IT Certifications Explained

What is IT Certification

A career in IT can offer a lot, it can take a talented tech all over the world or let you work from home and can include a massive diversity in work. It includes things as diverse as blocking out hackers, fixing computers, configuring and connecting networks or planning how to protect a business against the next tsunami. It is a varied and increasingly professional field and just as in other professions it is possible to gain qualifications to prove your skills and boost your CV.

Why get an IT Certification

This is a very good question, at the end of the day you either know what you’re doing or you don’t. A piece of paper doesn’t change that. So why get an IT certification?

A quick exercise, you have two guys in front of you offering to carry out serious surgery on your brain, both say they’ve done this kind of surgery before and promise they can do the job. One has a medical certificate from Harvard and the other has nice hair. Which one would you trust your brain to?

That’s the heart of it really. an IT certification helps demonstrate competence. Looking at the brain surgeon’s analogy you have no way to know which is truly better. However the certificate – that ‘piece of paper’ – represents a major institution standing behind one guy. It tells you that a top medical college tested him and he met their standard, so now they are staking their reputation on his competence. The other guy doesn’t have this and he could be amazing or totally incompetent, with your brain at stake you want to be sure. The guy with a certificate is a safe bet.

Information Technology (IT) is the brain and central nervous system of most modern business, email connects and coordinates the parts, SQL servers remember its data and the web server promotes the business to the world. If the IT goes wrong, the business goes wrong. When a business entrusts its IT to someone it has to be sure they are competent.

An employer looking at you doesn’t know what you can do. Perhaps you talk the talk, but do you walk the walk? An IT certification tells them that you’ve met a standard, a baseline. It gives them something they can trust.

Getting an IT Certification

Anyone with aptitude can get an IT certification and in IT there are plenty of certifying bodies / organisations who will test you and stand behind you once you pass.

There are an abundance of colleges and training providers who will help get you certified, some offer reasonably priced courses with people who will really support you and help you learn. Some don’t. There are good and bad providers out there, the good ones are not always the most expensive.

Remember, a good provider will give you time to research and see if the course is right for you. They won’t be afraid of what you might find on Google.

An alternative is to self-study, it is quite possible to buy a book or two and use free internet videos and resources you can find through CertForums and train yourself. With self-study you can learn at your own pace, take your time over the hard bits and race through the easy bits, seeking support and guidance on-line and then take the test when you’re ready.

IT Certification Bodies

There are a number of IT certification bodies who will test you and let you put their logo on your CV when you pass. Many are household names but none of them are exclusive. That is there’s nothing to stop you certifying with Apple and Microsoft. It’s becoming normal for some individuals in IT to have large strings of letters after your name. You’ll soon learn which names really command respect.


The majority of IT certifications are run by the people who make and sell the technology, the vendors. Their exams are called vendor-specific.

Vendors include Microsoft, Cisco, Apple, HP, Dell, VMware and more. They all offer certifications in whatever they might sell. Dell for instance allow you to certify in its hardware, this means you are competent to work on Dell kit without invalidating the warranty. Microsoft exams cover their Operating Systems (Windows) and technologies (Office, Active Directory, Exchange). Cisco is the biggest player in networking and routing and their exams cover things like network security and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP).


There are also bodies that offer vendor-neutral exams. Vendor-neutral means the exams aren’t tied to any one particular vendor, so where a Microsoft exam might focus on Windows, Internet Explorer and Bit Locker a vendor-neutral exam might also ask about Unix, Safari and TrueCrypt. For this reason vendor-neutral certifications tend to be broader.

Bodies that provide vendor-neutral certifications include CompTIA, EC-Council, CIW, The Open Group, (ISC)2 and more, their certifications are based on a topic rather than a product. CompTIA offer a range of certifications, including networking, servers and security. CIW offer certifications in web development across a range of technologies. (ISC)2 and EC-Council offer advanced security certifications.

IT Management

There are also certifications covering IT management and best practices, the Information Technology Infrastructure Library or ITIL is one of the most well-known and offer a range of certifications around IT service management. Another is the PRINCE 2 (Projects IN Controlled Environments 2) for project management covering how to put together an IT system and get it completed on time and to budget.

How do I pass an IT Certification

Most IT certifications are achieved through passing computer based examinations, these are typically multiple choice questions to a set time limit and with a set passing score. If you beat the score, you pass.

Before taking most exams you are obliged to agree to a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) that legally binds you to secrecy regarding the exam contents. This prevents the questions and exam techniques becoming widely known so that people can’t just learn to parrot the answers. This helps the certification hold its value.

However somehow questions do leak and some unscrupulous websites publish and sell them, using such resources is cheating and can result in you getting decertified and even banned from taking further certifications. The phrase braindump is used for this type of material and within the IT industry it’s considered extremely bad practice to use such materials to gain IT certifications. Braindump’s devalue IT certifications that many individual work extremely hard to attain.

Legitimate sites also produce practise questions to help you prepare for you certifications but if you’re not sure about the site you’re looking at then CertGuard can help tell you if it’s legitimate.

What IT Certification do I do first

The first thing is to figure out where you are in terms of knowledge and experience, have you worked in the IT industry for many years and just need some certifications to back you up? Have you played around at home but never worked in IT professionally? Are you still looking for the “any” key?

If you’re experienced it may make the most sense to certify in what you currently work with, if you’re looking to get started you may need to look to where you want to be in the future. Do you want to set up and install networks? Build applications? Design websites? Wherever the money is?

It’s impossible to say definitively, as it varies by opinion and new certifications appear approximately every seventeen and a half minutes, but here are some pointers:

For web developers/designers, CIW offer a range of web exams covering technologies like JavaScript, e-commerce, and web security.

For hands-on roles, CompTIA’s A+ is often recommended as a solid foundation, though most vendors offer their own entry level qualification, including Cisco’s CCENT qualification, Microsoft’s MTA, HP’s ATA and Apple’s ACA.

For developers, Microsoft offer a range of .NET based MTA exams, while Oracle offers a range of Java based Oracle Certified Associate certification.

Whatever path you choose make sure it’s a braindump free one and if it’s a self-study route then can help you along the way.

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Jul 17, 2012
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