Top 5 Entry-Level IT Certifications to Help You Build Your IT Skills, Improve Your Career

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So you’ve decided you want a career in IT and you are an absolute beginner. Or you already have an IT job, but want to add some certifications to your resume to build a solid foundation in IT. In either situation, you are in a good place. The Information Technology field has become an absolute necessity. I would even go as far as saying the IT career is just as important as the healthcare career field. Better yet –  get a job in Healthcare IT. As a rapidly growing industry, there are so many paths you can take in the IT field, it’s hard to know where to start.

With over 20 years in the IT career field both in the public and private sector, I’ve gathered a lot of certifications, from entry level to expert. My goal is to put you on the path for success by outlining what I believe to be the top five entry level certifications. You’ll notice that none of the certifications listed will necessarily limit you to a specific niche. Rather, they all combine to make for a solid foundation to your career in IT and one you can easily build on in the years to come.

Let me preface this by saying, this is not an advertisement for CompTIA certifications, I’m not getting paid by CompTIA, and I have no agenda to push their certs. CompTIA just happens to have some of the best certs for entry level people, and that’s why so many of their certs take up spots in the top five.

CompTIA A+ (A+)

The Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) comprises a non-profit group of over 8,000 companies in the IT industry. Together they provide an ever growing list of computer certifications for IT professionals in a variety of topics. I consider the A+ certification to be their top all around entry level certification. The A+ certification covers both the software and hardware of a computer system along with the installation and maintenance of both along with various peripherals such as printers. The A+ cert will prepare you to do work within the computer technician field. If this doesn’t interest you, it will also give you a very good foundation and introduction into the hardware and software components that go into a computer system.

I won’t sugar coat this, the exams are long and difficult, but anything worth working for is going to be difficult, so press forward.  To obtain the cert, you need to pass two exams, here’s a snippet about the exams from CompTIA’s website:

“CompTIA A+ 220-901 covers PC hardware and peripherals, mobile device hardware, networking and troubleshooting hardware and network connectivity issues.

CompTIA A+ 220-902 covers installing and configuring operating systems including Windows, iOS, Android, Apple OS X and Linux. It also addresses security, the fundamentals of cloud computing and operational procedures.”

After you pay the $211 per exam fee and pass both exams, with a minimum of 675 (220-901) and 700 (220-902) you will be officially A+ certified. This certification holds a lot of weight with employers when it comes to finding a resume for a prospective entry level candidate. Don’t be discouraged by the cost or exams; you can do it if you apply yourself.

CompTIA Network+ (Net+)

Net+ is a great next step for those that have conquered the A+ exam. There is no prerequisite to taking the Net+ exam, A+ is a standalone cert and you don’t need it to proceed to Net+, it just seems like a natural next step in building your entry level skills and gaining some cred. Way back in 2004, the Department of Defense signed the DoD 8570.1 defense directive which requires all military personnel and anyone who would touch a DoD system to have certain certifications. The 8570.1 directive laid out the cert requirements in 3 difference levels; Level I, II and III.  There are two separate categories where you will see the majority of contract positions fall into, Information Assurance Management (IAM) and Information Assurance Technician (IAT). Here’s why this is important; A+, Net+ and Sec+ certifications automatically make you IAT Level I and II compliant as well as IAM Level I compliant.  Those 8570 compliance levels are where you will see almost all entry level positions, at least from a DoD perspective.

Net+ will cover basic networking, primarily focusing on the seven different layers of the Open Systems Interconnect (OSI) Model.  You will learn about the different types of physical network cabling, Ethernet, Fibre Optic, Coaxial… including my favorite part of the course, making Ethernet cables (never leave home without your trusty crimper). Network devices such as hubs, routers, switches, firewalls and more are covered in depth, and if you actually attend an in person class you can get some hands on experience with the hardware. Here is what the exam is like, again from CompTIA’s website:

“CompTIA Network+ covers the configuration, management, and troubleshooting of common wired and wireless network devices. Also included are emerging technologies such as unified communications, mobile, cloud, and virtualization technologies.”

There are 90 multiple choice questions on the N10-007 exam and it requires a passing score of 720 on a scale of 100-900.  The exam costs $302 (USD) and you will have 90 minutes to take the exam. If you actually apply yourself and have a passion for learning this stuff, this is one of the easier exams to pass. In my book, it’s a must have certification.

 CompTIA Security+ (Sec+)

Sec+, along with Net+ and A+ are really must have certifications for anyone working on or wanting to work on a DoD contract (see 8570.1 compliance in the Net+ section). The number one concern for employers worldwide is security, if you don’t believe me check the news lately, if you think it’s something else, you’re lying to yourself. If your network isn’t secure, it’s not a matter ‘if’, but ‘when’ you will get hacked and lose corporate data and/or customer data. The Sec+ certification is a great place to start with learning the aspects of security as a whole, not just cyber security.

Sec+ will teach you about the latest trends in security functions such as risk mitigation, risk acceptance, intrusion detection and threat management. You will learn about the different software and hardware products out there that support those trends such as network sniffers, firewalls, network intrusion detection systems (NIDS), host intrusion detection systems (HIDS) and many more. What I like about the Sec+ curriculum is you also learn about physical security, personal security, facility security as well as cryptography and other forms of encryption.

