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Certification Roadmap

Sure, you’re a certified genius. You’ve got supermodels and BMW dealerships on speed-dial, and so many certifications your e-mail signature looks like the Russian alphabet. Unfortunately, most of us mortals out here don’t know it all. In fact, a lot of folks are interested in an IT career, but don’t know where to start. It’s like they’re walking onto the football field for the first time, with no understanding of the players or rules, and being told “you’re the quarterback…go run Red Right 88.”

With that in mind, we thought we’d offer a basic roadmap to different types of IT jobs, and certifications that can qualify you to get them.

Computer Technicians repair computers, install peripherals (cards, drives), and tend to the basic care and feeding of computers. They may work independently, for a computer repair shop, or for a company that runs a lot of computer hardware. An A+ certification from CompTIA (an independent certification organization) shows an understanding of the basic concepts of computer hardware (the “nuts and bolts”, the machine). CompTIA also offers Server+, a middle-to-upper level certification for technicians.

Network Technicians are responsible for managing and troubleshooting computer networks (LANs, local area networks), usually in an office environment. CompTIA offers a Network+ certification, which they say is geared toward those with nine months field experience in network administration.

Systems Administrators are typically responsible for the day to day operations on a computer network, including, creating user accounts, resetting passwords and other maintenance tasks, usually in an office computing environment. Systems Administrators are, many times, also Computer and/or Network Technicians. Microsoft has a certification specifically for Systems Administrators called the MCSA. An MCSA (Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator) has passed at least 4 tests. The non-Microsoft route to systems administration would likely require Unix skills. An excellent way to gain and prove Unix skills is by achieving the CompTIA Linux+ certification. Many people strongly believe in the future of Linux; it currently holds an impressive market share in the server market and makes an excellent desktop client.

Systems Engineers have proven knowledge and skills beyond that of a Systems Administrator and will typically be paid higher salaries and be given more responsibility. While a Systems Administrator will be managing the operations of a network, a Systems Engineer will be designing (in a Microsoft realm) the Windows 2000 Active Directory and the current and future network services. An MCSE (Microsoft Certified System Engineer) has passed 7 Microsoft tests.

Network Administrators have a job similar in scope to Systems Administrators, but rather than dealing with servers and people, a Network Administrator will be dealing primarily with routers, switches and other network devices. A Network Administrator will configure things such as access lists on a router, and policies and settings on a remote access device. Network Administrators will typically also be Network Technicians, either through the Network+ certification or through applicable experience. As most networking infrastructure equipment is made by Cisco, the most efficient route to a job as a Network Administrator would be via the Cisco CCNA certification.

Network Engineers generally have more experience, knowledge, and training than a Network Administrator. They tend to be in charge of larger networks and deal in design and theory as well as implementation. A Network Engineer understands and deals with multiple networking protocols, standards and technologies. The Network Engineer will typically have the Cisco CCNP and/or CCIE certifications. With the complexity involved with the work done by the Network Engineer, it traditionally has been one of the highest paying jobs in the IT industry.

Security Engineers are in great demand, and are in an rapidly growing field.. Security is a rare IT specialization in that the field actually grew during the recession. As the world catches up with the incredible rate of growth of the Internet, security issues are becoming a very high priority in networks today. CompTIA has a Security+ certification that provides a person with the skill and knowledge they need to be marketable in this area. A Security Engineer will typically be paid at the higher end of the spectrum due to the complexity of the technologies and the relative lack of people that have the appropriate skill set.

Database Administrators are vital to companies that manage and move large amounts of information. Oracle offers certification programs for their data management products. Microsoft also offers an MCDBA (Microsoft Certified Database Administrator) program, (4 tests), which shows proficiency administering their SQL product.

Developers are the men and women who actually write the software. Writing code to be like an addiction; once you try it, it’s a lifelong obsession. There are a variety of application development languages, including VB (Visual Basic), C++, and Java. Microsoft offers both the Microsoft Certified Application Developer (MCAD) cert (a 3 test requirement) and the Microsoft Certified Solution Developer (MCSD), 5 tests. MCAD certification is similar to MCSA status, and can be considered both a certification in itself and a landmark on the way to MCSD.

The latest obsession in the Microsoft world is the .NET platform, which integrates software and web technologies, and brings much needed standardization to application development. One of the core components of this new platform is Visual Basic .NET. CBT Nuggets trainer Garth Schulte has been working hard, and expects to have our VB.NET release out in early May.

Webmasters can gain a CIW (Certified Internet Webmaster) certification, which shows an understanding of HTML and web fundamentals. A Master CIW Enterprise Developer certification proves advanced proficiency with web languages like Java and Perl.

As you proceed along your track of certification testing, it's important to know the rules of the different certs. If you plan carefully, you can use your passed tests in one certification as a requirement for another. For example, Microsoft now accepts CompTIA A+ and Network+, (or A+ and Server+) certifications as a passed elective toward MCSA certification. Additionally, if you’re an MCSE or MCSA, you may already be halfway to getting your MCDBA; similarly, MCDBA requirements overlap with MCSD requirements.

The bottom line is, keep an eye on the relevant websites and be aware of what’s going on with your certifications. Chat boards can be your best friend when it comes to staying informed of new developments. If you’re confused and need guidance, there’s usually someone online who has been there and can give you advice. You’ll never regret the connections you make with folks online, because basically, we’re all in the same boat. Unfortunately, for most of us, it’s not a yacht. But with the right certifications, and the right job, maybe one day it will be.

Good Luck. Or better yet, bon voyage.