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Understanding IT Certification Ladders

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Aspiring or active IT professionals can benefit from an improved understanding of how certification ladders work. Here, you’ll take a look at the Pyramid Certification Model, how it works, and what types of skills are required at each level.
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For those entering the IT workforce for the first time, the concept of certification ladders may be foreign. In essence, a certification ladder is a series of individual certifications beginning with basic or beginner skills and knowledge, ranging up to instructor level skills and knowledge. Just as a regular ladder enables you to easily move up to and access the roof of a house, an IT certification ladder likewise allows you to advance your skill set and raise your knowledge to higher levels. Many employers view certifications as a sign of an applicant’s basic skills and readiness for the position sought. In some cases, certifications may be as important (if not more important) as formal education.

Certification ladders come in two flavors: vendor-specific (focused on Microsoft, Cisco, or Red Hat Linux, for example), and vendor-neutral (focused on general skills and not on a particular vendor’s products or services). Whether you seek vendor-specific or vendor-neutral credentials, those paths are similar. In any certification ladder, expect credentials to fall into basic or beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels of knowledge and skill. These define basic gradations for rungs in your ladder, though the number of rungs (and the size of the gaps between them) varies from program to program.

The Pyramid Certification Model provides an easy-to-understand illustration for how a certification ladder works. At the bottom of the pyramid you find beginner or entry-level certifications, intermediate certs in the middle tiers, and the most sought-after, advanced certs at the top layers of the pyramid:

  • Basic or entry level: Entry-level certifications are designed for those with little experience in an IT area. Such certifications are designed to enable users to gain basic understanding, knowledge, and proficiency in core or foundation skills in a particular area. Examples of entry-level vendor-specific certifications are any of the Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (MCST) certs, the Microsoft Office Specialist Certification (MOS) credentials, and the Cisco Certified Entry Networking Technician (CCENT) certification.
  • Targeting entry-level or “core” skills, the MCST recognizes users with basic proficiency in Windows desktop and server platforms, Windows mobile platforms, SQL Server, Exchange Server, .NET, and more. MOS 2010 certification recognizes users who are proficient in Microsoft Office products including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, Outlook, and SharePoint. While you won’t be an expert if you earn any of the MCST or MOS certs, you will gain basic proficiency in the core fundamentals of the tracks chosen. As with many basic level credentials, a test is required but the fees are relatively low ($125 for the MCST and $75 for the MOS). You’ll see fees increase as you climb the certification ladder. Typically, no recertification is required for basic-level certs.

    The Cisco CCENT, likewise, comes with no prerequisites and involves taking only a single $125 exam. It is pitched to identify entry-level networking support kills and knowledge, including networking fundamentals, WAN technologies, basic security and wireless concepts, routing and switching fundamentals, and simple network configuration.

  • Intermediate level: At this level, certifications are designed for those who already possess some proven technical skills and knowledge in a particular area. No longer a novice, persons seeking intermediate certifications generally have some level of experience (at least 1 to 3 years) and are actually working in their chosen IT fields. An example of an intermediate-level certification is the Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP). This certification targets those already working with networks and system environments. It’s recommended that participants have some level of expertise and experience (one month to one year) working with operating systems (desktop, server, or other target platforms), as well as existing network infrastructures. Intermediate certifications generally require candidates to pass one or more exams (two to four are typical, though sometimes more may be involved). Certification fees also increase at the intermediate level as demonstrated by the $250–$500 fee for this certification. Recertification may or may not be required (MCITP credentials are tied to specific platforms and will age out of relevance as newer desktops, servers, or other platform technologies come and go; other intermediate credentials—like those from Cisco—come with mandatory recertification requirements).
  • Advanced level: At the top tier of any certification pyramid, you find its most advanced certifications. These certifications are for more highly skilled IT professionals. It’s not uncommon to find certifications at this level that require a combination of experience and education, as well as foundational or intermediate certifications as prerequisites. For example, each of the various Microsoft Certified Master (MCM) certifications requires candidates to earn one or more relevant MCITP certifications before attempting these credentials, and comes with specific requirements for years of work experience and specific platform or technology experience. When seeking advanced certs, make certain you understand what’s required to maintain the certification: many advanced certifications require the holder to recertify periodically and some even require annual fees to maintain the credential. At this level, look for more exams and especially hands-on lab exams where you must physically demonstrate practical application of the product or service being tested. By way of example, the Microsoft Certified Master on Sharepoint requires passing four exams, while the Microsoft Certified Master on SQL Server 2008 requires earning two different MCITP certifications, in addition to experience and platform knowledge components. Advanced certifications are for the experienced IT professional.

IT is a knowledge-driven industry and education for an IT professional does not end with graduation from technical school or college. To meet the demands of the market, IT professionals must constantly hone their skills—and develop new ones—to remain competitive in the job marketplace. Whether you’re at an entry level seeking to gain skills to enable you to do your job (or get that first job), or you’re an experienced professional trying to move your career to the next level or make a cross-functional career move, certifications are a great way to gain the skills and knowledge you need.

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