The best certifications for IT newcomers
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You ask, “What does that even tell the interviewer? How does that translate to any kind of experience?” In short, it doesn't translate to a whole lot of experience, but what it does show is that you have a brain and are willing to do what it takes to learn a certain technology. When you get a certification, the vendor is basically saying, “John Doe is technically competent with the ins and outs of our technology, and here's a certificate to prove it.”
Now before all of you veterans jump all over me for that, there are some people out there that are simply “paper” certified, which means they studied and memorized a test dump or cheated their way through a certification test. Those people carry certifications but don't necessarily know the technologies they are certified in. On the other hand, there are guys/gals out there who take the time to study and learn about the technology, get some sort of simulated or actual hands-on experience and then take the exam and pass; these people are the real deal.
OK, so I've convinced you that you need certifications to gain an edge when landing an IT job as a newcomer, now what? Well, I've laid out what I think are the top five IT certifications for newcomers. I hate to say “beginners” because we all have had some level of experience with some form of technology, and you aren't looking for a job in IT if you don't already love technology, so the proper term is “newcomer.” At any rate, here are the top five certs on my newcomers list:
#1: CompTIA A+
The Computing Technology Industry Association (or CompTIA) is a non-profit association that is dedicated to furthering the education and validating experience with its full line of vendor neutral certification exams. CompTIA certs are a great place to start simply because they are vendor neutral and aren't slanted by any marketing schemes. The best IT certification to start with if you are a newcomer is CompTIA's A+. Here is an excerpt from CompTIA's website that helps explain the A+ certification and its merits:
The CompTIA A+ certification is the starting point for a career in IT. The exam covers maintenance of PCs, mobile devices, laptops, operating systems and printers. In order to receive the CompTIA A+ certification, you must pass two exams:
CompTIA A+ 220-801 covers the fundamentals of computer technology, installation and configuration of PCs, laptops and related hardware, and basic networking.
CompTIA A+ 220-802 covers the skills required to install and configure PC operating systems, as well as configuring common features (e.g. network connectivity and email) for mobile operating systems Android and Apple iOS.
There are many great books out there to get you started on A+ preparation, but the best way to do it is to grab an older desktop PC (or if you're brave, your current desktop PC), open the case and start taking things apart and studying each piece, what it does and where it goes on the motherboard.
For books, you can't go wrong with Mike Myers' book “CompTIA A+ All-in-One Exam Guide, 8th Edition.” This book is full of great labs and practice exams that you can do while you're studying. There are also great training classes offered for A+, as well as online CBT (computer-based training) courses that are terrific in helping you prepare for the exam and gain experience all at the same time.
#2 CompTIA Network+
I don't work for CompTIA, and I'm not getting paid by CompTIA, but it just so happens it has a ton of great certifications for beginners. That being said, Network+ is an easy choice for the second best certification for IT newcomers. While A+ does actually touch on some of the physical networking aspects of IT, it just doesn't cover it in depth enough to gain the understanding you would need to land an entry -level networking job. CompTIA describes the Network+ certification as follows:
The exam covers network technologies, installation and configuration, media and topologies, management, and security. Candidate job roles include network administrator, network technician, network installer, help desk technician and IT cable installer.
Companies such as Dell, HP, Ricoh, Sharp and Xerox recommend or require CompTIA Network+ for their networking technicians. It is a technical prerequisite option for IT technicians seeking to join the Apple Consultants Network, and is recognized by the U.S. Department of Defense.
The current version of CompTIA Network+, exam code N10-005, was released Dec. 1, 2011. The revised objectives address virtual networking and give increased attention to network security and coverage of the seven-layer OSI (Open System Interconnection) model.
If you want the best return on investment, and a much better looking resume, you should think of A+ and Network+ as a package deal. With both of those certs on paper your resume will definitely stand strong in a pool of contenders. As with A+, there are Network+ classes, along with CBTs and many great books. If you prefer studying from a book, grab Todd Lammle's “CompTIA Network+ Deluxe Study Guide” which will help you prepare for the N10-005 exam. Todd Lammle is one of networking's greatest minds and has written many books on networking. It's always good to learn from the best.
#3 CompTIA Security+
Yes, yet another CompTIA certification (I promise they are not paying me!). Security+ is an absolute must for any newcomer to the IT field. There are many security threats in today's world, so much so that companies salivate over a candidate with any security background or certifications. You don't have to have a CISSP or CEH (we'll talk about these in a future post) for goodness' sakes. Security+ is a great start for a newcomer. Here's what CompTIA has to say about the Security+ certification:
CompTIA Security+ certification designates knowledgeable professionals in the field of security, one of the fastest-growing fields in IT. CompTIA Security+ is an international, vendor-neutral certification that demonstrates competency in:
- Network security
- Compliance and operational security
- Threats and vulnerabilities
- Application, data and host security
- Access control and identity management
CompTIA Security+ not only ensures that candidates will apply knowledge of security concepts, tools, and procedures to react to security incidents, it ensures that security personnel are anticipating security risks and guarding against them.
