Do IT: Breaking In – Certifications

Information Technology as a field offers a number of different paths that can be used to gain entrance into the field for beginners. In the late 1990s and early 2000s the most prevalent and popular path was through the use of industry certifications. Since the early 2000s the popularity of certifications has been decreasing as the tests are generally becoming easier and systems for “gaming” the test and even outright cheating have become common.

This is not to imply that certifications do not have their place. They still show initiative and other systems of showing competence can also be gamed or faked so certifications have their place. Over time industry certifications are likely to find a reasonable middle ground of usefulness without the unnecessary hype of 1999.

Certifications have the benefit of being able to cover very specific ground and can have value that few other resources can offer. Certifications range from simpler, single test based certifications that are designed to show knowledge of a single technology or large, in depth, multi-exam monsters designed to show knowledge in a specific family of technologies at a level unheard of in even the most demanding collegiate circles. Generally certifications are most valuable in general technology areas for people early in their careers to use as “foot in the door” tools or later on for mid-career professions to demonstrate in-depth knowledge of a specific skill that may be difficult to represent in any other way.

In this article we are only looking at using certifications as a means of breaking into the IT industry. Getting that first job can be difficult. Often, once the call is rolling, finding more IT work is easy. Each subsequent position is easier to find than the last. But the first one or two can be very difficult indeed and every tool at your disposal should be used. Certificates are one of the best tools. In fact, I would be very reticent to hire anyone without experience who has not taken the time and effort to get at least one or two certifications under their belt.

CompTIA A+: The most common “beginning” certification known widely in the industry is the A+ offered by CompTIA. The A+ is a longstanding cert and is designed to test the knowledge of a desktop technician supposedly at the level that should be obtained after the first six months of experience. In reality few companies would want to hire someone without the level of knowledge tested for in this exam. The biggest difficulty with the CompTIA A+ (and continuing on with later CompTIA certifications) is that the test is generally horribly out of date, based on a set of technology that only applies to Windows desktop support and often the questions of outright incorrect. People studying for the A+ must study from actual A+ materials as they will be stuck memorizing many CompTIA specific facts that must be forgotten as soon as the test is completed as they are either wrong, useless or irrelevant.

As much as the A+ is poor it has become the de facto standard certification for entering the industry. The theoretical purpose of the test, to examine basic desktop class hardware and software skills, is good and anyone working in the industry or even near the industry should have a good grasp of these everyday skills – even programmers and managers. But since the test is based on so much archaic knowledge and non-commercial grade systems it does not actually test the knowledge base that it would portend to. Often the material on the test is so old that no one with the first three or four years of their careers, even in the largest IT shops, would ever have had even the remotest access to some of the ancient systems that the test is based on. In Information Technology there is no room for people and certainly not tests that cannot keep up. But most of this knowledge can be memorized easily and once you are through the A+ test you can move on to bigger, better and more useful things.

Popular certifications following the A+ (it is almost always advisable to focus on getting the A+ over and out of the way as early as possible) include the CompTIA Network+, the CompTIA Server+ and the Microsoft desktop exam of the day. We will look at each of these certifications in turn.

CompTIA Network+: The Network+ is designed to be based on the expected knowledge of a technician with two years of industry experience. The exam is based solely on computer communications and networking. It is a broad and general test and, in my opinion, it is the most valuable test that CompTIA offers. The knowledge that is tested on the Network+ is knowledge that is useful to people in any IT field and I would love to see everyone taking this exam.

Unlike the A+ which is full of outdated and worthless knowledge my experience with the Network+ is that the subject material is much better though out and mostly relevant to the real world. In the process of studying for the Network+ it would be advisable to spend a good amount of time becoming very familiar with the subject matter as it will be useful again and again throughout your IT career. Often the Network+ is a “growth” certification and not a “foot in the door” cert but it can work wonders for someone trying to get off the ground who hasn’t found that first real position yet.

CompTIA Server+: The Server+ is not an exam for everyone. Programmers, Analysts and others may find the subject matter almost completely outside of their discipline and not useful to them. But for anyone looking to a career in the hardware areas or systems administration the Server+ can be quite useful.

The Server+ is designed to be roughly of the same “level” as the Network+ and picks up where the A+ hardware section leaves off. Instead of focusing on desktops and laptops the Server+, as its name suggests, spends it time looking at server class hardware tackling storage issues, redundancy and rack mounting among other issues. The Server+ also touches, just slightly, on server operating systems as a server technician will need, from time to time, to be able to access the systems themselves and not just the hardware that they run on.

Microsoft Desktop Support Exams: Microsoft offers a new professional certification exam with every major operating system release. At the time of the this writing Microsoft offers certifications for Windows 2000 Professional and Windows XP Professional – Vista certification is expected to be available very soon. In fact, they offer a second, more advance Windows XP exam for people who are interested in going further down that path. Since almost all desktop support personnel are involved in supporting primary if not exclusively Microsoft enterprise desktops this certification can be a real differentiator between candidates.

The Microsoft exams are very closely focused on the knowledge and skills that are needed for serious desktop support professionals to do their jobs efficiently. The Microsoft exams are extremely well written and are clearly peer reviewed extensively. Microsoft takes their certification process very seriously and their exams reflect this. It is a pleasure taking a Microsoft exam. In all of my exam taking experience while others, notably CompTIA’s, exams are loaded with poorly worded questions that have no actually correct answer possible the Microsoft exams have been flawless with every question, regardless of how difficult it was, clearly having a correct answer even when I did not know what it was. You never get the impression that you know more about the product than the test writers do when taking a Microsoft exam.

The Microsoft desktop support exams cover a lot of knowledge areas and are fairly challenging. But they are very valuable and can do wonders for the ol’ resume. Once you have the basics out of the way having a good, solid Microsoft exam or two under your belt can be just what you need to get into that first position or to advance on to your second.

Current Microsoft exams targeting the desktop include:

Windows Vista and 2007 Microsoft Office System Desktops, Deploying and Maintaining
Windows Vista Configuration
Installing, Configuring, and Administering Microsoft Windows XP Professional
Installing, Configuring, and Administering Microsoft Windows 2000 Professional

Of course, newer exams are more useful than older exams. By the time that you spend a few months preparing for an exam the focus will increasingly shift towards newer technologies so even if Windows XP offers the greatest installation base and demand in business when your studies begin Vista is much more likely to be valuable to you near the start of your career and will be increasingly so until another operating system replaces it.

Microsoft exams of this nature also have the very nice advantage of being part of the learning path towards larger and more difficult composite certifications from Microsoft such as the MCSA, MCSE and MCDST.

The Microsoft Certified Desktop Support Professional, or MCDST, was a two test composite certification (two Windows XP stand alone certifications) that demonstrated a real commitment to Windows XP support for the desktop. By taking each of the underlying exams you would gain a standalone Microsoft Certified Professional certification to put on your resume and with the completion of the second you would also achieve your MCDST status. Three resume “lines” for the price of two. A great value indeed.

With Microsoft Vista the certification structure has changed and the MCDST has been replaced with the MCITP or Microsoft Certified IT Professional: Enterprise Support Technician. The new structure is very confusing, unfortunately. It makes it much more difficult for aspiring IT professionals to be able to definitively know what certification paths will be most valuable to them. But it does allow for great levels of differentiation of a company takes the time to learn the meanings of the myriad certifications. The new MCITP still requires two exams but they are different exams than previously required and Microsoft’s current web site should be consulted.

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