It can seem difficult to progress in IT sometimes. You might be working for an organization that is reluctant to promote you, or maybe you're just starting out and struggling to gain the relevant experience. Whatever the reason, you might find that going down an IT certification pathway is the answer.
This might be something you've heard of but never considered, or something completely new to you, so we're here to explain what IT certifications are, why you should consider them and in which directions you can take your career by getting certified. First of all:
What is an IT certification pathway?
The IT industry is a rapidly advancing field, and professionals often need to develop a wide range of skills using different hardware and software. Certifications exist to show exactly what somebody is proficient in, for the benefit of both workers and the people looking to employ them.
A certification simply designates that the person holding it is proficient in a particular skill or piece of technology. When everyone's résumé says they are good at IT security, for example, having an official certification in the area will show employers that you are definitely qualified to do it to a high standard.
Most certifications are part of a pathway, which is essentially a series of increasingly advanced qualifications. Once you complete a beginner's server certification, for example, you can move onto an expert-level one, or branch off down a more specialized path.
There are also two main categories of IT certification: vendor-specific and vendor-neutral. The first of these apply to a specific company's products, such as Microsoft's Database certification pathway. Vendor-neutral certifications are for more general skills that may cover a range of different technologies.
Why get certified?
The benefits of going down this route of progression are numerous.
First of all, it gives employers a concrete idea of what you're capable of, and looks incredibly professional to boot. Learning platform Pluralsight points out that "no matter where you are in your IT career, certifications will almost always give you an edge over non-certified IT professionals".
However, a more pertinent reason might simply be that it allows you to keep your skills as up-to-date as possible. CIO.com states that the main benefit of certifications for experienced professionals is the ability to adapt to the ever-changing landscape of IT.
Then, of course, there is the financial benefit. Global Knowledge's '2017 IT Skills and Salary Report' found that, in the US and Canada, certified IT professionals are paid 11.7 per cent more than their non-certified counterparts. In Europe, the Middle East and Africa, this figure goes up and they are paid 13 per cent more than non-certified professionals.
If you need to convince your employer to pay for you to get certified, there is also a major financial incentive for them. The Global Knowledge report also found that in 57 per cent of cases, a certified employee brings an economic benefit of more than $10,000 per year to their organization. In 28 per cent of cases, that figure is more than $20,000.
Where to start?
Most certifications have a clear path for you to take, from beginner level to a more advanced qualification. For example, Cisco's career certifications start at "Entry" level, before moving on to "Associate", "Professional", "Expert" and finally "Architect".
It might be tempting to skip a few levels, especially if you are aiming to improve your knowledge of a program you are already familiar with. This is generally an option, however it might put you at a disadvantage.
As Tom's IT Pro points out, entry-level certifications typically set the tone for the rest of the pathway, meaning they will introduce concepts and terms in a manner that will be referred back to in later certifications. More experienced professionals will probably also find that the entry certifications are designed to appeal to a range of ability levels.
Where should you start?
It can be difficult to work out exactly which certification to start with. One easy way to make the decision is to choose software from a particular vendor that you currently work with, or would like to in future.
The most common vendor-specific certifications come from Cisco and Microsoft. Cisco's pathways start off with two entry-level qualifications: the Cisco Certified Technician (CCT) and the Cisco Certified Entry Networking Technician (CCENT). Both are highly thought-of, and taking them will help you determine how to progress further down Cisco's pathway, as the organization offers ten different associate certifications.
Microsoft, on the other hand, offers five different pathways depending on which area you would like to progress in: Mobility, Cloud, Productivity, Data and App Builder. Most of these start at the Microsoft Technology Associate (MTA) level.
If you would rather opt for a vendor-neutral certification, one of the best options is CompTIA. The organization's A+ qualification is the first port of call for many professionals, and is designed to give you an excellent grounding in IT. From there, you could try a more specific certification, such as CompTIA Security+.
What are the best options for your career?
If you are looking for a more long-term goal, you could aim for a specific valuable certification. Luckily, several organizations have worked out the best qualifications to aim for based on the salary you can expect to earn once you have them. One of these is Global Knowledge's report mentioned above.
According to the organization, the most valuable IT certification is ISACA's Certified in Risk and Information Systems Control (CRISC). On average, Global Knowledge estimates that professionals with this qualification make around $131,000 per year. However, to qualify you will need a minimum of three years' of experience in two of the four domains that CRISC covers, in addition to passing the exam.
If you're more interested in the cloud, one qualification to aim for could be the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Certified Solutions Architect certification. This comes in two levels - Associate and Professional - and Global Knowledge has worked out the mean salary for someone with this certification to be over $125,000 per year.
Finally, Scrum Alliance's Certified ScrumMaster (CSM) certification is a great option for professionals looking to project manage. CIO.com estimates that professionals with this qualification can expect a salary of between $56,000 and $142,000 per year.