This may be the most important certification the IT newcomer could get. There are many big mistakes out there for the newcomer to make if they don't fully understand the basics of IT security. Aside from that, the government has come out with the DoDD directive 8570 that requires government and contracting personnel to have certain certifications that deal with information assurance and security. Security+ is one cert that satisfies the 8570 directive (read more about 8570 here). There are of course many good books to help you prepare for the exam; I would recommend Emmett Dulaney's “CompTIA Security+ Study Guide.”
#4 Cisco CCENT
Some of you may already have the Network+ certification under your belt, or already possess entry-level knowledge of networking. Cisco Systems offers the Cisco Certified Entry Network Technician or CCENT, which will delve much deeper into networking, specifically focused on Cisco's proprietary hardware and software. To gain the CCENT certification you have to pass the Interconnecting Cisco Networking Devices Part 1 or ICND1 exam, which covers everything from installation, operation and troubleshooting of network devices. Some security concepts are covered along with the basics of routing and switching. Cisco outlines the details of the CCENT certification with the following:
The 640-822 Interconnecting Cisco Networking Devices Part 1 (ICND1) is the exam associated with the CCENT certification and a tangible first step in achieving the CCNA Routing and Switching certification. Candidates can prepare for this exam by taking the Interconnecting Cisco Networking Devices Part 1 (ICND1) v1.0 course. This exam tests a candidate's knowledge and skills required to successfully install, operate, and troubleshoot a small branch office network. The exam includes topics on networking fundamentals; connecting to a WAN; basic security and wireless concepts; routing and switching fundamentals; the TCP/IP and OSI models; IP addressing; WAN technologies; operating and configuring IOS devices; configuring RIPv2, static and default routing; implementing NAT and DHCP; and configuring simple networks.
The CCENT certification will be much more in depth than Network+, but is also much more difficult and more involved. That's not necessarily a bad thing because getting your CCENT and having it on your resume will give you a leg up on the competition, especially if they only have the Network+ cert. It boils down to time and commitment, as with anything you do successfully. For a good book, you can't go wrong with anything from Cisco Press; however these books have been known to induce narcolepsy. For an easier read and well-written book, go with Todd Lammle's (like I said, he's a networking genius) “CCENT Cisco Certified Entry Networking Technician Study Guide.”
#5 Microsoft MTA
Microsoft has a detailed certification catalog, with certs 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. For a newcomer, your best bet is to tackle the Microsoft Technology Associate or MTA certification. This cert will give you the baseline knowledge you need to interact with many of Microsoft's products. Here's how Microsoft explains the MTA:
Microsoft Technology Associate (MTA) is a recommended entry point into IT certification and job preparation. Pass just one exam and you'll earn a certification, taking your first step toward a career in technology. If you are just starting your IT career path or are looking to enhance your understanding of IT fundamentals, MTA will validate your core knowledge. MTA is an optional industry-recognized certification for those pursuing a career path in IT infrastructure, database design, or software development using Microsoft technologies.
There are several tracks you can take to get your MTA, such as the MTA IT Infrastructure track, which includes the exams “Windows Operating System Fundamentals,” “Windows Server Administration Fundamentals,” “Networking Fundamentals” and “Security Fundamentals.” There are other tracks to consider such as the MTA Database track or the MTA Development track. If that suits your career goals then choose one of those paths, but the majority of newcomers will want to follow the IT Infrastructure track. There's a solid book by Tom Carpenter titled “Microsoft Windows Operating System Essentials” that will cover the exam by the same name in the IT Infrastructure track. Read more about the MTA certification here.
Now off to the races
Now that you have a good idea of what to look for in entry-level certifications, choose a path and get to it. You don't have to get all five of these certifications at once. According to Edward Haletky, one of the most influential and respected voices in the security field:
If they are new to IT, with no college, it's best to get some community college classes or something under your belt, this is a game where you have to always learn. Certifications are something you build up to.
I agree with Edward to an extent. Classes are good to take and can help build your base knowledge since they usually last a semester or so. That being said, certifications are a good way to validate what you've learned in the classroom. IT is, and always will be, a constantly changing career field, and as a newcomer, IT certifications are the place to start. So, grab your book and dig in. That certification is just around the corner.