full details.”

  2. Pingback: Why Go Professional with Cisco Certs? « Cisco Skills

  3. Pingback: Robert JR Graham » How To Become An ITIL Expert

  4. Great article.
    As s mid software developer and no previous certifications, should I consider taking MTA first or go straight to MSCE? And can I prepare for exams using Pluralsight only?
    THANKS

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