I can unequivocally tell you that this is the one most important certification I’ve ever obtained in my 20 year career in IT. One of the first questions most recruiters want to know, is if I’m Sec+ certified.  Don’t pass up on this one, it will serve you for the rest of your career as IT Security is an ever growing and ever changing field with a big need for talented security professionals.  Here’s a little about the exam from CompTIA:

“The CompTIA Security+ exam will certify the successful candidate has the knowledge and skills required to install and configure systems to secure applications, networks, and devices; perform threat analysis and respond with appropriate mitigation techniques; participate in risk mitigation activities; and operate with an awareness of applicable policies, laws, and regulations. The successful candidate will perform these tasks to support the principles of confidentiality, integrity, and availability.”

The SY0-501 exam will cost you $330 (USD) and consists of 90 multiple choice questions with 90 minutes to take the exam.  You will need to score a 750 to pass on a scale of 100-900.

Cisco Certified Entry Networking Technician (CCENT)

Cisco Systems is world renowned for their networking equipment. Take one step inside a datacenter an you are likely to see at least one piece of Cisco networking equipment. Cisco has also gained ground in the hyper-converged infrastructure space with their Cisco UCS offering. Needless to say, they are a giant in the networking space. Cisco also has one of the most desired certifications among employers, and that’s the Cisco Certified Networking Associate (CCNA). The CCNA exam is one comprehensive exam that combines both Interconnecting Cisco Network Devices 1 course material with Interconnecting Cisco Network Devices 2 course material. The CCNA is as much an entry level course as the NBA is an entry level basketball league! Thankfully, Cisco broke the CCNA down into two tests, with the CCENT focusing entirely on ICND1 course material. ICND1 is the route you want to focus on to get your CCENT certification.  Here’s an explanation of what the CCENT certification validates from Cisco’s website:

“The CCENT certification validates the skills required for entry-level network support positions, the starting point for many successful careers in networking. CCENT certified professionals have the knowledge and skill to install, operate, and troubleshoot a small enterprise branch network, including basic network security.”

Basically the CCENT certification is like Net+ on steroids. It’s an entry level exam but it’s easily two steps above and beyond the Net+ material.  The 100-105 ICND1 exam will cost you $125 and is comprised of 50 to 60 questions.  You will have 90 minutes to finish the exam. If you pass the ICND1 exam, you are successfully CCENT certified. To achieve a full CCNA cert, you need to next take and pass the ICND2 exam.

VMware Certified Associate 6 – Datacenter Virtualization (VCA6-DCV)

I was on the fence listing the VCA6-DCV cert as one of the top entry level exams and I’ll explain why. Back when VMware was just getting started on their certification roadmaps, there were only two certifications, the VMware Certified Professional (VCP) certification and the VMware Certified Design Expert (VCDX) certification. Those two certs couldn’t be further apart as related to experience and prerequisite knowledge needed to pass them. Back then, circa 2006, the VCP was the entry level exam for VMware users looking to validate their administration skills. Fast forward to 2018, there are a ton of VMware certifications, and that’s an understatement. In 2013, VMware announced the new VMware Certified Associate certifications, and honestly I paid no attention to it. At this point in my career I already had multiple iterations of the VCP level certifications; why pay for the associate level stuff?

Fast forward to 2018: I hold all of the VMware Certified Associate certifications, and I’ll explain why.  First of all, full disclosure, I worked for VMware at the time and they were free for me to take, so I thought, why not?  Secondly, I believe (and many may disagree; please don’t troll me) the more certifications you can get, the better. You just end up being more marketable and it shows you have a vested interest in growing your career. The VCA exams only cost $120 and even better, they are completely online and not proctored exams which means you can do them from the comfort of your home, whilst eating Cheetos and drinking Mt. Dew (the official food and beverage of the IT community). Here’s a quote from VMware on the VCA exams from their website:

VCA – VMware Certified Associate: This entry level certification is ideal for new IT professionals as well as executives making decisions about VMware solutions. This certification is for administrators, architects and executives. 

The VCA exams are a good place to start, and again I teetered on the edge of not including them, but to obtain your VCP cert you have to attend an approved VMware Install, Configure and Manage course at a VMware approved training facility and it can cost you upwards of $3,500 (USD). There is no course requirement for the VCA exams, and at $120, you can rack them up without going broke.

Where do I start in obtaining it certifications?

Good question. I’ll answer that question with a question (my wife hates that!!) – where do you want to start? I’ve laid out what I believe are the best entry level certifications. The great thing is you can start anywhere on this list; there are no prerequisites to any of them. My advice to you is start where your passion lies. If you love networking, knock out Net+ and CCENT, then heck, go for your full CCNA!  It’s like one of those choose your adventure books – you get to pick where your IT adventure takes you, and believe me… it’s a beautiful adventure!

Greg Stuart is the owner and editor of vDestination.com. He's been a VMware vExpert every year since 2011. Greg enjoys spending time with his wife and 3 kids. He has 20 years of IT experience and currently works as an IT Consultant both in the private and public sector. Greg holds a BS in Information Technology and an MBA degree. He currently resides in Southeast Idaho. You can follow him on Twitter @vDestination, read his blog (vDestination.com) and listen to his podcast (vDestination.com/feed/podcast).

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